Category Archives: Kirtan & Bhakti

changing music industry

Jai! Bhakti House Band and Others Show Creativity — on stage and off

Kirtan artists like Jai Uttal and Bhakti House Band exercise creativity as artists and businesspeople. 

bob marleyThe rockin’ ‘70s. Those were the days when labels produced vinyl. I worked for a Top 40 radio station, a bit like WKRP in Cincinnati. A hefty share of our ad dollars came from the music industry. Rock stars flooded into our recording studios for live interviews with the DJs. We ran music promotions galore, funded by the labels. The station wooed the record reps with parties, complete with wine and weed. The labels leveraged their clout to introduce lesser known artists. The sales rep who managed the music clients confided that it was a dirty business.  But, it was a business. The labels produced the records, and showered, or sprinkled in, promotional support.

Over the decades, I’ve worked with numerous “successful” musicians and celebs.  I saw beyond the glam.

I went on the road with one artist with six LPs under her belt.  Even though Clive Davis was her manager, she was living modestly. While Davis propelled Whitney Houston to super stardom, sadly, this woman got more public relations support from me than the label.

Another two were rising stars. They felt they won the lottery being on Madonna’s record label. Wrong. One produced his own music video with a cell phone or flip cam. In the video, he let the world in on the dark music industry secrets. Actually, that video went viral and won awards. His investment: $0.  

The Times They Are A Changin’.

Jai UttalToday, as more people opt for digital downloads, the income to musicians is ridiculously low. 

“The streaming and download venues are major rip-offs for performers,” said musician Allan Evans. Evans is an author, professor, producer and founder of a non-profit that preserves world music.  “Perhaps a union will arise to win proper royalties from these new formats.”

Even though Jai Uttal was raised in the music industry, it hasn’t been easy for him. A Grammy-nominated leading Kirtan artist, with 20 CDs,  he lives simply.

“In the past, the money I made from touring was augmented by a small but consistent trickle of album royalties. But with the advent of music streaming, that trickle has dried up,” said Uttal.

Even though the digital age is detrimental to profits, Jai Uttal tapped into the streaming music trend.

Creativity in Connecting to Listeners

“For the last few years I’ve been raging at the streaming services and their exploitation of artists, but I realized that raging against this reality wasn’t going to help. Patreon offers a another option,” found Uttal.  “Fans can still stream their favorite music, but give back in a different way. It’s still young but I love it and hope that patronage grows and grows, not just for me but for all of us. In these intense and difficult times we need to become patrons of each other!” 

music as businessFor as little as one dollar a month, Jai shares daily mantras, life vignettes and more, with his patrons.

“With music subscriptions like Spotify and Pandora paying artists a fraction of a penny per every 100 plays, coupled with record labels taking around 99.7 percent of album revenue, we as musicians, have to get innovative on how we create and distribute our music to our fans,” said Randall Brooks of Bhakti House Band.

In the music world, it takes $5,000-$15,000 to record a CD. Add to that the tens of thousands of dollars to produce and market it.  

“Our ability to continue creating and releasing new music depends heavily on our fans’ direct support,” said Kristin Brooks of Bhakti House Band. “Like purchasing music and merchandise from us, or our crowdfunding campaigns rather than through third party services. The current state of the music business is devaluing music, an indispensable part of life that we humans couldn’t live without.”

From Concert Crowds to Crowdfunding

Bhakti House Bus at Bhakti Fest

Crowdfunding is a buzzword now. But, people don’t necessarily want to give, without getting anything in return. Hence, the creative juices must flow into the marketing, too. 

Bhakti House Band is based out of Fort Worth, and they drive a sky blue school bus for their road trips.  Aside from their vast knowledge of Sanskrit and world religions, they exude soul and creativity on stage. That same level of passion and creativity is in store in their next recording. 

“We will be integrating everything from old gospel and church hymns to rap and hip hop to Tibetan bowls, beloved classical Sanskrit mantras, and Kirtan. We combine western and eastern instrumentation and rich harmonies, all driven by a powerful combination of drums and percussion from different cultures all over the world. These various healing musical influences represent seeds of our musical past that have brought us to this present moment,” Kristin said. 

To help them record, produce and market their new baby, they launched a creative crowdfunder. 

Join the Revolution

Kristin and Randall Brooks lead workshops on mantras and chanting

Roots to Revolutions is the name of the new Bhakti House Band project.  Contribute via IndieGogo and you can record with them in the studio, learn to play the harmonium, or get a tailor-made recording. 

First, for just nine dollars, you receive a download of a 108-mantra recording. Plus, they’ll throw in a limited track recording, a personal shout-out on Facebook Live, and “eternal gratitude.” Not bad for the price of a fast food meal at some spots.

Then, donate $50-60 and receive Bhakti House Band merchandise, “It’s all Goodie in the Hoodie” or “The Shirt Off Our Back.” Both those levels tack on the 108-mantra meditation package.

Randall Brooks of Bhakti House Band records a customized song for IndiiGogo donorHow cool is this? For a one-of-a-kind, unforgettable donation of $500-700, pick “Your Song,” or “I’m With the Band.” For the first, you can be the director and Bhakti House Band will write and produce a song for you. It’s a great anniversary, holiday or birthday gift for the person who has everyone, or, needs nothing. Similarly, the second option lets you in the recording studio to sing or play as an honorary member of Bhakti House Band. 

Another option is “Nirvana in C.” That package includes a harmonium, plus eight weekly sessions to teach you how to play the keys and squeeze the box. 

Despite the fact that the music industry isn’t supporting the artists, the recordings will continue. Therefore, be a part of the industry yourself. While you can contribute monetarily, you can also get to know the musicians, and experience their lives and how they make music come alive. Most of all, it feels good to get something that will stay with you for a lifetime, and support talented artists. 

Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band

Bhakti Yoga and The Power of Sound

Bhakti yoga and the tradition of chantingMusic or chanting is integral to all cultures. In traditional societies, chanting (like in Bhakti Yoga) is often a part of a healing ceremony. 

Yet, in today’s world, too few of us practice chanting. Fortunately, for those of us that do, we recognize its healing benefits. 

