Once upon a time, (or is it- a long time ago, in an ashram far, far away?) there was, the story goes, no music in yoga classes. Maybe some chanting, but that’s it. Then, yoga hit the gyms, and if you’ve ever taken (or taught) yoga at your typical Gold’s or LA Fitness, you’ll know how well that goes; clanging weights, shouting spin instructors, Duran Duran blaring in the main space- not exactly a calming environment. So music crept in, first “soothing” New-Agey music (I put the quotes because most of it oddly has the opposite effect on me, setting my teeth on edge), then Krishna Das and the now booming kirtan (devotional chanting) circuit, and now, it seems, just about anything goes.
Punk Rock Yoga, Soul Train Yoga, Hip-hop yoga, yoga acoustic, you name it, yoga with music has become a big deal (and a big seller, judging by studios I frequent). Teachers will do classes with live music- when I took with Shiva Rea this fall, she had a hand drummer and a sitar player, which was lovely, and many weeks local yog-icon Jaqui Bonwell has a singer at her Monday night class at SoBoYo, to name just two. And most days I’m happily a part of it- a lot of my classes have music, and I have a teach a class called “Prana Acoustic” every week at Prana, with a playlist of varied acoustic music, and occasionally live performances.
BUT (you knew that was coming, right?), I don’t think that that means that when it comes to music and yoga, anything goes. There are some in the yoga community who I respect tremendously who think that in general, music is a bad idea in a yoga class. They cite legitimate scientific data about the effect of music on the brain. They say that yoga is about creating the possibility of stillness in the body and mind, and it’s hard to be still if Band X is blasting.
I appreciate these concerns, and I teach a mix of music and non-music classes, and like it that way. When I teach at gyms, you’re damn right I want music, if only to mask the noise outside the class space. And I believe that every institution that teaches asana should also offer other limbs of yoga (I teach meditation and pranayam- yogic breathing- at one gym) sans external sound. But I also recognize the world we live in, where people like to get down as they get their asana on
Keep in mind, I care about music, a lot. It was (kind of still is) my first career, and I’m currently putting the finishing touches on CD #3, a collection of improvised duos. I can nerd out for hours on which version of the Miles Davis band is best, or exactly what makes “Baby I Want You Back” so infectious. To almost a “High Fidelity” place. So that may color how I think about these things. Before I was a yoga nerd, I was a serious music nerd.
So here, for what it’s worth, are my own personal guidelines for using music in yoga classes. I don’t pretend to be the be all and end all, and folks are welcome to disagree with me, but I feel like this is a conversation worth continuing.
1. You have to believe in it. Don’t play music because you think it fits a particular brand of yoga, or conversely just for shock value. I have friends who will play the Rent soundtrack in class, but they love Broadway, fit their cuing to the song, and generally pull it off. If I tried to play “900,000 minutes”, or whatever it is, I’d look silly. Conversely, once I had to put together a playlist for group taught class. I used a lot of music I love and use regularly, and it didn’t work at all, because it was obvious early in the game that they had no idea what to do with this music I love. Within reason, play what you like.
2. Match the music to where you are in the class. Teaching restorative poses is not the time to blast that big booming Michael Franti hit. And if you want to fire your class up for backbends or suns, maybe that drone in Sanskrit isn’t the best thing. (Hopefully), a class has an arc and an energy level, so the playlist should reflect that.
Specifically, teachers or home practitioners, be careful in restorative poses or long holds where you’re trying to get the body to soften. I was in a class recently with a delightfully long pigeon pose, with power ballads playing in the background. The teacher meant well- the songs had nice, positive messages, and were slow- but the way that music is engineered for radio and car stereos*, it’s emphasizes the high frequencies, which almost poke at the nervous system. So while the body is trying to relax, the music is telling your body to stay alert. (see the above link about music and the nervous system.)
3. Be good, feel good. I’ve run into teachers who say something to the effect of “you are everything you consume”, the food (obviously), but also the paintings you put on your wall, the movies you watch, etc. I think this view can be taken to extremes, but as a teacher, you have a responsibility for the well-being of your class at all times, and that includes what they hear. And regardless of what we think, words matter. Have you every had a child/nephew/friend of the family come out belting some entirely inappropriate song without the foggiest idea of what their singing? And how much it freaked you out? Students certainly aren’t kids, but we are more open and vulnerable when we practice yoga, and that should be accounted for. in music choices.
For me, that specifically means nothing that is even remotely misogynistic or racist. This is why I teach hip-hop yoga only once in a blue moon. I love hip-hop, but I don’t want to hear n*%$# this and b$&*$ that while I’m doing sun salutations. (I won’t rule a song out for a couple of bad words, but more than that and it usually hits the cutting room floor)
Tangent: For me, hip-hop yoga also brings up issues of sort of cultural tourism, with (mostly) lily white folks with only a tangential connection to black culture taking a strongly African-American art form and melding it to something that has it’s own (long) entry on Stuff White People Like. Certainly not everybody, but… that’s a whole ‘nother conversation…
To end on a happier note, here are a few CDs I find myself coming back to again and again in making playlists. When I’m short on time, patience or ITunes gift certificates, they always work:
More “yoga-ey” music
Jai Uttal- Yoga and other Joys and Bhakti Bazaar
Desert Dwellers- Downtempo Dub
Donna Delorey- Lover and the Beloved
Not specifically yoga, wordless:
Bobby McFerrin- Circlesongs
Telefon Tel Aviv- Farenheit Fair Enough
Bill Frisell- Nashville
Not Specifically yoga, with words:
Alexi Murdoch- Time without Consequence
Bobby McFerrin- Vocabularies
Peter Bradley Adams- Gather Up
Single tracks, with and without words
Cassandra Wilson’s cover of Time After Time
Michael Cain- Red Rock Rain from Circa
Radiohead- Everything in its Right Place
There are also many yoga playlists on Ping, Facebook and blogs. Locally, Ame Wren, David Vendetti, and Amy Leydon post playlists regularly, and all have very different and interesting tastes. Sue Jones includes in her ubiquitous Facebook posts mixes and mashups she puts together for her PranaGrooves classes. I don’t love every list or every song (believe me, I get plenty of feedback for my music, and it’s not all positive), but they are thoughtful people who care about the sound of their classes.
What do you think- is there a song or record that you love to hear while practicing? Or that made you leave the room?
* For those who are interested in the nerdiness of it- the last step in producing a record is called mastering. You take the tracks, already mixed for balance, and tweak them for things like how much artificial reverb there is, and which frequency bands are highlighted. In a lot of pop records, producers and engineers crank up the highs (because they are easiest to hear, and come out well in almost any stereo) and in pop music the lows (to get that thudding bass effect). If you need an example, here’s the track “Long Long Day”, from Paul Simon’s (lousy) movie One Trick Pony (the song starts at about 2:45). It’s intentionally a little rough to make it seem live, but it’s clearly well mixed and mastered. Here’s Simon doing an acoustic version on the Muppet Show. You can hear a difference, especially in his voice. And it is a beautiful song.