Music in Yoga class - Effective tool or noisy distraction?
This blog was written by Chuck McDonald, one of Spira's amazing yoga teachers. You can find him in West Seattle teaching Thursday 6am and Saturday 7:00 am!
My first strong memory of music in a yoga practice was around 2005. I was taking a regular gym flow class and had settled into a consistent habit with a teacher I liked. Class concluded and as we went into savasana, I heard a steady pulse of a drum rhythm wash over me. After a few bars of the hypnotic beat, a warm, soothing vocal swept over the students. The words were in French, and the song unfamiliar. There have been a few instances in my life where I have experienced a piece of music for the first time, and I can remember exactly where I was when hearing it, because it was that powerful to me. This was one of those moments.
I had no idea there was a path for me to eventually becoming a yoga instructor on my own. But in that time, I felt a strong connection between my developing practice, and my already established love and interest in music. I was a classically trained musician from age 11, and to this day I still play for fun and occasionally on stage with my band.
I know that there are varying ideas and philosophies around the use of music during a yoga practice. Some instructors and students simply prefer to have their breath as the soundtrack, or don’t want to have the distraction. That said, there are numerous studies about how the right music can have a positive impact on your emotions and health, like this 2015 study that showed music to be an effective aid in postoperative recovery.
I’ve always found music to be a perfect addition to my practice. I like to experience new tunes that I haven’t heard before, or maybe take in an old favorite, and hear it in a new way. When was the last time you actually listened to music, as opposed to having it in the background? In actively listening, maybe you picked up a nuance that you haven’t heard - A lyric or vocal phrase that caught your ear, or an instrumental line that you hadn’t even realized was part of the mix. And, if one of the objectives of going to yoga class is to actually get yourself out of the distractions of your day to day life and to focus on the present, then wouldn’t it make sense that experiences like this can help that process?
Another reason I like to have music in class is to connect a student to emotion. Have you ever been to a class, in a deep stretch like a hip opener, on the edge of some powerful sensations, and have strong feelings come up for you? If you are open to those experiences in class, then maybe music will help connect you to the emotions that are created as well. One morning a couple of years ago, after teaching a class a student walked up to me, practically in tears, because there was a song on my playlist that reminded him of an old college girlfriend from 30 years before. He was nearly speechless, almost crying, but I knew that the full experience had moved him in a way that asana alone couldn’t.
The final reason I use music is to help manage the energy of my students, and sometimes, even my own. It might be the result of being the early morning teacher, but sometimes it does take a little something beyond a jolt of coffee to bring the energy I want to give. There is usually a tune or two that I really enjoy personally, and I love the mental exercise of putting together a playlist and then executing on the right flow and timing to make an enjoyable class that moves with the sounds in coordination.
If you’ve bought into the why, then let’s chat about how I like to incorporate music in one of my sessions. My playlists, like those of many other teachers, follow an arc. They start quietly, then slowly build through integration, and become more energetic and upbeat through the middle of the class. As the sequences and energy start to wind down, so do the tunes. And I love to have a good, powerful song for savasana. Again, I know that there are other schools of thought here, but I just enjoy melting (and watching my class melt) into one last thoughtful piece to end the practice. Hearing Pink Martini’s ‘Autrefois’ during that class in 2005 was a memorable experience for me and I hope that I can share something like it with every practice I lead.
I don’t avoid vocal music during class, and in some instances I use the lyrics to help cue my students. An early favorite, ‘Avant Garnder’ by Courtney Barnett, is about a woman who has a near fatal allergic reaction to some weeds she started to pull for her neighbor. The chorus drones over and over, ‘I’m having trouble breathing in…’ I loved to play it, because it was a great way to remind people to re-establish their breath if they’ve lost it during the flow.
I’m also a big fan of what I call ‘clever cover songs.’ I really appreciate when a band takes a great tune from the past and remakes it in their own unique style. Kishi Bashi’s cover of Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be the Place’, or Lucius’ interpretation of Gerry Rafferty’s hit ‘Right Down the Line', are examples of songs I think enhance a class by bringing a new experience to something that is likely familiar to a student. (Aside: In the ‘too distracting’ category, but worth four minutes is Sonic Youth’s cover of the Carpenters’ ‘Superstar’). Kishi Bashi and Lucius are (sadly) not household names, but their vocal stylings are, in my opinion, as good or better than the artists they cover, and I get excited to introduce them to a new audience. it’s not uncommon to be approached by a student after class asking about an artist I’ve played, and being able to curate new music to a class is something I really enjoy! And, I’ve even had the opposite happen - I had a student last year to ask me to never play a particular song again. It’s ok. I can take that feedback.
I also include a steady dose of instrumental, downbeat and electronica in my classes. You’ll find some familiar yoga playlist fare - Massive Attack, Thievery Corporation, Chemical Brothers, Zero 7, and others. I attend a lot of live shows, and I’m usually trying to put something on the playlist that I got reconnected to while seeing a band in person. And, during those sad times after an artist passes, I do my best to incorporate a favorite or two in honor of their contribution to me and my love of their craft. I taught the Monday morning after David Bowie succumbed to cancer, and I let the soaring sounds of “Starman’ fly through the studio. After class, I got to share a moment of connection and remembrance with a fellow music fan.
if you are interested in seeing my music lists - I invite you to take a look! If you have a Spotify account, feel free to look them up - just search by name ‘Chuck McDonald’ and see all of my public playlists. I have versions for varying class lengths, and two master lists that I’m always adding to. One list is is meditative, and the other is more upbeat and energetic. And, of course, I’m willing to entertain requests - if there anything you want to hear? Maybe a ‘theme’ class? We’re happy to hear your ideas for us at Spira!