He’s driven a school bus, dabbled in the blues, and meditated in the jungles and ashrams of India, but today Krishna Das is known as the King of Kirtan. For the past 20 years, KD (as he’s often called by his friends and fans) has sung his heart out in churches, mosques, temples, concert halls, yoga centers, and healing retreats around the world, and his nine albums have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He’s done private sessions with Madonna and Sting. His drummer is from Rusted Root. And Grammy-award-winning producer Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Dixie Chicks, Beastie Boys) has worked with him on two of his albums.
That said, the Godfather of Chant is an unassuming fellow. He doesn’t identify as an entertainer. He’s a true bhakti yogi who sings with fellow seekers as a way to connect with the Divine. KD learned the art of kirtan in northern India in the ’70s when he was studying with Neem Karoli Baba, known as Maharajji. Today, in service of his guru, he is uplifting the world one song at a time.
As the global yoga community searches for music infused with deeper meaning, they’ve increasingly turned to this call-and-response form of chanting that originated in India thousands of years ago. Kirtan is one of the nine limbs of bhakti yoga, the path of devotion. It’s a joyful musical meditation practice that clears the mind, opens the heart, and transforms negative emotions into a sense of contentment.
The chants, mostly in Hindi and Sanskrit, are different names for the Divine. As Krishna Das once remarked on Beliefnet: “The repetition of the holy names reveals a presence hidden within the heart. Something begins to happen that’s very disturbing—we get happy.” That’s why he says that chanting is his sadhana (spiritual practice). “Nothing else takes that big of a place in my life.”
It is the calling out, the longing for the Divine, that immediately connects me to him—and to that deeper place of love that lives in all of us.
KD is no stranger to depression and has been through his share of dark times, particularly after the sudden death of Maharajji in 1973. Kirtan is his way of connecting with his guru. “It is the calling out, the longing for the Divine, that immediately connects me to him—and to that deeper place of love that lives in all of us.
KD does other yoga practices, too. In the morning, he says, “I practice pranayama, then japa [mantra repetition]. I make chai, read the paper, have breakfast, and then recite some prayers for an hour or more.” He sings verses from the Shri Guru Gita, a sacred Vedic text, and practices the Hanuman Chalisa—one of India’s most beloved devotional chants, which praises the virtues of Hanuman, the monkey god—daily. He does a simple asana practice, too. At age 59, he says wryly, “I want to be able to get out of bed in the morning without a crane, and I want to be able to sit for long periods of time.”
Why we practice yoga is more important to Krishna Das than what style we choose. “People get sidetracked by all these new types of yoga, or by developing an identity as a yogi or yogini…,” he says. “But yoga is not about substituting another form of ego for the one you already have. Let’s face it—ego is everything for almost all of us. Ego is the directional force of will. It is your sense of self. You can’t kill that, but you can make it more transparent by doing yoga practices. You can lighten the hold that selfishness, greed, fear, pride, and anger have over you by learning to turn to a deeper place inside of yourself.
“At first we feel our practice is about me, and my happiness, my calming down. But everything that we do affects everybody all the time, even people we see on the street. This is the essence of dedicating your practice for the benefit of all beings.” Kirtan, he adds, is one way of “extending loving kindness to the whole world.”
Kirtan, he says, is a profound spiritual practice. As he once told the Washington Post: “When people come to sing for an evening of chanting, they’re not coming for entertainment. They’re coming to enter into this place in the heart…it’s participatory, and the motivation for doing it is to enter deeply into ourselves. So I’m entering into myself; they’re entering into their selves, but ultimately there’s only one of us.”