Sean Johnson is a yoga studio owner in New Orleans. He also has a rockin’ band that plays the New Orleans Jazz Festival every year. His Wild Lotus Band, is also one of my favorites to accompany my yoga classes, or when I chant by myself. Best of all, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear his band play, live, nearly a dozen times. The beats and vocals enter my bones…and my soul. This is part of the bhakti (devotional chanting) experience for me. Based on my yoga heritage, bhakti is one of the eight branches of yoga. At my teacher training camp, we had an in-house bhakti band. Furthermore, at all my ashram stays, we awoke to chanting, and chanted prior to bedtime. As a result, a day doesn’t pass, that bhakti yoga isn’t in my life, somehow. 

An altar is a mirror of the heart to see or reflect what’s inside of us. 

Sean Johnson leads a bhakti yoga intensive at Bhakti Fest MidwestSean, at this year’s Bhakti Fest Midwest, shed some light as to why bhakti yoga may be so powerful. He referred to chanting, or kirtan, as “vocal vinyasa.” He explained that each of the traditional sounds (almost like a Sanskrit Do-Re-Mi) from Sargam is associated with a chakra. In other words, you’re tuning your body and soul when you chant. Additionally, the drone, the recurring  sound underlying much of kirtan, represents the primordial sound of Om. “Our scientists have discovered that most solid matters vibrate to the Om. Bones. Buildings. It’s a never ending canvas of sound. The yoga of sound is the most underrated,” Sean told us Bhaktas at a full-day intensive at Bhakti Fest.

sound therapy and bhakti yogaIn fact, sound is used in surgery to break up kidney stones. So, does it seem far fetched that it can break up your emotional blockages too? 

“When there are disappointments, suffering, we can protect ourselves with sound,” adds Sean. It’s like a mask.  He suggests yogis ”awaken the sense of playfulness” during their practice. By adding the element of bhakti, you can transform the asana (physical postural) practice to a spiritual one. “What I like to emphasize in asana practice is imagination. Try to transform our movement into meaning making motions,” he says. 

Hopefully, his teachings have passed on to me. I make concerted — and instinctual— efforts, to merge body with sound in my classes. For my personal practice, it’s a pure jam. I let it all hang out, and see the beauty of the practice unravel. Even if I’m counting a dozen rounds of surya namaskar, I let the music and the mood mold my movements. No two are identical. I never know what to expect on the mat. I surrender to my spirit soul.

My students know I don’t choreograph my classes, either. Plus, I don’t follow a pattern. That’s too dull, plus, I respond to the energy in the room. 

Bhakti Yoga is to wake up the heat.

Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus BandSean’s explanation makes sense to me. “Bhakti yoga comes from a rebellion against dogma — against a priest, and ruling class. The Bhaktas said ‘we know how to get to God. We don’t need the priests or the castes.”  That’s my kind of talk. I love that. I just read a passage to my students, from Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet.” Your daily life is your temple and your religion

Sean gives historical data to paint his picture.  He tells us that it was the British missionaries that brought the harmonium to India. That squeezable keyboard is a principle drone maker. But, the Indians didn’t welcome the European instrument at first. So, they chopped off the legs, and created a hybrid version. What we know now as the Indian harmonium is a beautiful reflection of the creativity that emerged when the west invaded the east with their culture. The harmonium, is a “hybrid, like us. The harmonium represents that integration,” says Sean.

The sun salutations are examples of East meets West. Same with bhakti on the mat. Sean describes that as an experience of bringing two strings of yoga together. With the yogasana physical practice, we stretch our bodies and our breath. In bhakti, we stretch our heart and our emotions. 

“Bhakti is just a word from the yoga tradition that names something universal. There are so many ways to fire up the heart. One of the best ways to stretch the heart is through art,” Sean explains. Music. Poetry. Culinary arts. Storytelling. Dance. He says instead of doing these arts as enjoyment, we should invoke intentions to serve. Share. Expand an asana practice into an offering. 

Meditation comes naturally to us as human beings. 

Sean Johnson leads a bhakti yoga class at Bhakti Fest MidwestIn meditation, you clear your mind. In bhakti yoga, the mind becomes clear. 

Sean is passionate about finding cross cultural threads.  “One of the things I love about bhakti is it’s an opportunity to let go of dogma and judgement that’s often a part of our culture.” As an example, he says most of us are self-conscious. We may sing In the shower or in our car, or to our children. But, we enclose ourselves in a wall when we are around others. “We are neurotic about our voices,” he says. “A Sufi teacher says the voice is the barometer of the spirit. But, we can also sing to shift our mood.”

Johnson is a master storyteller, who oftentimes meshes East and West, past and present. Finally, he says stories are valuable as they have archetypes. Hence, they create space for us to connect on our own journey. Same as every yoga practice. On, or off, the mat. In other word, we connect our bodies with our souls.

ISKCON Radhanath Swami

Radhanath Swami: The Journey Within, Part 2*

For a kid from the Chicago suburbs, Radhanath Swami followed a non-traditional life as part of his journey within (read previous post). Today, as a spiritual leader, he is a primary force behind a charity hospital and roving eye camp. He inspired a program that feeds 500,000 school kids daily. Moreover, he is at the helm of an award-winning Eco village, a women’s empowerment initiative and financial literacy programs, all in India.

The soft-spoken swami still finds time to share his words of wisdom via books and workshops. Herein, are remarks made at Chicago’s Bhakti Fest, particularly relevant given our current political atmosphere. 

Unity in diversity is at the heart of Bhakti — Radhanath Swami

“Like a flower garland, the diversity makes it beautiful,” he said referring to the strands of colorful buds that are placed around people’s necks to display respect and reverence. To extinguish diversity is regrettable, he says.

“True wisdom is to see everyone with equal vision. Whether it’s a human or a cat, wherever there is life, it is sacrRadhanath Swami:The Journey Withined. Spiritual people have been in so many places and languages trying to give humanity this teaching.”

That philosophy is part of the concept of the first yogi commandment: ahimsa. When we talk about ahimsa (non-violence) we don’t just say, do no harm to your loved ones. Rather, we are inclusive. In other words, do no harm to any living being.

