Living Bhakti, a Conversation with Durga Das (aka David Newman)

written by Anjula April 16, 2014
Durga Das

Durga Das (aka David Newman)

We had the recent pleasure of talking with Durga Das, a kirtan chant artist, sacred singer songwriter and a practitioner and educator of Bhakti Yoga – the Yoga of Love.  David travels extensively sharing kirtan, devotional music and the spiritual, meditative and musical aspects of Yoga. David’s music embodies a devotional mysticism, distinctive musicality, poetic intimacy and a joyous, often ecstatic quality. 

Levitating Monkey: Can you tell us how you first got interested in Kirtan style of music?

Durga Das: I was in graduate school in New York City, as a law student and had an interest in spirituality, at the same time. Beyond going to school, I was working in a new age bookstore on the Upper West Side. One of the women I was working with was a disciple of Gurumayi, and every weekend when she had off, she’d head up to South Fallsburg, New York to her ashram. One weekend, she invited me to come with, which I did.  I walked into the hall, this is back in 1991, there were probably 500 or more in the ashram, it was quite busy. They began the program with a chant that lasted forty-five minutes long.  I still remember it, it was the chant, Kali Durge Namo Namaha and I was just blown away. I had been practicing yoga, but hadn’t really experienced that, and I was amazed for so many reasons – how it connected all those in the room, how it impacted my nervous system, my emotional body, my mind, how it made my physical body feel. 

Prior to this, I had been exposed to vedic mantras, that I sang on my own, but when I experienced kirtan in a group setting like that, it really touched me in a deep way. I opened a yoga school in 1992, then in the mid to late 90s, I invited Neem Karoli Baba devotees to offer kirtans and workshops.  We had both, Krishna Das and Bhagavan Das present. They, in particular, took it to the next level for me, in terms of my interest and passion for it.

LM: Can you share with us the meaning of your other name Durga Das? 

DD: Durga Das was a name given to me by one of Neem Karoli Baba’s devotees, Bhagavan Das. Durga means Divine Mother, Great Goddess. It is also reflective of the warrior, or fierce, yet loving aspect of the Divine Mother. Das means servant. So it means – “Servant of the Divine Mother or Servant of Divine Love”.

Stay Strong Project - Durga Das

Stay Strong Project

LM: I’ve read about your global vision with The Stay Strong Project and how you are hoping to showcase how the community is coming together through music, song, and prayer, to unite and uplift people and strengthen their ability to help in times of need.  Can you talk a bit about why you are passionate about this and how you came up with the idea?

DD: For several reasons, the way that I came up with the idea was not thought out, it came vis-à-vis inspiration. I wrote a song called, “Stay Strong” which was one of those rare songs that came to me in my sleep. When I started to flesh out the song and write lyrics to it, I just felt like the song itself had a higher purpose, just a gut feeling.  So I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to share this message, not just through the vehicle of me as an artist, but bring my colleagues together on this. Then, the next thought was, wouldn’t it be great if we did that in a way that benefited the planet and was charitable? Right at that time, was that big oil leak down in the Gulf, it was a no brainer to help the folks down in New Orleans to help heal and clean the problem.

I was introduced to Richard Wegman, who left recently, but who at the time, was the COO of the Global Green USA organization.  Global Green is just a wonderful environmental organization. Richard, also a kirtan enthusiast and yogi, loved the idea. Bhakti Fest was coming up in a few months, I pulled some people together to help me arrange it, we contacted the artists, Global Green was down. I found a filmmaker, a recording engineer and at Bhakti Fest, we converted our cottage into a film and recording studio and we made Stay Strong.

And then just a couple of years later, I wrote another song, kind of in a similar way, and thought this song also feels like it should be used for something beyond me. This became the second Stay Strong record, the song was called, “You Can Count on Me.” Stay Strong just has a way of rearing itself from Spirit and is something that I shepherd and stay open to.  I’ve also been given this amazing opportunity which I’m really excited about, to record with Paul Simon’s band, specifically his rhythm section, (percussionist, bass player and guitarist…two of whom are South African), that’s going to be in May. I thought about utilizing that recording session as a Stay Strong III, but I haven’t decided yet.

I had gone to see Paul Simon and Sting just a couple of weeks ago, it was quite an extraordinary experience. I was particularly inspired by Jamey Haddad, who’s percussion was just over the top. I got such a great feeling from him.  So the next morning which was a Saturday morning, I found him online and dropped him an email and figured, “We’ll see what happens…” and I got an email back from him about an hour later saying, “I checked your website, love your music. Let’s connect.” Next thing I knew, later in the afternoon, I was down at the Four Seasons hotel, picking him up to go out for a coffee and he said, “Let’s do this. Why don’t I get the guys from Paul’s band and we’ll record” and that’s what happened, it was just that easy.  It was really a magical moment. So we’ll be recording on May 12th and 13th.  He lives in Ohio, but has a farm up in Bucks County, PA. There’s a great studio by his farm, so we’re going to record up there for a couple of days. So we’ll see what unfolds with that and Stay Strong…I haven’t decided if I’m going to connect it to Stay Strong or if I’m going to just use this as an opportunity to record some of my new music.

