The spiritual teacher Ram Dass has a great line: “We’re all God in drag.” In other words, behind all the costumes—the individual body types, social roles, personalities, occupations, etc.—each of us is a manifestation of the same divine consciousness.
As Oprah Winfrey’s voice spills out of my phone, the truth of those words hits me not as a concept, but as a palpable sensation. There’s an unshakeable feeling that something vast, formless and unfathomable is expressing itself through the metaphor of this moment. In the grand earthly melodrama, I have been cast as a reporter charged with the noble and intimidating mission of interviewing a woman who has interviewed the Obamas, Bill Clinton, Paul McCartney and Bill Gates. And Oprah, the goodhearted, down-to-earth megastar, has phoned me to discuss her connection to a Santa Cruz-based singer named Snatam Kaur, whose spiritual chants she listens to each day before meditating. In particular, I’m interested in hearing Winfrey’s description of an unexpected encounter that she had with Kaur in 2012.
“No, I cannot describe that experience,” the entertainment icon states, noticeably energized by the mention of the event. “I’m going to start crying if I start talking about it. It is still one of the greatest manifestations I’ve ever had. It fills me with such hope: just, ‘Oh, my gosh! That can happen! That unbelievable, magical thing can happen.’”
Long story short: On the eve of her 58th birthday last year, Winfrey was sitting with a small group of friends at her house in Maui. Slightly after midnight, she and her guests were nearing the end of a five-hour conversation. Winfrey, who was scheduled to interview the aforementioned Ram Dass two days later, began singing Snatam Kaur’s “Guru Ram Das,” a devotional chant to a different spiritual guide with a strikingly similar name.
“Maria Shriver, one of my dear friends, was sitting next to me, and she said, ‘What are you singing?’” Winfrey recalls. “I said, ‘It’s this woman. You wouldn’t know her.’ And she said, ‘I do know her, because I listen to her music every night! She’s helped me through so much!’ So we start screaming: ‘Oh, my God! You love her? I love her, too!’”
Then the truth came out: Winfrey had considered inviting Kaur to sing for her birthday, but had decided against trying to track her down and fly her to Maui at the last minute. “I said [to Shriver], ‘If I had known you loved her, I would have done it,’” Winfrey says.
At sunset the following day, Winfrey and her friends were kicking back on the porch, enjoying some cocktails after a two-and-a-half-hour land-blessing ceremony with a native Hawaiian priest. Out of the blue, one member of the group, Omega Institute’s Elizabeth Lesser, stood up and read a poem. “And then she said, ‘I want you to know that this is one of the great manifestations. You manifested this,’” Winfrey explains.
Lesser rang a bell, and a turban-clad Snatam Kaur descended the stairs singing “Ong Namo,” the song that had first attracted Winfrey to her music. “And the tears just shot out,” Winfrey states. “I just started sobbing, because I couldn’t figure it out: ‘How did this happen? How did this happen?’”
It seems that after Winfrey had gone to bed the previous night, Shriver went from room to room, plotting to bring Snatam Kaur to Maui. In the morning, they tracked Kaur down and offered to fly her to Maui from wherever she was, only to learn that she was already in Maui, 20 minutes or so from Oprah’s place.
Winfrey’s voice rises in pitch as she retraces the events that led up to the birthday concert. “What are the chances that we would have that conversation … at midnight?” she asks rhetorically. “The word amazing is so overused, but that was just jaw-dropping.” She likens the experience to the time when she desperately wanted to be in the film The Color Purple, but thought she had lost the part. “I was literally praying: ‘All right. I’m gonna let it go. I’m gonna surrender it,’” she says. “And the second I said, ‘I surrender it,’ there was a phone call. And it was Steven Spielberg.”
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
Snatam Kaur was—and is—no less stunned by her encounter with Oprah than Winfrey herself. “Miracles do happen, I’d have to say,” the Colorado-born, California-bred vocalist offers. In Kaur’s view, the first miracle was the fact that she was already in Maui when she was invited to Oprah’s birthday party, while the second miracle was seeing Winfrey chant mantras that Kaur had experienced in the yoga community. “Suddenly seeing such an iconic figure as Oprah chanting our chants made the world seem a lot smaller to me,” she states.
