Yoga Tunes: Turn Them Up or Turn Them Off?

I don’t get angry very often. It’s an emotion I don’t enjoy, and one I generally prefer to reserve for social injustices or animal cruelty. But last week, I found my heart pounding and my ears steaming as I read some Reddit-users’ (affectionately deemed “redditors”) comments on the r/yogamusic page of Reddit. The topic was (surprise!) music in a yoga class, and it started innocently enough: “Yoga teachers: What are your current playlists for your classes? I need some inspiration.” It quickly migrated, however, to the age-old discussion: should music be played at all in a yoga class, or is it merely a distraction? Choosing a playlist is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching for me. I want music that is relaxing, yet energizing; music that is poignant, but not depressing; music that enhances the mood of the class, rather than distracts from it. To find 75 minutes worth of songs that fit these criteria is time-consuming.

Students’ and teachers’ tastes in music range wider than a seasoned yogi’s legs in Virabhadrasana II—how can we possibly appeal to them all? The obvious answer is, we can’t. One redditor’s comment proposed a simple solution to the music problem: don’t play music at all. He went on to say that his usual teacher never plays music, but that he’d been to a class recently where the sub had played a Bon Iver song during Savasana. “I can’t stand Bon Iver,” he said, “and I almost approached her after class to tell her she shouldn’t play something so divisive.” Another redditor offered a similar sentiment: “Teachers who play music in class are either uncomfortable without it as a backdrop or feel that their students are.” And another: “What’s with the need to fill the silence that would enable clearer focus???”

First of all, the idea that the yoga studio should be (or could ever be) devoid of all controversy is absurd to me. Unless we sit at home and listen only to our own opinions, opportunities for controversy and disagreement follow Imageus everywhere—yes, even inside the yoga studio. Ironically, the same redditor who “can’t stand Bon Iver” acknowledged that he “tried to take it as a learning opportunity—finding peace when you’re uncomfortable, you know?” But this desire to learn appeared fleeting when he added “I tried … but I actually left class felling really upset.” I wanted to ask this person: is this how you always treat your yoga practice? What happened, say, the first time you attempted a handstand? Did you leave feeling upset if you didn’t succeed? Did you then declare that teachers should not teach handstands because some students don’t find them comfortable? Or did you come back and try again? Finding peace amid discomfort is difficult and frustrating, but surely it is worth more than one try.

Regarding the comment that “teachers who play music” (as if we are all one homogenous breed) are “uncomfortable without it,” I could not disagree more. Perhaps there are some who fear silence, but even if that is the case, so what? We teach yoga for others, not for our own personal growth; if music makes us more comfortable, confident teachers, great. I would far rather have a teacher who seemed comfortable with herself and her class structure, even if I “hated” her music, than a teacher who seemed unsettled. When I play music, it is because I want to, not because I don’t not want to. There are some who don’t care for my taste in music, and there are others who love it. But whether they like my music or not, I would hope that they come to my class, not for the playlist, but to gain a greater appreciation of their own bodies and selves.

Sitar_for_yoga_musicAnd finally, in response to the question, “What’s with the need to fill the silence that would enable clearer focus???” I ask: does silence guarantee clearer focus? Don’t get me wrong, I am a friend to silence; I agree that it is important not to fear it. But I also believe it is important to make peace with cacophony. Like it or not, the world is full of noise—some of it soothing, a lot of it stress-inducing. As yoga teachers, we do not have the responsibility (or the capability!) to rid our studios of everything that might cause our students stress; it is our job to equip our students with tools to effectively cope with the stress they encounter. We must be sensitive and attuned to our students’ needs, but we cannot remove all obstacles for clear focus and inner peace. That is work that we all have to do for ourselves.

So why do I bother ranting about this? I can think of two reasons: 1. I am a sensitive soul who loves music and will defend its place in a yoga class to my death, and 2. I want people to think. If a yoga teacher plays a song a student dislikes, this does not mean she shouldn’t have played the song; it certainly doesn’t mean that music has no place in yoga. Similarly, if a student is uncomfortable with a music-free class, this does not mean the teacher needs to fill the silence. To my fellow yoga teachers, I say: keep on rocking the music—or silence—you love. And to my fellow yoga students: keep on breathing, even and especially through a song you don’t like, for being uncomfortable allows us to use the skills that yoga teaches us. In the words of Kelly Clarkson, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller.”

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11 thoughts on “Yoga Tunes: Turn Them Up or Turn Them Off?

  1. Standing by your side in my widest Vira II rockin’ to our music!!
    Namaste. =)

    And I love this part…
    “I would far rather have a teacher who seemed comfortable with herself and her class structure, even if I “hated” her music, than a teacher who seemed unsettled.”

  2. Reblogged this on Wherever I am, you are there also and commented:
    This is a great post on music’s role in the yoga practice, written by a friend a fellow yogi who also happens to be a certified yoga teacher. Abby hits the nail on the head when she says, “We teach yoga for others, not for our own personal growth; if music makes us more comfortable, confident teachers, great. I would far rather have a teacher who seemed comfortable with herself and her class structure, even if I “hated” her music, than a teacher who seemed unsettled. When I play music, it is because I want to, not because I don’t not want to. There are some who don’t care for my taste in music, and there are others who love it. But whether they like my music or not, I would hope that they come to my class, not for the playlist, but to gain a greater appreciation of their own bodies and selves.”
    Each one of my favorite yoga teachers uses music differently. One Iyengar teacher never plays music and instead fills the silence with her calming voice and clear instructions; music wouldn’t fit her personality if she did use it. Another teacher puts on a playlist that runs throughout the class, while a third turns music off and on depending on where we are in the practice. Each of these teachers’ music preferences fit with their personalities and the type of practice that they teach.

  3. This is great. I have been thinking on this a lot lately. Music is a huge part of my life and my own practice, and as a teacher I really enjoy not only sharing yoga but sharing music. Recently, I’ve been stretching my idea of what is “appropriate” music and I feel it only enhances the experience and I know that my energy fills the room better when I can connect with everyone through the fact that we are all sharing the listening experience. This is not to say that music should be the main focus, however, for me music is part of the experience. And silence can be used as its own kind of music.

    • Yes! I admire the teacher who has the chutzspah to play bold music, as it reminds me how different teachers (and people) are. And usually when a teacher I respect plays a song I don’t especially like, I gain a new appreciation for the song, as well as for him/ her. Other times, I don’t even notice the music! I was in a class on Tuesday for about a half hour before realizing that there had been music playing the whole time (and it was electronic/ funk, so it wasn’t just that I didn’t hear it…). Sometimes my brain turns it up or off, depending on my mood!

    • Thanks, Banyan! I loved my teacher-training, but the one thing I wish we’d done more of was talk about music. People have such strong opinions on it, and I think it’s important to think honestly about when and why we choose music, the kind of songs we choose, what can be gained from both music and silence, etc. Lots to think and talk about!

  4. Personally, I find i more difficult to find shavasana without music. Whatever you’re playing is fine by me! I’m apparently not on that higher plane of silence, yet.

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