If you live Deep in the Heart of Texas, where the deer and the antelopes roam, you’re likely to hear more about honky tonk or little doggies, than oṁ namaḥ śivāya. If you’re not a yogi or yoga teacher, repeating sounds in an unrecognizable language for what seems to be ad infinitum, may be beyond your comfort zone.
Kirtan hasn’t made it far beyond the yoga studios here. So, when I met the Bhakti House Band at the Texas Yoga Conference in Houston, and then saw them in Madison, Wisc. and Joshua Tree, Calif., I wanted to know how they’re breaking out of the mold in the ranching and rodeo lands where they live in Fort Worth, Texas.
Kristin Brooks, the Bhakti House Band grande dame and her husband and musical partner, Randall, don’t just sing and play music. They are devoted students of Sanskrit, and they try to pronounce the ancient language without a Texan twang.
Their road to the big Bhakti stages has been full of bumps and u-turns, but they’re pretty used to moving full speed ahead with four-wheel drive to overcome any obstacles. Besides, Ganesha, the elephant with the twisted trunk, is in their side pocket—or rather, on their altar.
I call them Bhakti Bookends because they were the first band to perform at one of the stages at the Lollapalooza for kirtan, Bhakti Fest. Kristin alludes to divine grace for getting them to the premier festivals for kirtan, Bhakti Fest Midwest and West. They had set their eyes on playing at both Bhakti Fests, but it seemed as if their hopes of that had gone to the wind. “Our manager sent our information to an old Bhakti Fest address, so the people that book the bands never received it,” recalls Kristin.
Several months later, one of their friends followed up with the organizers and learned that all festivals were overbooked. Nonetheless, Kristin and Randall kept those dates clear, and set their intentions on opening Bhakti Fest with pure love and devotion.
“A few days later, I go to check my messages. The first one is from our manager. They had found our packet in a random pile in one of the offices and decided to listen to it.” Shortly thereafter, the organizers found room for them in California, but not in Madison. “So we again set our intention to open Bhakti Fest Midwest and released it—actually forgot about it. A few weeks later, I get a text message from our manager informing us of our confirmed time at Midwest. We were like, ‘No way!’ Our bus wasn’t even ready, so we had to hustle to pull something together.”
Their funky bus is reminiscent of The Partridge Family.
“The Blue Sky Bhakti Bus has been the answer to many obstacles for us, for it represents freedom and love. For one, we have three kids that travel with us in addition to band members, which can sometimes add up to 13 traveling in the bus at one time. We can pull over anywhere and sleep without the hassle and expense of a finding a hotel for a busload of people, plus we all get to ride together, and have the opportunity to talk, practice, or just hang out. We’re self-contained for the most part, and honestly just enjoy traveling together in this way.”
The bus attracts a lot of attention, which is an opportunity for Kristin and Randall to meet people from all walks of life. “These interactions have made me appreciate our bus and our lifestyle even more, embracing it more as an opportunity—even an obligation—to remind ourselves and others that freedom and love are not only available to all of us, but that they are our birthright and our destiny.”
In Madison, the bus was parked at Alliant Energy Center, between the campers’ restrooms and the main stage where the band performed. It was pretty visible for the attendees, and convenient for the band.
Being a Bhakti Bookend also provided more opportunities for the band to interact with attendees. The band was there from the very start until the grand finale, where they shared the stage with major kirtan artists from across the U.S. But the opening show time at Joshua Tree wasn’t ideal. It was a weekday morning on the small stage. The crowd hadn’t gotten revved up yet, and only the die-hards had arrived that early. But for Bhakti House Band, any opportunity to share the devotional practice of chanting was a blessing.
“Our intention in coming to Bhakti Fest was to serve, share our hearts through music, and set an authentic tone of love and devotion. What better way to do that than from the intimate morning setting of the Hanuman Stage? We received this opportunity as a gift from the Divine fulfilled as well as an honor to set the energy and mood of the festival. We appreciated the opportunity to connect with a new audience, regardless of what stage or how many participants. It’s the connection with one’s heart regardless of the outer happenings that matters at the end of the day.”
“Randall and I remind our musicians at every event that sharing our hearts through kirtan is NOT a performance, but the opportunity and privilege to go within and connect more deeply with oneself as well as connect with the community—and quite frankly, I NEED that reminder for myself each and every time.”
Kristin and Randall’s road to Bhakti began around the time their blue bus was first picking up schoolchildren.
“I think we were just born Bhaktas. Somehow I was born with an extremely deep sense of love and devotion for God,” Kristin recalls. “I don’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t singing to the Divine. Every day as a child, I would go out to my swing set and swing and sing. That was until my parents divorced, crumbling my perfect world. Singing out to God was all I could do during episodes of severe depression and rebellion in my teens and early 20s. I tried running from God, and became really mixed up—a slave to the ‘west side’ pressures of high society perfectionism that eventually led to bulimia, self mutilation, addiction, and attempted suicide. But Grace always had a hold of my life, and somehow I’d always come back singing to God. I remember having dinner with a friend and confessed that all I wanted to do with my life was sing to God. She had me write it down in my planner book on December 6, 1994: ‘I will sing for God…’ I still have that page of my calendar.”
