If you’ve taken a class with me, you know that there’s always a playlist. It’s a big part of my weekly class planning, and I put a lot of resources into selecting songs that I think might speak to a soul, or bring a smile to a face. I love the juxtaposition of music from different genres and the way that a lyric can surprise you when heard in a different venue. I’ve found lessons in the songs themselves, sometimes, and it’s fun to theme classes in that way.
There are lots of challenges that go along with playlists. Sometimes I may have to detour or go off-course with the “planned” sequence- and the music just becomes inappropriate. Or the students that show up may not be the ideal audience for the list you’d planned. Even worse: sometimes the playlist just doesn’t “gel” with the class. Not to mention that the iPod may go dead unexpectedly, or you have the dang thing on shuffle, or you turned on “repeat” and the same Maneesh De Moor song has been playing for the last TWENTY minutes (“Jeez, this is a long song…”). Whoops. And don’t get me started on the @$%$@ volume.
There are also issues of taste, age, and religion to take into consideration. I have a lot of Hindu-inspired music that I really love. I also have a few that are, if you listen carefully, Christian in message. And although I believe you can enjoy my classes regardless of your religion, if you catch the wrong person on the wrong day, you may just turn them off to what should be an amazing experience. I played Tom Jones’ “You Can Leave Your Hat On” the other day in class, just for fun, and it made me a bit nervous. Really! Have you listened to those lyrics? No more Tom Jones. I can’t take the stress.
The truth is, sometimes I’d really rather not play any music at all. Or, I’d rather it be so neutral and low-key that it’s almost white noise. There are moments in any practice- a quiet forward fold, a juicy twist- where the music of your breath, and the breath of those around you- is like a hushed symphony. Imagine Tom Jones bleating “Baby, take off your shoes!” just then. I’m cringing.
Yoga Spy wrote a great article a few years ago outlining the “trouble” with music in a yoga class. If you have a minute, it’s worth a read, but it essentially comes down to the author’s closing argument. “Yoga,” she says, “is meant to wean us from the sensory pleasures. Can we align pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, with that oh-so-cool class playlist?” In a follow-up post, she suggests that music can be a way of disassociating from the physical or mental strain of a challenging asana practice. Ouch.
One of the most beautiful “side effects” of yoga is that it teaches you to tune in, to be present to your experience. To learn to live with discomfort. To learn to recognize grasping and aversion, to understand impermanence. Lessons on the mat seep into your daily life until you can’t help but change your way of reacting to the world. How can one be open to the still voice within if Tom Jones, or Pearl Jam, or even Krishna Das is filling the doors of perception?
I’m really drawn to this YouTube video of Maty Ezraty. She’s an iconic teacher trainer. I have a lot of respect for her opinion. She is known for asking her students, “Do you want to be a good teacher, or do you want to be a popular teacher?” Here’s an excerpt:
“The public kind of directs people in a certain way. People (teachers) want to walk into classes and make a living… and people don’t want to hear that their elbows aren’t straight, they don’t want to hear that they need to work their upper back, they don’t want to hear that they aren’t ready for this pose, and they need to take the easier one… and so being popular, you just give them what they want. Put on the music they want, you know, don’t give them all the instructions… That’s how we can get popular, that way, just taking the easy route. If you want to be a really good teacher, and figure out how you’re going to teach yoga to people, you know, teach them yoga, the essence of it, the truth of it, how to be kind to themselves, maybe pull them back, maybe not always put the music on, because when the music is on, their mind identifies with the music, and it doesn’t really go in, you don’t really listen to what’s going on in there, and it’s not really pleasant always to listen to what’s going on in there, and that’s the yoga, is dealing with that, seeing it, to get free of it.”
I couldn’t agree more with Maty, or with Yoga Spy. And yet, here I am- playing music in my classes. Have I sold myself out? Do I just want to be a popular teacher? I’m choosing to believe that there is more to me than that.
For my own practice at home- I don’t use music. But as a teacher, I want to bring as many people as I can into the yoga community. I believe that even with the sometimes-nuisance of music in a class, students can experience the benefits of yoga- not just the physical benefits, like increased flexibility, lowered stress, or a cuter booty, but the mental and (yes, I’m going to say it) spiritual aspects as well. A skillful teacher (which I hope to someday be) can guide her students in this direction, if they want to hear the message. It’s crucial, though, that the music not be intrusive, or jarring, or distracting. It should be appropriate, not too loud, and not offensive. Yeah, I have fallen down on these a few times- but I’m not ready to let go of the music. Not as long as it gives people a reason to enjoy class. The other benefits will seep in, regardless.
And lest I sound too gloomy, darnit, music doesn’t have to be just a necessary evil. Good music can be poetry, a tonic for your troubled soul. When choosing playlists, I look for positive messages- or songs that express the human experience- or songs that I can relate to a dharma talk. It sounds a bit grandiose when I put it into words, but I really do my humble best to create an experience for the class.
So that’s my official sort of on-the-fence position on the music in yoga class issue. As we know, though- things are impermanent. Ask me again in a year, and let’s see where I stand.
What’s your take on music in yoga classes? Love it? Hate it? Picky about the genre? I’d love to hear some opinions.