Kaur, an internationally known touring musician with 10 albums to her credit, explains that kirtan (Indian devotional singing) is a key part of the Sikh tradition into which she was born. The mantras that she chants are intended to cause “the energy of the mind to shift to the realization that the divine light is within,” and the pronunciation of these words is designed to stimulate the glandular system as the tongue taps the roof of the mouth. Kaur references an MIT study in which the brainwaves of participants who uttered one of these chants were shown to move from a stressed-out “red” state to a calm “blue” state.
The soft-spoken, unassuming singer says her earliest exposure to kirtan came via her mother, Prabhu Nam Kaur, one of the leading musicians in the western Sikh community. “As things got a little challenging in our lives, my mom would always go to the chanting, and it would do something special for her. [I felt,] ‘I want some of that!’” she laughs. Kaur would later journey to northern India’s Golden Temple, a Sikh sanctuary situated on a lake founded by Guru Ram Das in 1574, to study kirtan with the same musician who taught her mother. “I felt lifetimes of pain and suffering release from just being there,” she says.
Kaur speaks of experiencing a “golden light energy” while doing kirtan—a description that aligns with her father Sat Santokh Singh’s account of a vision he once had while chanting to one of the founders of the Sikh faith. Interestingly, this was the same being Oprah called out to when she manifested her own miracle: Guru Ram Das.
At a summer solstice gathering approximately 20 years ago, Singh was sitting with a group of fellow devotees, chanting the name of that long-deceased guru. “I began to see these beautiful, rolling, golden clouds,” he recounts. “And then I see a gold temple—not the one in India; I’ve been to that one. I don’t know what it was.” He then saw a face, which he intuitively understood to belong to Guru Ram Das. “And I ask him a question: “I’ve been chanting your name for 20 years now. You’ve been gone for 400 years. What am I chanting to? What form do you have? Do you hear my prayers?’ And he said to me—I’m not telling you this is the word of God; this is what came into my mind—‘I am merged with the One. I am merged into divine consciousness. Divine consciousness is infinite; it can do anything at any time. When you call on me, it can manifest as me. And yes, I hear your prayers.’”
Singh says this experience changed his perception of Guru Ram Das’ true identity. “Instead of chanting to a man who lived 400 years ago, I’m chanting to an aspect of the Divine that’s formless, who was that person,” he explains. “The Divine is too big for me to grasp; that’s a handle I can use.”
The Golden Road
The irises of Singh’s eyes are imbued with a rich golden hue, as if permanently transformed by his encounter with the Divine. Framed by a white turban and cumulus beard, they lend an extra measure of authenticity to the 73-year-old Sikh’s Holy Man air. But embedded in Singh’s speech pattern are clues to his history as a Jewish kid from the Bronx, and his easy-does-it demeanor hints of his pot-scented ’60s days, when, after serving as an activist in groups like Committee for Non-Violent Action and the War Resisters League, he managed the pioneering psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead.
The tale of Singh’s first brush with the Dead is no less colorful than one would hope. In early 1967, he took his third LSD voyage in another Golden Temple of sorts: San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where the band was part of a concert event that also featured groups like Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. As the LSD was kicking in, Singh and his friend Ron Thelin were listening to Anonymous Artists of America, a band that had been gifted a Buchla synthesizer by Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass). “They’d sing the words, ‘I’m dying; I’m going out of my mind,’ and the [Buchla] machine would scream,” Singh states. “I’m coming on to my third LSD experience, and I am dying and going out of my mind.”
Naturally, Singh did what any temporarily insane person would do in this situation: He began to literally crawl away from the band. As he put some distance between himself and the Anonymous Artists, his mood went from bad to better, and then from to good to incredible. Raising his head, he found himself situated in front of The Grateful Dead. One of the band’s managers, Danny Rifkin—“with hair out like [comic book character] Mr. Natural”—was leading what Singh describes as a long snake dance. “This was my first experience of awe: just, ‘What an incredible world!’” he says. “And I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible to be able to hang out with these people all the time?’”