LM: The Stay Strong Project has brought together such luminaries as David and Mira, Krishna Das, Wah, Jai Uttal, Sharon Gannon, Snatam Kaur, Seane Corn, Donna De Lory, C.C. White, Sean Johnson, Dave Stringer, Girish, Shantala, Shyam Das, Govindas and Radha, Bob Wisdom, Brenda McMorrow, The Kirtaniyas, Radhanath Swami, and many more to demonstrate the power of community and to raise awareness and resources to nurture and protect the environment. How did you go about getting all these great artists to join the cause?

DD: It reminds me of the day after the Paul Simon concert, when I was telling a friend of mine, (who I had gone to the concert with), how I connected with Paul’s band and our upcoming plans to record, he said, “What did you do David, did you put a spell on these guys.” I had to laugh, the answer is, it’s all grace, no pun intended. What I have found, when the universe wants something to happen, it makes it happen.  The converse is that when it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but when it does want something to come forward, it’s quite a process. Stay Strong was very much like that, you know. I had a seed idea, then I reached out to a few people who helped me organize it, then I sent them a demo, we put a list of artists together, they all agreed to do it, the Bhakti Fest team was ok with us filming there, all the ducks just lined up in a row. Certainly, there is always an effort involved in manifesting, but when it’s aligned, that effort is fueled by that sense of grace or that sense of the universe just wanting something to come forward.  

LM: Can you talk a bit about the humanitarian efforts of Global Green USA?

DD: It was really a no brainer, because I was clear that I wanted to help out the folks down in the Gulf. During that time, I played in New Orleans and was at my friend, Sean Johnson’s place and saw how down people were, the whole devastation of it to the environment, to the peoples livelihoods…I was just sick about it. It really, really upset me. I think it was Sean actually, who put me in touch with Richard Wegman, his friend. Sean put us together. When I looked at the mission statement of what Global Green did, and then Richard’s enthusiasm, along with his kindred sense of being into kirtan and yoga, it just made so much sense to go with them. They have done a great job and have been very supportive. As a matter of fact, on this recording project I have coming up, I was connected with a young man down in New Orleans, a musician who I may bring up for the sessions. He was telling me that he went on the Stay Strong website and saw my affiliation with Global Green…he was telling me that he lives right near many of the green structures that Global Green had built down in New Orleans after Katrina. He was affirming to me that they have done a great job and made some really wonderful sustainable housing available to the residents down there.

Although the Gulf leak is not exactly cleaned up, with the second Stay Strong project we decided to utilize the proceeds from, “You Can Count On Me” to help build sustainable schools. Having a child now, myself, I really believe that the children are the future and I was passionate in wanting to support that project. With the Stay Strong project, 100% of what comes in from those songs goes to Global Green.

LM: As a practitioner and educator of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of love or devotion, can you talk about the benefits of this kind of yoga, specifically as it relates to the honest search inward for connection to the Self?

DD: When I got introduced to kirtan, which lead me to the practice of Bhakti Yoga, it was early on that feeling of getting connected to devotion and a sense of gratitude towards something greater in life beyond my own ideas, aspirations and beliefs, my own mind. When I had a vision of that something greater, I was enthusiastic about practicing in a way that would enable me to surrender to t-h-a-t and that is the essence of Bhakti Yoga – surrendering to that whatever you call  it, everybody has a different name for it and a different relationship to it, but it is about expressing one’s devotion and surrender to that “Not my will, but thy will be done.”

To say it brings a greater sense of flow and ease into one’s life would be an understatement. It showed me that this idea of somehow being in control of what happens is in actuality an idea, a false idea. So letting go of that idea that I’m in charge and allowing something else to really live through me, that’s the practice of Bhakti Yoga and it makes for a life with much more grace and ease, and less stress, less worry, so much more happiness in being able to just savor the process of it all.

Neem Karoli Baba - Durga Das

Neem Karoli Baba

LM: How do you continue to maintain that sense of love and devotion in your day to day when you are not teaching or in the class or really focused on Bhakti Yoga?

DD: Bhakti Yoga is a 24/7 practice.  Neem Karoli Baba, my guru, said, “Better to see God in everything, than to try and figure it out. Also, to see the divine in everyone and in all things and I have that opportunity every moment to acknowledge that the person speaking with me or standing in front of me or making music with me or my wife or my child or my friend or my mother, these are all expressions of the divine and so it’s a continued practice just to behold that and to remember that.  The easy situations aren’t challenging because it’s obvious, but the ones where I want to lose my temper or lose my cool or not trust or resist or struggle or responding to an experience that makes me want to shut down or close my heart…those opportunities don’t happen so much on your meditation cushion, they happen throughout the day and so the practice of Bhakti, I called it Living Bhakti, there’s an opportunity to practice it all the time.

