The sweat was pouring off of me, and the music loudly pulsed through my veins. “His palms are sweaty, knees weak arms are heavy…But on the surface he looks calm and ready…” The class was packed, and 15 minutes in we were holding warrior II for what felt like an hour. But the music continued. “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it you better never let it go…” I’ll be the first to say that I enjoy an occasional listen to Eminem. But when this song blasted over the speakers during a yoga class I recently attended, I must admit feeling pulled in two directions. Parts of the song definitely conjured warrior-like feelings in me, but I felt a little agitated and unsure whether Eminem’s song really belonged on a yoga teacher’s class playlist. While I’m not the first to ask the question, it certainly got me thinking: does music have a place in yoga class?
I like to think that I subscribe to the theory of yoga universalism. That is, if something encourages someone who would not otherwise practice yoga to the practice of yoga, and that something is classic rock or even rap, I have a hard time saying that it’s wrong. But if yoga is more than just physical exercise – if yoga is a moving meditation, or a means to meditation, or a way to deepen your connection to your body and ultimately transcend it, then can music really be used to enhance it? I have never been lucky enough to study yoga in India, but something tells me that there isn’t much music played during practice. Which isn’t to say that there is no place for it.
I have had discussions with people who have visceral and widely divergent opinions on the relationship, if any, between music and yoga. And I wouldn’t be totally honest if I didn’t admit that I have had my frustrations with this subject lately. In the last year, I have left more yoga classes feeling agitated, irritated, or just downright bummed out simply as a result of the teacher’s decision to play music during class. More accurately, my frustrations have been with the choice of music played during class.
To illustrate my point and my understand my question, maybe I should give you a little idea about where I’m coming from.
My first experience with yoga was watching my mom practice to music by Andres Segovia and other classical guitarists. I didn’t know much about yoga at the time, but it didn’t seem out of keeping with the music. It seemed quite pleasant. My very first yoga teacher rarely played music during class. Her studio, located in a suburban strip mall sandwiched between a real estate office and a travel agency, was barely big enough for five students, much less a CD player (this was the Dark Ages…pre-iPod). When I began practicing at a full-on yoga studio in Chicago, it was the first place I had ever really experienced a connection between yoga and music. There were kirtans almost every Friday night, and music was often a part of class. At that time, my teacher (still one of my favorites) seemed to be exploring her own personal feelings about the use of music in her classes. She would go sans music about as often as she would play the standard-issue kirtan music popular in many yoga studios (Krishna Das, Deva Premal, and the like). While I enjoyed her music selections, and often experienced certain feelings and emotions as a direct result of the music, I equally enjoyed her “music-less” classes. After all, with 25+ people practicing the ujjayi breath in harmony, and the passing “L” train supplying some shake, rattle and roll, there was still plenty of music to be heard — at least to my ears. And, with these sounds or perhaps in spite of them, I was somehow able to get deeper into my practice.
As I was first beginning to practice yoga, I was taught and always reminded that the quality of your breath and the deepening your awareness of your body were of paramount importance, perhaps more so than the practice of an actual posture. These ideas were reinforced in my later studies with master teachers such as Aadil Palkhivala and Tias Little, who did not play music; however, the importance and practice of chanting was always a large part of their teachings.
Since moving to Los Angeles, I have had a wildly different experience. I have been to more classes than I can count where teachers have played pulsing, pumping, ear-drum busting music that makes me feel more like I’m in a West Hollywood nightclub than a yoga studio. Not that I mind the idea of being in a club in West Hollywood, but there’s an appropriate context for everything, right? I have been to classes at multiple studios where playlists included U2, Van Halen, Seal, and yes, even Eminem. At one point, I swore off practicing yoga in a studio setting altogether because I felt like many yoga teachers were just distilling yoga into exercise…and this phenomenon, I felt, was really driven home by their use of certain types of music in the studio.
Last year, I started dipping my toe in the yoga studio waters after my home practice left me missing a good old fashioned yoga community. With some trepidation, I unrolled my mat in a class where the teacher sat at the front of the room with a harmonium and began class with a few minutes of chanting. I liked it enough that I’ve come back to this class on a regular basis, and the energy created by a classroom full of people chanting is heart-opening and pretty awesome.
Lately, I’ve had some interesting discussions with people about this topic. One gentleman new to yoga said he really enjoys practicing yoga to more Western-type music – said it helps him to get through difficult classes. Interestingly enough, he is a distance runner and acknowledges that he prefers not to listen to music while running so he can “get in the zone”. After our conversation, he said he would like to try a class with no music, and I’m curious to learn whether doing so allows him to find “the zone” inside a yoga studio. I also spoke recently with an L.A.-area teacher who draws a huge following because of her selection of music. She told me the other day that her iPod revolted on her right before class, and so she was forced to teach without music. She said that listening to the “sea of breath” turned out to be a surprisingly beautiful experience.
So where does this leave me? Nowhere, really. Still searching, as usual. But, I’d like to hear from you. Do you think music has a place in a yoga class? It is a big question, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.