on the topic of music

A few weeks ago in a post about our culture’s obsession with entertainment I made a secondary comment about music in yoga class.

It pushed a few keys, so to speak.

When the topic of music comes up in teacher training, students are often surprised that there’s anything to talk about. Assumptions have been made about how music will appear in their classes, most likely from their own early experiences and preferences.

Music can have a huge psychological impact on its listener: it can stimulate the production of serotonin and alter brain waves, making you feel happier, reducing stress, and creating a sense of inspiration.

It can also take you straight back to your 10th grade heartbreak. Music is affecting based on memory, exposure, and preference. Because of this, no one type of music can induce the same response in a group of people.

Music, like Yoga, is an art that can be inspiring and spiritual. So let’s look at a few ways to use music (or not) in yoga class.

“Yoga” Music

This is a pretty broad category including everything from David Darling‘s cello to Krisha Das‘s chanting. I’m defining this type of music as instrumental or non-English lyrical.

At its best, this type of music is relaxing, it provides a subtle distraction and cushion for a busy mind, and it creates atmosphere and mood. Classical/instrumental choices can be soothing and make for lovely background music.

The other side is, depending on preference and association, it may be distracting or irritating. Chanting and New Age can get a little woo-woo for some people; others like the traditional feel it brings to the class. As a teacher, it’s important to know the audience: Ganesha Sharanam probably wouldn’t go over great at your corporate lunchtime class (as lovely as it is).

Mainstream

The trend of using mainstream music in yoga class continues to build.

Again, we have some varying degrees. Nick Drake has a different feel than Katy Perry.

But in either case, the downside here is preference, distraction or even singing along (and thus taking one’s attention out of the body), and approaching the practice more as exercise and entertainment.

The upside is a fun, energizing experience. It helps bring everyday life into the practice (and hopefully vice versa). And it may help attract people who would otherwise be turned off by their ideas of yoga (Do I have to be vegetarian and wear hemp? No, in fact you get to listen to The Beatles.).

No Music

Ah, the rarity of precious silence. But the absence of music doesn’t beget silence. Sometimes the voices in our heads are louder, the sounds outside are more distracting, and the silence itself is too much for our usually-stimulated minds to handle.

All the more reason?

Part of this practice is Pratyahara, typically defined as withdrawal of the senses. We are asked to shift from external sensing to inward focus on the breath. On a more practical level, we’re watching the sensations of the body, being mindful of injuries, and gauging appropriateness of intensity (all of which can be reflected in the breath but may be easier, at least in the beginning, to experience as sensation).

There are several repercussions to providing sensory distraction through music. It divides our focus, which is the opposing side to creating a cushion for the mind. It changes the emotional state from how we really feel (or at least how we felt coming into class) to the response we have to the music. Of course, if that response is more relaxed and calm, the effects are positive. Still, it robs us of an opportunity to be with ourselves as we are. And as teachers we have no control over people’s response to the music we choose. It may even color how they receive our teaching.

Ya, and?

In many ways I’m stating the obvious here: music creates mood, its effects cannot be predicted and will not be the same for any two people.

My use of music in both yoga class and personal practice has varied over the last ten years and has swayed from the extremes of spending more time on my playlist than the class sequence to not using music at all. I know the pendulum will continue to swing and my interplay of music and silence will remain a source of growth.

I believe we as teachers do right by our students to be open to new things, willing to get out of our comfort zones, and challenge the things we think we know. In the times between when we’re cruising the wide valley of steadiness, we teach from our greatness by knowing who we are.

Be clear about how and why you’re using music or choosing not to, and “your people” will find you.

***

Let’s hear it — what are your thoughts on music? As a teacher, as a student? Times you’ve loved it, times you haven’t?

Photo credits here and here and here.
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14 Responses to “on the topic of music”


  1. 1 Leili Learning Life March 2, 2011 at 4:05 am

    This is definitely one of those “lessons” from teacher training that I’ve played with over the past 2 months of subbing. Prior to teacher training, I was used to hearing music in class — but in fact, I’d never noticed that most of your classes were silent until we had our discussion on music.

    In the classes I subbed for, I’ve used David Ison’s Sleep System for yin/restorative classes, while the regular classes have had no soundtrack. As I get ready to start teaching Thursday’s 6 am class, I find myself wondering if I have the “right” kind of music to get people going in the morning. I’m also planning a class this weekend for friends. I’ve made a few mental playlists, telling myself the story that if I play my favorite music that my friends will see how cool yoga can be. Isn’t that funny?

