At its most basic, Kirtan is a form of devotional call and response singing or chanting of mantra that dates back over 500 years with origins in India. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explicitly mentions it as a preferred form of worship, and san kirtana, or the practice of Kirtan in groups is a way of bringing together he practice of devotion in harmony with others. It is a vocal expression of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion, and is increasingly incorporated in yoga asana or dyana (meditation) practice.
Kirtan as a practice and experience is highly personal – it is sound meditation, a way to connect with the divine within, however you choose to express or define that, and is a perfect example of the true meaning of yoga as union. When a few or hundreds of voices are combined as one singing with bhakti, the experience is unifying and breathtaking.
Kirtan sessions are lead by a Kirtan-wallah who will lead the chanting for a single song or the whole session, chanting a line which the other participants then repeat. While it is nice if you can hold a tune, its not necessary, as the act of Kirtan is not about the quality of voice as much as it is about the energy and intention put into the practice. The goal is to work as one, singing the ancient mantras from your heart to connect to the divine. The singers are all equal in that way, and little distinction is made between the wallah and the responders, which is part of the uplifting sense of oneness at Kirtan sessions.
As the mantra principally come from India, the language is Sanskrit, with occasional Punjabi mantra if you are singing chants from the Sikh tradition. As Kirtan has been popularised in the West, the arrangements have changed and often reflect the sounds of contemporary music while maintaining the sacred sounds of the chant. Pioneers of Kirtan in the West include Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Deva Premal and Snatnum Knur, with a host of new performers pushing the genre to new popularity.
Yoga Teacher Trainer Lila Kirtana at Krishna Village is an experienced Kirtan singer and leader and has sung across the world and locally with her band enCHANTed, and the YTT yoga students are lucky enough to have Kirtan sessions every day as part of their training experience, lead by Lila and Madreya, encouraging the experience of Nada yoga (the yoga of sound) and bringing a spiritual connection into the yoga experience as was intended in the holistic practice.