Chanting & Altered States

Asheville…
driving in the car
windows rolled down,
breeze blowing, radio off.
Mountain air.
Energy. Pulsating.
Blue sky.
Clear mind. No-thought.
No time. Boundless.
Centered. Just the moment.
Chanting.

This was one of my earliest experiences of bhakti yoga- each month I’d immerse myself in 3 days of group chanting to my teacher’s guitar sing along of Baba Nam Kevalam (translates to “Only the beloved”) and then explore Asheville kirtans around town. Afterwards I’d get into my car with a coffee and a mantra and hit the road.

And since my radio was broken I’d roll down the windows and entertain myself with sounds- the breeze, zooming cars, and my voice repeating mantras out loud for hours (sometimes the whole 6 hour car ride!) not realizing I’d enter an altered state. 

Colors were brighter, thoughts stopped.  Everything was just…existing.  And never once did I snap out of it or get bored…for each 6 hour car trip I stayed blissed out and unaware of time!

No substances needed!  Chanting is safe & natural.

Have you ever switched to listening to a vinyl record after years of listening to digital? You can SEE the record spinning, SEE the sound getting made by the needle on the grooves in the record, you feel a presence in the room, it’s a physical experience. It has weight to it.

Similarly have you ever switched from busy life to a quiet nature walk in a forest- the sounds of birds chirping, a natural waterfall, crickets, or leaves rustling? Again, it slows us down, stops our thoughts & sense of urgency…we merge with the present moment and appreciate it, even see it as god or divine.

This is how I see mantras affecting us- they are like the vinyl record, or the nature sounds. They slow us down from fast autopilot communication to ancient, root sounds that carry mystical weight- these were some of the first sounds ever uttered by humans…the roots of language itself!

Imagine the vibrations of these mantras and how they can shift our energy/ thoughts!

If you’d like to explore altering your state of consciousness safely w/ mantras join me in Kentucky at the following: every second Saturday at Yogaia Yoga School for community kirtan and every Monday at The Inner Warrior for Dharma Talks & Chanting.

What’s so Special About Bhakti Yoga?

Why is Bhakti yoga special? Hidden from the glamour of the modern yoga world, you won’t find it in the insta-famous posts of sexy bendy bods, and it isn’t intelligent or scientific.

Except that it is.

Because all yoga is experimental. And Bhakti lets us experiment with a phenomenon that we’re just waking up to as a species- emotional intelligence.

Bhakti means “attachment” and what is the most sticky thing we deal with as humans? Emotions!

To practice bhakti means tying these emotions to a deep and profound sense of Unconditional Belonging. The god embrace that can hold every raw part of you…it can be romantic but it expands beyond that.

Do you have a relationship with god? What does it look like?
Divine guidance
synchronicities
the heart’s intelligence
grace
the unknown
truth
reality
mystical inner knowing(?)

The tendency is to forget the above, project attachment onto other humans and call it love. It becomes a struggle of tension & release, attach & let go. Bhakti gives a path to transform that.

You still play the game but now it’s with god.

No single human is capable of holding all of another human and no single human can outrun or hide from true belonging. We have it all backwards.

We’re better off being suffocated by the divine embrace and loosening up/ breathing fresh air into the human embrace.

Bhakti lets us study our relationship w/ the divine, not just as observer but as lover, friend, student, teacher, servant, devotee, daughter, son, father, mother, sister, brother- by jumping in and feeling this relationship.

By experiencing it directly through chanting, bhava (devotional mood), contemplation of sacred objects, and sharing stories, symbolism of Indian wisdom tradition, we become scientists of our heart, practitioners of devotion, communicators with spirit, and we access Unconditional Belonging.

If you’d like to explore this heart opening path join me November 23rd for a Bhakti Workshop “Chanting from the Heart” where we’ll dive into bhakti practices & literature. Running a special for folks who register now through Nov 22- bring a friend for free!❤️ link to register: https://www.lotuscounselwellness.com/workshops

My First Santsang (aka Sedona Meltdown)

When I was a teenager I survived an intense 3 day LSD trip which was more like an insomniac blur…it involved a spontaneous 14 hour drive to the east coast, parading nude in the streets, quitting my lifeguard job, and sadly at the end of it thinking I was a video game character. Such are the whims of a bored teen growing up in southern Indiana.

Around this time my mom’s hippie friends Mark and Kim invited us to a satsang. ‘Satsang’ is a Sanskrit word that means “sacred gathering.” (Sat means truth and sang means community.) The gathering would be led by a female elder/ wise woman who had a spontaneous awakening while working in a factory, after which she lived & and studied with the sages of India.

So I set out for Sedona with my mom, curious of what this gathering with a guru would reveal, and keeping the details of my miserable LSD comedown to myself.

Mom’s friends Mark and Kim were the most mystical, cool couple- they were quiet, zen-like, unmarried but devoted to each other, and spent their time traveling to different countries sitting with spiritual teachers. I was completely in awe of them. As we hiked through the red rocks I listened intently while they discussed the concept of enlightenment.

We arrived at the satsang, found our way to a seat and settled in as the group began chanting mantras. Although I was too shy to sing out I listened & soaked up the safe feeling like a sponge.

The guru was seated facing everyone. Her eyes lit up at a young pretty woman in the front row who I guessed was a former student. They exchanged hellos…the 20 year old girl said she had just returned from living in a cave and was settling back into worldly life. Hearing this blew my 18 year old mind.

The guru began talking, though it seemed like she was simply channeling spontaneous messages and insights. She shared stories of hanging out with the Dalai Lama, offered us nuggets of wisdom to contemplate, and began answering people’s questions.

Suddenly something shifted in my vibrational field. I felt so safe with these old souls that the trauma of my LSD trip snuck up and stirred in me a throbbing emotional pain and confusion in my heart/ throat…just as luck would have it that feeling wanted to be released right then and there.

I tried to regulate the emotion with discipline and restraint but the attempt to hide was not working. People around me noticed and instantly showed compassion for the awkwardness of it. As the intensity bubbled inside me to the point I felt I might break a man gently leaned in and whispered lovingly “it’s ok to break.”

And that set me off…I broke…quite dramatically, so much so that the guru stopped and turned to me. The rest was kind of a blur…I asked her something about suffering in the body & did not feel satisfied with the answer so I got up & bolted out the door, sat outside sulking for the rest of the satsang.

When the satsang ended she walked out and sat with me. Her final words to me were: look up at a star and let it all sink in. Which made absolutely no sense.

But what did make sense was that gentle man telling me it’s ok to break, the loving support of those people. Being shown compassion by mature & evolved souls who had come so far on their spiritual trip that they were able to hold the animal/ emotional part of a teen coming down from her acid trip.

Experiences like this have happened repeatedly in my life to show me that life itself is the guru, not some person.

So often we put an expectation on that spiritual leader, that elder, that successful friend who moved to a big city, the worldly traveler, a new lover we admire, or anyone other than ourselves to solve the mystery of our life.

When in reality answers always come from our inner guru, and usually in a way we never expect.

18 Ways to do Japa Meditation

I used to be very hard on myself with meditation. I put myself through a 10 day silent vipassana retreat, would set my timer for 2 hours a day and suppress my imagination entirely to just sit there hyper-focused on the breath and bodily sensations. I considered meditations that included visuals & sounds to be inferior.

Then one day I was meditating with a Buddhist monk at a Dharma Center in Louisville and I asked him what to do when boredom comes up while you’re sitting. I thought he’d reveal some deep philosophical answer, but to my surprise he simply told me to imagine a gold light radiating from my heart. I said, “so it’s ok to use your imagination in meditation?” And he said indeed it was, and that monks often do it.

One of the recent ways I’ve started bringing my imagination into meditation is through japa practice (repeating a mantra). The artist in me loves variety…here’s a list of 18 ways you can explore and hopefully never get bored with japa meditation 😊

  1. Repeat your mantra out loud
  2. Repeat your mantra as a whisper
  3. Repeat your mantra quietly
  4. Repeat the mantra fast
  5. Chant AUM not in a hum/ singing voice but in a talking voice
  6. Sing your mantra (can be raised a half or whole step after each 108 reps)
  7. Try chanting a seed syllable such as RAM or GAM
  8. Chant along with an audio track- there is so much meditation & kirtan music on Spotify & Youtube!
  9. Try chanting a long mantra such as gayatri mantra
  10. Only chant (or repeat the sound in your mind) on the exhale breath
  11. Try it only on the inhale breath and in between spaces (the pause that happens when you hold the breath out or in before next breath)
  12. Chant with a background sound- I love the apps ‘shrutibox’ and ‘relax melodies’
  13. Do japa while gazing at a murti or picture/ visual of a deity
  14. Do japa while focusing your attention on a specific chakra in your body
  15. Use essential oils on your beads or on your wrists and include aroma therapy with your japa/ deep breaths
  16. Try holding the 4 parts of AUM out for equal amounts of time (aah, ooh, mmm, silence). Try 2 seconds each, then 4.
  17. Use the grooves in your fingers to count repetitions of your mantra
  18. Try counting your mantra in 9s.

