Interview by Dhāraṇī Diana Díaz
Devātman Daniel Givens is an accomplished interdisciplinary artist whose work deals with the intersectional nature of identity. Exploring spirituality and humanity, he incorporates the myths, folklore, and urban legends that relate to people of color across the African diaspora. This summer he is teaching grade-school kids as part of the Yoga At School program. He has recently received certification as an IYI Meditation teacher and graduated from Sivananda’s online 200-hour teacher training course. He received his gong teacher certification under the instruction of Grand Gong Master Don Conreaux in 2020 and his Integral Yoga 200-hour certification in the spring of 2019; he is currently enrolled in IYI’s Raja TT. He is a calm, kind, creative, and no-nonsense Yogi who enjoys the pursuit of finding the link between art, sound, and spirituality. He has collaborated with many artists locally and internationally across various genres and mediums. Born in Chicago, raised in Milwaukee, he currently lives in Harlem, in New York City.
Your journey is an interesting path. When and how did you discover Yoga? What brought you to IYI?
I became interested in the concept of spiritual transformation as a teenager but didn’t have the words for it until much later. Through the years I found myself attracted to Hare Krishnas, Rastafarians, and Buddhism, all mostly through my exposure to sacred world music, especially from India, Africa, and the Middle East. As a result of my interest in the life and spiritual journeys of musicians, artists, and writers, I began to learn more about Yoga, Buddhism, Sufism, and mysticism and have a wider understanding of sacred traditions in general. I grew up Catholic. Though I was led to Integral through the recommendation of a friend, the connections of IYI to Alice Coltrane and of Peter Max were meaningful to me.
You wear a lot of hats here: Dreamwalk, A/V, gong player, Yoga teacher, RDAD, and more. Tell us about that.
I started volunteering in the kitchen and taking classes regularly. I wasn’t planning on being a Yoga teacher but had already become certified as a personal trainer, so taking Teacher Training felt like a natural progression, as I became more interested in and involved with the community and the teachings of Swami Satchidananda and Swami Sivananda. During TT, my skills in live sound came to the surface, and I was asked to take on the role of A/V person for Kirtans and other live events. Before that I started attending and eventually assisting with the gong baths, the equinoxes, the solstices, and the all-nighters. Through my history with music I was naturally attracted to the power of vibrations, and the gongs opened for me a new perspective on the possibilities of sound. I followed that lead into taking the gong TT. I also served as a camp counselor at Camp Yogaville for two summers. The more I let myself be available, the more opportunities appeared. As one of the few Black men around IYI when RDAD began, I felt that, when asked, I should be a part of it. I’ve learned through the years that because of the various things that draw my attention, I often don’t see myself reflected in many spaces and have become more comfortable with that reality. Be it gay, Black, male, American, or any combination, I learned to embrace my passions and individuality and to follow my heart. After I met and worked with the musician Swami Laraaji Nadabrahmananda, my confidence about being a Black man in the Yoga world grew.
What drew you to sound healing?
I spent many years having an inner debate over whether and how the sacred and the secular could co-exist. For me the providing of sound healing allowed a pathway for the two. Music has always had a strong presence in my life, and when I look at the life of people like Alice Coltrane and her clear journey from jazz to devotional music, the link between spirituality and music becomes clearer to me. On a trip to San Francisco I had the opportunity to attend the Saint John Coltrane church, which had pictures of the Black jazz musician depicted as a saint. Sound has the power to transform us, heal us, empower us. I listened to gamelan music, tons of Indian classical music, and other world music that has spiritual foundations and am learning the power of intention. One of my favorite books in this regard is The Mysticism of Sound and Music, by Hazrat Inayat Khan. That opened my awareness of the power of vibrations. My handling the sound for the Kirtan performances also showed me the beauty of sacred music and how intention can be universal or shared.
What do you hope your students will receive from your class?
