Durga Das And The Art Of Kirtan
David Newman, also known as Durga Das, may at times remind you of musical legends Cat Stevens or George Harrison, as he weaves his magical music taking you deep into a world of bliss or inspiring you to dance to his groove. Yet his notes are always imbued with the warm and transformative undertones of love and devotion,
After going to law school and taking the bar, Newman ditched a big-time career to start a yoga studio in Philadelphia and become a kirtaner. Since releasing his first album in Soul Freedom in 2003, David has been a star on the Kirtan circuit, garnering rave reviews in places like LA Magazine and National Public Radio. Not surprisingly, he is on the road most of the year. Even with his hectic schedule the ever-gracious Newman made some time to talk about music, yoga and life, before coming to NYC for a Kirtan Concert at Integral Yoga on November 16 with Dar Dowling.
Dar Dowling: Back in the day you studied law, so I'm really curious about how you went from being a lawyer to teaching yoga, and becoming a Kirtan artist.
David Newman: I graduated from law school, took the bar, and passed, but I never actually practiced the law. I was exposed to yoga before going to law school, and really started practicing it while I was in school. After graduating I decided to open a yoga studio in Philadelphia.
While there are lots of schools here now, back then there weren’t many, so it was an experiment. I thought that if it didn’t work out I would go back to the law. We are celebrating our 21st anniversary at Yoga on Main so I never had to practice law.
D.D: What drew you to yoga and teaching?
D.N: Early on I was exposed to eastern philosophy when my parents took us to TM training. Later I started taking Sivananda Yoga classes on Sunset Blvd in LA, and using the Sivananda Yoga Companion to teach myself yoga.
Afterwards I studied with Gary Kraftsow, and then with T.K.V. Deskichar in India. Back then there wasn’t a formal teacher training so when I expressed my interest in teaching, after studying for a while, Gary gave me his blessing, and I just started teaching.
D.D: When did Bhakti yoga and music come into your spiritual equation?
D.N: Starting in the late 90's, several years into teaching, I felt drawn to Bhakti Yoga, and its message of devotion and love. About ten years later I was re-inspired to explore Kirtan and music, so I started writing my own melodies, and chants. Then in 2003 I recorded my first album.
D.D: What was it about Kirtan and music that called to you?
D.N: Being a musician and spiritual seeker most of life, the discovery of a practice which merged the two, was a perfect and natural fit for me. Singing Kirtan is my path, vocation, joy, and service!
D.D: What does your Bhakti yoga practice look like?
D.N: It's most universally the practice of unconditional love. The tools of Bhakti practice such as Kirtan, ritual, and service to others help to open our hearts and inspire us to love in this way.
D.D: Who inspires you?
D.N: I have a very strong connection to Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian saint. He didn’t write any books, give lectures or leave any defined teachings, but he exuded a love that transformed people’s lives. I met several of his disciples who exposed me to his message.
He actually came to me in a meditation and then later in dreams. It was through that initial 'meeting' on the inner planes that I was initiated or ushered into the path of Bhakti. Since then he has been my greatest inspiration.
D.D: So I know this is like asking which of your children is your favorite, but I'll ask anyway – do you have a favorite song or album?
D.N: Yes it is, but I actually do have two songs I feel really great about - You Can Count On Me and Stay Strong. I recorded them for the Stay Strong project, a foundation I started to support the environmental and humanitarian efforts of Global Green USA. When I wrote these songs I felt like I had a higher purpose in mind. They are not only an expression of the love and devotion of Bhaki yoga, but they are also a reflection of karma yoga.
The songs and the foundation are a collaboration between the Kirtan Chant and Yoga community, and all the proceeds from the sales of the songs go directly to Global Green. These songs supported the Gulf oil spill clean up and to build green schools.
D.D: You have been teaching Kirtan College, can you talk a little bit about how that evolved and what happens there.
D.N: There are so many yoga teacher trainings, but there are fewer opportunities for people to fully explore Kirtan and Bhaki Yoga, so I wanted to start a workshop allowing people to go deep into both, as well as explore the music. I'll be teaching a week-long Kirtan workshop at Kashi Ashram in Sebastian Florida, in February.