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What is the Difference between Kirtan and Swadhyaya?
by Virginia Iversen




Editor's Note: There are four traditional schools of Yoga, and these are: Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Raja Yoga. While a Yogi or Yogini may focus exclusively on one of these approaches to Yoga, that is quite uncommon. For the vast majority of practitioners of Yoga, a blending of the four traditional types of Yoga is most appropriate. One follows his or her own predisposition in balancing these different forms of Yoga. This piece helps to better explain Bhakti Yoga.


Kirtan and swadhaya are both Bhakti Yoga practices. Bhakti Yoga originated thousands of years ago in ancient India. It is one of the paths that leads to a state of oneness with the essence of divinity that pervades the universe. Different cultures refer to this divinity in a variety of ways: God, Goddess, Great Spirit, Source Energy and Wakan Tanka.. “Bhakti” is translated to mean great devotional, divine love. Bhakti Yoga practices cultivate an intense inner desire for oneness with the divine essence within our own hearts. This inner longing and desire may also be evidenced by an undeniable external longing to spend time in the presence of one’s guru or teacher. Ultimately, the practice of Bhakti Yoga culminates in samadhi when the individual’s consciousness merges with God.

Kirtan is the practice of call-and-response chanting. Many traditional kirtans are based on the divine names of Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. The seed syllables of these Sanskrit names shimmer with divinity. As we chant, our beings become attuned to the same divine vibrations, which calms the mind and uplifts the heart. The practice of kirtan can be quite exuberant or quietly ecstatic. Sometimes, the practice of kirtan is so energizing for the Yoga practitioner that he or she cannot sit still and must rise to dance with ecstacy. This is the same ecstacy that we see Mirabai swaying to in many portraits, or Krishna embodying as he played his sacred flute. Many Yoga studios now offer an evening or two a week of kirtan chanting in order to make this ancient practice easily accessible to modern Yogis and Yoginis.

Swadhyaya is also a Bhakti Yoga practice of chanting. Swadhyaya is the focused practice of chanting divinely inspired texts or scriptures. One such ancient text is the Guru Gita. This scripture is comprised of close to two hundred verses and elucidates the inner experience of spiritual practice or sadhana. It also explains the nature of God and the most optimal inner attitude for a devotee to have along the spiritual path. There are many such exquisite scriptural chants in Hinduism. The practice of repeating the scriptures aloud allows us the time and space to focus on the divine and the machinations of our own minds, so that we may root out negativity and choose more uplifting thoughts. Both of the practices of kirtan and swadhyaya cleanse the mind of negativity and bring us vibrationally in alignment with God.

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