Krishna Das Gives New Meaning to Yoga in Los Angeles
Mostly non-Indian, foreheads adorned with bindis, the occasional sari here and there, and throwing around “namaste” to greet each other, the crowd at the Krishna Das concert this past Saturday at the Wilshire Ebell may fulfill the expectation of what LA’s new-agey yoga scene is all about. So it was no surprise to enter the concert hall to find a tapestry of the Hindu lord Krishna hanging above the stage and photos of Krishna Das’ guru, Neem Karoli Baba (a.k.a. Maharaj-ji) leaning against it. Krishna Das (often referred to as KD), however, wore a plain red t-shirt and slacks. Authentic as a messenger of his guru’s teachings, KD has been an innovative leader in delivering the ancient mantras and melodies of ancient Hindu kirtan (call-and-response chanting) to audiences worldwide.
Krishna Das and his five-person ensemble seated themselves cross-legged in a row on stage. KD greeted his audience with a “howdy,” which he then juxtaposed with three collective oms, engaging the crowd in a common chord that filled the room and reverberated off the walls of the entire auditorium.
Before kirtan started, an usher handed out lyrics to the “songs” – or rather, the mantras repeated again and again during the kirtan that KD would lead. “The temples in India are just a little different than those on Long Island,” Krishna Das joked. But there is truth in jest – temples of any kind are a spiritual venue. What is so special about a Krishna Das “concert,” or really any kirtan, is that the audience participates, with the potential to access a higher consciousness or meditative state through repetitive chanting. Easier said than done, however, and KD, having spent years studying the discipline of bhakti yoga (the devotional aspect of yogic practice) would be the first to tell you that. So when Krishna Das heard the audience stumbling over some of the longer Sanskrit syllables, he reminded us to read along with the lyrics. “You don’t want to mess with this shit,” he only half-joked.
With that, KD led a vibrant kirtan on vocals and harmonium, accompanied by two guitars, violin, drums, and cymbals. At times, he would relay anecdotes about learning to chant in India, always reminding us that he, too, has yet to master the craft. All the names of the Hindu gods, KD explained, really just mean love. “To meditate is to lose yourself in love,” he once said at a Wilshire Ebell kirtan years ago. “In India, they don’t do yoga. That’s what LA does,” he joked, referencing the contemporary re-interpretation of yogic practice. True, in LA and in much of the States, yoga has become trendy. Yet, at its core, be it via chanting (bhakti) or physical movements, yoga can still be a highly enriching, even spiritual, practice, and definitely one that defies the momentary nature of trends.
KD’s kirtan went through cycles of frenzied highs, with people dancing wildly in the aisles, and slower, calmer bouts of chanting. And at the end, without any sort of celebrity encore, Krishna Das – “yoga’s rockstar” – coolly spoke into his microphone, “As we say in India, ‘take it easy.’”
Missed KD in LA? He’s touring the country on his Kirtan Wallah Tour. The full schedule is available on his website. In the next few weeks KD will be in Vegas, Santa Fe, and Texas. On November 1, he will be leading kirtan and a workshop in New York City.