The five thousand year old practice of yoga first arrived in the west some one hundred years ago and in that brief time it has become an entirely different thing than what it was. As with most things that are processed through American culture it has received a unique branding that has meshed the ancient tradition to suit the needs of a typical US citizen. There have been arguments since nearly the dawn of civilization about what yoga is, a religion, a philosophy, a science, but in America it has become a fad at the very least. This paper will take an in-depth look at the relationship between yoga and music. This relationship is something that goes back to the dawn of yoga some five thousand years ago. Volumes have been written upon the ancient aspects of sound vibration as the essence of yoga. In this paper I will be exploring the way in which music is used primarily in America’s current yogic culture. The transformation of yoga in the past century is due in part because of the Industrial Revolution’s effect on it but perhaps more due to a desire to synthesize it into a Westernized system. Some of the more popular aspects of yoga and are routinely practiced in the Western world are largely innovations refined from the roots of what came from India but have little resemblance or connection to the yoga of the ancient world. It is quite common to see yoga studios in every suburb, yoga classes in gyms, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, senior communities. The U.S. has created a version of yoga that can be merchandized to the 15.8 million practitioners nationwide. One of the major driving forces behind the attractiveness of this nearly 6 billion dollar a year industry is the way in which it relates to music (Yoga Journal, 2008). Even the virtual beginner has had some experience with the ways in which music is utilized to enhance a modern yoga class. There is a distinct difference between the use of traditional yoga music and the use of contemporary music within a yoga class. This paper will explore the use and effects of music within a yoga class as evaluated by practitioner, instructor and empirical study.
There is great debate on whether or not music should be used in a yoga class at all. Carly Carney the Director of the Beverly Yoga Center in Chicago Illinois practiced most of her life without any music whatsoever, “I felt somewhat disoriented the first time I went to a class that played music” (Carney, 2006). Her experience is not so unusual nor is the practice of the absence of music in yoga class. “Maheshwari, the director of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center of Chicago, which does not play music, explained that [ . . .] With music playing during the class the student can be distracted when the attention should be inward” (Carney, 2006). Daren Friesen of Moksha Yoga Center “likes to play (strictly) traditional Indian instrumental music during his class” yet allows his “instructors to choose to whether they want to play music and the type of music, he has a policy on no music during savasana” (Carney, 2006). Hip-hop mogul and entrepreneur Russell Simmons has launched a Yoga Live program, which infuses live hip-hop performances with yoga classes as an attempt to bring yoga to a wider audience (Archer, 2005). Kimberlee Jensen Stedl invented the Seattle based Punk Rock Yoga where anything from the Sex Pistols to The Clash to Iggy Pop is played (Rowsome, 2007). Others are using music to compliment yogic-like events in the community rather than merely using it just as a distinct attraction in the yoga classroom. Lani Granum, a vinyasa teacher, highlighted the Gay Games in Chicago with her soundtrack that included “songs from the soundtracks form Chariots of Fire and Star Wars (Carney, 2006). In some instances studios are becoming nontraditional venues for “yoga-centric” acts such as David Stringer and Krishna Das, musical performers whose brand of music is influenced by traditional ragas fused with chanting and backed by kirtan bands (Waddel, 2002). There is no real right or wrong to whether or not music should be played in yoga class, or what type of music for that matter, it is as distinct a decision as musical preferences. But music does have some effects on bodies at work that whether you agree with music’s presence in the yoga classroom or not, cannot be denied.
Music has powerful effects on the psyche and once one remembers, as is a common saying in yoga, “mind over matter” music offers a huge potential to be one of yoga’s greatest accomplices. One must first discover what exactly the intention for the use of music in the yoga class is. If the yoga class is based on pain relief or rehabilitation, music has been found to greatly aid in such areas. According to the Journal of Advanced Nursing “music can reduce pain from a range of painful conditions, including osteoarthritis, disc problems and rheumatoid arthritis, by up to 21% and depression by up to 25%” (Siedliecki, 2006). “According to research reported at the American Society of Hypertension meeting in New Orleans, listening to just 30 minutes of classical, Celtic, or raga music every day may significantly reduce high blood pressure” (eMedExpert, 2011). Emotional experiences caused by listening to music can produce secretions of immune-boosting hormones (Kuhn, 2002). All of these ailments have with them their yogic remedies too. Studies show that yoga “reduces stress, tones the body and may alleviate a variety of health conditions, such as anxiety insomnia, depression, infertility, hormonal difficulties, repertory issues, inflammation and fatigue” (Shea, 2011 www.livestrong.com). There is no reason to stop here in proving how music and yoga are counterparts in healing but to further develop the argument for using music in yoga class other applications can be explored as well.