“There so much conflict in the world,” he says. To paint the picture, he gives an example of someone suffering from a blood disease. You can’t use a band-aid approach to address the symptoms. Rather, you must go to the root of the matter. Determine what is causing the disease. “The same with politics.” Therefore, with societal woes, we can’t just resolve them with tax breaks or other panaceas. We must zoom in on what plagues our society at its core. 

Radhanath Swami sees a lack of spirituality as a festering problem.

“Spirituality is that science that deals with the core problem of conflict. When there’s greed, arrogance, anger, it (conflict) comes out.  These qualities can become monstrous. Somehow or other, the false ego is obsessed.”

“The law of karma is a scientific analysis of how the world works. As you sow, so shall you reap. What goes around comes around. Like the law of gravity. Whatever we believe, whatever goes up must come down. It’s not that we can always see the results. If you plant a nice flower, it takes a long time for the flower to bloom. It takes its time. Karma is like that. Sometimes there’s immediate reaction. Other times not until another life. But in due course it will blossom.” 

The greatest value of life is compassion — Radhanath Swami

coexistWe’ve all seen those bumper stickers that say COEXIST. But, unfortunately, there are too many us-versus-them mindsets in our population. People that believe, “We are superior to others. My race… my religion… my beauty… my education. We look for ways to be superior to others. If others outshine us, we are vulnerable to depression or envy. If we outshine others we are vulnerable to condescension.”

“Victims make other people victims. The oppressed, when given power, become oppressors. Real greatness is overcoming that ego. Unless we understand who we are we can’t understand our unity with others.”  That’s why the journey within is so important. 

At the core of Bhakti yoga is mantra meditation. Radhanath Swami explains, “This chanting of mantras is an ancient eternal way in which is love is awakened from within our hearts. Only to love and be loved can give pleasure to the heart.”

Most forms of yoga help us to go within. The aim is to quiet our monkey mind. Bhakti is one way to keep the mind from jumping which “can really get us in trouble.” Inner peace, love and bliss are within reach when we still the mind.

According to Radhanath Swami, in the Bhakti tradition, it’s not about whether we have a lot or a little. Nor, does it matter whether one is a surgeon, or a garbage man.  Selfless love is the greatest thing we can pass on to our children, he teaches.

He told a story about a CEO from Chicago that he met in London.  The CEO traveled on a private jet. Radhanath Swami hitchhiked there. The CEO was on the verge of being a billionaire. Radhanath hasn’t had a checking account since 1969. Despite their differences, they are in the same place. 

Does it really make a difference what one thinks he or she owns? In the shared yogic and ISKCON beliefs, we don’t really own anything. Thus, the universe is the true owner.

Everything comes from the same source — Radhanath Swami

 love, compassion and humility“The difference between spiritual life is not just interacting with the world, but how we interact. From a Bhakti perspective, I’m a caretaker of god’s property. Not the proprietor. But, if we forget the origins, it becomes material versus spiritual.”

Prestige. Possessions. Abilities. Those things are unimportant. Rather, we should seek inner peace. Compassion. Love for God. 

The first principle taught in the Bhagavad Gita is that we are the life that animates this body, Radhanath explains. “The souls can never die. This body is like a car. If there’s not a driver in the car, what can the car do? When the body dies, the soul travels on. When we awaken, our true consciousnesses discover we are all from the same source.”

“What does it mean to be humble? It’s such a profound and deep subject. We are not the controller, or the owner. I didn’t make the sun. All the organs of my body are gifts given to me.”

“We have our choices. We always have free will. Whether in pleasant times…or in hard times. We can make choices to live with integrity. This is what life is about. But how many things in the universe can we not control?  It’s limitless. That should humble us.” 

* Part 1 and Part 2 are based on a workshop Radhanath Swami gave in Chicago at Bhakti Fest. This was one of many workshops I have attended with him, over the years, at Bhakti Fest. To read more about his prior remarks, use the search engine on www.TheNamasteCounsel.com/yoga-blog

India

Radhanath Swami: The Journey Within, Part 1*

“When you expect things, you are never happy,” says Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Within.

Yoga teaches us to live in the present. Don’t worry about the future, or dwell on the past. Be content.

Why is there so much arrogance and hate…in the name of religion?— Radhanath Swami

Radhanath Swami  was raised in an affluent spirituality and the journey withinChicago suburb.  He went to Deerfield High School, where pretty much everyone back in the 60s was college bound. The now spiritual leader got a different type of education. He found answers on the journey within.

Growing up, he felt he didn’t fit in. When he was just a young kid, his father filed bankruptcy. As a result, Radhanath worked at a car wash. There, most all his work mates were African-Americans who had witnessed poverty. 

“They all had no way out,” Radhanath Swami told a group of yogis at Chicago’s Bhakti Fest 2016. “I really loved them. I remember thinking, ‘why is it they had no opportunities?’ A lot of things didn’t make sense.”

Richard, as he was called, considered himself part of the counter culture. Early on the journey within, he had long hair, and wore one set of clothes. “I ended up at Grant Park during the Democratic convention, and I am proud to say I got tear gassed by the Chicago Police.” 

He chose to be the change.

“I started doing some yoga and meditation and read different scriptures.  I came to a crossroads.”

He was in a desperate quest to find himself, and the meaning of life. On summer break, he went to Europe. Atop a mountain in Crete, he received a message. Head to India. 

I was homeless but felt so much at home. — Radhanath Swami 

India

“When I arrived at the border it took six months. Now it takes eight hours on British Airways. But it’s not as scenic or life changing. I was emaciated when I arrived. I had 26 cents in five currencies.”

What’s more, he was denied entry to India. He was in a desolate area. There were problems between Pakistan and India. The border agent told him, “We have enough beggars in India.” 

Meanwhile, he pleaded. Begged. Got philosophical. “For six hours I sat under a tree and tried again. Finally, they put their guns in my face and said, ‘If you come back we will kill you.’” 

Those escapades and more make his first autobiography, “The Journey Home,” read like an adventure novel. 

Apparently, this kid from Chicago’s quest for knowledge wasn’t satisfied with school books. The journey within took him through much solitude.

He lived in caves. Under trees. In forests. “There was one baba and he used to sleep under trees too. And there’s a certain collegiate connection between people that live under trees,” he says. 

