Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Downward Dog Days in NYC: My first Kirtan

This is NOT Obama, sorry. I think it's a photo of Swami Sivananda, founder of the Sivananda movement - from a postcard I bought at the shop. "Nothing is impossible to a person who practices concentration." Could have been said by Obama himself ...

If you've ever wondered where those Hari Krishnas disappear off to when they float down the road in their orange robes, their chants and bells fading into the distance ... I think I've sussed it out.

It would be a place like the Sivananda center, which in NYC, is actually a real live ashram tucked away in a row house, with resident Swami. Having recently completely a basic yoga teacher certification, I'm in the process of educating myself about as many different forms of yoga as possible - from the Friday night downward-dog-dating scene at some studios, to the fluorescent-lit gym drill to rubbing trunks with Ganesha himself - it's all good.

According to Google, Sivananda is a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading the teachings of Vedanta, which is based on the Upanishads, or the last of the Vedas, the four holiest books of the Hindu religion. This is already getting complicated - go wiki it yourself, but in essence, the idea is ...

1. Human nature is divine.
2. The aim of human life is to realize that human nature is divine.

Or, according to the Sivananda "About Us":

"Brahma Satyam. Jagat Mithya. Jivo Brahmaiva Na Parah."

which translates to:

God only is real. The world is unreal. The individual is none other than God.

I still don't quite get it, but then, we're talking thousands of years of tradition - these things take a while to sink in.

Back to the center. It's got a spiritual, peaceful vibe, and not at all intimidating, elitist or even scary as some might think whenever they see a flapping mandala under a stoop. It reminded of Vipassana or TM centers. There's a cute little shop selling yoga accoutrements and spiritual books at front, and a kitchen where they do $10 meals Mon, Tue and Sun at 7.30pm (you need to sign up).

The Kirtan, or rather, Satsang, is held every Wednesday deo 7-8:30pm and all are welcome.

On arrival, remove shoes, switch off cell, climb the steep stairs to a long, narrow, warmly lit room set up with cushions, mats, percussion instruments, and a chant book - though most attendees seem to know it off by heart.

There were just five guys present in a room of mainly women, who, as the Swami joked, "haven't been scared away." Swami himself is a 40-ish, shaved-headed, engaging male with a accent from Somewhere Over There. He plays a mean tamboura or sitar - I couldn't quite see, but it's the stringed instrument that produces that signature twangy accompaniment to Indian chanting.

I soon discovered - in a gentle way - you're not really supposed to wear tank tops (bare shoulders) like I and several other newbies did. The "dress modestly" edict means a t-shirt and cotton pants, not hot yoga camisoles and wet-look lycra leggings.

The kirtan starts with a round of OMs - maybe a dozen - like waves - very resonant and really set the tone. (Yoga teacher Shaun Granato once did a series of 'cascading' OMs in a class at Joschi that resembled this.)

The first half hour or so is silent meditation - challenging, because the car alarm outside went off and would not quit, though this added to the experience in a strange way.

Then, the singing and chanting "Hari Krishna" style began - from the book. Yes, I really felt like I was transported to the banks of the river Ganges. A sound that really envelops you. They say the quality of the OM (actually AUM with an emphasis on the M) varies with the state of mind of the individuals in the room.

Swami then does a reading - in this case it was about letting go, a popular theme that we never seem to quite master until we're 6 feet under.

More chanting and prayers from the book ensue, then someone brings a candle around, and you're supposed to fan the flame towards you with your hand. Being a newbie I stared at it rather lamely but appreciated the concept.

Lastly, a paper napkin is handed out to each person, and someone comes around with a small saucepan spooning some sweet grain thing resembling semolina and ghee sweetened with honey. This, Google tells me, is called a prasad. I have to say it was delicious - must get the recipe :o)

So now I know where Joschi teacher DonnaLynn got her final chant from - and what it means.

Sivananda's printed catalogues show that have an ashram in the Catskills where they conduct an utterly mind boggling array of courses - everything from permaculture (featuring the original Australian founders of the movement) to 5-day yoga retreats, cooking classes, stress management to their own on-site yoga teacher training. There's a pretty ritzy one on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, with, strangely, a 'beautiful person' shot that looks like it was lifted from an Armani Xchange ad, on the cover.

Tonight I'm going to experience the Gongyo at the Soku Gakkai institute with my fellow graduate trainees. I'll get enlightened yet ...

UPDATE: I took advantage of the free first Open yoga class at 4pm. It's a long hour and a half, beginning with some serious pranayama (breathing) including holding one's breath for 30, 60 and then 75 seconds - some serious oxygen exchange going on there!
The poses begine with a simple Sun Salutation repeated a dozen times, then a meditative progression through 12 basic postures, starting - rather than ending - with headstand. Then there's shoulder stand, plough, bridge, staff pose, seated forward bend with leg bent (janu sirsasana), crow, and triangle pose (trikonasana). The emphasis is slow, retention of the pose. This is Hatha, rather than Vinyasa yoga. There's quite a good discussion of the differences here.

2 comments:

Karyn Menexas said...

Great blog, very detailed, informative and entertaining.

5dollarsaday said...

If you are still in NYC, look up the Integral Yoga Institute and Jivamukti. They have a number of boisterous kirtans that ar emore informal (tank tops ok) and a great yoga community.