The trouble with mixing yoga and music: Part I

I never do or teach yoga to music. But one morning I scrolled through my iTunes library for something suitable. I chose Trans-Siberian Orchestra‘s Christmas Eve and Other Stories. (It was October.)

My favorite track is “Christmas/ Sarajevo 12/24,” their take on “Carol of the Bells.” Half listening in the midst of my asana practice, I found myself drifting down nostalgia lane… to high school band.

In the first clarinet row, I sat beside my cousin (I’ll call her JM), a year older and forever smiling. She was neither the brightest nor the dullest light, but that was beside the point. She had just the right tan and silky bangs. She was popular, and she had no problems.

I was more of an introvert and thin as a whippet, with fair skin and an unforgivable mass of curls. But JM was too ditzy to threaten, too bubbly to dislike. We shared jokes and giggles behind our shared music stand. Plus, she was a strong clarinetist and I was grateful for her presence when we played “Carol of the Bells.” The first clarinets repeatedly led the staccato four-note motif, which was a killer on the tongue and embouchure.

My practice was fine, if somewhat distracted. For now I prefer listening to music for its own sake—and likewise regarding practicing asana.

Music and pratyahara

While music rarely accompanies Iyengar yoga, I’ve attended general yoga classes where music is a highlight. I’ve read blog posts by teachers who spend hours creating playlists that’ll wow their students.

Music can be fun, and it definitely cranks up (or down) the energy level as needed. But, to me, it takes people out of their minds and bodies. Songs have unique connotations to us. They remind us of people, places, and the past. Should we be daydreaming in the midst of yoga practice?

Even a new and unfamiliar song alters our mind and mood. Often, I hear exalted world music played during Savasana, almost like a choral in a church. Likewise, should we rely on “yoga music” to get us in a yogic mood?

Music is fundamental to our arts, to our culture, and to our happiness. And it might superficially set the right attitude for asana. But isn’t music a sensory pleasure? Yoga is meant to wean us from the sensory pleasures. Can we align pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, with that oh-so-cool class playlist?

GO TO PART II

Images: Vancouver snow; Putamayo Yoga CD

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39 thoughts on “The trouble with mixing yoga and music: Part I

  1. a yoga teacher of mine once had this to say about music:

    *more experienced students can tune it out, newer students can use it to connect to the body.*

    i don’t know about the first part. i’ve definitely found myself humming along without noticing during classes i take. i will, however, agree on the second. newer students need to work on stilling the body before they can still the mind, and sometimes music can help them get there. for music, i try and go back to the beginner’s mindset… and i remember how it helped me.

    i dont know about hours handcrafting playlists, but a little krishna das never hurt.

    1. Unless you’ve heard the same Krishna Das song umpteen gazillion times before — I actually twitch during Savasana if that song plays.

  2. I actually put in feedback about a class where the instructor played a Christian gospel song at every single savasana. I adored her class, no other music during the class, and although I used those opportunities to practice letting go…. my savasana was no longer about absorbing my practice. it was about working at letting go.

    That being said.

    I try not to judge other people’s preferences for their yoga practice. What I mean is- For myself it isn’t as straightforward as all music equals distraction. I know that certain music can help, can add a playfulness to practice or an intensity. I start to feel nervous whenever we start talking in absolutes.

    I have no idea what other practitioners experience when they practice yoga, nor do I feel comfortable informing them that music will distract them. This is beyond ‘everyone has their own yoga’ speak and is more about opening ourselves to the possibility that others have a different experience than ourselves.

  3. I’ve only once gone to a class where music was played. It was the end-of-the-session restorative class, and done as an experiment. Didn’t work for me.
    I sometimes play music before class, but I turn it off when I start teaching. Just doesn’t fit with the inward focus of Iyengar work.
    And that said, when I need more energy for my home practice I turn to music, most often Mozart piano concertos. Very orderly, very organized.

  4. I tend to fall on the ‘music is good’ side of this debate. I think there is a legitimate place and purpose for it. I’m usually find it to be more inspiring and/or relaxing than distracting. But I can see how listening to an old favorite might take you to another time and place.
    Of course we all need a little silence now and then too.

    Last week I wrote about a heavy metal singer who also teaches yoga. Her take on music and spirituality was quite interesting.
    http://thepragmaticyogi.blogspot.com/2010/11/yoga-rocks.html

    Like EcoYogini said, everyone can have a different experience. I don’t think that I could ever find my spiritual side while listening to heavy metal but I think it’s wonderful that there are those out there who do.