We lose ourself … with materialism and goals.— Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Within, and The Journey Home

ISKCON Radhanath SwamiHe kept searching for answers. He came upon many so-called gurus. Finally, in Vrindavan, he found what seemed like the real source.  The journey within led him to Bhakti (devotion) and Srila Prabhupad of ISKCON. “I found a place I never wanted to leave. After about a year, it was discovered that my visa had expired. I was a fugitive and this agent was obsessed with finding me.”

His stories get crazier and crazier. Yet, they’re true.

One day, an animal pulled him into a sewer.  He got rabies. While that’s typically a nightmare, the series of shots required him to be under medical care. As a result, he was given legal medical papers. Especially relevant, he got his visa. 

Despite all his hurdles, he recounts them all with laughter.  Just after he returned back to Chicago, he learned he missed George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at the ashram.  

“When I finally did come home (after several years), I was a hard core ascetic. They (his parents) were confused.” By then, his traditional Jewish parents would have been happy if he had married a Muslim or African-American, he said. It wasn’t until many years later, with their son going back to India, that the gleaned the values of his newfound life. “Finally in 1989, they came to India for the first time and were totally transformed. They loved everything.”

Things can never give fulfillment to the heart — Radhanath Swami

Radhanath Swami, author of The Journey Within“The nature of life is a series of choices and every choice we make affects our destiny. In whatever situation we are in, we always have a choice of how we respond,” he says. His guru, Srila Prabhupad taught that a person’s greatness is not measured by wealth, land, beauty or athletic ability. Rather, greatness is measured by how one responds to challenging situations. 

“In all the great spiritual traditions, the real wealth is in our state of mind,” Radhanath Swami says.  You can tell how rich you are by counting how many things you have that money cannot buy. Peace. Love. These things bring purpose to life.”

In conclusion, we can all have what we need. It’s a state of mind. Hence, the journey within. 

* Part 1 and Part 2 are based on one of Radhanath Swami’s workshops in Chicago at Bhakti Fest. For the past four years, I’ve attended multiple workshops with him at each Bhakti Fest. To read more about his prior remarks, use this blog’s search engine.

bumble bee breath in kids yoga

Kids Yoga: Beyond the Sounds of Silence

I feel nice, like sugar and spice

Stomping your feet, clapping your hands, shaking a maraca, buzzing like a bee and singing. Yep. Those can all be part of yoga, especially kids yoga.

Kids yoga at Texas Veg FestNo matter how much I may prepare for a kids yoga session, I always end up improvising. Never do I stick to routines. Rather, customizing to the participants. Toddlers versus pre-adolescents. Or, high energy youngsters pumped up on sugary cereals versus little yoginis.

Plus, my kids yoga classes aren’t always in a perfect yoga studio setting. Parks. Festivals. Even a two-room schoolhouse in rural Costa Rica. There may not be sufficient (or any) mats. Yoga in the rain (and mud), yoga on the beach, yoga in sweltering sun, or humidity. Allowing Mother Nature to take the lead. Then, it could be yoga on uneven damp or rocky surfaces, or hard cold (and dangerous) marble or tile. These kids don’t sport yoga gear. Rather, they can be decked out in fancy dresses or skin tight jeans.

With all those variables, there’s one thing I can count on. Letting kids yoga be fun through sound.  No blasting R&B like during a Vinyasa class, or singing along to Beatles or Motbumble bee breath in kids yogaown greats in a Gentle Yoga session. Not your formal repetition of three Oms to start the class. But, incorporating playful rhythms, beats, vibrations and vocalizations into the kids yoga time. Connecting to, or creating, sound in the body, mind and soul.

It’s natural for youngsters to play with rhythms, sound and movement.  Like Patty-cake Patty-cake or Red Light Green Light.

The music room of one’s imagination is endless. In my recent kids classes, we experimented with beats and percussion instruments. Clapped hands, snapped fingers. Stomped feet and pounded the floor. Felt the music inside our bodies, by humming, buzzing and roaring. We explored sound levels, alternating between silent, whispers and belting out the words. Then, we sang simple mantras in rounds, or in groups, one side loud, one side quiet. As if on automatic replay, we chanted a mantra while we moved through asanas (postures).

Banging drums, chanting in any language, and moving to the rhythms all can help you get a deeper connection in your yoga. And, have a blast while doing it

Wow! I feel good, I knew that I wouA Peru travel experience: Seaside yoga with vendor girls in Paracasld now

David Newman, aka Durga Das, is a Kirtan artist, leader and author.  At this year’s Bhakti Fest retreat in Chicago, he said it bothers him when people ask what a chant means. “What matters is what you feel,” he said.

“Why does it feel so good to chant? Can you be totally here, but not here at the same time? The mind always wants an explanation,” he added.

Newman explained that Kirtan, in its mantra form, is not a symbolic language. “Apple is a symbol, he says. You can see it, feel it and taste it. Kirtan is non-symbolic.  When I started chanting, I travelled with a Kirtan great. He said ‘the name of God is God.’ There’s no distinction with the word and that which it’s describing. Kirtan is an ancient form of sound healing.”

Newman, who has recorded 11 Kirtan albums, found a lot of peace through yoga and Kirtan. So much, that he turned his back on a law career to begin a more enlightened, peaceful path, and open a yoga studio.

Madi Das with daughter“I made the choice long ago to grow through joy, and Kirtan has been a great assistance for that endeavor.”

About 20 years ago, in a dream state, he saw Neem Karoli Baba. In his vision, the guru said, ‘bolo, bolo, (sing, sing).’  As a result, when he woke up, he said, ‘I’m going to do that. I’m going to sing.’”Swami Satchidananda founder of the Integral Yoga lineage, spent decades giving lectures across the U.S., and the world. One of hisfrequent closings was a group chanting of “Om, Shanti, Shanti, Om.” He said the sound vibrations of the word shanti were much more powerful than its English equivalent (peace).

Newman reiterated Swami Satchidananda’s messages about the sounds of the mantras. “Even more essentially you are aligning yourself with a divine vibration. The mantras are like a magnet. Every time you chant you poke a hole at that false sense of yourself. That’s when they stick. After a little while there’s a little birdie that says ‘hey you. Everything’s gonna be ok.’ And that transforms your life.”

