Q & A with Shyama Chapin

Posted on May 29th, 2015


The Yoga Sukhavati: Art of Sound module begins the weekend of June 12 with the very talented Shyama Chapin. Learn more about Shyama and the meditative effects of kirtan.230169_10150237371190943_286387065942_9076706_2645849_n

Where are you originally from? How long have you lived in NYC?

I was born in Elsah, Illinois, where my dad was a college professor. But I mostly grew up in New York City, through high school. Then I went as far away as I could, to New England and then Northern California. I’ve been back living here since 2009. I’m still not quite sure how that happened! 

What is kirtan? What does kirtan mean to you?

Kirtan is a practice that is part of the tradition of Bhakti Yoga from India. It is simply call and response chanting, singing in a group with someone leading and everyone else responding. Namakirtan specifically is the practice of chanting what are called the Divine Names, which are Sanskrit words that have been revealed to a being in a high state of realization. They are considered to be various ways of naming that essential reality which is the ground nature of everything that is, including us of course! One of many paradoxes is that this reality exists beyond name and form, but yet when we call out to it, that invocation gently intensifies our awareness of this reality which is our own true nature—which is Love. You could say that all of these names are simply names of Love.

The practice of chanting the Names is also a method of beginning to release our obsession with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world that cause us so much pain. For me personally, it has been a huge grace and blessing to be given this amazing boat to rest in in the middle of the wild and confusing ocean of my mind and my life!

How long have you been practicing kirtan? How did you get interested in it?

I always know when I first became aware of this practice, because it was right after 9/11. I didn’t so much get interested in it, which would be sort of a intellectual thing, as find myself completely drawn to it without giving any thought to why. There’s a story about how that came about that is too long for here…maybe I’ll tell it as part of the workshop!

In addition to kirtan, you also play the harmonium.  Have you always been a musician? 

Actually, I play harmonium when I’m chanting, and not really outside of that. So it’s part of kirtan for me. When I started leading kirtan, I was chanting with a folk instrument from India called an ektara, which is a gourd with a skin head and a long neck attached, and one or two strings that are played in a rhythmic drone. I started with that, I guess, because I’ve been a guitar player since I was a kid, and strings seemed natural to me. 

My dad was a choir director and a pianist and organist, and I took piano lessons from him from age 3 to 7, when I quit! He actually gave me a guitar then, and told me he didn’t know how to play it…I basically hid in my room singing and playing it pretty incessantly for a bunch of years after that, and started writing my own songs.

Later I started performing my songs solo with the guitar in New England and California mostly, and recorded a solo CD. And I was in a jam band in the Bay Area with a bunch of friends that did some recording as well.

What would you tell someone who is interested in kirtan, but may not be musically inclined?

The thing is, the practice of kirtan looks like it has to do with music, because there’s music along with it, but it’s actually not fundamentally about the music. It’s about repeating the Names, which is where the juice is. So practicing kirtan as part of the response group doesn’t require any musical ability at all, and in fact if you are inclined to be distracted by how nice your voice is, or how musical you are those things can be distractions to the practice for sure. Of course, if you are inclined to be distracted by how much you dislike your voice, or whatever, that can be distracting too!

If you want to lead kirtan, there is a little bit of musical ability that is called for, just to hold the thing together. But not really that much. You can keep the chant really basic musically and have a fantastic kirtan.

How do yoga asana and kirtan compliment each other?

Both asana practice and kirtan practice require concentration and awareness, and ultimately the reality that is being approached is the same, since it’s the only reality there is! But the vehicles are quite different: the physical body/energy body in asana practice and the heart/mind in kirtan practice. So there is a nice balance energetically when you bring them together I think. The practice in the body supports the mind/heart practice in a really lovely and helpful way, and vice versa.

Has there been one particular kirtan experience that stands out to you? If so, please share.

Chanting directly in front of my guru in India, when I have done that, has been a huge blessing and teaching. It’s another long story (or two!) But many many kirtans have been high points for me…actually any opportunity to chant with others in this way is a high point…I totally mean that. One of my favorite memories is of a kirtan a while ago in Massachusetts at a little yoga studio: my drummer had to bail at the last minute, and only one person came to sing. So it was just the two of us and the harmonium and she had never chanted before! But she wasn’t afraid to sing, and she caught on to the idea of singing back and forth with concentration right away. We sang for a couple of hours and it was amazing! Really beautiful.

What are you most looking forward to about the workshop with Yoga Sukhavati?

Chanting the Names together, of course…it’s the best thing there is! And also exploring the practice together in a way that hopefully empowers everyone who comes to feel confident about bringing it into their personal practices and their yoga asana classes as well. I hope everyone will bring both open minds and a willingness to ask lots of questions.

What can you be found doing when you are not leading kirtans?

I am a New York State licensed massage therapist, seeing clients at Greenhouse Holistic on Bedford and North 7th in Williamsburg from Thursday through Saturday, as well as through Zeel Massage on Demand and privately. I also travel to students’ homes in the NYC metropolitan area to teach private harmonium lessons for chant practice, and I work as a personal assistant one day a week. 

Whenever I can, I love to chant with my friends’ when they are leading kirtans—I’m very lucky to have a lot of friends who are great kirtan walas, including Krishna Das…practice with all of them and especially with him is a huge grace for me. 

When I get a chance, I like to spend time outdoors in the country…woods, mountains, ocean…it’s all good and makes me happy as clams. And occasionally I sleep.

Come practice and learn kirtan with Shyama (and Leigh Evans) at The Art of Sound workshop, June 12-14 at Loom Yoga Center in Bushwick.

Friday, June 12: 6-9p.m. – Kirtan with Shyama & Band
Saturday, June 13 and Sunday, June 14: 9a.m.-12:30p.m. and 2-6p.m.

To learn more about Shyama, visit her website,