On the Om Front: Bhakti by the Bay

David Newman (Durga Das) brings bhakti to the Bay
Photo by Dazza Greenwood

Some people go out to bars and drink on a Friday. But, you want to know what I do for a good time? I chant. I chill in a room full of yogis and I sing mantras in Sanskrit and I get really happy.

If you’re in the yoga tribe, you might be nodding your head here. If you’re not, you may be thinking I sound like a New Age freak who’s sniffed a little too much patchouli. I understand. I’m the city girl who first resisted yoga 15 years ago, when I moved to San Francisco, saying, “Yeah, right, I’m going to just sit there and breathe.” Like yoga, chanting can be something of an acquired taste. But, also like yoga, it can be acquired very quickly. The biggest obstacle is just getting into the room for the first time to do it.

Chanting events are often called kirtan, which is call-and-response singing led by a kirtan artist (also known as a kirtan wallah). The chants are in Sanskrit, a language that has an innate meditative quality, and the repetition of the words put you into an ecstatic mindset. Though the songs are mostly honoring Hindu gods -- like Rama, Lakshmi, and Shiva -- you don’t have to be Hindu (or a theist at all) to sing them. I mean, anyone can find joy in offering a Christmas gift, or have a spiritual experience while eating a latke, right? The gods are thought by most to be symbolic, representing different aspects of life and humanity. Ultimately, kirtan is a practice of devotion or bhakti. It doesn’t matter what it is you are devoted to -- God, trees, your pup or your honey -- so long as love is at the center.

There are kirtan events frequently happening in the Bay (see the listings below), and there are touring kirtan bands constantly coming through here to share their music. One of my favorite kirtan musicians is David Newman (aka Durga Das), a Philly-born yogi who has the soul of an angel and the vibe of an indie rock singer-songwriter. He and his band (pictured above: Dave Watts, Clay Campbell, David Newman, and Philippo Franchini) played a small, intimate house concert this past weekend. It was my favorite kind of Friday night: music, tea, a dimly lit room, and a feeling like each person in the room was somehow destined to be there. But that’s often what it feels like at kirtan. It’s as if time somehow stops, and we’re all just there to linger in the pause.

Video of David Newman and band by Dazza Greenwood:

Karen Macklin is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco -- her On the Om Front column appears biweekly here on SFBG.com.


by Joanne Greenstein


Wednesday Night Kirtan around the fire pit
8pm–9pm, by donation
Yoga Society, 2872 Folsom, SF.
More info here

Sunday Night Kirtan
7pm, $10-$15
First Sunday: Stephanie Winn
Second Sunday: Kozmik Kirtan with Evelie Posch
Third Sunday: Art of Living Foundation
Last Sunday: Sean Feit
Yoga Tree Telegraph, 2807 Telegraph, Berk.
More info here


Open Secret Kirtan with Mirabai & Friends
3rd Thursday of the month
This month: Thursday, 2/21, 7:30–9pm, $10-$20
Open Secret, 923C Street, San Rafael
More info here

Kirtan: An Evening of Devotional Chanting & Music with Bhakti Heart
Last Saturday of the month with some exceptions
This month: Saturday, 2/23, 7:45–9:15pm, by donation
Mindful Body, 2876 California, SF.
More info here


Community Kirtan with Andrew Thomas Fisher and Erin Lila Wilson
All are invited to lead a chant, join in the response or listen to the sweet sounds.  Feel free to bring instruments.
Sat, 2/23, 7–8:30pm, by donation
Integral Yoga Institute, 770 Dolores, SF.
More info here

Complete Immersion:

Bhakti Fest
A full-on kirtan festival in the Joshua Tree desert, the September Bhakti Fest (and its May sister festival, Shakti Fest) features around-the-clock chanting, premiere yoga classes and inspiring lectures.  All the top international kirtan artists play at these festivals.
Shakti Fest, May 17-19
Bhakti Fest, September 5-9
More info here



Is this the SFBG's first article on kirtan? Very cool!

Posted by Daniel Tucker on May. 13, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

on being such a bore.

Posted by Chromefields on Feb. 21, 2013 @ 8:47 am

Ha! You should try yoga or meditation, man. You'll learn how to never be bored again. Peace.

Posted by Karen Macklin on Feb. 21, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

Related articles

  • Beautiful path to now

    A groundbreaking art exhibit mines yoga's mythic past for clues about its vibrant present

  • Rise and shine

    AcroYoga flies high in SF

  • Stretch out

    Summer yoga retreats and festivals offer escape for body, mind

  • Also from this author

  • Beautiful path to now

    A groundbreaking art exhibit mines yoga's mythic past for clues about its vibrant present

  • Rise and shine

    AcroYoga flies high in SF

  • Stretch out

    Summer yoga retreats and festivals offer escape for body, mind