  5. The few times I have felt close to pratyahara, it’s been because I connected so strongly to the energy of the music that was playing that I was able to tune out everything else. Everything except the sound waves and the expression of my body. So, I respectfully disagree. 🙂

  6. I’ve never been to a formal class that used music, but at home I do use music now and then. Because I started doing yoga by watching VHS tapes, all of which had music, I never thought it was odd. After I began to study at a studio and practice on my own, I used a CD, but always the same CD every time.

    For me, the CD became short cut. If life was crazy and I can’t calm down, I could put on the CD and I check into my yoga mindset with a few measures. After awhile, my yoga mat and bricks began to be the same trigger, except visually. I saw my yoga mat (always unfurled on the floor) and when I stepped on it, I could let go. As a result, I use my music only 1 or 2 times in a year now.

    I think as long as you ultimately become aware that your using things as aides to reaching your deeper practice anything you do or use is ok. And truly, aren’t the physical poses of yoga themselves really just external cues to help a person tune in as well?

  7. I also get nervous talking in absolutes. Yoga is a different thing to everyone, and for some people, it is merely a physical practice, a great workout. For me, it has been a great life teacher, and one of the most important lessons is to recognize and honor where my body and mind are at during that particular practice.

    I’ve enjoyed music at time, found it to deepen my practice, or really help me get going during an ashtanga flow class. It can be distracting as well.

    It is a tool, like any other though that can deepen our awareness of ourselves, and when used appropriately, it can be a good thing.

  8. We’re so taught that music is the way to become “in the mood.” I’m no yogi, merely a lifelong dancer, and very much appreciate your words. It is an inspiration, and an aspiration, and a thing to be most reverently admired, this notion of achieving a longed-for place within, without the aid of outside mood-alterers. Thank you for your post.

  9. The yoga classes that I have attended did not incorporate music (right on the beach…all I heard was the sound of the waves.) Awesome.

    When I meditate I listen to music. (Gasp!) My mind is so ADD that little noises in the room really distract my focus, so the music actually focuses my mind inward. Go figure. To each their own.

  10. I typically love hearing some sort sounds to match my practice, especially when alone. It just feels good. But soft music or NO MUSIC would BEAT having to hear the cycling class in the next room at my gym, with loud booty music from the ’90s and an instructor shouting out to all her students using a microphone! Still, 15 minutes into class and I did manage to block it out.

  11. Traditionally, I know that some teachers say music should not be part of the a yoga practice. However, traditionally, women should not be taught yoga.

    My practice at home is silent more often than not. Only my breathing and the occasional sounds of my dogs, the windchimes, etc. I have a lovely cd that is OM chanted repeatedly and on days when I need a little external ambiance to help me center, this cd has the ability to immediately center me and helps me to be more deeply immersed in my practice.

    If there were one right way to do yoga, there would be one form of yoga, one school of yoga, and there would either be music in all classes or no music in any classes. I hope for the day when we can all look at how others do their practice and enjoy it as much as we enjoy our own.

  12. I’m a musician, music teacher, and 80% of the way through a yoga teacher training program (Hatha). I’ve never been in a class without music and in the few class I’ve been to without music or when the teacher starts the class, then realizes they forgot to turn the music on, I find myself missing it. Personally I find it as a way to connect to the body and the mind. If the music is carefully selected I find that it adds to the ambiance of the class. I also meditate with music, usually chanting. That’s just my personal preference. I find that Jonathan Goldman’s music especially helps me connect.
    I also enjoyed the Oxygen channel’s yoga program in the morning. It was a nice way to wake up with the up beat music to do yoga to.
    Good post. Good debate!

  13. Never use music anymore when I teach. And it’s very interesting to watch people’s reactions to that…they have to pay attention to their bodies and breath more — especially since I have gotten away from teaching flow and have people hold poses for longer than one breath — and that can be very discomforting to people who are uncomfortable with just being…..;)

  14. Thank you for posting this. I struggle with music all the time. I find it silly and yet students like it. Even as a teacher, I find myself distracted by it. And when I attend classes, there is nothing that annoys me more than Billy Joel in Yoga, and I LOVE Billy Joel . . . in my car. Thanks for the insights!

  15. I enjoy music during my yoga practice. My teachers each have their own distinct playlists, and I don’t find them distracting but rather calming. I’ve also been exposed to some awesome remakes of songs because of it. As hard as I try during practice to clear my mind, it doesn’t usually happen so I’d rather have music in my head than my thoughts! While I completely understand your point, I think I do better with some background noise.