Not more than a month later, Singh was appointed treasurer of a Haight-Ashbury-based educational collective called Kiva. Ron Thelin brought him to his new workspace, which happened to be located in the same building as The Grateful Dead’s business offices. Having gained some experience as an organizer while serving as executive director of the War Resisters League, Singh was quickly enlisted to help put together the Bay Area’s Summer of Love concerts, almost all of which featured the Dead. During this period of his life, he forged a lasting friendship with the band’s leader, Jerry Garcia. “I’ve almost never loved anybody as much as I loved Jerry,” he notes. “Sitting and talking with him one-on-one was like listening to his music: The conversation would always go higher and higher and higher.”
Speaking by phone from his Mt. Tamalpais home, former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir recalls that Singh (then Bert Kanegson) exuded a spiritual presence that inspired the members of his band to call him Holy Bert. He says Singh taught him “that spiritual endeavors will tend to positively affect one’s intuition. When he mentioned that to me, it’s like the tumblers clicked, and a door opened up to me.”
Singh’s days with the Dead weren’t all scarlet begonias and Orange Sunshine, though: That’s him being bludgeoned with pool cues in the documentary film Gimme Shelter, which chronicles 1969’s catastrophic Altamont Speedway Free Festival. His head wounds required 60 stitches, and were it not for his Stetson hat absorbing some of the impact of the blows, he would have joined the list of concertgoers who died at the festival.
As his interest shifted away from psychedelics and toward a life of serving others, Singh traded his tie-dyes for holy robes. In 1970, he became a devotee of Sikh leader Yogi Bhajan after hearing that guru speak and lead a chant in Boulder, Colo. Taking the name Sat Santokh Singh Khalsa, he “quit smoking cigarettes and dope, drinking, eating meat and having a very active, ’60s-type sex life, all in one day.”
B. Weir Now
However dramatically his lifestyle might have transformed after his conversion to Sikhism, Singh has remained firm in his commitment to help ease human suffering. In the late ’80s, his dedication to social change led him to found Creating Our Future, an organization designed to empower young people to become activists. Other advisors and participants included Ram Dass, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and a teenaged Snatam Kaur.
One of Kaur’s most vivid memories from her Creating Our Future days is of co-writing a song called “Save Our Earth” with Bob Weir. The young vocalist had planned to sing that song with Weir at a 1990 Earth Day concert in San Francisco; instead, Weir surprised her by handing her his guitar and pushing her onstage with 10 other teenagers. “I’m so grateful that he did that,” she chuckles. “At first I was completely terrified, but if you’re really going to empower young people, you might as well start somewhere.”
Weir recalls the situation differently. “I didn’t know that she had intended for me to sing with her!” he states with a laugh. “But that was the whole Creating Our Future vibe, if you will: getting these kids to stake their claim to this world and affect it in a positive manner.”
As an adult, Kaur continues to put that principle into action. Adhering to a policy she picked up during her days as a food technologist for a company called Peace Cereals, the singer, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, sets aside 10 percent of her earnings for the benefit of others. She also gives concerts in hospices, juvenile detention centers and other facilities for people who normally wouldn’t have access to live music, and she is part of a group of artists who are working to help raise funds for an ongoing effort to clean up India’s Ganga River.
In a phone conversation from his home in Maui, Ram Dass, the renowned spiritual figure indirectly responsible for Oprah Winfrey’s birthday surprise, notes that while serving in Creating Our Future, he was inspired by Sat Santokh Singh’s fusion of social action and spirituality. “In the ’60s, one group wanted peace inside, and one wanted peace outside,” he offers. “And we were very, very [divided]. [Singh] helped me bridge those two things together.”
With characteristic playfulness, the “Be Here Now” author adds that Singh is “a fine friend. He’s very dedicated to his work, and he has a good sense of humor. And he dresses funny!”
Though the initial iteration of Creating Our Future disbanded in the early ’90s, one of its most memorable events—a chanting clinic led by Ram Dass, Kaur and Singh—gave rise to the Healing the Wounds of Life Workshops that Singh leads in the present day. These courses are intended to help participants regain their sense of self-worth, thus allowing them to feel deserving of happiness.
Singh remarks that when he does this healing work, he is calling on Guru Ram Das. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not me doing the healing,” he states. “I am a vehicle for this divine energy.”
