Milonga del Angel, noise, and pratyahara

Every morning I practice yoga at a community center a block from home. My “yoga space” is simply an untrafficked upstairs lobby, but at 7am it’s quiet and deserted, with ample space for any asana.

Since early summer, I’d occasionally hear piano playing from one of the adjacent meeting rooms. The pianists were the 10-year-old identical twin sons of a friendly staffer, an immigrant from mainland China.

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I’d seen the twins around the neighborhood before. Off the scale in dorkiness, they were fascinating to watch (as perhaps all twins are). They just seemed particularly klutzy, wrecking their bike chains and panicking, or flicking tiny snowballs at each other (and missing from two feet away). But they were active and happy, enjoying each other’s company, and I liked them.

Once, their mom asked me if their playing was disturbing me. They’re practicing for their exam in August, she explained. “Of course not,” I said, surprised because I sincerely enjoyed the background music. It was not at all disturbing to my yoga.

One song stood out so much that I had to interrupt. “What’s the name of the song you just played?” I asked. The boy’s accented, mumbled answer was unintelligible to me. “Who’s the composer?” I tried another tactic. Again, gobbledygook. Did he say Segovia? Guitar? I had the boy write it down for me: Milonga del Angel by Astor Piazzolla.

Neat, boyish print. I had to smile. He even included the accent mark above the “A.” Gawky or not, this kid knew much more than me about piano. (Sorry, Mom, for wasting my own piano lessons throughout grade school!) I now realize that this composition is among the requirements for the Royal Conservatory of Music Grade 8 exam (lots of clips on YouTube!).

Some yogis highlight the combination of yoga and music. For example, Ramanand Patel teaches asana accompanied by vocalist Mukesh Desai in his Yoga & Sound workshops. And teachers at gym and community center classes often play soft instrumentals to create a mental “studio” space.

When I’m trying to concentrate, I typically prefer silence. Yet, I do some of my best reading at busy airport terminals. I occasionally prefer writing at cafes, amid the hum of chitchat and barista clatter. During yoga classes, teachers might be annoyed at street noise or nearby Music Together singing, but students, including me, seem oblivious (we’re too focused on holding our headstands).

The effects of noise and distraction are very subjective. I generally dislike hearing someone blabbing on the phone when I’m trying to sleep. But if I like the speaker, I’m cool with it, while if I dislike him or her, it’s over for me. Same with the piano playing, I liked the little musicians, so their sounds were pleasant.

In Patanjali’s fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, one must learn to withdraw from the senses. To avoid sensory overload. To avoid being internally scattered by the external world. Should I eventually be okay with any noisy distractions (not to mention any disturbances of sight, taste, touch, and smell)?

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