June 8, 2012

Breathing in Rhythm: The Relationship Between Yoga & Music. ~ Rich Mangicaro

Yoga has often been labeled as the antidote for life-in-the-fast-lane.

As of 2003, over 15 million people practice yoga. Imagine the number now. This 5,000-year-old spiritual science of body/mind connection is now considered by many of the world’s top physicians an essential and beneficial path to preventive health. With any type of exercise, breath control plays an important part of movement. As the practice becomes more consistent, the breath becomes more even and regulated.

Anyone who has been doing yoga for a while knows the significance of breath in his or her practice. Focusing on the breath while executing a posture helps us gain more control of our movements. However, each day our bodies are different, so we must pay attention to those subtle variances.

Breath can help us to be more conscious of our daily limits and act as an ego gauge.

If we utilize our breath correctly, our flexibility, strength and posture develop more naturally. Our bodies become more open and our minds follow. There’s something very special that we yogis share—in learning to breathe through the difficult postures, we learn to be more forgiving. We learn to back off if it hurts and allow our bodies to gradually open.

If we practice long enough, we subconsciously find ourselves applying this practice to our daily life. Anyone who lives in a big city knows the importance of tolerance. Whether it’s in traffic, on the subway, in line at the coffee shop or in the workspace, challenging situations are constantly presented to us. Yoga can help us breathe through them, to relax and back off and be more forgiving to ourselves and others.

 Yoga literally means union.

It’s about the relationship between mind, body, breath and spirit. Our focus on the asana and our breath, when we’re present, reveals how the two are intertwined and supported.

In recent years, music has found it’s way into yoga classes and is becoming more and more common. Most studios today offer a wide selection of yoga classes, some of which feature music. It’s a very personal decision as to whether one enjoys practicing to music.

Depending on the style of yoga, however, music is not always accepted or appropriate. With Vinyasa and Anusara methods, music has become more prevalent, whereas with Iyengar classes, the only music you hear is the teacher’s instruction and the collective breath in the room. When music is used, the instructor’s selections can either be helpful to the flow and sequence of the asana, or in some cases, annoying and even disruptive.

Next time you attend a class with music, notice whether your attention gets interrupted with what you’re hearing, or if your breath and movements feel easy and supported. If you find yourself focusing more on what’s being played rather than on your asana practice, chances are the musical choice isn’t quite appropriate. You should almost feel more than hear the music. This is an important issue and often times some instructors might not fully be aware of its importance. Music can be very powerful.

“When I teach, I really enjoy the whole process of selecting the right music to accompany which sequence of asana I’m leading, on any given day. My focus remains on movement, alignment and the asana and I don’t normally address the spiritual aspect of yoga… I let the music do that.

~ Whitney Allen

The spiritual aspect of practicing yoga is another topic all together, and one that requires its own article. The connection we yogis have to the spiritual side of the practice is as personal and individual as we are. Music can help us reflect our connection to our higher self, as well as simply comfort our “lower” self’s needs.

The fact is we all have a personal relationship with music.

It can trigger nostalgic reflection within the first chord. It can bring a person to tears. It can make us laugh. It can even calm the savage beast in us all. Most definitely, it is our world’s purest universal language.

Take, for instance, the connection between music and one of our daily activities: eating. Have you ever noticed how you feel at a restaurant that’s playing loud, aggressive music? They do this for one purpose—to get you to eat faster and have a quicker turnover. The restaurant owners feel it creates a lively atmosphere that attracts more customers.

Then notice how you feel when you eat at an establishment that offers calm, soothing music. You’ll probably eat slower, notice your food’s taste more and ultimately have a better time digesting. It’s very similar with moving your body. While we move through our postures, we’re already “digesting” the movement in relation to our breath. When we introduce music into the equation, the selection of rhythms and melodies should be taken seriously.

Another interesting thing that many of us don’t think about, or maybe aren’t even aware of, is that we humans are polyrhythmic beings. What does that mean? Think about this—when we walk, we’re moving not only our legs, but also our arms, our eyes, our breath, our head, our torso, our heartbeat. All these movements are working together in a mind/body rhythm.

But if you break it down rhythmically, you’ll notice that your legs are moving at a slightly different pace then your arms, and your breath is at yet another rhythm and your heart is beating at yet another rhythm. To explain this in music terms, you could say our various body parts and breath are moving in different time signatures.