When I teach, I want my students to feel that they are in a safe space. The door is open for them to step into a new way of being. It’s okay to leave this planet, let go, and travel to where they have been afraid to go before, the uncomfortable spaces, unfamiliar territories. The world is full of wonder for them to explore. They are much more than society allows them to be, and they are free to shine as brightly as they wish.
What has sustained you the most during the pandemic?
My art-making, asana, and meditation practices have been my focus during this time, but it took a while to get there. I went through many moods, yet those three have been with me the whole time, growing deeper and more meaningful along the way. I embraced the silent, empty streets, the time alone, and I unexpectedly became more connected to other parts of the world through technology.
What has surprised you about yourself during this pandemic?
I’ve become more self-assured during this time; more resilient, maybe. I’ve done, am still doing, a lot of personal digging and discovering new things about myself all the time. I feel as if I’d grown or matured a lot. My father passed in the fall of 2019, and my having a whole year to not have to go back to the same day-to-day was really helpful and enlightening; it gave me space. And though I know a lot of people had it really rough, it allowed me to move into a new, positive phase. I am surprised at how calm I’ve become.
I appreciate how you truly teach a class for every BODY. How much of your teaching style is attributable to your personality, your life experience, and your teaching wisdom?
Some of it comes from being a personal trainer and having to work with people at various skill levels. Also, I always try to remember how I started and how intimidating a Yoga class can be. I like to find interesting ways to challenge people, not in a “Put your leg behind your head” sort of way but instead in seemingly simple yet challenging ways, to get people to step out of their comfort zones; things that are fun and subtle yet also beneficial and rewarding. Two of my current favorite Sanskrit words are maya and upadhi. Maya is illusion or magic, the power of the Brahman to make the self think that an illusion is real, and upadhi is an adjunct, thinking something is limiting when it really doesn’t exist. I feel that we live much of our lives with these perceptions of what is possible or impossible, and most times it’s just our limited thinking that gives us that false impression. When I teach I like to offer an alternative view of what is possible, allowing people to see themselves in a new light.
What is one of your hidden talents? How does it show up in your own Yogic practices and in the classes and workshops you lead?
People often like to put others in a box: you do one thing. I’m the opposite. I like to have various interests. Everything I do is about art, beauty, and rhythm—true to my Libra nature, I suppose. I try to infuse those aspects into anything and everything that I am a part of. I don’t know about hidden talent, but because I’m involved in various worlds, sometimes people from one are surprised when they find out that I do this other thing. For example, Yogis may not know about my art or music life, and likewise my DJ friends don’t know I practice Yoga and meditate or play gongs. I’m constantly striving to combine these elements in a cohesive whole.
Tell us a little about what inspires you, as a founding member of Dreamwalk, in guided meditation.
Being part of Dreamwalk gives me an opportunity to connect with my fellow Yogis of color to offer a safe space where we can focus on togetherness and growth. It allows me to share and offer my various skills and interests, from sound to meditation, production, and tech, in an effort to connect across boundaries. It gives me a chance to bring awareness to holidays and such things that are not always recognized or celebrated in Yoga communities. I see it as a kind of outreach that was born when a select group of individuals in the sangha at Integral felt the need to bring attention to the underrepresented and to reach outside the community. As far as meditation goes, in that setting, I try to encourage and uplift, bring vision and adventure, opening the door to an unlimited openness and vastness that lives inside each of us.
You’re also a founding member of RDAD. What does that mean to you?
Being part of RDAD is a chance to help right some wrongs, within and outside the community. It is a chance to help shift those patterns that have found deep roots in most Yoga communities, especially in the U.S. Brown men, men from India, were responsible for bringing these teachings of higher living to America and around the world, yet through the years, and since many of their departures from the body, the importance, weight, value, and acknowledgement of this fact have been diluted, minimalized, or lost altogether. I see my part as a continuation of people of color on a path of self-awareness, self-realization, and self-healing, with a social justice and social equity mind-set.
Anything else you’d like to share about yourself?
For fear of oversharing (ha, ha!), I think I’ve said plenty.