Talking Shop with Krishna Das

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YJ: How did you meet your guru, Neem Karoli Baba?
KD: I met Maharajji when I didn't have a life. I was 23 years old, severely
depressed and neurotic and very unhappy. I wasn't doing anything with my
life, and I was available to try something else.

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YJ: And how did you start chanting?
KD: I was forced to sing kirtan. He wanted us to sing, I had to sing, and so
I sang.

YJ: What prompted you to return home?
KD: He sent me back. One day I went to see him and he said, "Do you think
about your mother?" I said yes. "Do you think about your father?" I said
yes. "Go back to America. You have attachment there." I was completely in
shock. I said, "But I'm just learning Hindi." He said, "Too bad." He knew I
was avoiding a lot of stuff, all kinds of interpersonal relationships.

YJ: Do you have a hatha practice?
KD: I'm in the blessed situation where I do workshops with the best yoga
teachers in the world. I'm 54 years old; my body is starting to fall apart.
I try to keep some of the practice going. I'm devoted to making my heart
available, and asana practice is very useful for that--if it's done with the
right intention.

YJ: What kind of music inspires your work?
KD: It's really amazing how little music I do listen to. I love West and
South African music, Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Steely Dan, the Clash. I
love anything that crackles with reality. In South Africa during apartheid,
they said, "We have to sing; this is what saves us." I'm pulled to music
that comes from that place.

YJ: How does your chanting practice translate into day-to-day life?
KD: Chanting is untying knots, opening and letting go. Because I'm spending
more time in that space, it affects how I relate to the world. I find myself
less involved in wanting things and more involved in being in an open space
all of the time, where every moment I'm trying to offer that surrender into
the presence of the moment.

YJ: What is the experience like for you on a visceral level?
KD: It's like learning to breathe in a new world, and because these mantras
come from a place that's deep in all our hearts, the more time we spend with
them, the deeper we are pulled into ourselves. When you fall in love, what
you are really seeing is your own beauty reflected in someone else's face at
that moment. In this case, we fall in love with a deeper place within
ourselves and get to feel good more of the time than we're used to. Then
it's a snowballing process: The more you know where that is and how it
feels, you want to be there more. When you're not in it, you long for it
more.

YJ: Do you feel that Indian culture is getting watered down?
KD: No, I think it's really wonderful the way yoga, chanting, and meditation
practices are being manifested here. I was born on Long Island, not in the
Himalayas. When I'm chanting, I become a better American; I don't become
Indian. When a new melody is coming through, the chord progressions that are
in my psyche from growing up with rock and roll are just sitting there.
There's a lot of resistance, a lot of people hang on strongly to the purity
of the technique, and I think that's a place where people can get stuck. My
chanting is not traditional. When I sing in India, they laugh and say, "Oh,
American style!" They don't expect it to be Indian. We judge ourselves more
harshly than they judge us.

YJ: So do you consider your work karma yoga?
KD: Well, I get so much e-mail and so many phone calls. People say how much
chanting has helped them in their life. All I can say to them is, "Me too."