Durga Das and Mira

Durga Das and Mira

LM: What lead you to start the Kirtan College with your wife, Mira?

DD: I started it about 8 or 9 years ago. Having a yoga studio and being a part of the yoga teacher training and traveling around the world and participating in yoga teacher trainings, I felt that wow, there are so many opportunities to learn more physically-based practices of yoga…where does one go to learn more about Bhakti and Kirtan? And what I found was, there were the ashrams, but not much more and so I wanted to create an atmosphere and opportunity in a very relaxed and joyful way, for people to go deep into this practice of kirtan and Bhakti, that’s how I came up with Kirtan College.

I have a lot of respect for the tradition, and I also so deeply feel that kirtan is such a universal practice because even though the mantras are so traditionally related to aspects of Gods and Goddesses, deities, just the vibration of the mantras themselves, speak to people’s hearts. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter where they come from, people feel it.  It’s like, you feel joy or you feel love and that love is not a Jewish love or a Christian love or a Hindu love, it’s something that we share as human beings. For me, that’s the most important part of what I do – connecting to that, helping others to connect to that – in a way that feels perfectly right for them.

LM: Would you talk a bit about your connection to Neem Karoli Baba, the Hindu guru and devotee of Hanuman?  

DD: It was quite an extraordinary unfolding for me. I had been exposed to who he was through books and also through Bhagvan Das and Krishna Das and Jai Uttal, whom I spent time with. Ultimately, in the end, in the late 90s, Neem Karoli Baba came to me through the inner planes, met me in a very deep meditation and really has been part of my life and part of my guidance, ever since. He’s one of those amazing beings, infinite souls, who…though he passed in early 1970s, continues to touch and inspire people’s lives in the formless and in so many ways he’s been a great part of my journey, my path, my life, my creativity and my devotional practice.

LM: Before we close, are there any upcoming projects or events you’d like to share with our audience?

As a result of a three year process, that culminated in what some may call a spiritual awakening, I was inspired to write a book which kind of poured through me. As writing isn’t something that I typically do. Nonetheless, this book came through me. It was picked up by a really wonderful publisher, Non-Duality Press, based out of the UK, in Salsbury. The book is entitled,The Timebound Traveler and comes out on May 2nd. There is a lot of biographical information in it, but it is a story of my spiritual awakening and I’m just so excited to share this book with people.

About Durga Das

Durga Das, is a kirtan chant artist, sacred singer songwriter and a practitioner and educator of Bhakti Yoga – the Yoga of Love. David travels extensively sharing kirtan, devotional music and the spiritual, meditative and musical aspects of Yoga. David’s music embodies a devotional mysticism, distinctive musicality, poetic intimacy and a joyous, often ecstatic quality. His CDs include Lotus Feet: A Kirtan Revolution, Soul Freedom, Leap of Grace: The Hanuman Chalisa, Love Peace Chant, To Be Home, a CD/DVD set entitled Into the Bliss, Stars and ReBliss. A dedicated troubadour of chant and sacred song, David tours throughout the world with his wife Mira, a celebrated devotional singer, recording artist and percussionist. David is also the author of Merging with Grace, and the founder of The Stay Strong Project and Yoga On Main in Philadelphia.

David has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, in The Washinton Post and has appeared in Yoga Journal, Yoga International, Yoga Magazine UK, Natural Awakening, New Age Retailer, Rock Om, Sacred Sounds Radio, Wave Magazine, Ultrasounds, In the Spirit, VividLife, Yogamates, Yogi Times, Spirit Voyage Radio, Australian Life Magazine, Yoga Chicago, LA Yoga as well as many others. David has offered programs at Omega Institute, Kripalu Center, Sivananda Yoga Retreat, The Toronto and Vancouver Yoga Conference, Madrid Mantras Festival, Yogaville, Bhakti Fest, The Texas Yoga Conference, Esalen Institute, and has toured widely throughout the US, Canada, Europe and Asia. David was also the recipient of The Gandharva Award for excellence in devotional music from AAPNA: Association of Ayurveda Professionals of North America.

For more information about Durga Das, please visit: www.davidnewmanmusic.com, www.staystrongproject.orgwww.yogaonmain.com

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Living Bhakti, a Conversation with Durga Das (aka David Newman)
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Living Bhakti, a Conversation with Durga Das (aka David Newman)
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Levitating Monkey speaks with Durga Das, aka David Newman, a kirtan chant artist, sacred singer songwriter and a practitioner and educator of Bhakti Yoga.
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