  16. Lovely article, a real blast from my past.
    My first experience with studying yoga (Iyengar method–loved this!), was a pleasant interlude to outside life. Here it was I learned I could achieve some peace. During Savasana, the teacher’s choice was always Stephen Halpern’s earlier work, and this work still has the ability to put me in a yogic frame of mind, I believe, owing to our Savasana being underlined by it. What a lovely experience this was for me!
    [A broken tailbone has kept me off the mat for years now–pretty painful, but I still do stretches and a few natural postures based on my experiences through Iyengar’s technique.]
    Imagine, though, how simple an application that was for me, simply hearing that vintage Halpern album to become more in tune with the body and its resting point. Very peaceful.

  17. I have been a devoted follower of the yoga program “Inhale” for nearly 6 years now. Host Steve Ross utilizes all sorts of lively, energetic pop music to provide the background to his classes, and I’ve gotta say, I love it. The music is upbeat and positive, and now, whenever I hear Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” I very nearly go into a downward dog position wherever I’m at (even in the supermarket). These popular songs he used now make me recall fond memories of doing yoga and how it made me feel, mind, body and soul.

    1. I’m sorry, but I was just skimming through the comments and I have to say that I love that Stevie Wonder makes you want to hop into the downward dog position. That sounds so wonderfully comical. It made me smile. 🙂

      marlowesnymph.wordpress.com

    2. How delightfully funny that must feel to you!
      Grinning ear to ear on this one. 🙂
      Funny how we are all a lot of Pavlovian dogs, so to speak, when it comes to associating body with repeat experience.

  18. I rarely listen to music during my yoga sessions, however, there is the occasional evening where i’ll break out my ancient Mike Rowland ‘The Fairy Ring’ CD.. I always sleep well after that. Great post! 🙂

      1. You’re welcome! I read your previous comment and am sorry to hear about your broken tailbone. I also struggle with an excruciatingly painful old snowboarding injury to my tailbone. Yoga helps, but sometimes I feel like it needs to re-broken and put back into its original place! I wish there were some sort of solution for those of us with this predicament 😦

  19. what you said is quite right, i myself get engrossed into music whenever i listen to music, preferably Rabindra sangeet when i am doing yoga and PRANAYAM…i guess its always better if you do it in an open environment, in the wee hours of the morning when the disturbance is the least..

  20. Interesting. You know, I’ve never used music during my sessions at home, but every time I’ve gone to the gym for a class, they’ve used it. I’ve never had a problem with it, but I do prefer my yoga plain. 🙂

    marlowesnymph.wordpress.com

  21. I will sometimes listen to the yoga sutras while I practice asana. But for pranayama or savasana, I prefer silence. Otherwise, your senses are engaged. No other way to look at it…

  22. I definitely agree music being a “distraction” it is an emotion, and a memory, and I for one cannot help my mind wondering along with music, it takes me to a lot of places… ;o)

  23. This is a nice post, YogaSpy, and you make some important points.

    I don’t play music in my classes, because I do think it detracts from inner focus.

    In my own practice, I do occasionally use music to help “get me in the mood” — but once I’m in the zone, I turn it off. Definitely no music during savasana and meditation. And I’ve found that I desire music during my asana practice less and less, I think because I feel more and more need for my practice to be a completely peaceful interlude with as little external interruption/stimulation as possible.

    At times I have very much enjoyed music played when I’ve taken other people’s classes. But I wonder, is that really the point? How important is “enjoyment” in the debate? I really enjoy sugar, for example, and am loathe to give it up. But I do recognize that it’s a kind of drug a stimulus, and that meditation might be more effective, more authentic, on a sugar-free diet.

    I’m not arguing that we have to give up all pleasures to be yogis — I’d be the last person to do that myself! — but i do think we want to be aware of how we’re using various “crutches” to escape ourselves.

  24. The thing about music is that it is such a personal thing, so cannot really work in class. In a class I think there should be quiet. What you do at home is up to you, so if music works for you, go for it.

  25. I haven’t attended that many different yoga classes due to the fact that in my area, few studios offer 6 AM classes (which is when I have time to take classes). The teacher of the class that I consistently go to always plays music. Last week, she forgot until about 20 minutes into class and I realized how much I preferred the silence. The music she chooses and how she sequences them don’t necessarily make sense to me and I sometimes find it distracting–too lively, too mellow-just a distraction. I don’t know . . . in a class setting, I think I prefer silence. When practicing alone, I have the freedom to choose what I want to hear. In class, I kind of feel subjected to it at times.

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