Earlier this month, I snuck up to Garrison Institute for the Saturday evening kirtan by Krishna Das that was offered as part of The Pilgrim Heart’s February retreat. It’s a retreat I’ve attended many years now, and the Garrison Institute is one of my favorite spaces to practice in, with its gorgeous vaulted wooden ceiling and stained glass windows. At the Institute, I always feel that quality in the main room that happens when a lot of practice is done somewhere. It’s like a magic change in air pressure when you walk in the room that somehow settles you, simply by being there.
I’ve chanted with Krishna Das for many years now–he was my introduction to the practice of chanting about 15 years ago and is still home base for me to this day. Krishna Das (known to friends as KD) first connected to chanting via Ram Dass in the early 70s. He met Ram Dass soon after his first voyage to India, when Ram Dass was spreading the word about the teachings he had encountered with Neem Karoli Baba, also known as Maharaj-ji. KD, who was then known as Jeffrey Kagel, felt an immediate connection to Maharaj-ji, and he soon found his way to India to seek out this teacher with whom he spent many years. Fast forward to 2018, KD is the “rock-star” of the yoga world and is quite literally the soundtrack to hundreds of yoga classes a day, with a powerhouse voice that landed him a Grammy nomination in 2012 for his thirteenth album, Live Ananda. On the surface, an evening singing with KD is a lovely concert of “spiritual music” that will leave you relaxed and refreshed. But underneath his incredibly rich voice is a deeply seasoned practitioner, someone who found his path in India over 40 years ago, whose life is shaped around sharing that practice with others.
The practice of kirtan has a very different flavor than many other contemplative practices, predominantly because it’s a group practice, and not a silent one. If you have ever been to a sitting meditation retreat or gone to a great yoga class, you know the power of group practice to support and uplift–but nothing can really prepare you for the first time you hear a room full of hundreds of practitioners chant a mantra together. It is breathtaking.
Outwardly this practice can look just like singing, but internally there is something very different going on. The mantra is used as an object of concentration–it is the conduit for paying attention differently–just like breathing is used in a meditation practice, or the shape of your body is used in a yoga class. The practice toggles back and forth between gathering your awareness into the hearing of the mantra (the call, sung by a leader) and then gathering your awareness into the singing of the mantra (the response of the practitioners). This process is an ancient technique that is said to be a pathway to liberation: training ourselves how to be compassionate, learning resilience to let go and begin again, and gradually cultivating greater awareness.
During the unique format of kirtan’s call and response, it’s worth noting that the person leading the chanting is also doing the practice. This usually isn’t the case at a class or retreat. More often a teacher is instructing the participants on how to do the practice, not actually participating or encouraging their own personal practice. So, when you attend a kirtan with Krishna Das, you have the privilege of actually practicing alongside him.
When KD comes in to start the event, he plops down at the harmonium in his usual uniform: black pants, red shirt, and a red checkered flannel. He says a warm “howdy” to everyone in the room, gets his band situated, takes off his glasses, closes his eyes, and pauses. Then something incredible happens. For two and a half hours, it’s as though Krishna Das disappears, and there is instead an open doorway to something that feels quite immense. For those couple of hours, we can all touch into something much bigger than ourselves. There is nothing else quite like it–he literally transforms the room through the power of his practice–and in doing so, opens everyone to a vast ease of heart that we can all abide in.
Lily Cushman is the co-founder and director of the Brooklyn Yoga School, a donation-based center founded in 2010, and the Executive Assistant to Sharon Salzberg. Lily offers 20 years experience in classical yoga and chanting practice, infused with the wisdom tradition of Insight Meditation. For events, music and online offerings, visit: lilycushman.com.
Photo courtesy of Ioana Boambes.