Photo by Michelle Grambeau with permission from Wanderlust Festival.
Does music have a place in the yoga studio? A look at all sides of the hot-button issue.
By Andrew Gurvey
Music has wafted into the yoga studio and taken root. Many factors have contributed to the trend: the westernization and popularity of yoga, the ease of creating and sharing playlists, and the fact that a lot of yogis just like music. But popularity doesn’t mean unanimity. Not every student finds music in class helpful. What is the current discourse regarding music in the practice space? Does music bring us to or take us further away from authenticity in the practice? I present the issues here and then offer representative voices of local teachers — Debi Buzil and Jim Bennitt — with differing viewpoints.
First, it is essential to consider the evolution of yoga in the West. These aspects relate to our society’s tendency toward excess and instant gratification. With the advent of modern technology, such as the smartphone, the tablet computer and instantaneous downloadable information, we are able to easily overwhelm ourselves with propaganda. In general, Americans are overstimulated by a constant influx of information, spin-doctored imagery and a fickle pop culture. Our senses are bombarded by the superficial and the subjective, making it even more difficult to unplug from the mayhem and the chatter. Finding silence takes effort.
In contemporary life, we are so enmeshed in inessential but ostensibly important details that in yoga class, we are reminded to leave the chaos (and our cell phones) at the studio door. Contraband sneaks past and we hear a phone vibrate or ping. We are so powered up and logged into our hectic schedules that even finding the entranceway to a place of introspection and quiet is elusive.
For many of us, music represents that entranceway.
The perfect song plays in the perfect moment and makes an indelible imprint on our consciousness. For many of us, regardless of our state of mind, listening to music is cathartic. The song often helps us shift away from emotional stagnancy and express what we need to in the moment. Music makes us laugh, cry, dance and experience our broader emotional spectrum.Music inspires nostalgia, bringing us back to times — good and bad — in our lives. It also brings us into the present moment. When we lose ourselves in the music, we also divest of our emotional clutter and attachments.
Music is a powerful tool in life and is equally so when utilized in a yoga practice; however, the yoga playlist creator has to remain cognizant of the audience’s varied musical tastes. The yogi’s song selection must come from the heart and soul and not be intended as white noise or filler, lest it distract the student during practice. Of course, in the same way that one may not connect with a particular style of yoga or a teacher, a student may not connect with a song. Unfortunately, it is easy to be dogmatic about what music should or should not be played.
To resist the propensity towards dogma, the teacher uses the playlist with intention — that is, to enhance instruction. Music when thoughtfully used by a yoga teacher can be an extension of the yoga practice. In the same way that a brick or strap can help us with our yoga poses, music can help us find grounding and focus within the practice. The playlist gives us the opportunity to let go by connecting with its rhythms and sounds.
Because the introduction of music into the yoga practice means that at least one point of focus will be the music, at maximum, Patanjali’s sixth limb, dharana (concentration on one point of focus), could perhaps be achieved through musical connection. The seventh limb, dhyana (meditation), would require an even more enhanced level of concentration, but without the specified focus. As such, music would probably prevent the yogi from reaching that point due to its poignancy and the connection often made within the listener. With this in mind, it would seem that to achieve limbs seven and eight, samadhi (enlightenment), the journey needs to be taken in silence where only the breath is audible.
Enlightenment involves a connection to the self and the universe such that the perception of the duality between both ceases to exist. The veil of mystery that shrouds us from seeing the totality of the universe is lifted. Since the practice of meditation on the path to enlightenment is intended to be done in silence and with a focus towards emptying the mind, logic dictates that listening to music counters silence and hence, would be verboten.
Enter the silence.
My introduction to yoga was in classes at health clubs. After a year or two of asana practice, I began to branch out and try different studios. All incorporated music, and I didn’t know otherwise. And then one evening the teacher who introduced me to yoga was giving a class at a new yoga studio in suburban Barrington. I enjoyed being in this beautiful fresh space with a teacher whom I knew and liked so much. As class began, we warmed up with pranayama (breathwork) and then began to move with the breath. Something was different. About 20 minutes into practice, I realized that no music was playing. This novel way to practice in silence was exciting, even exhilarating! The class was well crafted: from flow sequences to extended holds, from alignment assistance to breath focus.
My breath sounded like powerful steam circulating in my ears. At other times, I felt as though I was vibrating. When the teacher cued an inhalation and exhalation, I felt the ebb and flow of my breath to the core of my being. I could hear my fellow students’ breath, too. The sound formed a collective rhythm and allowed me to go deeper into myself. At times, my eyes were closed. The linear idea of time, for a brief period, slipped away. The teacher’s voice and my breath guided me along. In Savasana, my body fell limp. I had never felt more present and yet, more detached.
This yoga class was one of my most pivotal. I have since taken and thoroughly enjoyed other classes sans playlist. Having had the transformative experience in the Barrington class, I have a deep appreciation for musicfree yoga classes and understand why the absence of a playlist is necessary to perhaps take that final step toward enlightenment.