Meeting My Inner Parvati

My first night in Mudhuban, India a deep emotion struck me. As everyone entered the room & gathered for kirtan, some people in the group sat far off to the left and a few others together to the right but no one had chosen to sit next to me. It was a familiar theme.

Space. That space all around me that had so often in my life felt symbolic of being unwanted or unlovable.

Just as that feeling was sinking in, the retreat facilitators made an announcement that us women would need to cover our head with a scarf the next day on our hike to meet Babaji, the 99 year old baba who lived in a cave; he had requested it.

Here we go again, another version of being not good enough. Even in a cave, with the most socially detached, free human being, I have to cover up, hide a part of me. Why couldn’t I be free too? I couldn’t contain the tears of frustration.

So I was crying a river quietly to myself hoping no one would notice. I just shut my eyes and kept blowing my nose on my scarf. Then the chanting started. For almost the entire part of the first song I felt restricted at the throat/unable to sing. I decided to just politely listen to everyone else.

I let the mantra sink in…a chant to shiva. Shiva, the all-pervading presence, the space that everything exists in. Shiva…the essence of all the spiritual teachings I’d followed from my youth up to this point- Mooji, Papaji, Ramana, Gangaji- they all begged the question “Who am I?”

Was I this intense tearful choked up state? No, it existed in me. Was I this sense of unworthiness? No, I was something bigger. Suddenly the energy shifted. I silently merged with the bigger me…shiva…that Self, that presence, the witness. I surrendered.

The more I let go the further I expanded as the witness. I lovingly observed my body sitting there, overwhelmed with emotion. To my surprise that little bit of space did it. My voice mystically freed up on its own and sang out.

After the kirtan ended, so did my transcendent moment. During the walk back to our ashram rooms I experienced the group talking in front of me, walking up ahead. There it was– space. This time I smiled and took it in deeply.

The space all around me now felt healthy…the medicine of shiva energy showing up for me. I hadn’t recognized it earlier in my unloveable/ victim-inflamed state.

The one thing nobody tells you about kirtan is it’s not always bliss. Rather, it provides the spaciousness & uplifting energetic current needed to process dark & vulnerable emotions in a healthy, gentle way.

Bhakti doesn’t require you to be all ‘love & light.’ It requires you to have the courage to be vulnerable.

As for covering up my hair with a scarf- doing it ironically ‘uncovered’ some of my arrogance. I had first dramatized and victimized it as ‘oppression.’ Later a more relaxed, wise perspective emerged & I wrote this in my journal:

To cover my head isn’t to be oppressed. Or a victim. It’s to humble myself a little. Be open to another, older, ancient culture that I don’t understand.

I contemplated masculinity and femininity:

A woman covering up her hair is beautification…a ritual to respect/ honor natural femininity, the mystery, which is to be hidden! (Think of how our bodies exist in nature- a woman’s sexual anatomy is hidden whereas a man’s just hangs out there.) Femininity, in its truest form, is hidden, potent, magical. From that perspective, to cover up is self-respect…symbolic of respecting the sacred, divine mystery of womanhood. Covering up is powerful!

I don’t know if it was all that shiva medicine coming through the vibration of the foothills of the Himalayas, or my own optimism, maybe a little of both. But the theme of this initiation had become clear. It was time to drop the outer shell of unworthiness and meet my inner Parvati.

The Gift of Surrender

I am fascinated with the art of surrender. From totally yielding in child’s pose to rolling with the punches of ‘failure,’ to bowing & saying ‘namaskar’ to a stranger, to surrendering the human voice to mystical repetition of Sanskrit syllables.

Surrender is the main reason I love chanting. The first thing I do when a kirtan starts is listen to the voices around me instead of my own. I feel my own voice but I don’t focus on it. My goal is to merge with a vibe in the room and surrender to it.

Once I surrender I’m in a position to start having fun- to ride the mantra wave. Because actually there is no ‘me’. And what’s being created musically is oneness- one group voice that carries the mantra in its own unique way through that moment in time. The experience will never be repeated the same way again. Kind of like a meditative jazz solo!

