The very first yoga classes I took were without music.
They were taught by an Austrian man named Suddha (rhymes with Buddha) who—I hadn’t realized at the time—was likely one of the finest instructors I will ever have in my life.
As I recall, I didn’t even notice the silence. I was so frustrated by my inept, hyperventilating, stiff-limbed body, I probably wouldn’t have noticed if everyone in the class suddenly dropped trou during chair pose. Okay, I guess I would’ve noticed that, but everything else was a blur.
I stayed with Suddha for two years, never questioning his choice not to play music. Because he’d been my only teacher, I guess I came to assume that this was standard in the yoga world. It never occurred to me that it might not be the status quo.
It was fairly shocking when, after having my son and finding myself much more time restricted, I found I couldn’t make it to Suddha’s class anymore, going instead to yoga at the gym near my house. The teacher was good, especially considering she had to yell into a microphone just to be heard over the spin class next door, but the spin music, combined with the yoga music she played to drown out Britney Spears remixes, made me feel like I was in a discordant hurricane.
After my son turned two or so, I decided life was too short for yoga adjacent to spin classes, and I found a real studio reasonably close to home. (For some reason I didn’t return to Suddha’s class at that point, though I would later). At this studio, I was introduced to the classic modern American yoga habitat which generally includes wooden floors, a bamboo or orchid plant somewhere on the premises, essential oils, thin white women in tight black pants, a Tibetan style Buddha statue and music during class.
The music ranged from Indian sitar, to acoustic guitar, to electronic, alternative, rap, kirtan, classic rock and everything in between—but it was always played at a modest volume that seemed to enhance rather than detract from everyone’s mood. It was nice. I liked it.
Nevertheless, it always struck me as kind of a pacifier (maybe because my life then was all about pacifiers and diapers and joggings strollers and what have you).
I wondered, are we so afraid to just be in silence for an hour and 15 minutes that we have to plug up our anxiety by playing some kind of tune?
Sometime after finding this studio, I decided to try Ashtanga. I was excited, but also kind of intimidated to realize Ashtanga is practiced silently except for the teacher’s cues. I worried that I had become dependent on music to relax me and would feel awkward and exposed without it’s comforting presence—but after five minutes, I was so engrossed in what I was doing that I didn’t give it a second thought.
I started to alternate Ashtanga with Vinyasa Flow, but the more Ashtanga I took, the more the music in flow began to irritate me. It felt oppressive, as if I had to process someone else’s stuff while trying to focus on my own stuff. I thought longingly of Suddha’s classes which combined the creative movement of Hatha yoga with the pristine silence of Ashtanga.
Then I began to teach yoga myself and I got all excited about the idea of music again. There is a whole world of exquisite sound devoted to enhancing yogic experience, and I was fascinated by the endless variety and iterations, and how songs could shape the feeling and energy of a class.
But, as beautiful as so much of the music is, I still wondered, is it appropriate, is it healthy, is it truly in keeping with the goal of turning inward and being present with ourselves? Certainly, when yoga was first practiced, it wasn’t done to a recording of Snatnam Kaur—however inspirational her voice and message may be.
We are immersed in noise every single minute of the day. Our attention is yanked to and fro by our phones, TV’s, traffic, construction, dogs barking, babies crying. What if we were brave enough to walk into a room and shut the door and move our bodies with nothing but the sound of our own breathe to accompany us?
I still play music in my yoga classes, but I am seriously considering leaving my iPod at home. Of course, I worry that my students will be unhappy and perhaps stop coming to see me. If I go music-free, I might end up all alone, sitting on my mat with only my lofty and alienating ideas to keep me company.
On the other hand, maybe my students, like me, long to hear the sounds inside themselves. Maybe they would be willing to explore their internal world without guideposts or crutches.
And maybe, as their teacher, it is up to me to create the opportunity to do so—even at the risk of a poorly attended class.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise