Chatting about chanting with Benjy and Heather Wertheimer

Editor’s note: “An Evening of Sacred Chanting,” featuring Shantala: Benjy and Heather Wertheimer, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 17, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 920 Third Ave., Rockford. The event is co-sponsored by Pranayama Yoga Studio and Charlotte’s Web for the Performing Arts.

Tickets ($12 advance, $15 door) are available at The Rockford Area Arts Council, 713 E. State St.; The Postal Shoppe at Edgebrook and at 2205 S. Perryville; The Kilt & Clover, 1414 N. Main St.; JustGoods, 201 Seventh St.; and by check and self-addressed, stamped envelope, to Pranayama Yoga Studio, 517 E. State St., Rockford, IL 61101.

For more information, call (815) 968-9642 or visit

As more and more people turn to yoga and the inspirations of Eastern wisdom in their quest for peace and understanding, the traditional Indian style of devotional chanting known as kirtan (pronounced “KEER-tun”) has been growing in popularity.

Notable among the talented musicians who are sharing this ancient art with modern-day audiences are Portland natives Benjy and Heather Wertheimer, who perform as Shantala. Through their live kirtan performances and their latest CD, The Love Window, they take audiences on heart-opening musical journeys, layering beautiful vocals with rhythmically transformative instrumental sounds. Benjy has studied Indian classical music for more than 20 years with some of the greatest masters of the tradition, including Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain, and also tours and records with Krishna Das. Heather is an accomplished singer, songwriter, guitarist and yoga teacher with a soul-stirring voice who also performs with virtuoso guitarist Michael Mandrell.

I have been blessed to have attended a kirtan with Benjy and Heather and to have had the opportunity to learn more about their experiences of and insights into devotional chanting.

Stephanie Gailing (Stephanie): What happens during an evening of kirtan?

Heather: We often open our kirtans with a musical meditation before we start singing, which might involve Benjy singing an invocation in the classical Indian style or playing the esraj, which is like an Indian violin. Then, the group sings OM together, and we start doing call-and-response singing. We often teach the Sanskrit words to the group in advance, especially if they’re complex, and we explain something about what the words mean. If there are a lot of people chanting for the first time, I explain something about the process and encourage them not to be self-conscious about their singing. I suggest they sing to whatever they love.

When we’re chanting, we increase the tempo of many of the chants, and the energy of the group rises with it. Eventually, Benjy breaks out into a drum solo. When the chant ends, there is the most serene and delicious silence. The energy of the chant then moves deeper inside us. You can feel it in the room. Those are the sweetest moments.

Benjy: One short way I sometimes describe it is as the yogic equivalent of really rocking gospel music!

Stephanie: What role does mantra play in kirtan?

Heather: The chants, the mantras, we sing are praising the names of ancient deities. It is said that chanting these names evokes the qualities of the names themselves. People have been chanting these names for thousands of years. I believe that chanting them is like stepping into a river that’s been flowing forever. We get taken along in the current. Whether or not you know exactly what they mean, chanting these sacred names is transforming. The practice leads to change, a heightened awareness of love, which can be either rapid or gradual.

The chants we know are in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit language is incredibly old and is made up of sounds that are considered to be sacred, primal sounds of the universe. The sounds themselves can have an energetic impact on the physical and spiritual levels.

Benjy: One of the functions of Sanskrit is to focus pranic energy, the central life energy that many people know as “chi” in the Chinese tradition. This approach to the spiritual sound of the mantras themselves joins with the beauty of the melodies and power of the rhythms. All together, it makes the practice of kirtan a unique and powerful expression of Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion.

Stephanie: Do you have to practice Hinduism to enjoy chanting?

Heather: I believe that kirtan is not at all limited to people who claim to be Hindu. Having knowledge of Hinduism could certainly add a lot of depth and richness to understanding the mantras, as would knowledge of Sanskrit. Yet, most of the people I know who love to chant in the U.S. don’t identify as Hindus, and they don’t know much Sanskrit. I’ve been a yogi for a long time, but I have strong influences of Buddhism in my belief system. I don’t think chanting needs to conflict with any particular belief system because the gods and goddesses in the chants are all faces of the One.

Benjy: I struggled at first with chanting to Hindu deities because I identify as a Quaker. Even though it felt really good to me to do kirtan, I wasn’t sure how they fit together. I eventually tuned more into the undercurrent of oneness that flows through all of it.

Stephanie: Can you speak more about how chanting may play a role in someone’s spiritual path?

Heather: I see chanting as the yoga of devotion, or Bhakti yoga. There is a conscious intention to open the heart with the love of spirit. Devotion is a path of immense joy. Our Anusara yoga philosophy teacher, Douglas Brooks, would say that the goal of yoga is to experience the beauty of embodiment. The goal and the practice are inseparable. The practice of kirtan creates a direct experience of incredible beauty. That’s what happens when we praise the creator of the beauty.from the Oct. 10, 2007, issue

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