SNATAM KAUR is an American singer, peace activist, and author raised in the Sikh and Kundalini Yoga tradition. She has an amazing ability to transform traditional Sikh chants of India into a contemporary sound that appeals to the modern ear and awakens an ancient yearning in the soul. For over thirty years, she studied with and grew up in the presence of her spiritual teacher, Yogi Bhajan, while he was in his physical form, learning the essence of Naad Yoga, a form of yoga focusing on sacred sound. At the core of this practice is an essential experience of peace and healing which has helped her music to be accessible to people of all walks of life. She has taught and shared Naad Yoga and Kundalini Yoga and meditation through her recorded CDs, concerts, and workshops for the past sixteen years as a part of her commitment to give people tools for a daily experience of inner peace. Her new book, Original Light: the Morning Practice of Kundalini Yoga, is a compassionate and supportive guide to creating a personal daily spiritual practice. To find out more about her concerts and workshops, her book, and her online course, Life Guided By Light, visit snatamkaur.com.
Nadia Colburn (NC): I’m very glad to be talking with you, Snatam. Your music has meant so much to me over the years. At certain points when I was going through rough times, I played your music almost constantly and chanted along with it. It really got me through a difficult period–and more than that, it really transformed me through the process. Your music truly elevates the spirit. For our readers who don’t know you, could you tell us a bit about your background and the roots of your music?
Snatam Kaur (SK): Right around the time I was born, my parents were exploring the Kundalini yoga and Sikh lifestyle. I was born just as they made a commitment to these lifestyles. I grew up with Kundalini yoga and meditation and Sikh practice including the music in our family home and in our family gatherings. My spiritual teacher, Yogi Bhajan, was an important part of my growing up and of my life—I attended his Kundalini yoga classes as a baby. He shared these yoga teachings with people of all walks of life as he felt that the kind of healing available within them was important to share with everyone. He was also a very inspired Sikh, and so many of his students also embraced the Sikh lifestyle. As a child, I was immersed in both the Sikh and Kundalini lifestyles.
NC: Did you spend time as a child in India?
SK: My parents took a long trip of a couple of months to India when I was six, and I first bonded with my mother’s kirtan music teacher there. They kind of adopted me into the family. I remember flying kites with one of the boys on the roof and sitting on the lap of my mother’s teacher—a very blessed experience. He was a musician at the Golden Temple, which was the main Sikh temple.
Then as an eighteen-year old, I assisted in a boarding school and stayed in India for six months. Shortly after that, I learned some kirtan and toured around the Punjab to many different Gudwaras in rural Sikh communities. I traveled with Yogi Bhajan’s wife, and, because he was really revered in India, we were treated with a lot of honor and respect.
NC: Your new book, Original Light, outlines your daily practice in the Kundalini tradition and helps readers develop their own daily practice. You talk about this daily early morning practice, the sadhana, as foundational for your life, health, and well-being. You obviously were brought up with this tradition and had some exposure to and habit around this kind of practice from your earliest childhood. How do people who have not grown up in this kind of a tradition—or in any spiritual tradition that emphasizes a daily practice—start a personal practice?
SK: I definitely had the privilege of experiencing a daily practice growing up, and that was really impactful, but I feel that anyone can really start at any time and find that passageway. Sometimes people—especially parents—feel that there is a disconnect; they want to have a spiritual practice but don’t see it as something to bring their children into. I feel it’s important to communicate my experience for those families and communities—I want to let people know how incredible it is for a child to grow up with this kind of practice. There is the term in Sanskrit, samskara, which means impression; there are all sorts of samskaras that a child experiences growing up. Whether fights our parents had or a first horseback lesson, we all have so many experiences and impressions as children.
As a child, I had many of these experiences of waking up as my mom would bring me down all wrapped up in a blanket to join the community practice. I’d wake and see everyone meditating and chanting and then go back to sleep. Many of the impressions—especially the peace of people around me—were very powerful; this was the soul food that I grew up with. It wasn’t that my parents pushed a daily practice on me. There was a time when my father stopped doing the practice and decided he didn’t want to walk the tradition any longer. But by that time I was an adolescent and had enough of these experiences that they had seeped into me, so when the going got tough, I had the practice to turn to.
