In the late 1990’s, I learned my first three words in Sanskrit: sat, chit and ānanda (reality, consciousness and bliss). I never imaged how these three ancient words would eventually transform my life.
I’ve been fortunate to know bliss in many forms throughout my life: first in nature, growing up among the Redwoods of Northern California, then in theatre as a young actor, dancer, and musician, and ultimately through yoga. All these experiences have blended together in my music and my band, Peter Stone and the Rivers of Devotion.
During high school I began writing songs and playing the piano, which led me to a formalized music education with a bachelor’s degree in music theory from UC Santa Barbara. Further decades of private study in voice, piano, composition, lyric writing, theatrical performance, and music engineering have blossomed into an overwhelming enthusiasm for the combination of multi-layered sound and text.
In the summer of 2009, I began a regular physical yoga practice (āsana), with Jessica Nuzzo and was reacquainted with those three magical words: sat, chit and ānanda, within the beautiful text of the Nirālamba Invocation.
More recently, a six-month yoga immersion course, The Alchemy of Transformation crafted and led by Darcy Lyon, set me on my current path—a path that, in many ways, looks at the very concept of following one’s bliss.
Though I never intended to becoming a yoga teacher … I fell in love with one chant in particular, the Mahāmrityunjaya Mantra (the Great Death-Conquering Mantra), so much so that I found myself chanting it daily and was even inspired to create my own musical arrangement. Mahāmrityunjaya Mantra on Vayu CD
From there, my interest in devotional music took off. I purchased a Paloma harmonium—a reed organ instrument resembling an accordion—and was overwhelmed by its full-bodied, almost vocal sound. In my events, I combine the use of the harmonium, – now my very dear Ragamala instrument with antique German reeds – a shruti box, drums and rattles, Sanskrit Mantras and my own music to create an environment that is both invigorating to the senses and calming to the mind.
My Sanskrit teacher, Ramana Erickson, has cracked open the doorway into the humbling world of the Vedas, the Upanishads, Mantra and all the rivers of devotion. I revel in this ongoing exploration of these ancient sacred texts, and sharing the knowledge I glimpse with everyone who wants to listen.
“One never knows where a new word, or three, may lead.”
This Indian, Paloma, harmonium has three banks of brass reeds and five drone notes operated by pumping the hand bellows and playing notes on a three-octave keyboard.The harmonium was actually a European organ that was used in churches during the Medieval times. The look of the harmonium then was almost similar to a small organ. There was a four or five octave keyboard, a chair to sit down, and a foot pump for the air.
When the British came to India in the 18th century, they brought their harmoniums also. When the harmonium was introduced to North Indian musicians, they immediately favored the instrument with a hand pump for the bellows. The Indian musicians preferred to play while sitting on the floor or ground and used the instrument for a more melodic rather than harmonic purpose.
Thus, the Indian harmonium evolved into its current form from its British predecessor.
… is another reed instrument, which produces a rich droning sound again operated by a hand bellows. Most harmoniums contain drones and the shruti box was created to produce this drone sound in a separate smaller instrument. I usually use the instrument to produce the interval of an open fifth. It adds a constant “Om” to the music, much as the Tambura does in many forms of Indian music.
I use it because it can be played one-handed which leaves my other hand free for drums, rattles and shakers.
Singing bowls come in many different sizes which produce different sounding notes. Depending on how it is rung, my primary singing bowl sounds the notes C and F, the notes associated with the root and heart chakras respectively.A bell like sound is produced by ringing the bowl and is used to bring one’s focus back to the present moment. This is why I sound the bowl after each mantra.
By pressing a soft but firm surface around the outer edge of the singing bowl, it can also produce a sound vibration very similar to the chanting of Om.
The Tibetan text on this bowl says, “Om mani padme hum.” “I bow to the Jewel of the lotus flower, the boddhisatva of compassion.”
My little African Djembe is a wonderful, portable drum with a wide range of sounds, even while playing one-handed. (It also makes a great seat for a supported virāsana.)I love the variety of sounds I can get from a wood block, Native American wooden shakers, seed rattles, and the rain stick.
I’m always searching for interesting hand-made percussion and pitched-percussion instruments to enhance the soundscapes.
Many who have attended one of my Healing Kirtan events have commented that obviously the primary instrument is the voice.
The heart and soul of any Kirtan concert is the text, and the text is only properly revealed when given sound vibration by a human voice, or better yet, many human voices.If the sound of human voices singing together can’t help connect us to ourselves and to the Eternal Self, what can?
Devotional Music and Kirtan (K-ear-tahn)
What is it?
Kirtan can literally mean temple, repeating, celebrating, praising, saying and telling. As we use the word in the west it refers to an element of a North Indian Bhakti (devotional) tradition dating back to the 14th century. Kirtan consists of call and response singing of the various names of God. The wallah (leader) sings a musical phrase, and the audience sings it back. Traditionally, a single chant can go on for up to forty minutes. As you sing with each other, you experience a deep connection with the musicians, the other audience members and yourself.
Everyone experiences kirtan differently, and it doesn’t have to be a religious experience. You can think of it as a sing-along. Most people sit on the floor, although chairs are usually available. Contemporary musicians have integrated elements from every musical style and lead sessions which can grow into highly ecstatic states.
And when the music stops, your mind is quiet.
What is it?
From the Sanskrit roots, ‘man’ meaning mind and ‘tra’ meaning ‘to free from”, ‘mantra’ is literally a tool to free the mind. Mantras were created by the rishis (wise ones) as paths to awareness, using the power of particular sounds to create specific energetic responses.
A Sanskrit mantra carries the essence of the object or quality it describes. It is not descriptive, as is our language; it is the actual sound equivalent of the manifestation. Hence, ānanda, chanted repeatedly, will bring one into a state of bliss, because ānanda is the essential sound of bliss, making mantra repetition a very simple and powerful means of meditation.
It may be important to note that mantra has a long tradition of silent repetition. Therefore, attending a Kirtan or similar event and not participating in the sound is simply a different form of deep meditation.
Why Chant a Mantra 108 times?
There are many traditions which involve a specific number of repetitions for any given mantra. So why are there so many mantra practices which involve 108 repetitions specifically?
There is an element of the subtle body known as the Ŗt Padma. This is an eight-petaled lotus located approximately two finger’s width below the anahata (heart) chakra. In addition to holding the flame of the atman, this lotus is said to contain 108 pathways into the subtle body. While we chant a mantra 108 times, each repetition is said to enter one of these paths or channels.
Two people can chant a mantra 54 times and achieve a similar effect, which is why many of my recordings are offered with 54 iterations of a given mantra. Thus one can understand that chanting in a group of 108 people, each repetition of the mantra can penetrate the entire subtle body.