In the meantime, it just feels good. Kids have a natural energy and sensitivity to things. They also have a natural creativity and a natural sense of honesty. So, when you see kids enjoying the vibrations, rhythms, beats and syllables, it’s got to be right. And, not just for the little ones.

Be The Change. Chant4Change.

Chant4Change with Gaura Vani

Chant4Change is a non-partisan, non-sectarian grass roots volunteer-based rally cry to uplift our nation, and put a halt to racism and terrorism. Chant4Change is uniting people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs through song, Saturday, October 8, 30 days prior to the presidential elections. Free, and open to the public, people from all political and religious beliefs are encouraged to come together and make a statement: Our nation is best served through peace and unity.

 Chant4ChangeChant4Change presents a multicultural, multi-denominational 10-hour festival of music and spirit at the Lincoln Memorial. In San Antonio, a three-hour satellite event dedicated to healing and uniting the nation through song, prayer and devotion will take place at The Union Hollywood Park.

At both, artists and spiritual leaders will perform sacred music and give talks countering the messages of hate and division that have dominated the 2016 election season.

In Washington, D.C., 20 musicians from across the country will engage thousands with their mantras and melodies. In San Antonio, Texas-based musicians who have toured extensively, will join local artists to spark renewed energy and positivity prior to the November election.

Gaura Vani and Chant4ChangeChant4Change was born from the visions of Gaura Vani, a master wordsmith and rhythm maker. At the recent Bhakti Fest in Chicago, he shared his goals for Chant4Change, which sparked the San Antonio mini-fest.

In his captivating manner, he told stories, recited poetry, and played the mridonga, harmonium and guitar as his clear booming voice chanted in many languages.

“I was born into his world like a baby with his eyes closed. But through grace, my guru has entered into my life like a magic physician. With the salve of knowledge I’m beginning to see.”

Gaura Vani and his musical partner, Visvambar Sheth (Vish), were ashram babies. They were born into the Vaishnava culture, singing in English and Sanskrit from early years. Equally comfortable in the States or India, and with the music of both continents. That is apparent when they get on stage and get into their music. While they may be defined as Kirtan artists, their repertoire includes a Brazilian samba tune and a Negro spiritual.

Chant4Change“Lord Chaitanya gives us four instructions,” said Gaura Vani at Bhakti Fest. Those rules are just as valid today as they were when he was on earth, many years ago. “One should be more tolerant than a tree. One should be more humble than a blade of grass. To give all respect to others, and not expect any in return.”

Gaura Vani’s chant fest is designed to boost unity in diversity, and stimulate tolerance and love for all humanity. Chanting is the vehicle for expression, for several reasons.

He explains, “Music for me is a gateway to another vision of reality, directly connected to spirit. When I write a song, I feel like it’s coming from another place, like I am channeling it. The purpose of life is to love and to serve all of God’s creatures. I am eager to share that world with my audience, and I am eager to build a community of unity and diversity.”

Chant4Change Breaks the Locks

Vish, who has a way with energizing crowds with his enthusiasm and his drum beats, confided, “I love to go where people don’t do chanting.”  He finds the experiences of newbies with chanting are like the “locks breaking away.”

“When you’re so excited about something, how do you keep it to yourself?” Asked Gaura Vani.

“We come into our lineage through Chaitanya maha prabhu (the great man). Sri Chaitanya broke all the barriers. Of class. Of religion. Chanting and dancing in the streets under Islamic rule. The love of God was being blocked. Like a dam,” he said, recounting the history of when Kirtan (singing and dancing) wasn’t allowed.Be The Change. Chant4Change.

“Whatever background you come from, we share this chanting as the love of God. We have locks like that on the chambers of our hearts and some of these locks have been around for more than one lifetime. We can’t figure out how to open them. We’ve lost the keys several lifetimes ago. This mantra is like WD40. Let’s spray it in there.”

Chant4Change’s rally cries, and hashtags are #RaiseYourVoice and #ManySongsOneVoice. Their ultimate message echoes Gandhi. Be The Change.

“Chant music can be a powerful force for change. To sing together, we have to listen to each other.  Music offers a way to come together and to listen.  Sacred song is such a central part of people’s struggle. The situation we are facing as a globe cannot be solved alone. We have to listen to one another.”

For more information on Gaura Vani, Vish, or Chant4Change, read prior blog posts on The Namaste Counsel.

Kirtan with Ragani

Ragani’s Journey Home

Rswami bookIn the book “The Journey Home,” Radhanath Swami chronicles his wilder-than-fiction true adventures backpacking through Europe. On summer break from his first year in college, the Jewish kid from the Chicago suburbs ends up penniless. With his soul as empty as his pockets, he seeks spiritual sustenance. In the fairy book ending, he hits the spiritual jackpot. He finds his true north in the Vaishnava traditions of India.

DSCF0612Now, a spiritual leader of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Radhanath Swami will be back home in Chicago this weekend speaking at Bhakti Fest.

Most of us will never find enlightenment. Many of us will continue along the path of maya and blindly follow what society expects of us. For others, as they reach middle age they may question, and take a turn on, the path they’ve travelled. Radhanath Swami found his true home and heart, before the age of 20, on a long and treacherous journey. Everyone has their own journey, and I will be sharing stories of some of my favorite people in the yoga world, in multiple articles.

Ragani’s Journey Home

Kirtan with Ragani at Bhakti FestRagani is Milwaukee’s finest…Kirtan musician that is. She’s set to lead Kirtan at Bhakti Fest, after Radhanath Swami’s workshop. Looking back on her personal journey home, she recognizes that from the age of two, she wasn’t like all the other toddlers on the block.

A South Bend, Indiana native, Ragani (who was called Julie as a child), was raised in a household that valued spirituality during an era when alternative lifestyles were not understood by mainstream America. When she was six, her mother took her to a movie. She was stricken with a scene. It was as if she had been there in another life. She asked her mother where it was. The response was an unknown name and place: India. My heart just leapt. I was coming home,” she says. “The word India stuck in my mind. It felt familiar.”