One of the most difficult things about yoga is the requirement for endurance and stamina certain practices demand. Several studies have been done on how music affects athletes and the data almost always shows that music helps in preparation and performance. Though yoga is not a contest or competition we can see how the ways in which music aids athletes can be directly applied to a practitioner who has an intense physical practice. Music has been shown to reduce the feeling of fatigue, increase levels of psychological arousal, improve motor coordination and significantly improve the duration and intensity of concentration (Copeland, 1991). Listening to upbeat music can effectively eliminate exercise induced fatigue (Jing, 2008). More intense yoga classes are typically structured in a way that will in essence break you down then give you some time to recuperate then the teacher will be asking you to push the edge again as soon if not sooner than you have recovered from the last barrage of effort. By choosing appropriate music to motivate students, fatigue, distraction, discouragement and self-doubt can be diminished if not altogether bypassed. Music improves productivity overall when one is trying to accomplish something but there are other aspects of yoga and the effects of music that are not all performance driven (Fox, 1972).
Yoga is a system that can tone the body but it is also used for deep relaxation and music can be an excellent tool to help accomplish this goal as well. Listening to slow, quiet classical music, is proven to reduce stress (Labbe, 2007). Relaxing music reduces sympathetic nervous system activity, decreases anxiety, blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate and may have positive effects on sleep via muscle relaxation and distraction from thoughts (eMedExpert.com, 2011). Music can also decrease depression and negative emotions (eMedExpert, 2011). Yoga is generally thought of by teachers and practitioners alike as a means to general self-care and the ways in which music can encourage the overall health of a listener can go hand in hand with yoga. It is up to the teacher to choose music that is suitable for what they are trying to do and the students to choose a teacher whose preferences align with their own.
To help understand the relationship that is more and more blatantly an intensely personal experience a brief survey was devised that students from two different yoga studios voluntarily and anonymously filled out regarding music and yoga. The survey contains seven questions, the first of which asks: Do you like listening to music while doing yoga? Out of the sixty surveys completed, from March 17th 2011 to March 26th 2011, fifty two volunteers answered that yes, they did like to listen to music while doing yoga, many of those yeses were punctuated enthusiastically with exclamation marks. The other eight surveys all declared that they liked music but with some specific designations. All other eight stated that they like doing yoga both with and or without music. It is worth noting here that the two studios that were polled play music in all of their classes to varying degrees.
The second question on the survey asks: While practicing yoga do you prefer: traditional yoga music/contemporary music/ a blend of both? Traditional style yoga music can be anything ranging from chanting or kirtan (band) chanting to Shakuhachi flute to nature sounds even to some very sparsely played notes with some sort of subtle trance inspired electronic sound that evokes Indian ragas. Five wrote that they prefer traditional, six chose contemporary, and forty six chose a blend of both. One wrote “whatever” and another said that it “depends on the class”. It is quite common that a teacher will use traditional music for the beginning and end of a class as these are the times when an atmosphere of calming and relaxation are suitable for a typical class. Different styles of contemporary music are often used but not randomly. During the certain parts of class that are high energy a teacher might play more upbeat music with more beats per minute, brighter tones and predominantly major chords to accentuate an affect. During a reflective part of class a teacher may use something in kind to suit that intention. It is also very typical that instrumental music is chosen for parts of class that demand more instruction. This way the words of a song do not contend for the practitioners’ attention while they should be listening to the instructor. The ways in which a yoga instructor utilizes music to impact a class is limitless but it is also certainly founded in some method.
The third question asks: on a scale of one to five how important is music in your practice? Three people chose one, five people chose two, eight people chose three, sixteen people chose four and twenty five people chose five. Almost half of the people polled said that music is of the utmost of importance in their yoga practice. 86% say that they prefer yoga and 76% of people polled said they prefer a blend of both traditional yoga music and contemporary music during their practice. The music an instructor plays can aid in reflecting mood, personality, and intention. The fact that these polls show music as such an important part of the satisfaction and culture of yoga turns the teacher into a sort of modern DJ with the ability to turn students on to new music, create impromptu sing-a-longs, deepen the desired meaning and experience of a posture or postures, it can even turn off a student from finding that certain groove in his or he practice if the music is in any way unsavory to the student. These numbers are display that music doesn’t just go with yoga; it can make or break a class for the majority of students. With so much power to control the outcome of a group of strangers’ success in their yoga practice an instructor has an incredible amount of responsibility to choose music to suit a class rather than just put together a mix they want to jam out to.
The fourth and fifth questions on my survey deal directly with what songs and what artists they prefer to listen to while they practice. Question four asks to: Name one to five of your favorite songs to practice to. Question five asks them to: Name one to five of your favorite artists to listen to while practicing. Several people left these parts of the surveys blank or wrote that they like whatever their favorite instructor/s play. Some wrote that they like anything or like it all, while many wrote what they don’t like (metal, hardcore and country were three that were notorious for this). Some left a question mark, but some did have some opinions though it was much more common to find artists than individual songs. Some artists that found their way onto one or more surveys were: The Beatles, Sting, Ray Lamontagne, Enya, Moby, Pretty Lights, Krishna Das, Mumford and Sons and by far the most votes went to Radiohead. The other entries not listed here would all fall roughly into the same category of music that these artists do though it may be a category distinctly separate from sound and related more by mood and content. Most of these artists would be considered by most soulful and rather artistic which shows that yoga does perhaps have a type when it comes to music. The lush sonic atmospheres of bands like Thievery Corporation and Sigur Ros inevitably wind up on just about every yoga teachers mix at some point or another as well, but for some reason were not mentioned as favorites by the people polled.
