Govind Das On Bhakti Yoga & Celebrating The Divine Feminine At Shakti Fest
By Ashley Shires
Govind Das is an inspired Bhakti musician and Yogi who will be teaching and performing at Shakti Fest May 10th - 13th, 2018, with his wife, the talented musician, Radha. The husband-wife team direct the Bhakti Yoga Shala in Santa Monica and travel the world spreading the sacred practice of kirtan, chanting the names of Gods and Goddesses and teaching the essence of Bhakti, the yoga of Devotion. I was thrilled to interview Govind Das, learning about his background, his inspiration, and his upcoming offerings.
I would love to hear about how you first discovered yoga.
I started meditating in my freshman year of college – I took an intro course to meditation at the University of Maryland in 1989. It was an elective course, and I thought that it would be easy (laughing). It turned out to be my first introduction to an Eastern spiritual practice and I loved it – I felt aligned with it. I was always an athlete as a child - I played soccer and basketball, and I had this understanding of the power of the mind. Meditation was a formal practice that supported this philosophy, this “as we think, so shall we become” philosophy.
After college, I moved to California and I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. A friend said that I should go to a yoga class, and I walked out just knowing that I would have a life-long relationship to yoga, and also that it would help me heal from this illness.
I started going to Yoga classes every day and studying meditation and Ayurveda. It was the kickstart to life-practices to promote well being, including the spiritual component, which really interested me. I had this sense that if I was well on the inside, in my mind and my heart, that my body, (I was 24 years old at that point), would follow. I just had faith in that, in living from the inside out.
How did you first discover Bhakti Yoga?
I studied Yoga for a couple of years and I took a teacher training. At that point, I was about to go on a long road trip from Florida to New York, and a friend passed on a Ram Dass lecture on a cassette tape. I listened to this cassette, and it was just one of those moments that my life’s path shifted. Ram Dass spoke about Bhakti and the path of love and the path of the heart and his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. He talked about love being the strongest medicine. It connected me to something deep inside that I felt. I knew this, but I had no external support – no idea that there was a thousands-of-years-old tradition of Bhakti, of love, and when I came across it, it was like, “Yes.” In all the worlds of Yoga, it was the direction I wanted to go. I thought, “this is my route.” It felt right. And from that point on, I started deepening my interest. I had gotten back to California, and I started to learn about kirtan.
Can you tell us about your first experience with kirtan?
I heard kirtan for the first time when Krishna Das and Bhagavan Das’ albums first came out, and it touched me in the deepest and most ancient part of myself. It just felt right. And what was interesting was that I read the liner notes of the cassette tapes, and they were talking about the same guru, Neem Karoli Baba, that Ram Dass had talked about. There was a connection at this point.
And then Krishna Das did his first tour in California; it was around 1997/98, and I went to his concert at a Yoga studio in Santa Monica. To be a part of a live kirtan, to feel the Shakti, to feel that, again, was another moment in my life where I said, “This is what I want to be doing. I want to be singing to God.” I had always had a love for music; I grew up Jewish, and I never wanted much to do with it, but when the cantor sang at synagogue, my heart would melt – that prayer through music.
Right around that time, I had a dream that Neem Karoli Baba, the guru of all these kirtan singers and teachers, visited me. He was patting my head and I was crying; I had what is called a darshan. I was friendly with one of Neem Karoli Baba's devotees and he said because of this dream, I should put his picture on my alter. In the 20-plus years since then, his photo is still on my altar. I consider him my guru, and even though he’s not living, he is living in my heart, as all gurus do. At that point, I went to India and stayed at his ashram for three months and learned the ways of traditional Bhakti. I bought a harmonium and started studying music, kirtan, came back and dove deeper and deeper into devotional singing.
Did you have a background in music?
I had limited experience with music as a child; I took piano lessons, but music wasn’t a daily practice of mine until kirtan. Now Radha, on the other hand, grew up in a family of musicians. From her earliest memories she was singing scales and playing flute and the lead in musicals in her school. She had a very different way of coming to it. She fell in love with kirtan, she always says, because it was singing as a prayer, not a performance. Kirtan wiped away all of that, everything that comes with singing as a performance. It’s a purity of heart and intention.
How did you and Radha first get involved with Shakti Fest?
Right around the time we opened Bhakti Yoga Shala, in Santa Monica in 2009, we were invited by Sridhar Silberfein [the founder of Bhakti Fest and Shakti Fest]. I had known him in Topanga and had been to events his house. Radha and I had already released a couple of kirtan cd’s at that point, and he asked us to sing music and teach yoga at the very first Bhakti Fest, and we’ve been to every one of the festivals since then. It’s family. The only thing I can say is that it feels like family and we’re so grateful to be a part of this movement of Bhakti in this country.
What is your favorite part of the festivals?
My favorite part is how people come together from all over the country: old friends and new friends, that sweetness of friendship and celebrating the path of love, the journey of love. Specifically at Shakti, celebrating the divine feminine. I’ve felt this great connection to my own mother, my first guru, love for the mother. That is very easy to translate into a relationship to God as Divine Mother.
How have the festivals changed for you since you had kids?
(Laughs). My son is seven and my daughter just turned three last weekend. Now it less about being out late at night and it's more about getting to bed a little earlier, putting the kids to sleep, and taking care of their needs; the desert can be an intense place for kids. But the beauty of it is exponential – I surely wasn’t in circumstances like that as a kid. It’s amazing to bring children into an environment where thousands of people are singing and dancing together in ecstasy and joy – it’s one of the greatest images we can give to children of what’s possible. The festivals are an environment of love where they feel safe and supported in community.
What will you and Radha be offering at Shakti Fest this year?
We are collaborating with Saul David Raye for the pre-immersion – we’ve been friends for 20-plus years and have a long history of collaborating in different ways. He’s been a great inspiration for us. We just love him, and to be joining together there, opening Shakti Fest, is so exciting. I love the pre-immersion because it’s setting the tone for the whole weekend. We’ll do kirtan, meditation, vinyasa, and a yin-style practice with a sound bath happening. A full day of practices.
Can you tell us about your other offerings this year?
We’re also doing a Bhakti Yoga and surf retreat that is family friendly – we’re bringing our kids, and it’s in Nosara, Costa Rica in July. I’m also leading a teacher training in Peru, and we are excited to be at Hanuman Festival, Wanderlust Squaw Valley, and back at Bhakti Fest in September.
Find out more about Govind Das and Radha and their offerings at bhaktiyogashala.com.
To learn more about Shakti Fest and get your tickets visit shaktifest.bhaktifest.com.