Ragani’s mother practiced yoga. But, her calling was homeopathy. She studied with Rudolph Ballentine. Ballentine was an MD, psychiatrist, homeopath, Ayurvedic practitioner, and herbalist. He opened his first holistic health clinic in 1974. Ballentine was trained by Sri Swami Rama, the founder of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy.
Holistic Health by Swami Rama

One night, the family drove to East West Books in Chicago to hear a lecture by the Swami. Kids weren’t allowed, so eight-year-old Ragani stayed upstairs with her sister. Ragani wanted to meet the Swami.  Even though it was dark and empty upstairs, as he stepped into the bookstore, he acknowledged the young girl. No words were exchanged, yet the child knew in her heart that this was a special moment. Returning back home with her parents that night, she knew she wanted to study with someone like Swami Rama one day. “I felt that that was a significant moment for me.”

Shortly after that experience, Ragani’s mom was gone for a week attending a meditation and yoga program.  When she returned, Ragani noticed her mother had transformed. “I wanted some of that … the calmness. That was a powerful beginning for me. I said to myself, there’s something here.”

Choosing a Path by Swami RamaWhen other adolescents and pre-teens in those days were venturing into sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll, Ragani gave in to her inner callings. Deep at her core, she knew mainstream was not right for her. For eleven years, she periodically travelled to Pennsylvania to study with Swami Rama.

“It was following what felt like a pull or calling from my heart and spirit.”  About her non-traditional life, she says, “I felt like an outsider. People would tease me in high school that I was going off to join a nunnery. I didn’t know where my people were. I ate bean sandwiches when I was a kid, and got used to knowing I was different. If they really knew what I was getting, they’d drop everything and come with me.”

It wasn’t just her Swamiji that had a special attraction to her.  She wanted to weep when she read Yogananda’s story. There were many things in the book to which the teKirtan with Raganien could relate. It was as if Yogananda was retelling what was happening in her life. It was other worldly.

“Reading ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ was like coming home for me. I remember times when I was alone, and things around me gave me answers (epiphanies). I didn’t share it with other people.”

Ragani continued to develop her interest in yoga, meditation, classical Indian vocals and music. In 2001, Ragani started a band called Kirtan with Ragani in Milwaukee. Now,  she has a big following. Kirtan with Ragani is one of the largest independent and ongoing Kirtan scenes in the U.S. with 300-400 people at her events and more than a dozen music placements on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Kirtan with RaganiWhen I first started doing Kirtan in Milwaukee, I made a pact with my teacher. If they don’t come at all, that’s fine, but I’m going to do it. Whoever comes is supposed to come. I still honor my agreement. Anything in front of that stage is all upon the masters. I’m not in charge of what they experience with me. I’m not vested in what it is that they will experience. It’s freeing that way.”

She’s writing a song now about “going home.” Her advice for others to find their journey home? Meditate. Meditate. Meditate. She says that every sacred tradition has similar threads about being still. “Sitting in silence. Moments of prayer. Bringing us back to that center. That home.”

“When you really start to quiet things down, you go within and the journey begins in a  powerful way. In my office I tell people to follow what they really love. Practice mindfulness, and hold the attention where you want it to be. Then we can fulfill all of our dreams. It’s easiest to do it if you start with what you love.”

Amy Treciockas

Yoga as Medicine

 

yoga as medicineIt doesn’t’ surprise me anymore. People make an about face with their careers. They experience a shift in life values. Amy Treciokas was a Princeton grad, and then a Sloan Kettering fellow at Cornell’s medical campus in New York City. She gave up a potential career in a white coat and stethoscope, for one wearing mala beads and yoga pants. Keen on helping people, now she practices yoga as medicine.

I can relate. For decades I wore my hair in a tight bun (or used a flat iron), and dressed up in suits and heels that didn’t fit my inner or outer mold.  Amy realized early on that true challenges, and triumphs, are on the road to self discovery, rather than in the board or operating room.

Her transition to the yoga life wasn’t overnight. It was gradual, over a combined three years spent in India, cementing her deeper into the philosophy and knowledge of the vedas. Of that period in her time, she says, “It was a vigorous and transformative practice.”

When Amy returned to Chicago after one of her 14 stints in India, she began to think more seriously about what she wanted to do with her life. She knew she could work as an actuary to make money, but her main concern was how to contribute in a meaningful way to society.

Yoga as Medicine for the Body

Amy Treciokas

Amy saw yoga as a way to heal people, and in sync with her beliefs and personality. Recognizing yoga as medicine, she ditched her corporate job.

“Yoga is medicine for the body.  Most of today’s illnesses are lifestyle diseases stemming from a sedentary lifestyle and inaction of the life force.  Yoga helps to stimulate the cells in such a way that the life energy is induced to return and resume its work of maintenance and repair.”

She also left the traditional suburban life, with a husband and a picket fence. As part of her yoga journey, she returned to her musical roots.

Amy’s interest in kirtan (devotional music) was natural. She studied piano for 11 years, seven years for the flute and another five years of cello practice. At Princeton, she sang as a soprano soloist in the Glee Club, touring Eastern and Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Greece and Tahiti. While in Mysore, India in 1996, Amy began chanting with fellow students and the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, Sri Pattabhi Jois.

“So much grace has been present to create the opportunities to make all of this possible.  Now I teach yoga full-time, and have had a studio for 13 years. This has turned into a lifetime of teaching and music.”

Today, her band, Amy and the Bliss Tribe, leads monthly kirtan at Yoga Now in downtown Chicago, at poetry circles, and other Chicago area studios. “Once people hear and participate in the music, they love it,” says Amy about the devotional music that is a part of yoga.

Yoga as Medicine for the Heart

kirtanKirtan is also very therapeutic. “Kirtan is medicine for the heart,” says Amy. “With students, I teach yoga with enough anatomical knowledge to prevent injury, and have an enjoyable practice, and provide regular opportunities to experience kirtan and open the heart.  For myself, yoga and kirtan are an essential part of my health maintenance routine, because they have allowed me to have a healthy life, for which I am grateful.”