I was experiencing all the things that teenagers experience. So and so doesn’t like me; I gained some weight and got some pimples. But I had the experience of daily spiritual practice, and I had seen my mother practice, in particular at the time of her divorce—or, I should say the whole family’s divorce because it happened to all of us. She really turned to the sacred chants and immersed herself in them, and it seemed to help her. As a teenager, when challenging things hit, I went to the family meditation room and chanted. I remember chanting for two, sometimes three, hours until the energy cleared and I could continue on. Then as a young adult, and again when I first got married and had my daughter, it all became very natural to go to the spiritual practice. I knew how healing it was on a spiritual level. That’s where the music came from—from this experience of “wow this works” and “wow I want to share this.”
NC: Yes. I can attest to that. The music and chanting is really transformative and powerful.
SK: Yes, it comes from a real self-experience. I so passionately want people to be able to embody and carry these chants within themselves. It’s so powerful to just take one chant, really look at what it means, and go into that experience. I really enjoy doing that. For example, the chant wah he guru: wah means ecstatic bliss; he means the here and now; guru means that which brings you from darkness to light. There is so much transformation in this mantra, and when we chant, it gets passed on a cellular level. You don’t even have to know what the mantra means to have the experience of ecstasy and to feel the transformation from darkness to light that can take one through any challenge.
You can tell someone the meaning of the mantra, but to really understand it you need to experience and embody it through chant. This transformation through chanting and the divine shouldn’t just happen once a year when I come into town for a concert or there happens to be a Kundalini yoga class or workshop. The real essence of what ought to happen is that the positive message of the chant needs to be embodied every single day to unfold the kind of deep change that I feel a calling to support. My soul feels that I need to pass this on, so that’s what inspired me to write Original Light: to share this possibility of touching the divine daily; of daily transformation and deepening.
NC: You have talked about yourself as a peace activist and of your music as a form of peace activism. Could you speak more about the activism in your music and practice?
SK: Certainly having a spiritual practice helps to tap into universal love and peace that you can see that in everyone and in everything. The music gives you the strength, and even the responsibility, to stand up for things that you feel in your heart.
NC: Are there specific things you are thinking of as examples?
SK: I feel really strongly about protecting the environment and have written songs about the environment. I try to get that message out through songs and music. I also take a strong stand when it comes to elections and voting. I had an experience of taking a stand for Bernie Sanders a couple of days ago on my Facebook page. I feel very passionate about standing up for those things that really call to my soul. On another level, I facilitate a children’s singing choir that goes into retirement communities in our area. I always had a calling to community service, and recently my family became a part of a local team of Kundalini yogis who organize and serve a free supper out of a Unitarian church once a month. I am also a board member of the Sat Nam Foundation, an organization that funds many projects throughout the world, such as earthquake relief efforts in Nepal and an orphanage in Rishikesh, India to name a couple. I am very clear about community being part of the work and part of what we do, global or local.
NC: Can you talk a bit about how artistic expression leads to communal change?
SK: One of the reasons that I write songs about the earth, the environment, and our consciousness is to bring forth these kinds of messages that inch the creative psyche into the conversation. There’s a song called “Earth Prayer,” and it’s about the environment. The repeating line is: “to love for our love with our love we shall rise above.” The song is all about filling our needs with our spiritual work rather than with our cultural drive to purchase or to obtain power and money. This spiritual work is our love that allows us to rise above and begin to make choices that are more conscious for the earth. “Let us hear once again the song of the mountain,” I sing. With the creation of the song and the practice of sacred chant and mantra (mantras are positive affirmations that speak to our beings), we can experience the positive messages of well-being on a physical level through the frequency of the chants and words.
So, I often incorporate mantras within these more activism-focused songs to empower the message that we are all one, that we can come from a place of serenity, love, peace, and strength and that, at the core, we really need to care for the earth and for the environment This song, “Earth Prayer,” in particular, is really a prayer for us as a people to rise above our selfishness and to make choices about where our values lie and what actions to take in alignment with those values.
