Music in Yoga Class? WTF?

Via on Oct 20, 2012

I’ve noticed an increase in music being played in yoga classes, as I travel around the country giving teacher-trainings at studios.

Some studios actually require music to be played during class; some teachers get suggestions for a “class playlist” from students on Facebook and some play music softly, like elevator music.

I always ask the teachers, “Why?” and “What is it for?”

I don’t really care if you play music or not—but I do wonder why you might play it—and I have not heard one convincing answer yet.

It’s an emotional topic; I have seen teachers defend playing music as though it’s life or death. But I have yet to hear how playing music has anything at all to do with teaching yoga.

Teachers tell me that playing music in class is entertaining, fills the silence, gives the student something to listen to; it might make their class unique and help new people integrate more easily.

I confess, years ago when I started teaching, I played music in every class. And I used every one of the above reasons to justify doing so; some part of me knew it was a compromise of yoga, but I didn’t want to look at that. I had carefully mixed CDs, numbered one right up to number twenty-one. Then one class, I forgot my sleeve of CDs…and I was petrified! I immediately recognized why I used music: I didn’t think I was enough as a teacher—and perhaps, feared that yoga wasn’t enough.

I was playing music in class for me, not for my students. I used music to satisfy my insecurity as a teacher; to make my classes “popular,” to entertain the class…to actually hide myself from the class and  to avoid silence. Up until this point, I had never taught without music and my classes were pretty “successful.”

So, this day, with no CDs, I had to teach without music.

And right away, I realized I could really hear the class—this is critical information for any Vinyasa teacher—music had blocked this essential information.

I realized, in that moment, that I had been teaching an imaginary class in my head; I had been guessing at the timing of movement, transition and breath. Now, the actual class was before me, in all of their breath-reality.

I vividly experienced how music can hinder teaching Vinyasa yoga (I’m not referring to kirtan and chanting—I mean playing music in a typical asana class).

Without music, classes got a lot more dynamic and effective—when you get people really breathing, doing real pranayama, with focused awareness for an entire class, it is going to work. Transformative…way beyond mere entertainment.

When teachers come to my teacher trainings or when I give one at their studio, I get to spend hours with them working on their teaching. When the topic of music comes up, there is sometimes confusion among yoga teachers about what they are teaching. More than one teacher has asserted that yoga is “everything,” so “everything goes” in class—including music.

I agree that yoga might apply to everything but as I understand it, yoga is not everything.

Classically, Patanjali is specific; his Yoga Sutras say, “Do these eight, very specific things and you will awaken.”

The Sutras do not say, do everything you want and you will awaken. And nowhere does it say to play music.  

A prenatal teacher once explained to me that she played a certain song for her moms-to-be, in savasana, at every class. The plan was during delivery was to play that song and it would remind them of savasana. I pointed out that that was not yoga, either.

Her Pavlovian plan might work, I agreed, but it was clearly not yoga. Her plan required her pregnant students to seek something external to self, in this case a song, to produce relaxation.

If this is yoga, then drinking wine is yoga. Yoga is an internal focus; yoga could be defined as focusing on the internal to experience the eternal.

In other words, finding peace and clarity by first focusing internally on breath and body, as opposed to endlessly searching for happiness outside yourself, such as in music, wine, possessions, status, pleasure, etc. It’s not that these things are either good or bad, it’s just that they don’t sustain you in the state of yoga, clarity, union and happiness.

What is it for? I invite you to ask yourself this question about everything you do as a teacher. This question helps me to chuck everything that is iffy or not effective.

This is a living process.

My hope for teachers is that they continue to hone in on more and more effective teaching of yoga…what would a class feel like when all that is left is what works?

What is it for? How does music further our students’ learning of yoga…or does it just get in the way? Does external entertainment really help the student to focus within?

(By the way, disc number twenty-one was my last CD, because after that, I stopped playing music. And, not as a moral to the story but as a fact, my classes jumped in size. I believe that’s because, without music, I was more effective at teaching yoga.)

Relephant: Why I Don’t Play Music in Yoga Class.