“The only demographic for which there is increasing mortality in the last 15 years is for the middle-aged, white, non-Hispanic males and females 45-54, for whom drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis use are on the rise.  Kirtan helps to open the channels of the heart and revive the flow of good energy, and bring connection to all beings, alleviating depression which is the underlying cause of all these symptoms.”

Bhakti Fest MidwestIn June, she will be leading several two-hour yoga workshops, and kirtan at Chicago’s first Bhakti Fest. This is Amy’s fifth time as a featured presenter at one of the three annual Bhakti Fests. It’s anticipated that this retreat will unite the largest number of participants to Chicago who are interested in sacred wisdom and spiritual practices.

“Chicago is the biggest city in the Midwest, and the people are hungry for the excitement, the teachings and the music that Bhakti Fest is bringing to the Midwest. It is the most amazing festival ever. The teachers and musicians are unparalleled, and they are in a great, easily accessible location.  It will be a weekend of divinely inspired transformation.”

For more on chanting or yoga as medicine, read previous blog posts. For a partial lineup of Chicago’s Bhakti Fest, visit http://midwest.bhaktifest.com/kirtan/.

japa beads for chanting and mantra meditation

Learn About Chanting and Mantras

Yoga through chanting and mantrasVishnu-devananda, author of “Meditation and Mantras,” said that mantra is encased in a sound structure. My yoga foundation is Sivananda. I’ve spent several months at Sivananda ashrams in the United States and India where we practice chanting and mantras every morning and evening. Vishnu-devananda was responsible for opening the Sivananda Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, Calif. and his images and quotes are commonplace in Sivandanda centers worldwide.

I recall watching the youngest Sivananda teacher meditating in a dark room in front of the altar for an hour every night. This Doogie Houser of yogis (who actually resembled Doogie) was alone. Just him, and his mantra. Uninterrupted.

I’ve taken many a mantra workshop, and we typically repeat a mantra 108 times, as that’s a magical number. I participated in a japa (chanting to beads) workshop where we were silent all day and night. The break fast of our silence was an ecstatic evening Kirtan.

japa beads for chanting and mantras

my personal japa beads

Now, I repeat a mantra 40 minutes nightly. It’s part of my dinacharya (Ayurvedic routine) prescribed by my doctor who lives in India. When my meditation timer goes off, my brain and mouth tell me “no.” They continue the mantra, which has gone far beyond 108 repetitions.

When we think of yoga, we may think of the Om, but we don’t usually consider sustained repetition of mantras. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I don’t start or stop my yoga classes with three oms. I think of this as being perfunctory. Besides, Om is just the introduction sound to a mantra. The word means nothing. It’s a bija, or seed sound.

My love for the wide, and wild, world of mantra has led me to create workshops called Chant and Be Happy, named after a George Harrison compilation. George was a serious chanter, and mantras can be found in several of the Beatles songs.

My therapeutic sessions are designed for those who have zero knowledge or comfort level with the sounds or syllables of the mantras. For those that already enjoy chanting, they’ll get a deeper understanding of the meanings and benefits of mantras.  Following are explanations from some of my favorite chantmasters. All have tunes on my playlists, and I’ve had personal conversations, and/or have studied with each.

Chantmasters Comment About Chanting and Mantras

It’s like tuning forks. That’s why we feel a peace (when we chant). It’s our cellular language.

–Deva Premal

Deva Premal, an advocate of chanting and mantras

Deva Premal, an advocate of chanting and mantras

The mantras were created by the rishis (wise ones) as paths to awareness, using the power of particular sounds to create specific energy responses,” explains kirtan great, Deva Premal . “In Sanskrit, ‘man’ means mind and ‘tra’ means ‘to free from’, so ‘mantra’ is literally a tool to free the mind.”

In a private interview I conducted with Deva Premal and her husband Miten, she expressed her deep seated love for the Gayatri mantra. She learned this as a young child, growing up on an ashram in India. Or rather, it was ingrained in her. Her father sang the Gayatri to her mother’s pregnant belly.  As a child, she chanted this sacred mantra every night before going to bed. When the life force was leaving her father, she repeated it to him.

The mark of a master is to meditate in chaos. Anyone can meditate in a cave. 

Kristin Brooks.

Kristin Brooks says the Gayatri is the most sacred mantra in the East, chanted by many different religions. She refers to it as the mantra of light.

Kristin and Randall Brooks lead workshops on chanting and mantras

Kristin and Randall Brooks lead workshops on chanting and mantras

I’ve soaked up learnings from Kristin in Houston (twice), Madison, Wisc. and Southern California. She and her husband Randall, who lead Bhakti House Band,   have spent most their adult lives studying the Vedas, Sanskrit and mantras.

In a Gayatri workshop, we all counted mala beads.  She explained why the pointer finger never touches the beads during japa meditation. “You don’t use the index finger, as that represents the ego.” The large bead on the mala strands is called the guru bead. “When you do japa, it looks like Guru is going away,” says Kristin. “But it never does.” In japa meditation, you are “going to the feet of Guru,” without actually touching the Guru (bead.)  Kristin recommends that people adopt a daily mantra routine. “Our practice is our safe spot. It doesn’t mean that crazy chaos won’t go on. But listen to the inner nada (sound).”

The idea of magical phrases with metaphysical powers enchants the mind and are found in mystical traditions around the world. Especially in music.

Joss Jaffe

Joss Jaffe is a musician who was raised surrounded by Vedic culture  . Joss explains that sounds are vibrations that produce definite forms. They are invisible, but can be felt in the body.

Joss Jaffe's compilation of mantras features global sounds

Joss Jaffe’s compilation of mantras features global sounds

“Mantras are typically rendered melodically and contain structured meters such as the the long and short vowels of Sanskrit. These sequences create intrinsic rhythms and are ridiculously fun to sing. For me, mantra is a personal practice of silent repetition weaving the fabric of my meditations. It is also a social experiment, vibrating the cosmos, creating a joyful noise, and bringing people together to experience the wonder together.”

The concept of mantra as expressed in different sound traditions from around the world led Joss to produce his latest CD. “Dub Mantra Sangha” unites the who’s who from the kirtan world. Literally. Sound traditions from Jamaica, Mali, India and Pakistan form the backdrop to mantras on this collection. The idea of interspersing global sounds were fertile ground for collaboration.  It took him two and a half years to produce this gem.