NC: This change that you’re talking about happens, I think, on the internal, individual level, and also on the communal, social level. Can you talk a bit about how these different levels interact?
SK: One of the great divides in the world is the divide between different religions. With spirituality and the sacred chants that I sing, I feel that we can come to a sense of universal consciousness. We can invite over the neighbor who has a different political sign up or who believes in a different tradition because we’re all human beings. We really need to have that universal consciousness and to see how we can communicate and connect with each other to accomplish our goals. It’s like we’re all running a three-legged race—we’re all tied to our friend, and we need to win the race together. But it’s not just three legs but rather all of humanity’s legs. We need to figure out how to connect across the globe, across divides.
Having a spiritual practice helps neutralize the negative energy we’re exposed to and allows us to keep coming to and from a place of love. My spiritual teacher Yogi Bhajan taught that this is a time of great stress in the world. It’ s very concerning to me that so many people are so quickly turn to anti-depressant drugs or other prescription medications for stress. There is a large amount of stress we’re greeted with every day, but I have really come to experience that this daily spiritual practice we have in my tradition can help us to live in light, joy, and love even amidst the stress around us. Spiritual practice is one of the most effective forms of activism; it allows us to live with a sense of peace with what we have and who we are. It brings us into full acceptance with what is. I want to help people feel that each of us is enough in and of ourselves. We just need to have the tools. Can you sit down long enough to experience yourself and voice yourself? This is the practice that is at the heart of Ordinary Light.
The practice is called the Aquarian Sadhana; it includes a morning wake-up routine, yoga, and chanting, and it is a way to connect with the divine in whatever your spiritual tradition is. The practice is not just meant for one genre of yogis or one religion; it is meant as a universal practice. It empowers people to tap into that soul energy space so that they can be their essential selves every single day without having to go anywhere else for the experience. It’s an instructional book, but it also includes my own experiences and my own stories. And not all of them are perfect! Part of the process is to create self-compassion.
NC: And you are starting an online course to accompany the book as well?
SK: Yes. The course will start in late October of 2016. People can find out about it by going to SnatamKaur.com. There will be support videos and audio tools to help people really integrate the teachings of the book and start their own daily practice. The whole practice I teach is two and a half hours long. But I don’t expect everyone to have a two and a half hour practice, so the course helps people identify what their bottom line is. That is, what is the practice that you need to come from that place of center and balance? I’m helping people who practice already and people who are just starting the practice get the tools to understand what they need as their bottom line. My hope is that people will practice for at least half an hour a day.
It’s pretty easy to put spiritual practice on the back burner; even for me growing up in this lifestyle there are times I have to really fight for it to make sure I get it in every day. Now that I have it established as an everyday practice, it’s like soul food, and I live and really enjoy it. But there is process where you kind of have to commit to it for a while and really prioritize it, and this can be challenging at first. I’ve been through this period, and I recognize that struggle and help people create a priority for spirit. I feel that having this priority for spirit will be so incredible for our planet and for creativity. I feel this mostly because it’s been so incredible for me.
NC: One of the things we talk about a lot at Anchor and at Still Harbor is the need for self-nourishment and spiritual nourishment, without which we burn-out. Especially for those of us interested in doing healing and social justice work, it’s so important that we feed our spirit.
SK: Yes! I think I’ve been able to stay in touch with my spirit and my soul in the music world, which isn’t always easy. But doing that has brought forth music, projects, and opportunities that have kept me in alignment with the calling of my soul, and I don’t say that lightly. I think that’s a really big deal given all the choices I’ve had and all the different ways I could have gone. But because of my daily spiritual practice, I didn’t have the challenge of constantly questioning: should I go this way or that? I had already gone through the process of considering what was in my soul that morning and what was in my heart that morning, so I was able to meet all the conversations that took place or the opportunities to write songs or to give concerts from a place of soul connection.
I think sometimes people look at the body of work I’ve done, and even writing this book Original Light and think, “Oh, Snatam is so prolific.” But it’s not coming from anywhere else but this soul and light that I connect with every morning. My path has all been a process of flow and the calling of my soul. My spiritual practice has guided me and allowed me to stay light and buoyant.