For the past 40 years or so, Singh has been sharing the spiritual wealth as a teacher of Kundalini yoga, a set of practices designed to induce higher states of consciousness. He and Prabhu Nam Kaur currently train students and teachers of this discipline at a San Leandro ashram called Hargobind Sadan. Based on a system created by Yogi Bhajan, their classes cover various meditations, yoga sets and kriyás (movements and breathing techniques) for expanded awareness and better physical health. Singh maintains that over the years, more than half of the major Kundalini yoga teachers from Monterey to the northern border have taken teacher training courses with him, and he estimates that about 2,500 people around the world graduate from his classes each year.
From Jan. 26 through Sept. 22, Singh, Prabhu Nam Kaur and Snatam Kaur will present a Kundalini yoga teacher training program at the Pacific Cultural Center in Santa Cruz. Students can take the course to become teachers themselves or simply to immerse themselves in the teachings of Kundalini yoga.
According to Snatam Kaur, the practice of Kundalini yoga enables one to “make the shifts in your life to go full speed ahead in your fullest potential in this lifetime.” As an example of the many Kundalini yoga students she has seen undergo huge metamorphoses, she mentions a man who used to work for the financial services firm J.P. Morgan: “He was one of their top guys. He did the Kundalini yoga teacher training, and he could not take the dirt and the under-the-table dealings [at the firm]—all of those things that we hear about from afar, but he was right in the middle of it. And within two years—I kid you not—he quit his job, started a completely new company that operated in a completely conscious way and was able to take along a number of customers who would prefer to work with him, because he was working in an honest way.”
Naomi Charanpal Kaur, a Kundalini yoga teacher at Santa Cruz’s DiviniTree Yoga & Art Studio and a member of the local resource Kundalini Yoga Santa Cruz, says she had huge anger issues before taking up this practice. “Now that my neutral mind has been nurtured, the things that used to make my blood boil don’t bother me so much,” she offers. “I’m just more relaxed no matter what is happening around me.”
In spite of the name Kundalini yoga, Singh says these classes don’t focus on the awakening of Kundalini (dormant energy at the base of the spine that supposedly can be raised to the top of the head via various yogic and Tantric methods). “What we concentrate on is developing the whole being, so the energy gradually raises, and then your nervous system becomes strong; your practice is strong, so that when these [Kundalini] experiences come, they don’t blow you away.” The instructor notes that he and Prabhu Nam occasionally encounter people who have aroused their Kundalini without properly preparing themselves through the practice of Kundalini yoga. “They’re usually blown off their center, and their nervous system is shot.”
Ram Dass describes a precarious Kundalini awakening he had during his first trip to India in 1967: One afternoon, he was sitting at the feet of his guru, the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba, who unexpectedly “went over on his side and snored. And then the snoring made my Kundalini rise.”
A strong heat climbed up Ram Dass’ spine, mingling with each of his chakras (bodily energy centers). “As the chakras energized, if I was attached to anything in that chakra, the energy went out of my body, and the rest of it went toward the crown chakra. I think that I lost energy from my second chakra, which is the sexual chakra.” When the electrical current reached his throat chakra, he grew “absolutely frightened by the fact that my neck was going to be damaged. And then [Neem Karoli Baba] sat up and said, ‘He’s not ready yet.’ So I guess I’m not ready for that,” he chuckles. “That fear of my neck being broken—that was ego.”
Singh cautions against the pursuit of peak mystical experiences for their own sake. “Practicing Kundalini yoga is not shooting to get totally high and blow yourself out,” he asserts. “It’s about learning how to be centered and be in your flow.” He adds that this practice isn’t just about learning yoga postures; it’s also about learning how to breathe, chant, eat and live on the planet as a conscious human being.
“To be able to stop in life and to give oneself, each day, a moment when you’re in touch with your higher consciousness is a gift that’s incredibly precious,” he states. “Very few of us allow ourselves that. Most of us wake up late and rush off to work, and we never catch up. Life is always running after something that you never catch up to. And the feeling [is] that when I sell my house, when I get married, when I get divorced, when my kids grow up, when I do this or that—then I can live. It’s not just Kundalini yoga; any real spiritual practice is about … well, it’s like Ram Dass said in his first book: being here now.”