Fun with Japa and Kiirtan

Introducing Chanting to Teachers and Young Children

By MahaJyoti Glassman

Chanting is the rhythmic speaking or singing of words or sounds. Chanting a mantra, sacred text, name of God, or other words is a commonly used ancient practice. Throughout history many communities have considered chanting to be a tool for spiritual development. There are diverse examples of chanting around the world African, Gregorian, Vedic, Hebrew, the Qur’an, Baha’i, Buddhist chants, Roman Catholic chanting of psalms and prayers, yogic chanting, to mention a few. Various Hindus and Buddhists chant Om. Followers of Islam chant the 99 names of Allah, “the beautiful names”. Around the seventh century Christians developed the “Jesus Prayer” or “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Native Americans observe chanting in preparation for activities such as healing, hunting, battles, controlling weather, initiation rites and funerals.

In today’s global society chants are used in a variety of settings, such as sports events, protesters championing a cause, auctioneers driving the price, kids jumping rope, and musical concerts. Chanting creates a feeling of passion and a collective connection of purpose.

There are two basic types of chanting. Japa is personal chanting where one chants alone. Chanting in a group with others is called kiirtan. Kiirtan is usually accompanied by musical instruments, clapping, and other movements or gestures.

What is mantra?

Mantra is the transformation of breath into sound. This sound may be a single syllable or group of words. Clinical studies indicate that rhythmic breathing and repetition redirects negative thinking and brings a more positive focus. The actual word “mantra” means “that which liberates the mind”. Chanting mantra transforms the mind from the mundane to dimensions beyond the physical.

Chant is a bridge between the inner life and the outer expression,
Between the solitary practice and the shared beauty and fellowship.
When we chant we are using the whole body as the instrument
With which to feel the meaning of the sacred phrase.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold

The science of mantra is based on sound as a form of energy that has a definite predictable effect on the body-mind. Mantras have the ability to alter defective patterns of the mind as well as the actual brain chemistry. The power of the mantra is in the energetic vibration of its sound(s).

Mantra may be chanted internally or externally. It is a formula for controlling and directing the mind in a more positive way. Science acknowledges that emotions, feelings, and beliefs are vibratory in nature. By engaging in a mantra practice, spiritual aspirants choose the thoughts that define who we are, what we want to feel and believe. We make that commitment to select and redirect the thoughts that occupy the brain.

And all that we are
Is the result of
What we have thought.
~ Buddha
How and why does it affect us?

Chants, songs, and mantra can provide technical support by directing our thought patterns towards a specific goal. In yoga this goal is becoming one with the Supreme or maximizing one’s fullest potential. Through this practice we are choosing the positive power that certain syllables or sounds evoke. The effect of the sounds corresponds with the degree to which the practitioner feels or understands the meaning of the sounds. Although clinical studies show us that some benefit can be derived whether the meaning is understood or not.

Many mantras are derived from Sanskrit. The Sanskrit alphabet is based on the inner sounds emanating from within the body, specifically from the 50 glands clustered around the cakras. Thousands of years ago advanced meditators attuned their minds to these inner sounds and each sound became represented by one Sanskrit letter. There are 50 glands, 50 sounds, and subsequently 50 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. The careful combination of Sanskrit letters can vibrate these glands, the body, and the mind in a specific manner, creating a powerful elevating effect.

If you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth,
Listen to the secret sound which is inside you.
The One no one talks of …speaks the secret sounds to Himself
And He is the One who has made it all. –
Kabir song

Chanting requires slow deep breathing. Consequently many of the benefits of prānāyāma, the science of breath, are also applicable to chanting as both of these practices have the shared benefit of relaxing the sympathetic nervous system.