Editor: Bryonie Wise

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About Philip Urso

Yoga Teacher Philip Urso loves to train yoga teachers how to teach exhilarating and unscripted vinyasa yoga classes. He co-founded Live Love Teach Yoga Teacher Training School with fellow yoga teachers Deborah Williamson and Stacy Dockins. His two 5-star podcasts on iTunes — A Crash Course in Miracles and Yoga Classes, Live Love Teach — have over two million downloads. Philip studies the dynamics of love and fear and teaches practical, reliable and lasting methods for choosing between the two. His Elephant Journal column explores these very themes. More info at PhilipUrso.com

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130 Responses to “Music in Yoga Class? WTF?”

  1. Britt says:

    Music is vibration, just like our bodies. It affects the body and the mind in a good way, when chosen well. Traditions for music and for affecting the body-mind are very old, and well proven. Just as well, as the sound of silence can help the yoga practice a lot.
    To ask the question "Why do you do it?" – is for me an excellent tool, for teachers and anyone to become aware af actions.
    Personally in my classes, I often use the silence, as in our society we rarely have a lot of silence. Instead there is noise, traffic and internal chatter.
    But as long as it works, its all yoga..

  2. Denice McClure says:

    I went from one of the Hottest studio's in Cleveland, Ohio that played music to going through Live, Love, Teaches 500 Hour program in which there is no music. I have to say that as a teacher witnessing people in their practice is so much easier when you are not distracted by whether To Call Me Maybe or worse some song that you can see isnt resonating with half of the class but it's your favorite song. When you can actually hear your students breath you can actually call the Inhale or Exhale at the precise moment to get the most powerful "blow the walls down" breath going. If their is music playing, your not in the room, your not in front of your students, you maybe at the movie theater reliving that first kiss. I, too, started with music. I loved flowing to it before I discovered I was really only moving to it and not letting my breath move me through the flow. Now it sucks. My classes are packed and it's because they have no idea why it feels so good, so effortless and so amazing without music. It's because they are breathing big huge inhales and exhales together. Regarding the swearing, hey in real life it happens. If you are a teacher and put on your teacher face and use your teacher voice only in yoga, you aren't being true to yourself. People pick it up and don't trust you to lead them to their edge and past it. For some reason, there is this perception that it's supposed be be all serious in yoga. Why? People want a release from their stressful lives and it feels pretty flipping good to laugh while flying back in Crow and sometimes landing on your face. As Philip says..The highest form of spirituality is laughter. When you challenge people beyond their edge in a long Horse pose, sometimes it's relevant to look the guy who is doing it, getting through it with awesome breath and say "F**k Me." He laughs, the class laughes and they are still holding Horse. Translation…don't take yourself so serious when struggles happen. It's stress relieving to laugh. And if you are cranking the music up to listen to Tom Sawyer…you missed a great moment. That's what yoga is…being in each Moment.

  3. Richard says:

    hmmm, I'm guessing you're not a big Shiva Rea fan…

    just a minor point here, isn't Shiva (ie, Nataraja, not Rea) known as the Lord of the Dance? and if so, wouldn't he have been dancing to, errr, music?? are dervishes not doing yoga when they're whirling (and is there not music involved there)? I love a good Flow class with good music. done right, I find it takes me deeper, not the opposite. and it's also an introduction to mantra for a lot of people who otherwise might not be exposed to it. even if they don't understand it, do you not absorb the vibrations of the Sanskrit you hear (assuming you're doing yoga to Donna DeLory and not Beyonce or something) — not that I have a problem with doing yoga to Beyonce, mind you.

    now, I do agree about the "not hiding behind music" thing. but I also agree with other statements about not hiding, in general… like not hiding behind alleged traditionalism. sometimes silence is the best music. sometimes talking is necessary. and sometimes, like the college radio DJ used to say where I grew up, "just shut up and dance"

    in any case, I don't think there's one answer that you can slap onto this subject and say it's the absolute truth — just as I don't think Patanjali is the last word on Hatha yoga. I just think that you had a realization that was appropriate for yourself, at that point in your life. and who knows? maybe one day you may have another that contradicts it…which is awesome. but the judgment of others using/enjoying music in an asana class seems weak and unfounded to me in almost every way I can think of.

    ps. good time to shout out to my Aussie bro Kevin James who is making some of the most inspirational kirtan music in the world today. his CD "One" just might be your number 22, Phillip. see you on the dancefloor, brother!

  4. [...] the flow, thinking about the people who will be in the class and surfing through my songs to find just the right list to stoke the [...]

  5. Dana Lundin says:

    While I find myself moved by music when in class on occasion, overall I prefer to find and flow to the music within during my practice of yoga since the d.j. of our personal evolution can’t be scripted or play listed by another. Ultimately silence is clearest mirror to reflect for all students in class the unique response from the inner dimensions the asana practice provokes.

  6. TwistedGuru says:

    Maybe it's me, but this is a superficial topic, which is purely opinion based. I don't see how something external matters so much. It's yoga. Yoga is simple. People need to stop complicating it. As a teacher you guide and only guide. No one needs to "hear" anything but the person on the mat,hearing their own self. The rest (the music, the heat, the room, the prana on your arse, the lulupriced clothing, the "special" rubber mats with ego-brand names written on them like old designer jeans, and so on.. all meaningless "things" unless they are important to you. If you like music and it inspires you, enjoy it.. don't hide from what you love nor act superior….it's so ugly.

  7. vinyasamama says:

    Just as you would prefer music while dancing. I prefer music while practicing yoga. Vinyasa is a dance. This movement can be practiced in silence, sure…But when the right music comes on and the beat and melody is on point, everything is suddenly enhanced. In my opinion instructors who try to say that music shouldn't be played are the ones who are too lazy to come up with a good playlist.

  8. Sabrina says:

    I can say that I've experienced one of the most exhilarating and emotional sessions during a vinyasa flow class wherein the Yogi had ambient music playing in the background – Max Richter and Olafur Arnalds to be exact. The music complimented each movement and enhanced my practice. I also have practiced yoga with sound bowl meditation – still music – and a completely different type of practice, but still very beneficial. Maybe I'm a bit bias because I'm obsessed with music and balance with my practice, but I'm 100% for music during yoga. Practicing without music is also fantastic as well :)

  9. Jasara says:

    If I understand correctly, yoga is the work of the inner self on the outer self. All that the outer does is merely in response to the inner. If that is true, then it explains why classes in which instructors play music, especially pop music with lyrics, make it that much harder for us to focus on the inner. Clearly, music in yoga classes is interfering with some people's yoga practice or else you wouldn't have people like me searching the internet for an explanation on why more and more instructors are usurping the student's experience with their own intentions instead of letting us focus on the intention we set for ourselves at the beginning of class – ironically, as prompted by the instructor.

  10. yogibattle says:

    It comes to one very simple question: are you a yoga teacher or are you a DJ?

  11. Viktoria says:

    I couldn't agree more. Playing pop music cheapens the experience. I feel that it makes it more irrelevant. Sometimes in my classes I play indian ragas and ocean waves just to keep my numbers up (believe it or not!), although they are dropping because I am not a fan of Justin Timberlake. I am planning on stopping playing anything altogether even if it means that my numbers will drop, which I suspect will happen. People are too afraid to hear their own thoughts and yoga has become a fashion accessory, a pretend awakening gig, a fun thing to do, instead of it being a learning meditative practice. I think it is really important to have a clear distinction between a yoga class (without daily worldly distractions) and a trendy sweaty exercise class. And I know people argue that it is all inclusive to play pop music and supposedly it helps people to get out of their heads (what are they running away from?). Aren't yoga and mediation supposed to help face those inner demons and solve them through practice? And why is it just yoga that got 'trendified'? Can you imagine a Tai Chi class set to some electronica? Its as if suddenly people have to have a sound track to their breathing…. The most basic bodily function there is. "Everything goes" doesn't cut it… Its like saying: "let's not wash our hands anymore, because all bacteria is good for you".

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