Without even trying, we are polyrhythmic.

We’re naturally built to absorb different pulses and beats simultaneously. Now add to that the rhythms of asana practice and ujjayi breath (“victorious breath,” or diaphragmatic breath that make an “ocean” sound) and you can understand how crucial the choice of music becomes.

Depending on what type of practice you’re doing, music should accompany and support the various stages of your practice. An example would be as we’re warming up and opening our bodies, the song selection should be somewhat slower in tempo, more gentle and soothing, but not sleepy. It should have an uplifting, positive feeling. As we get into standing poses and begin moving more, the rhythms and tones can be more exciting, a bit faster and energetic.

As we cool down with more restorative postures, moving towards Savasana, Final Resting Pose, our musical accompaniment should be calming, with longer sustaining pedal tones, like gongs and harmonic vocalization. With these softer textures, the music or musicians create a “sonic pillow” if you will, for the students to lie on while moving towards final relaxation.

It should also be noted that throughout class, the music should never be louder than the teacher’s voice. It should accompany their instruction and support how they are leading the class. It all works together in harmony.

“My approach to teaching yoga, along with my training, comes from my experience as an actor. The class becomes a performance piece and I, along with the students and the musicians, are the characters. There’s a wonderful interplay that I have with the musicians and the students. We create, in the moment, together.”

~ James Morrison

If an instructor decides to use live musicians to accompany a class, it is helpful that the musicians themselves practice yoga. They will then have better knowledge of how to read body movements, the flow of energy in the room and make the most appropriate musical decisions. What rhythms to play, what instruments to pick up, what volume to perform, when to speed up, slow down or stop—all of this works more harmoniously if everyone involved has a working knowledge of the practice.

What ends up happening is very exciting. The music can then breathe with each yogi’s individual rhythm and the room’s collective energy can be better in sync.

“I find that when I use music in my classes, it helps my students get out of their heads and forget the stress of the week. By the weekend people can be quite run down, so the combination of music and yoga elevates them and gets them more in tune with themselves. A yoga sequence is like climbing up a mountain, and a good musician will tap into that. As you go along, the energy and the music builds, hits a peak and then takes it back down slowly, in sync with each other.”

~ Joan Hyman

 The interaction between yogi and music should be natural, effortless and supportive.

Since humans began walking the Earth, musical rhythms have pulsed through our veins. The first musical instrument was the human voice, most likely imitating the natural sounds around, like a bird’s song. It was used as an expression of territorialism or a way to communicate between tribes.

Today, as we move through our complex times, a return to our natural rhythm seems more necessary than ever. Yoga provides the balance and grounding we need to juggle the challenging rhythms of life. Take a closer look during your day at the people and the sounds around you. We’re surrounded by sound. If you really listen, you’ll hear life’s musical soundtrack. The more we listen to our breath and to our own inner beat, the more connected we’ll all feel.


Thanks go out to the following inspirational, talented yoga instructors, for their contribution to this piece:

Actor, Director, Producer and Musician James Morrison earned his Yoga teaching certification from the White Lotus Foundation, studying under Ganga White and Tracey Rich. His other teachers include Aadil Palkhivala, Lisa Walford, Frank White and Harry Mastrogeorge, along with his students, who have further influenced his approach to teaching.

Joan Hyman is a distinguished Senior YogaWorks Teacher with over 20 years of experience. She is E-RYT 500 Hour Yoga Alliance Certified and is a dedicated 10-year Ashtanga practitioner. She has conducted workshops and retreats around the world, drawing upon a joyful study of Ayruveda, chakras and meditation.

Whitney Allen completed the 200-Hour YogaWorks Teacher Training and the 300-Hour Center For Yoga Teacher Training. She has spent years as an actor and dancer on Broadway but found a whole other level of confidence in her body practicing yoga, which fascinated her and ultimately drove her to become an instructor.

Rich Mangicaro resides in Santa Monica California and is a music journalist, musician, producer and educator. He has been practicing yoga for over twenty years at various YogaWorks locations, as well as performing live improvisatory music for yoga and dance classes. Mangicaro has performed with Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne, Michael McDonald, The Tubes, Dave Mason, David Crosby and Billy Idol, to name a few. He is currently producing a documentary film about spontaneous expression through various forms of art and movement, entitled Tonal Spontaneity. For more information, please visit www.tonalspontaneity.blogspot.com.

Editor: Anne Clendening

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