Mantra is all about moving the sounds through the body. 

Gina Sala

Gina Sala grew up in an ashram and has chanted in 23 languages. During a workshop I took with her, what impressed me most was how she coached us to use our heads and bodies to recreate sounds as they do in India, versus North America. Different cultures and societies use their voice, and sound, differently.

“Mantra is the doorway to synchronization of mind and body vibrations,” says Gina. “We connect our physical form with the divine through voices (singing). Names are shakti in themselves. Shakti is the divine feminine in the form of breath.”

Gina currently co-directs Sound Healers of Washington, and travels all over as a Kirtan artist.

In a Simple Word, Kirtan is Relief. 

Gaura Vani.

Gaura Vani and the Mayapuris

Gaura Vani and the Mayapuris can take a chant from silent to ecstasy

Gaura Vani  grew up in a Vaishanava community in India. He has recorded with multiple kirtan artists, under different names, including As Kindred Spirits and The HanuMen.

He says that singing Kirtan is one of the best ways to open the heart. His favorite of the mantras is the Maha (Great) Mantra.  He says the whole universe is contained in the mantras three words:  Hare, Krishna, and Rama.  Gaura Vani associates Rama as being the “ocean of spiritual pleasure.”

Click on Kirtan and Bhakti on my blog spot to read about chanting and mantras. There are several features on the artists mentioned in this article.

Chant and Be Happy

Chant and Be Happy

Rx: Chant Weekly

Prema Hara's Kamaniya at Wild Lotus Yoga

Kamaniya of Prema Hara in New Orleans

For Easter weekend, I took a “Chant-cation.”  Destination: New Orleans. I stayed clear of Bourbon Street and the Bourbon. My Rx is based on healthy living, topped off with spiritual sprinklings. The main draw in NOLA was Good Friday kirtan. A community chant with Prema Hara at the Wild Lotus Yoga studio in the colorful Healing Arts Center building downtown.

Kamaniya, the female half of the duo, took a break from playing the harmonium to read an anecdote about Mother Teresa. The passage, from “The Journey Home,” was about a young Jewish boy’s encounter with the saintly frail woman. A college student, Richard was in India, seeking his own path to enlightenment.  He had to wait for darshan with Mother Teresa until she was done scrubbing pots. When all the kitchen items were cleaned, she shared some wisdom with the American spiritual searcher. It was easy to serve a bowl of soup or rice to the poor, she said. The difficult part of the equation is to feed someone’s heart.   “The greatest problem in this world is  hunger. Not hunger of the stomach, but hunger of the heart. Poverty is a lack of respect for one another.”

She said, “When the impoverished people of Calcutta die in my arms, I see in their eyes a light of hope. I do not see this light in the eyes of many of wealthy powerful people of the West. Real wealth is in the hearts of those with faith in the love of God. The world is in desperate need of those who will give the poor-hearted this hope.”

singing bowl bhakti yogaKamaniya and her husband, Keshavacharya, spend their lives trying to feed that hunger. They are full time kirtan gypsies. Basically, their home is their camper. They travel around the country leading kirtan, an expression of love and devotion. They say that Bhakti is a way to send and receive your love, to the divine. All you need to chant is your breath.

That’s why my Rx was a Chant-cation. I felt I needed to nurture my heart. With kirtan. A form of devotion using chant. Just like anything else, you need to constantly recharge yourself. One dose isn’t enough.

“This medicine cures everything. It’s a real short cut,” Keshavacharya said about bhakti. “Its free. BUT…medicine needs to be taken regularly. Sound vibrations are the most powerful thing. It’s like acupuncture on the earth.”

Keshavacharya of Prema Hara at Sean Johnson's Wild Lotus Yoga studio

Prema Hara’s Keshavacharya (right) at Sean Johnson’s Wild Lotus Yoga studio

Despite their dedication to bhakti and kirtan, Keshavacharya acknowledges you don’t just “been there, done that.” He’s still practicing, he told the crowd of bhakti enthusiasts in New Orleans.

krishna muralThe effects of chanting go beyond the chanter. The vibrations radiate out. When I was in Turkey, the sounds of the call to prayer were extremely soothing. Meditating in the mosques, under the domes and minarets, had a special effect.  Keshavacharya explained that the vibes from chant can effect plants, and ultimately the universe.

“Everybody gets shaken. With TV and news…our mind goes crazy. And the chanting is the easiest way (to counteract those negative effects.)”

Keshavacharya explained why we need to chill, and chant. He, himself, turned his life around, when he began to chant. Born and raised in Switzerland, he tended to chill out by smoking marijuana. He turned his girlfriend on to grass, and evidently turned her off when he went straight. He found a much healthier alternative to drinking and smoking. His voice. He became a monk, chanting for hours every day. Then, he moved to New York City and began leading kirtan sessions, where he met Kamaniya who was leading kirtan at popular yoga studios in New York, like Jivamukti and Integral Yoga.

Prema HaraWhile both have beautiful voices, Keshavacharya is quick to point out that kirtan is for everyone. Many of us are self-conscious about singing, and our voices. When you chant, it doesn’t matter if you can carry a tune, or follow the beat. It’s all about what comes out from the heart.

“Kirtan is not about the instruments.  It’s not about the voice. Or the melody. The goal is to just be with the mantra. It’s not easy.” If you’re a multi-tasker, it’s hard to let your mind relax as you chant. When he started he realized he didn’t want to be a slave to his multi-tasking mind. He felt as if he was always running behind his mind. “With practice, it takes years to convince your mind. Your mind becomes your servant.”

Chill Out stress reduction therapeutic workshopMost of us need a chill pill. Hence, my series of workshops: 1) Chill Out and 2) Chant and Be Happy, the latter of which begins in time to celebrate the May 21 45th anniversary of George Harrison’s release, Chant and Be Happy.

For more on Prema Hara visit www.PremaHara.com

For more on Kirtan, click on the Kirtan button at www.TheNamasteCounsel.com/yoga-blog

For more on The Journey Home and its author, Radhanath Swami, plug in his name in the search engine of my blog page.

Reserve your spot in Chill Out and/or Chant and Be Happy.