Vermont Psychiatric Hospital Welcomes “Kirtan Therapy”
Lugging along their varied collection of instruments, kirtan group the Hanumen followed their tour organizer Jennifer Canfield into the grim building, and down a long corridor lined with barred windows.
This July 22nd kirtan was just one of their seventeen performances during an eighteen-date tour across the North East of the United States. But it was certainly the most unique. The Hanumen hoped their visit to the Vermont State Hospital—the highest-level psychiatric care facility in the state—could make a difference for its fifty acutely afflicted patients and 300 overworked staff.
Just as the corridor seemed to be about to go on forever, popular kirtaniya Benjy Wertheimer, poet John de Kadt, and ISKCON devotees and musicians Jahnavi Harrison and Purusartha Dasa emerged onto a grassy lawn. As they set up their instruments in front of the forty waiting patients and many staff, Jennifer Canfield felt a keen sense of fulfillment and accomplishment at this latest step in her non-profit effort the Call and Response Foundation.
“I was introduced to kirtan through my yoga practice at a very challenging time in my own life,” says Jennifer, who now works as a manager for Dave Stringer and other kirtan artists. “I wanted to offer the same gift to others who most needed it, especially where it could have a powerful therapeutic effect.”
So Jennifer established the Call and Response Foundation this year, and made a proposal to the Vermont State Hospital, close to her home, to hold weekly kirtans there.
“My proposal outlined the ancient practice of chanting and mantras as a viable tool for aiding the recovery of the cognitively challenged,” she says. “There is new research emerging on the role of the brain in chanting and this scientific perspective was appealing to hospital officials. I took great care—and still do—to present kirtan with great respect, but also as a practice with simple goals of creating space for calmness and peace.”
Jennifer’s proposal was accepted, and she began to sing kirtan at the Hospital on her own every week. Recently, however, she had been able to also introduce guest kirtan artists to the patients. Dave Stringer, Radha Gopinath Marinelli, Joni Allen, Devadas, and the Mayapuris had all played—and now, it was the Hanumen’s turn.
The group launched into their first chant, accompanied by violin, harmonium, bass guitar, and an eclectic collection of percussion instruments including the Indian mridanga, African djembe, Swiss Hang drum, and the Spanish Cajon.
“We didn’t know what kind of a response to expect,” says Jahnavi, who also performs with kirtan group Gaura Vani and As Kindred Spirits. “We had all been hoping for some kind of dramatic external change in the patients—a Hollywood moment. Perhaps they’d all end up dancing, or would miraculously be able to follow along with all the words.”
Instead, many of the patients sat splayed out across the lawn, some even choosing to sit almost out of hearing range. They seemed unresponsive, staring off into the distance. One older man called out, “Do you know Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat song?”
But while that over-the-top “Hollywood moment” never came, the mantras, mostly dedicated to Lord Krishna and his avatar Ramachandra, did gradually begin to take effect.
“As we continued to sing, a lot of patients moved to sit closer to us,” Jahnavi says. “Many began to clap, and some even tried their best to sing along, a noteable change from their initial response. As we began chanting Srila Prabhupada’s simple Hare Krishna melody, one woman burst into tears and continued to sob uncontrollably throughout the rest of the kirtan in the most heartfelt way. I don’t know if it was because of the mantra, or for some other reason. But we could sense a definite change in the mood.”
Reflecting on the experience, Jahnavi found it to be a faith-building exercise. “It’s hard to see the effect of the chanting after just one time,” she says. “And maybe you’ll never see the effects. But I think you just have to have faith that it is working, even if it’s very subtle, or somewhere beneath the surface.”
And perhaps the effects weren’t all that subtle. Perhaps you just had to know the patients well to be able to notice them. After the forty-five-minute performance, hospital staff approached the Hanumen and told them, “You have no idea how much you’re doing for the patients. During the kirtan, those who are normally unresponsive to therapeutic attempts responded with emotion. They became animated and full of life in a way that they never do otherwise. And from past experience with other kirtan performances, we know they’ll talk about it for a whole month afterwards.”
The biggest revelation for both Jennifer Canfield and the Hanumen, however, was how beneficial and therapeutic the kirtan was not only for the patients, but for the staff too.
“They were deeply affected by it, to the point of being moved to tears,” says Jahnavi. “I talked to one staff member who said that their job puts them in a constant state of tremendous stress, and as a result, many of them develop their own serious health problems. So the weekly kirtans that Jennifer organizes—some of which are attended by more staff than patients—improves relationships with patients and staff members, and provides a refuge for them to depend on.”
Staff are so enthusiastic that they recently purchased some hand drums for the hospital, and have arranged for kirtan artists to begin giving music lessons as well as holding their weekly kirtans.
Meanwhile, the Call and Response Foundation looks sure to grow. More than a dozen artists—including Mantralogy’s Gaura Vani, Prema Hara, and Sri Kirtan—have been confirmed for its October 29th fundraising event, a 12-hour kirtan called “VerMantra” at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, Vermont. And Jennifer aims for the weekly kirtans at Vermont State Hospital to be replicated in all places where kirtan can have a powerful therapeutic effect: not just hospitals, but prisons, nursing homes, and homeless shelters, too.
“I would like to offer trainings and workshops for people on how to start these programs in their communities,” Jennifer says. “The project will grow if we can give the tools to others to implement. I have a wonderful list of kirtan artists who want to be involved in these projects that can eventually have an international scope.”
Jennifer’s long term plan is to make kirtan available everywhere as a practice and a tool for peace and harmony.
“Even after countless kirtans, I am always astonished at the experience of chanting together with even one other person, and the depth of the effects it has,” she concludes. “I would love to continue to offer the practice to those people who will never walk into a temple, or a yoga studio, or a theater beacuse of their life circumstances. I have gratitude for the gift of this work and am energized and enlivened by the relationships it has given me.”
To find out more about the Call and Response Foundation and how you can support it, write to Jennifer Canfield at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Jahnavi Harrison at email@example.com. You can also visit http://www.callandresponsefoundation.org.