Spotlight Q&A: Mike Cohen, Founder of Kirtan Leader Institute 

Last Updated: June 25, 2019By


Check out the Kirtan Leader Institute 2019 teaching schedule at     

As a lifelong musician, Mike Cohen began playing professionally at age 16 as a saxophonist.  

“Along the way I learned at the Eastman School of Music and spent four years playing in clubs, and on the NACA college circuit and cruise ships, with an incredibly talented and soulful African American vocalist who sang like Aretha Franklin,” shares Cohen.   

For a variety of reasons, he shares, Cohen stopped playing the saxophone in 1994. He worked in politics and higher education, launched several small businesses, got deep into qigong and says he had many transformative experiences.  

“In 2000 I went to my first yoga class and absolutely fell in love with Kirtan,” he says. “The practice of chanting Sanskrit mantras offered everything I loved about music. And the energy of the mantras rocked my world!”  

Cohen received deep training for coaching via Somatics, Integral Theory, the Enneagram and Ontology.  

“I used this knowledge about being human through work in leadership development and coaching,” he says. “In 2007, through a series of highly improbable synchronicities I met a very powerful spiritual teacher, serial entrepreneur and author who initiated me into an energetically potent spiritual lineage based on mantra practice.”   

Cohen says he felt called to make the energy and experience of sacred chant accessible to his local community, so in 2006 he began building community in earnest. In 2009 he released his first album and went on the road.  

“Along the way I shared Bhakti (devotion) and Shakti (divine energy) in yoga studios, healing centers and in festivals all over North America,” Cohen shares.  

In order to help others dive deeper into Kirtan and receive instruction in this beautiful practice, Cohen launched the Kirtan Leader Institute on January 1, 2010 as a way to weave together his background in music, leadership development, community building, entrepreneurship and spirituality. The teaching also helps to guide chant fans to launch their home chant practices, share with others, perhaps even lead a band … and in some cases, to create albums, tour and play at festivals! 

CO YOGA + Life® asked Cohen a few more questions about his offerings:    

Y+L: You offer trainings for developing a home chanting practice, as well as more advanced trainings to share that practice with others. Do you recommend people have a musical background to take your trainings? 

MC: No. People can step into this astonishingly simple, beautiful and potent practice with no musical background whatsoever. Our Level 1 program (Launch Your Home Chant Practice) is for total newbies. There’s no prior experience required, other than a love of chanting. One of the really cool things is that the harmonium is so easy to play, and sounds amazing from day one! Over the years I’ve developed a teaching system that students find to be very easy, clear and remarkable intuitive. We tell you exactly what to play on the harmonium, and what to chant. When you do that, the magic happens! It’s been said that Bhakti is dutiful and reliable, you only need to open the door and you can easily get the amazing benefits. Just a little instruction gets people chanting at home and accessing the amazing energy that Kirtan provides.  

It’s been absolutely mind boggling to observe how many people have fallen in love with Kirtan, and how many of those folks want to learn to chant at home and with others! Last year we worked with approximately 300 students. One of the benefits of having a school (Kirtan Leader Institute) that has been around for so long (and has so many students) is that we can direct folks into the appropriate trainings so we can meet them right where they are (Level 1, 2, 3 or 4) and guide them forward. 

All that to say, no prior musical background is required to step into our Level 1 (Intro) program. And, folks can decide how deep they want to go. Our Level 2 (Experienced) programs help people share Kirtan with others. Our Level 3 (Advanced) trainings help people learn how to lead a Kirtan band and build community! At Level 4 (Professional), we help people make albums of original chant music, play at festivals and set up tours. Four of our students have released CD’s, and three more are in the recording studio right now.   

Y+L: What are some of the chants you teach in your trainings and how do you choose which chants to teach?  

MC: The chants we share in our introductory programs are very recognizable as they come from everyone’s favorite Kirtan artists — Krishna Das, Snatam Kaur, Deva Premal, Jai Uttal, Wah, myself and others.   

Through repeated iteration we have developed a crisp and concise Level 1 curriculum that very quickly takes students from “how do you turn this harmonium on?” to playing seven chants from their favorite Kirtan artists.  

We start with a very simple chant, then slowly build on this foundation through each of the subsequent chants. By the end of the Level 1 class folks are amazed by the complex chants they are playing and enjoying! As students progress through our levels the chants they play become more musically interesting and complex. Eventually we teach students to write their own chants. Again, our goal is to meet students right where they are and guide them forward.  