That was just six months before she first laid eyes on Randall, and intuitively knew they’d be playing music together.
“I had never met anyone so passionate and devoted to researching and knowing and communing with the Truth of the Divine. I was so deeply moved by his humility and intense devotion to God and how that devotion flowed so powerfully through his music. Within a few weeks, I was singing with him, and our journey began as best friends. We’d spend our weekends skating downtown during the day, and then by night immersing ourselves in Greek and Hebrew studies with our small group of friends. The more we learned to translate the scriptures ourselves, the more the spiritual world we had grown up with crumbled. Randall would then translate our findings into devotional and spiritual songs, documenting our journey through his music.”
Kristin grew up during the Vietnam War era. When she was two years old, she wanted to “be president of the world and counteract all of the war and ugliness in the world and spread love to as many people.” Music was her only refuge.
Randall was from the other side of the tracks, surrounded and influenced by gangs, drug dealers, guns, and drive-by shootings. The rebellious son of a Southern Baptist preacher, he rejected his upbringing’s conservative views and sought his own answers to the world.
“However different or opposite our worlds seemed, we were both suffering and could feel that the lives we were living contradicted our inner souls. We were caught up in the game like everyone else, desperately using whatever we could to survive the inner conflict and suffering of ignorance. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were definitely building some life experience that would later transmute into compassion for ourselves and others.”
“We had been engaging the practice of meditation on the inner ahahata nadam or inner OM for a few years under the direction of our first Nada Yoga teacher, then just after 911 occurred, Randall began speaking Sanskrit spontaneously in his sleep. We had no formal education in Sanskrit at that time other than maybe OM. We really weren’t sure what to do with that, so we just went on, studying and practicing what we had been taught in our meditation practice. Then at one point many months later, we came across some simple Sanskrit sutras and were inspired to begin chanting them to deepen our meditation practice. Within a couple of weeks, our entire lives began to shift and open in ways we couldn’t explain. We were hooked. Sanskrit even blew away what we were getting from our Greek and Hebrew studies, and we didn’t even have to understand what we were saying to get the benefit. It was a direct, sound-healing connection with the Divine—like a secret language between us and the Divine. Soon, we began incorporating these chants into our music even before we knew what kirtan was. As time went on, we continued chanting, studying, and writing music, and then finally found our Sanskrit teacher—or she finally found us.”
Kristin and Randall’s teacher, Manorama, founder and creator of the Sanskrit Studies Method, likens the learning of Sanskrit to taking a dip in the ocean and collecting a Dixie cup of wisdom. She says you can’t drink the ocean with a straw. You come to the ocean each time with an open heart and leave with another Dixie cup of Sanskrit’s wisdom.
“We all have to start somewhere, and Sanskrit tends to get us in touch with our vulnerability. Work on one letter at a time, one sound at a time, just like you would a pose with the body,” says Kristin. “Manorama tells us that the Sanskrit alphabet is a series of asanas/poses of the palate. And when teachers and students begin to combine the body’s asanas with their respective Sanskrit names, they are integrating the most gross form of yoga with the most subtle form of yoga (Nada—the yoga of sound). THAT IS POWERFUL.”
“Sanskrit IS the language of Yoga. Most languages in this world are used to label the world around us, but Sanskrit is the language of vibration that originates below the most subtle layer of all manifestation and reverberates and evokes the highest version of all life in its natural perfection.”
One of the best known kirtan artists, Krishna Das, tells people to fake when it comes to Sanskrit. He says it’s in the intent, rather than getting it all letter perfect. Kristin agrees we should focus on devotion and intention first, yet she also believes we all have the capacity to continuously deepen our relationship with Sanskrit in order to expand our awareness on that journey toward that perfection.
“Learning Sanskrit is actually quite fun and beautiful. Randall and I have always focused on one sound or letter at a time. Over the years, our Sanskrit pronunciation has improved naturally and continues to improve. It’s a natural unfolding. Get comfortable with where you are in that process and be gentle with yourself. Bring a little humor and fun into it. To this day, I laugh so hard when my mother-in-law asks me if we still sing what she calls the Salad Bar Song. Instead of her being overwhelmed in learning the Ganesha mantra, OM Gam Ganapataye Namah, she has relaxed and surrendered to the music and chanting and has became comfortable with the meter, even though what she heard was Home Grown on the Buffet Namah.”
“Sanskrit is a process and a practice that is to be approached gently, not only with reverence for the language, but with compassion and patience for oneself. In the beginning, it’s much more about cultivating the devotion and connecting with the essence of the language.”
Kristin and Randall have overcome obstacles throughout their lives. That’s why the Salad Bar Song, in homage to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, is important to them.
“Half the battle is realizing that any so-called obstacle is merely the opportunity to expand one’s awareness. Our fast-food society has conditioned all of us for immediate gratification, so it takes some commitment and consistent practice to move past that. Anyone can overcome any obstacle with an open heart and determination, just as Randall and I have overcome others’ resistance to yoga and kirtan here in a conservative area, and have slowly built a beautiful Texas community that spans from Fort Worth … across the globe.”