Chanting is a method for regaining and maintaining peace during stressful times. When we are feeling stressed, 5-10 minutes of focused chanting (especially external) can clear away the negative thoughts that obstruct our connection to Inner Harmony. When lying down to sleep, internal silent mantra repetition can calm the thoughts, giving the body permission to relax more completely. Scientific studies indicate that repetition of certain sounds has a calming effect. When sad or frustrated, it can uplift the emotions and refocus the attention towards positivity.

When the mind is calm and clear, we make the best decisions. Our mental equipoise influences others’ feelings of peace and harmony. Our positive kind words and actions impact not only our individual potentiality but others around us as well. This is how we make the world a better place.

If one does kiirtan from the bottom of one’s heart, with full bhava (devotion) and prem (love)
even the trees, birds, and animals will respond.
They will be deeply influenced. Such is the power of kiirtan.
It brings the devotee face to face with God.
~A Spiritual Aspirant from India
Chanting Techniques

With the young child, chanting may be with words and/or sounds that have meaning or no meaning, simply because they like to play and explore everything, including sound. They may engage their mouth, hands, feet, and body. They can stand, sit, dance, or jump when repeating.

The following are a few fun chanting experiences that can be shared with children:

The vowels: Ahhhhh. AAAAA. EEEEEE. IIIIIIII. OOOOOO. UUUUUU. ~ Great for literacy learning as well!
Consonants: MMMMM. SSSSSSS.
Śhantiḥ. (Peace) ~ Other words from various languages can also be included, i.e., “shalom” from Hebrew. This can be extended to other multi-ethnic words for “hello” and “thank you”.
Om shantiḥ.
Om Jyoti. (Light)
Baba Nam Kevalam. (Love is all there is)*
Love is above me. Love is below me. Love is all around.

When singing kiirtan together, children love moving their hands: clapping, engaging mudras such as Jnani or Namaskar mudra, making hand/arm movements over the head, behind the back, holding hands, clapping partner’s hands, clapping body parts, and so forth. And don’t forget those feet: stomping, marching, twirling …. dancing can also be added.

They may chant or sing together or do a “copy cat” call response. There are five levels of chanting vocalization: 1) singing loudly, 2) softly, 3) a whisper, 4) only the lips moving (no sound), 5) inside (completely internal).

Chanting can be practiced with young children while sitting or standing, prior to meditation, during meditation or during śavāsana (yoga deep relaxation pose). The “Continuous Om” or “Ocean Om” can be practiced sometimes up to a minute or more with older children. This is a practice of continuously chanting with every individual chanting naturally following one’s own breath pattern ~ not in unison. Usually a mantra (or positive affirmation), this can be repeated at least 5 times (the children can choose how many times) followed by a few minutes of stillness, taking the cue from the students (restlessness) as to when to end. A drum may be played, a bell chimed, a singing bowl engaged, or other instrumentation if desired.

Close your eyes.
Fall in love,
Stay there.
~ Rumi

Chanting may be practiced at any time during the day. One may break out into a chant at any moment. It is particularly effective when a child (or teacher) is experiencing sadness, frustration, burnout, to change the group flow, when happy, or for absolutely no reason at all!

When singing and dancing a chant such as Baba Nam Kevalam, the chanting melodies may range from a simple monotone or one tone to a few notes to a highly complex melody. With young children chanting can even be blended within a familiar nursery rhyme such as ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’.

*Baba nam kevalam” is a mantra which means “That which is nearest and dearest to my heart is Everywhere” or “Love is all there is”. Children are encouraged to feel the warmth of Love in their hearts, the Love of all Living Beings, the Love from the sun and all those who participate in this Creating. Singing this mantra of love and connection accelerates the speed of one’s momentum towards achieving that Supreme State of Being within. The mental clarity that comes from chanting can help spiritual aspirants find solutions to problems and can provide relief from physical and psychic aliments.

One should be as humble as the grass
And as tolerant as the trees,
One should give respect to those whom no one respects,
And always do kiirtan….

May your Inner Light shine ever brighter by chanting Baba Nam Kevalam! Now let the kiirtan begin!