Kirtan is translated sometimes as "to repeat" and sometimes as "to praise that which is exalted." The most common chants are different Sanskrit names for God. While it began as a mode of worship, for most practitioners today, going to a kirtan has nothing to do with embracing or even learning any particular theology. Most people don't know the literal meaning of the chants. They come to be part of a powerfully emotive, spiritual, communal musical event.
"You know the part of the rock concert where everyone knows the words? It's like that, but for the whole time," said Gaura Vani, a 35-year-old Silver Spring, Md. dad and freelance filmmaker who grew up in the Hare Krishna movement and is now a well-known kirtan performer. "They say one of the sources of trauma is feeling no connection between you and other parts of humanity. When you do chant and mantras, it's impossible to avoid the group connection, the sense of communion."
A kirtan feels like the merger of a seriously groovin' music show and the liveliest worship service you ever went to. It's perhaps the only place in American life that combines yoga pants with the eyes-closed, arm-extended hand-waving praise of evangelicalism. This participatory, emotive expression isn't an accident: Evangelical churches until recently were among the few growing segments of American religious life.
The similarity isn't lost on the people who do it. One recent Saturday night, more than 50 people packed into a second-floor yoga studio on Washington's Dupont Circle to hear lawyer-turned-yogi David Newman, a kirtan celeb. Some danced; others sat on the floor swaying and smiling. The event's volume knob seemed to go from low-level joy to full-on bliss — the kind you feel after climbing a gorgeous mountain or ending a tough run on a strong sprint. Strangers hugged and danced wildly.