You could think of it like this- have you ever walked down a busy street, in a park or in a grocery store and been annoyed because a person in front of you walked too slow? What if, instead of feeling impatient you viewed them as someone you’re walking with? This is similar to what the ego (a soul feeling very separate, a voice focusing on itself) goes through during a kirtan when it shifts from resistance to surrender. We realize that what we’re surrendering to is love!

We live in a culture that wants to be like fire. We celebrate extroversion, excitement, amped up individuality & burning ourselves out to show how successful & deserving we are.

There’s nothing wrong with being successful, rising up from the ashes, or being in the spotlight/ shining and we all deserve it. The problem is when we become obsessed with it as a way to get love and unconsciously exhaust ourselves in the process.

Fire is exciting and can ignite things & be hot & amazing to watch but it is not nourishing.

The gift of surrender is like water.

Water is reflective & naturally moves around obstacles quietly & patiently to flow back to its source. It will go to the lowest places, let gravity pull it toward its source, and like a cosmic dance it sways back and forth when it merges with the ocean.

A cooling antidote to the burnt-out feeling, water refreshingly accepts us for who we are, beneath all the accolades. It quenches a deeper desire- the thirst for nourishment.

To be like water is to be ok with not shining, with not being exciting, with having your personal edge smoothed by the current of change (aka grace…or nature’s inherent rhythm).

The art of surrender is like that. It teaches us humility, that love doesn’t require anything special from us, it’s natural, and that the roadblocks on our path are actually there to direct us back to an endless ocean of self-love.

Why I Love Hindu Deities

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I saw god as an old man in the sky with a white beard & white robe. God didn’t feel safe, fun, or loving. He felt…distant, unknown, scary.

My few attempts at churchgoing were met with ‘Sure you can join us as long as you believe Jesus Christ is THE ONLY way!” That intuitively didn’t feel right. Yeah, Jesus is great but he’s not THE ONLY path.

My inner child needed something that felt playful & magical…something I could relate to, talk to, feel safe with. Because let’s face it, as a kid I got more of a sense of the divine from gazing at the moon & watching The Last Unicorn than I did praying to god.

Luckily I found the Hindu deities.

Imagine if instead of a scary white-bearded old man in the sky you got to hang out with a young, dark haired flute player living in the forest. What if his love was so boundless he encouraged you to feel free, feel joy, dance, always be in the right place at the right time, and constantly follow your bliss? This is Krishna.

Imagine if god was A WOMAN- one with such beauty that you you felt yourself soften and radiate peace while with her…you felt delighted in just being in her presence, and she invited you to sit with her as she lovingly poured coins & flower petals into your lap. This is the Hindu goddess Lakshmi:

What if god was a fiery goddess riding a tiger, who taught you how to stand up for yourself & believe in yourself? A goddess so fearless you could win any battle with her by your side? This is Ma Durga:

Or a pristine, mystical flowing river goddess who played the most beautifully sounding ancient stringed instrument called the veena as she sang to you & revealed to you the purest, most inspired music? Meet Saraswati:

What if god was a yogi with dreadlocks who you met in the forest? While sitting in meditation he welcomed even outcasts and criminals, gave them blessings on their spiritual journey and taught them about transformation & how to not be scared of change? That’s Shiva.

What if god was an elephant who rode a mouse(!) and lovingly helped you overcome obstacles? When I sit at my altar and look at my Ganesh murti I can’t help but feel a solid feeling of joy. Jai Ganesha!

Then there’s Hanuman, the half-monkey half-man who loves you so much he does all kinds of magical things to assist you on your journey.

And then there’s Kali. Ok…she may be seen by some as the villain in this fairytale. She’s the one with the skulls around her neck…but actually those skulls represent the disillusionment & death of our ego. She gives us a compassionate blow to our ego to instantly humble us, which is one of the most motherly & protective acts of love because she simply won’t let you walk the planet deluded.

She is actually in her truest sense, time. So instead of Father Time we have Ma Kali. And time can terrify us because it ages us and will one day take our bodies away. However to come out of denial of that truth is a powerful teaching that can lead us to freedom so we can experience more joy while in these bodies. I have heard her described as “scary to our ego but like air to our true self.”

And the best part about all these deities is they coexist in a unique kind of cosmic harmony. I love watching Hindu movies that show all the deities hanging out together, holding meetings, making decisions about how to save the planet or who will reincarnate as who. It shows that god can be a colorful cast of characters who love us, play with us, are fun to hang out with, and who keep it real.

Just the opinion of a westerner. 🙂

Thanks for reading.