SNATAM KAUR is a world-renowned, Grammy-nominated devotional singer, musician, teacher, and author, known for the stirring luminous quality of her voice and insightful teachings.
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. 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. As a child, I was immersed in both the Sikh and Kundalini lifestyles.
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. 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.
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 are 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.
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 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 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. 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?
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.
NC: Especially for those of us interested in doing healing and social justice work, it’s so important that we feed our spirit so that we don’t get burned out.
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.
Sometimes people look at the body of work I’ve done 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: 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. Before I start each concert, I always tune in with the ong namo chant and try to dive into that space of service. 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. 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. §