5.8
October 20, 2012

Music in Yoga Class? WTF?

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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Viktoria Sep 5, 2014 11:21am

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".

yogibattle Mar 12, 2014 9:37pm

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

Jasara Nov 18, 2013 4:14pm

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.

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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