NC: Was there ever a pull to make music in a different tradition? Your dad was a manager for the Grateful Dead, is that right?
SK: Well, my first album wasn’t going to be a spiritual album. It was funded by a great record label, and I was working with a wonderful producer. It seemed that in order to pay bills I needed to make albums with all the songs in English that appealed to an audience wider than a spiritual audience. I was making the album when the 9/11 attacks happened, and I remember trying to write a song about that time. It was such a painful time, and the song wasn’t really doing the work of coming to a place of healing. It was a very intense time for me. I remember the recording session. The song really wasn’t flowing.
I came home after a day in the studio feeling very frustrated, and I felt that I needed to go back to the sacred mantras and the Sikh tradition. I needed to go back to that vibration and to my core. So, I called my producer, and he said, “Okay, why don’t you do this. It can be a side project. We’ll put your major album on hold.” Of course, this was my launching point. I never went back to my “major album.” That side album, Prem, brought me a deep sense of healing, and also got a lot of recognition. I didn’t necessarily have total clarity right off the bat, but I got bumped around and was able to figure out my soul calling. Since that time, I feel a capacity to write songs in English that can still hold the sacredness and energy of mantra and chant.
NC: Original Light gives a lot of background so that people can get the most out of their chanting practice. Can you tell us a bit about your creative process as well? How do you compose your songs?
SK: My songs come from different experiences. Sometimes songs come in when I’m chanting with people and I’m inspired. There’s quite a lot of creativity in the live experience of chant. When Yogi Bhajan taught, he would connect powerfully with his students. There was a sense that he was speaking directly to you, even if the room was completely full. Before I start each concert, I always tune in with the ong namo chant and try to dive into that space of service Yogi Bhajan so masterfully held. I try to feel a sense of where each soul in my audience is coming from. My chanting comes from a space of love and connection with each soul present, and sometimes a song will come from that unique experience of being in the moment together while I’m on stage.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s just a matter of sitting down and writing a song. It takes discipline, too. I need to sit myself down and create time and space for creativity. Now, I’m very committed to having a daily music practice.
NC: That is so true—both inspiration and discipline are needed for our creativity.
SK: All that I can say is that tapping into your creativity takes opening your heart. And we need to develop the muscle of opening the heart. It takes practice. Certainly sitting down to meditate and having that time of internal peace and connection with universal peace helps create this muscle. It’s really the little moments that make or break a day. The idea is to have enough of that experience of long deep breath and chanting in a morning practice so that we bring our tendency toward living in our divine essence and self in the little moments of our days. Those little moments are what make up our lives. Our intentions and our thoughts, particularly those thoughts that are potentially self-destructive about unworthiness and unhappiness, get stopped though mantra. The mantra stops the wheel of insanity from turning.
NC: Thank you. I want to ask you a final question. I know you are a busy touring musician, and you have your daily practice, and you have a daughter. How do you balance motherhood and your artistic and spiritual lives?
SK: Of course it’s always a balance. My daughter is approaching eight now, but there was a time in early motherhood when I was waking up every three hours to nurse, and one of the really important things I realized in that process was that even though I couldn’t sit down on my mat and do my practice in a conventional sense, I could still find ways to chant and meditate and breathe while I was nursing and cooking. Spiritual expansiveness can be integrated into my life in ways I never thought possible. This helped me appreciate my life more and all the little moments. I also try to incorporate my practice into my life with my daughter. I don’t have her in my morning practice every morning, but we do have a weekly community practice to which I bring her and other parents bring children as well. If she loses a bit of sleep once a week but she has the positive experiences, the samskara, of community practice where she has friends to be with and fun times, that is wonderful.
There is also a wonderful summer camp I’m part of: Khalsa Youth Camp in New Mexico at which the children all practice together. My daughter always comes back from that experience pumped to have her own spiritual practice going. The bottom line is if you get the vibration of spiritual practice into your home, whether just you or your whole family, that vibration will permeate your home space and your life. Start with what works for you. Be the example. I’m so grateful to have my mother’s example of her spiritual practice and now to be able to be an example for my own daughter.
NC: Thank you again very much, Snatam, for sharing your time with me and for this conversation. It was a pleasure talking with you. §