    During my home practice, I’ve been using instrumentals (including Sleep System) as a cushion for the mental noise, as you described. Certain yoga tracks or albums can subtly help with timing, too — when the sounds slow down or soften, I know to move towards savasana without glancing at the clock over and over.

    • 2 blogasana March 3, 2011 at 3:56 am

      thanks leili! what great observations and it sounds like a good experiment of what works. hope to hear more of how it continues to go… xo

  2. 3 erica rose March 2, 2011 at 4:54 am

    I have experienced all of the styles you have mentioned and I have to say I find I like all three, but my favorite classes are those where there is no music, and the teacher is just amazing. I find it easier to hear my breath and focus in these classrooms. I also took a class recently where a mix of mainstream music was playing and I found that I had more energy in this class. When I really like the tune, I find myself flowing a little easier… but that just may go back to my years as a dancer. Wonderful topic, thanks for the post!

    • 4 blogasana March 3, 2011 at 3:58 am

      isn’t it funny to have such different experiences based on this one thing? i’m fascinated that when you like the song you feel the flow more easily… i love the idea of rhythm, like the beat of the heart or pulse of the body… in the music. what fun! thanks for the comment!

  3. 5 Michelle March 2, 2011 at 4:56 am

    Thank you for this post. I’m not a fan of music in class. If I don’t like the song, I find it very distracting. Rarely does an instructor match my musical tastes 100%. I appreciate the quiet of classes without music.

  4. 7 Nancy A March 2, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I struggle with this because while I love some music in class when I teach, I often prefer classes without it. I’m all for pratyahara, silence and even eyes closed while practicing (just blogged about it in fact: http://flyingyogini.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/365yoga-day-59-comfortably-numb/ ). My students like music some with words and some without so I try to mix it up a bit. Never the same, never boring, always unexpected. :-)

    • 8 blogasana March 3, 2011 at 4:00 am

      mmm, i used to have this conundrum too… didn’t like music for home but used it in class. for me i think i didn’t trust my ability as a teacher to keep the space together w/o it. i find that students do love it when i use a little music… they always comment :)

  5. 9 Jeannie March 2, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    I can go both ways, but I am a music-crazed person and personally love the low, instrumental, soothing stuff during yoga. It centers me, brings my focus in and in the present. Great post!

    • 10 blogasana March 3, 2011 at 4:02 am

      jeannie – as a “music crazed” person you have earned yourself some music in class :) i think of people like you when i think of music in class… like it contributes to the spiritual aspect and depth of the practice. xoxo

  6. 11 Frenzy36 March 3, 2011 at 1:04 am

    Music helps me turn my yoga practise into a celebration, that stays with me throughout the day. I prefer more upbeat music as well and in my home practise have some radical playlists (eurotechno, Grateful Dead, Arabian rock). Todd Rundgren’s – love is the answer – is in many playlists.

    I also choose at times to have no music and just listen to the wind or birds.

    Still after all the supposed to-s, I prefer music to practise by and quiet for meditation.

    • 12 blogasana March 3, 2011 at 4:03 am

      i love this, dave… a celebration! that’s so cool. and let’s just get rid of the should’s shall we? =)) thanks for the comment!

  7. 13 Tracy March 4, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    As a practitioner, in a class situation, I prefer no music best, although some soothing instrumental is OK. I love the chant of Jai Uttal, and have been using some of his work in my home practice for yoga and meditation. I find Alex Theory’s compositions very meditative and use his sounds for meditation sometimes too. I don’t really go for mainstream in my home practice. But then I never was much of a mainstream music kinda gal. ;o) While I very much enjoy an energizing yoga session, I’m picky about music and still prefer more calming sounds even then. For a little while I’m experimenting more with a free form yoga/dance in my home practice, but I notice I still gravitate towards similar sounds–those that are soothing, yet subtly uplifting. Great topic, Michelle! :o) Happy Days ((HUGS))

  8. 14 Callie March 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Very interesting, there are so many opinions on this! Really I prefer classes with no music-I am so bombarded during the rest of my life with ringing, beeping, chiming, music, television, cars driving by, lights and appliances buzzing-that to have the break in noise is a rest in itself, a luxury really that I am not very good at giving myself. I do find the music can be distracting and take away from my focus. I really appreciate the quite classes held at the studio :)


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