Yoga practice is based upon disconnecting from the external and the superficial to facilitate a deeper connection with the internal or true self. Eventually, when the connection deepens, the idea is that the yogi is able to shift consciousness away from all physical and mental meanderings to find a deep, empty stillness in the soul wherein a non-dualistic union between humanity and the universe exists. This union samadhi (enlightenment) is indicated by a degree of clarity in which all physical, mental and spiritual clutter is detached from the level of deep concentration and connection that is the pathway to enlightenment. Music helps us find this pathway. Silence helps us continue on it.
Music and silence both serve the purpose of helping to clear away the noise of our daily existence. Sometimes it takes a long time to find body awareness or an appreciation for being in the present moment. For many of us with extra clutter, noise and baggage, the attempt to go straight to silence can inspire “monkey mind” and increase agitation. Music can alleviate this, helping us find a focused path so that our yoga journey can begin without leaving us stuck at the entranceway. Silence is also powerful and can open the proverbial heavens of the consciousness, taking the yogi the rest of the way on the journey to enlightenment. Music tames the savage beast, but silence is golden, both can be ever-present in the practice of yoga.
My body is an instrument. My skin is the membrane, negotiating the outer with the inner. As I slow down and sit quietly, I feel the rhythm of my breath. My fingers in gyan mudra (index finger to thumb), I feel my pulse. Right there. Between my fingers. The big, bad beat that never stops.
It’s Thursday morning, and I’m in my usual yoga class with my beloved teacher Geri Bleier. We recite “Om” three times. I fall into my breath. Emanating from the speakers, Krishna Das chants a prayer. We do some gentle work with the spine. My heart and body warm. Next, Wah! sings about Ram, a Hindu hero. We stand for Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), and I feel an inner sun and my expanding heart. The music permeates my skin and its vibrations are pure and uplifting.
We begin vinyasa flow. A slow groove African song feels peaceful and rhythmic. OneRepublic does a chill version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” I know what that sound is. My breath. Jim James does a splendid rendition of “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time).” Next, Adele offers a Cure song.
The familiar songs free me from my regular thought, and class moves briskly. But wait, there’s more. Thievery Corporation’s “The Richest Man In Babylon.” My mother loved this song and when she died, I inherited her CD. Mind: go back to practice! Focus on my breath.
During inversions, friendly chatter replaces the music. During backbends, suddenly, the Rolling Stones sing “Round and Round.” This works for me. My heart is opening and shining with those of the other yogis in class. I love this feeling.
The music isn’t quiet background music. It’s a presence in the room, a force to be reckoned with. I respect my teacher’s sequencing and skilled instruction, and the girl can put together a playlist.
Oh, boy. Devi 2000’s “Tierra Mi Cuerpo” comes on. That’s my band, that’s me singing, I can’t focus. Critical thoughts are useless on the mat. Just focus on the breath. Forward folds are introspective with kindness, temperance and awareness. I must focus and avoid my tendency towards tiny tears in my right hamstring. Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace” is next. I’m not a fan of the Dead, but my friend on the neighboring mat is. We exchange smiles.
As we prepare for Savasana, I hear the most beautiful but unfamiliar song. My cell phone app Shazam could identify its title and artist. OK, drop that thought and return to my breath. On the mat, I must come back to my breath over and over again — music or no music. That is the practice.
When I began practicing yoga in 1996, I enjoyed music during my classes. Songs alternately stimulated or calmed the nervous system and made difficult poses a little more accessible. Songs I liked made class more fun. Eventually, though, I noticed music could disturb my practice. Sometimes I couldn’t hear the teacher — or even my ujjayi pranayama (ocean breath) — over the loud music. Turning my awareness inward became increasingly difficult with an external broadcast.
When I became a yoga teacher, I experimented with music for my classes: ancient mantras, classical, jazz, rock and even metal. About 10 years ago, I concluded that while it’s important to have fun during your practice and though a thoughtfully created playlist can help set the tone, no soundtrack is better than the sound of my own breath. Listening to the internal whisper of the breath focuses my mind, helps me stay present to my effort and most importantly, heightens my awareness of the unconscious becoming conscious.
Many fellow teachers take a different stance and spend considerable time preparing playlists. While the playlist can attract more students by creating a certain vibration, the music can distract from one of the main practices in yoga: pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses).
Pratyahara is described in many ancient texts on yoga.
In the Yoga Sutra, pratyahara is the fifth limb and enables “supreme mastery of the sense organs” (2.55).
The Bhagavad Gita explains, “Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will. Aspirants abstain from sense pleasures, but they still crave for them. These cravings all disappear when they see the highest goal. Even of those who tread the path, the stormy senses can sweep off the mind. They live in wisdom who subdue their senses and keep their minds ever absorbed in me” (2:58- 60).
The Gheranda Samhita advises, “The restless and unsteady mind is to be reined in from wherever it goes and brought under control in the self. Wherever the sight goes, the mind follows, so draw it back and bring it under control in the self. Hold the mind back from sounds, whether complimentary, rude, pleasant or horrible, and bring it under control in the self” (4:2-4).
Pratyahara bridges the external and the internal practices of yoga. As environmental stimulation lessens, we become more aware of the content of the mind with less effort. In today’s media-saturated culture, silence is rare. The 60, 75 or 90 minutes we practice yoga is a time to turn inward and listen to our inner voice. I believe the fewer distractions the student has during that time, the more likely he or she will receive guidance from within.