Y+L: Do students have to have singing talent to take one of your classes? 

MC: Not at all. Chanting is our birthright. Chanting is about expressing truth and love through our voice. Kirtan is not merely a musical performance (like singing). It is simultaneously a spiritual practice. At Kirtan Leader Institute we create a very safe and supportive space in which to be a beginner and gently step into learning. The mantras are magic, and they support both ease and transformation. To invite students into truly experiencing their authentic voice we offer fun and gentle vocal training for chanting in all of our programs.  

Y+L: Do you teach music  theory or Sargam (Indian music theory) in your classes? 

MC: One of the important innovations that our beginning and experienced students REALLY appreciate is that there is no requirement to learn Western or Indian music theory. We tell you exactly which notes to play and which fingers to use while playing the harmonium. We teach you exactly what to sing. This makes learning MUCH more manageable as you don’t have to mediate the entire experience through an abstract and frequently confusing musical framework. We show you EXACTLY what to do. It’s easy, and it works! 

For those in our Level 3 and 4 programs, we teach theory, but not from a theoretical perspective. We teach theory in a very grounded, practical and useful perspective. After spending time in our Level 3 programs, many students discover they possess adequate musical background and knowledge to begin writing simple chants. At that point we often introduce more advanced Western musical conceptions and Indian musical theory.  

Y+L: Some say that it’s easy to play a harmonium do you think this is true? Also, do you provide them for your classes? 

MC: The harmonium is both easy to play and sounds amazing from day one. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve taught who had ZERO musical experience. So long as you have a good harmonium, our guidance will get you up and running quickly.  

(Learn more about Mikes take on the harmonium HERE.) 

One of the amazing things about Boulder, and the Kirtan Leader Institute, is that we are able to provide students with harmoniums for all of our programs. We have good instruments available for folks to rent. And, if people want to purchase a top-notch instrument, I typically have fantastic instruments on hand so they can try a few and pick the harmonium they love. We strive to make it super easy for folks to step into this practice. Removing obstacles around having a harmonium makes it much easier for chant lovers to launch their home chant practice.  

Y+L: If someone is working on healing his or her 5th (throat) chakra, will your classes help?  

MC: Absolutely. I have an extensive background in Somatics, which is where I learned about the distinction between “expressiveness” and “containment.” Someone can be overly expressive OR overly contained in their throat chakra. Kirtan is truly wonderful for those who are overly contained as chanting is an “up and out” practice that encourages expression. Working with mantra – through an “up and out” practice – can be quite transformative to those seeking to empower their ability to share their voice with others and in the world. On the other end of the spectrum, I do have a few students who are working to become more contained, and we have been using the practices of Kirtan and Somatics to create powerful shifts.   

Y+L: Anything else you would like to add about the practice of chanting and the experience of your trainings?  

MC: Our motto is “come for the music, stay for the transformation.” We love working with students at all levels- total newbies, harmonium owners that have struggled to get their practice going, yoga teachers seeking to use chant to stand out from the crowd, former musicians seeking to re-integrate music into their life in a way that is aligned with their values and lifestyle, and chant leaders looking to go deeper and serve others more fully.  

We love to support students through our six-week classes in Boulder, our 2-4 day intensives in Boulder and all over the world through private sessions via Skype, FaceTime or Zoom. Folks can access our 2019 teaching schedule at     

I’m excited to share that in a few months we will launch our first online class. Email to stay updated on all of our training programs.  

Kirtan is an astonishingly simple, yet incredibly powerful practice that RE-enchants our disenchanted (and at times fractured and resentful) world. As many of those reading this well know, Kirtan dutifully and reliably delivers Bhakti, which puts us in a mood of gratitude. We instantly feel connected to our bodies. Our head opens and becomes receptive. Our heart extends into the world. Our soul lights up, and we remember how fortunate we are to be alive. Our troubles fade as we feel connection with ourselves, others and the Divine. In this state, gratitude arises, and we experience happiness for no good reason (other than the practice!). This state is our birthright. And, sacred chant is our portal to this experience.  

Our mission at Kirtan Leader Institute is to help make the practice and experience of Kirtan available to all who wish to access it. Our job is to de-mystify the practice of Kirtan, so you can step into the Mystery of Kirtan. Chanting is super easy … and big fun!  

Learn more at Got questions? Email  


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