The Namaste Counsel interviewed Sean Johnson who will be leading a Bhakti immersion at Bhakti Fest Midwest June 25-28, Madison, Wis. Johnson, who has a Master’s in Chanting and Spirituality, owns Wild Lotus Yoga in New Orleans, and tours the country with his Wild Lotus Band.
People have left our longer trainings and BHAKTImmersions and simply felt more gratitude and vividness in their chosen lives. Some have also felt the courage and inspiration to make bold changes. One of our students shared with us that after doing several of our trainings, the practices gave him the courage to face his fears of coming out of the closet to his family. He shared his truth with them and was met with a love he had never could have imagined years before. Other students have quit jobs, or ended relationships that didn’t feed their heart, and followed their heart to more fulfilling ways of devoting their time and energy.
Bhakti is all about living from the heart. The midwest is often called the ‘heartland of America.’ I feel a lot of heart and sincerity from the people from around the region who come to participate in Bhakti Fest Midwest. I find the folks who come to be incredibly enthusiastic, excited, down-to-earth, and full of love. That’s a big highlight for me.
Bhakti Fest invited us to guide our full-day “Tune Your Heart” pre-festival intensive for the second year in a row. We’ll be introducing a more in-depth experience of a wide array of bhakti yoga practices including a particular singing attunement practice that is rarely taught outside of the Indian Classical music tradition called Sargam; mythology and storytelling from the mythic world of yoga told in a fun, contemporary way; a “Bhakti On The Mat” experience that seeks to turn an asana practice into an imaginative bhakti ritual with live music from the band; an introduction to bhakti poets and their stories, group dancing, and of course lots of singing.
Stories awaken the child in us, stimulate our imagination, and give us permission to step out of the comfort zone of our own habits, and masks.
Many of these mythological stories have themes and potential lessons that we can all benefit from. Some common themes in the stories I tell include overcoming doubt and cynicism through love; setting healthy boundaries; choosing good company; putting our hearts in service of love; defeating our demons by shining the light and identifying our fears. Many of the stories have demons, serpents, or villains in them which we often depict with great humor and give us all the opportunity to dramatize and bring healing to the darker aspects of ourselves.
Alvin, Gwendolyn, and I came together as a result of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I evacuated from New Orleans the day before the storm with my family. I longed to find a way to turn the destruction and suffering into something positive. I thought it would be great to do a tour around the country to raise funds for Hurricane relief. Suddenly we had a full-fledged tour set up.
Alvin, Gwendolyn, and I have completely different personalities and musical influences and backgrounds. It’s our diversity that really feeds our music. We’ve been lucky enough to make music together as a collaborative band, playing, creating, touring, and recording pretty much exclusively together for 10 years now. We’ve created kirtan-based chants and songs that still have the all-important kirtan trademarks of spontaneity, interaction, and participation build inside musically dynamic arrangements that we’ve honed through playing hundreds of kirtans together.
We realized early on that we wanted to respectfully share the joy of kirtan while fully embracing our native musical influences and adopted musical passions. We love creating mantra music that can inspire people who are already into yoga and kirtan and also radiate out beyond the boundaries of the yoga world to reach music-lovers who don’t consider themselves to be yogis or even to be ‘spiritual’, who simply love the universal depth, emotion, and transportive power of music to move the heart.
I sing a variety of mantras in my personal practice. The mantra that I find myself returning to again and again is “Om Namah Shivaya.” For me it’s a mantra that helps me to keep the faith and trust the mystery, especially at times of adversity and pain. This mantra was a great ally for me during Katrina, the death of my brother Jeremy, and other challenging experiences.
I have to say that I really love the harmonium, as it’s my chosen instrument to accompany the first instrument of my voice.
The story of the harmonium echoes my story as a western yogi. The harmonium is a hybrid instrument that was born in Europe, brought to India by missionaries to accompany hymns, customized by the Indian people to fit their culture and music, and now comes full circle back to the west where kirtan wallahs like me play it to accompany mantras as well as gospel songs.
Doesn’t this story remind you of yoga? Yoga is going through a similar transformation. It’s an instrument that was born in India, made its way west, is being customized to fit this culture and lifestyle, and through the coupling of tradition and innovation, we’re living right now inside yoga’s paradoxes and possibilities.
I also simply love the rich heart tones of the harmonium, a wonderful cushion for singing over.
Part of what makes music beautiful is the silence, and part of what makes silence beautiful is music. In western music the word in the notation for silence is called a “rest.” Interestingly the note of origin in a scale is also called the “tonic,” which is a word that reveals its medicinal potential.
One of the things that I love about kirtan is the silence after a chant. We live in a culture that is very uncomfortable and restless with silence. I love that after a kirtan we often sit and bathe and open to the gifts in the silence, like a savasana. It’s in this silence that we have the opportunity to witness how the chanting of the mantra has shifted our consciousness and integrate the new patterns awakened by the mantra. For people who find it difficult to meditate, I recommend singing first and you’ll have a much more easeful entry into meditation.
For more on Bhakti Fest, read https://thenamastecounsel.com/bhakti-fest-midwest-heaven-on-earth-for-yogis/ or https://thenamastecounsel.com/all-about-bhakti-fest-midwest/.