The responses about specific songs yielded even less results. The majority put “all” while a few here and there referred to “chanting” songs or “oming” songs or “nature” songs as their preference. These questions seemed to upset the quota; the first three questions were quite simple yes or no style and scale rating style questions. Either people did not want to take the time to put something down or they didn’t know what it is they like to listen to while they practice, (though it is clear the overwhelming majority do like it, whatever it is). This latter explanation could be likely since it is not common practice for yoga teachers to advertise who and what they are playing during class, so unless an individual inquires after class one may never know who was blowing their mind while sweating through thunderbolt pose.
The sixth question asks: In what ways does music enhance your yoga practice? Words like focus, energy, motivation, enjoyable, relaxing, inspiration come up again and again. The aspect of breath and its connection to the music is a recurring theme that seems to be of great importance to many practitioners. Rhythm is another aspect that many commented on in aiding their practice. Some people comment on how different parts of class coincide with different types of music and how that relationship creates an affect for them. One wrote that during the final resting pose contemplative music can deepen their experience while upbeat music during core strengthening helps them stay motivated. Many people commented on how important it is in enhancing their practice, often times specifically to help clear their mind or give their mind something to focus on.
This is an excellent example of the how and why yoga has been so transfigured in the West. The traditional yoga music is an aid to take you closer toward the practice while some people in the west use the music to split their mind in two with, perhaps to serve divided attention span. It would seem that it is often not enough for Western practitioners to focus on winding the body into a contortionist shape while keeping a keen awareness of the alignment throughout the musculoskeletal network, and maintaining a steady gaze and forceful breath. This effort becomes tame to some and a source of entertainment such as music can greatly increase the enjoyment and intensity of this actually quite complex dynamic. Music may also quite the nervous system under great stress allowing the practitioner to increase the depth of their surrender into the posture or flow. The survey also illuminates how music allows the practitioner to forget themselves and their surroundings. Music swallows up the sounds coming from their body that they may normally be somewhat insecure about being expressed in a room full of strangers; grunting, passing of gas, breathing. It also cloaks the sounds around you that might otherwise may you uncomfortable had you been aware of them coming from your neighbors. Once again it is apparent that music plays a huge part in creating and/or preventing a mood during a yoga class.
The final question on the survey asks: In what ways can music detract from your yoga practice? Several people proudly wrote that it never does detract. Others wrote that it can be distracting if the wrong song is in the wrong part of class, specifically a wordy song during a more meditative part of class. Others noted that the wrong beat at the wrong time can be disruptive. Some put that they don’t like certain genres. Volume came up as something that can be a distraction. More introspective practitioners talked about how they enjoy the sound of silence, to be able to hear their own breath during class or more directly focus on what they are doing. It can throw some off balance or create an athletic/aerobic feel to the class that some prefer would not intrude into their yoga class. Others put that if they like the song it can be a distraction. Despite the fact that the majority stated that it never does detract the ones who it does usually have very strong opinion about how and why it does.
The idea of yoga as sound itself does not seem so crazy with no other explanation in light of just how important the relationship between yoga and music is as the evidence of this paper has highlighted by way of research and survey. Music has the ability to create an effect on the mind and body of the practitioner that seems to be as important as any of the other elements that make up a class. An instructor must have knowledge of the poses and the system that guides how and why they go together in the specific order they do. The instructor must be able to create an atmosphere to safely support, welcome and encourage a group of students who are more often than not complete strangers. Lighting, heat and time are aspects that must also be considered by the instructor for a fluid successful class. With all these duties music is often times the single thing that can either propel a class into that rarified air of unqualitative greatness or utter annoyance, and yet music is the one thing that a student with no training whatsoever can help guide the teacher with by giving feedback, making suggestions or reacting to. Yet so few students know what it is that they like, they know when they like it and they certainly know when they don’t like it as well. There seems to be a huge disconnect between these two forces that this very paper has shown to be connected in so many powerful ways. Further research could be done on preferences of certain students in certain classes. One of the great things about the relationship between music and yoga is that there is no easy way or any way at all that a formula could be devised to calculate an infinitely agreeable outcome. Just as developing a yoga sequence takes great pangs of trial and error so does dressing that living breathing flow with music. There is no way one can slap on a cure-all remedy for this difficult to understand relationship. The fact that it takes critical thinking each and every time a playlist for yoga is conceived, just to come close to some semblance of success for even the mean average of students in a given class on a given day is beguiling. This alone shows how much more respect our culture owes to these two infinitely rich and expansive art forms.
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Austin Richman is an eRYT yoga teacher, co-founder of cambio Yoga Studios, and architect of the musical project Spiritwell.