On Retreat with Krishna Das: Learning Kirtan From a Chanting Master

I don’t have years of experience practicing kirtan, a call-and-response mantra-based chanting practice that’s often included in yoga classes. I do, however, frequent a Jivamukti-inspired yoga studio in Charleston, South Carolina that includes some kirtan, but it’s never been a stand-alone part of my yoga practice. But this year my husband, having seen a documentary on Krishna Das, surprised me with a weekend away on retreat with the well known kirtan master.

Welcome to Yogaville

I didn’t know what to expect from a kirtan workshop, especially having only been away from my young son on my own a few times since he was born three years ago. But I’ll admit the respite from the hustle of being a working mom was appealing. The retreat took place at Satchidananda Ashram, also known as Yogaville. The ashram was founded by Swami Satchidananda, the guru most well known for his opening at the Woodstock festival in 1969.

Nestled in the heart of central Virginia, in a tiny area called Buckingham, the ashram is surrounded by the forest. It’s so rural that when we left breakfast my second day after arriving, an adolescent black bear was seen on the quad of the campus trying to find his way back to the woods. The closest major shopping center, grocery store or movie theater is over an hour away in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A Yoga Routine

The ashram is set up so that you can experience the life of a yogi for the period of time that you’re visiting. Some visit the ashram for months or years, but most pop in for a weekend here and there when they can escape their hectic life in the city. My stay was a much anticipated four-day visit over Memorial Day Weekend.

Each day included three meditations, starting at dawn and then another at lunch and before dinner. The meditations took place at various sacred sites on the campus, one which is called The Light Of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS). As the name entails, it’s shaped like a huge lotus and can be seen for miles around. Perched on a grassy knoll overlooking a lake, the idyllic surroundings lend themselves to a peaceful meditation. This, along with daily yoga classes, vegan and vegetarian meals, very little cell service, and like-minded individuals is supposed to help you dive deeply into your practice. In addition, since this particular retreat was centered around learning kirtan from Krishna Das, each day included a question and answer session as well as hours of kirtan.

Learning Kirtan From a Master

I do not pretend to know all the chants by heart or in some cases to even know what they mean. But from my experience spending time with KD, as his students lovingly refer to him, it doesn’t really matter. Neither of my roommates—one an accountant from Washington D.C. and the other a pharmaceutical researcher from San Francisco—had ever been on a KD retreat before. But we were all moved by the experience.

Each morning KD spent hours patiently answering our questions. The 73-year-old managed to weave his answers into something that each one of us could learn from even if the initial question had nothing to do with our personal experience. He constantly reminded us that “sitting,” which for him meant daily chanting, would “ripen” us, allowing us to find compassion and a mindfulness that would remind us that there’s so much more to life than what the mind could ever explain.

He repeated time and time again that even when things seem terrible and hard to swallow in the world that we’re living in, the universe is always just as it should be. This, as could be expected, was too much for many to swallow. He went back and forth in the question and answer session with one particular woman who refused to believe that famine, war, and environmental destruction meant the universe was just as it should be. KD reminded her and the room that karmas from many lifetimes were at work in ways that the conventional mind could never understand. This exchange, though not directed at me, helped me to think in a different light, to realize that my mind, which I place so much value on, is incapable of so much and that faith is not something that the mind can fathom.

Opening to Compassion

KD also reiterated that everyone goes through the same “shit” and through practice we can learn to understand that we’re all hurting in one way or another largely due to a yearning for love and acceptance. Whether he was doing kirtan at Google, San Quentin, or at Omega, he noted, in the end, we’re all people and we’re much the same.

At night, long and unbelievably uplifting kirtan sessions reminded me that there is something more and that the practice could “ripen” my heart if I stuck to it. At the end of the session, I felt my heart opening, my compassion building, and a feeling of calling out to the universe. It’s not something that’s easy to understand and I’m especially skeptical of such inexplicability but there is something there. From the tyrant to the yogi to every person and animal in between, something as simple as singing with a group could begin to open my heart to the world. Now that I’m back home, I’ve been making kirtan and Krishna Das’ Pandora station a regular part of my yoga practice and, for now at least, it’s working.

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