Music During Your Yoga Practice: Do or Don’t?
Many yogis are familiar with chanting mantras like ‘Aum’ and ‘Lokah Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu’, often used to open and close a yoga practice. Mantras and yoga have a long and interweaved history. But using music other than mantras during a yoga practice? Well, not everybody agrees on that. Some feel that it is too distracting or that it takes away from traditional yoga. I would like to argue that it can really add something extra to your practice, both for you and your students, as stillness of the mind does not necessarily go hand in hand with silence.
Stillness of the mind
Traditionally yoga is a spiritual practice, which silence may seem to fit better with. However, yoga is essentially about inner silence, or rather inner stillness. Patanjali (one of the founding fathers of the yoga philosophy) defines yoga as “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha”. Translated from Sanskrit this means as much as yoga stilling the mind. According to this philosophy yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind. What is left is mental stillness which enables you to experience life as it really is without distracting thoughts or judgements. You may also call it turning inward or coming home to yourself and to your body while the mind quiets. Many students tell me that this is exactly what yoga brings them and for me this is no different. Practicing yoga definitely helps me to let go of things, to turn inward and feel grounded and connected. And this is something that music can be of great help with.
Music can support this turning inward. It can help you to get into that physical and mental flow. So in this sense, using music certainly does not have to detract from the yoga tradition. Playing music to support your flow and introspection may be somewhat different than how Patanjali intended the yoga sutras when he wrote them down some centuries BC, but we also cannot deny how much the world and the way we practice yoga have changed since then. Maybe it is time to broaden our horizons about ‘what is yoga’.
In my personal experience music is really helpful to find my inner stillness and flow during my yoga practice. Of course this is different for everyone, but especially when you are easily distracted music can be great to mute background noises. For some people it is even so that music works better than verbal instructions. And sometimes it is indeed music that moves us and brings up memories or emotions that you didn’t know were stuck or bothering you. It is a physical and mental moving with the rhythm of the music that our mind can’t really make any sense of.
Get into the flow
Scientific researchers have been trying for years to understand the many effects that music has on our minds and bodies. Many researchers have focused on the effects of music on our moods and wellbeing, and also specifically on the effects of using music during physical activity. It turns out that music can improve your mood, it can make you feel like you have to put in less effort to do something and it can enhance work output. It also facilitates getting into a flow state and helps you to shift your focus away from feelings of fatigue.
Research shows that people naturally react to rhythms by synchronizing their movements and tempo to them. Clearly yoga is not a Zumba class with catchy upbeat songs, but softer (background) music has been found to have positive effects as well. Music used during any type of physical activity will stimulate people to work harder and longer. In other words, playing music during your yoga practice can help you to get into the flow more easily and can give you that extra push to fully go for it.
But how do you use music during your practice without it being a distraction?
Clearly having the right playlist is vital. Fast upbeat music, heavy piano recitals or lyrics may not work for everyone during their practice. So start with selecting music that can deepen, motivate and guide your practice. To use the words of well known yoga teacher David Lurey “music is like the banks of a river and your asanas are the river itself led by the many curves and bends of the river banks”. And that is exactly how you can use music during your practice. Let it guide your movements. And of course, enjoy, flow!
Which type of yoga you are practicing makes a big difference of course. While Vinyasa could use dynamic music that you can ‘flow’ with, Hatha is more static so it needs a different - less dynamic -approach. With Yin/Yang yoga classes, using a playlist to emphasize the Yin/Yang aspects even more can work really well. Generally speaking, fast, upbeat music has a more energizing effect whereas slow, soft music has a more soothing effect. You can use this to your benefit to create and strengthen the structure of your practice.
Warming up (soft intro that slowly build up)
Sun saluations (more energetic, flowy music)
A short relaxation (calm music)
Second peak with more intensive asanas (active and engaging music)
Working towards savasana (calm music)
Savasana (soothing music that carries you away)
You can change and customize this as you wish to suit your practice. Make sure to use engaging and flowy music for the more active parts of your practice and mellow music that facilitates concentration and relaxation for the calmer parts of your practice like balancing poses.
A good way to start may be creating a general playlist to use during yoga and choosing one specific song to play during a specific series of asanas, a meditation or yoga nidra. For example, for my home practice I often use the Surya Namaskar mantra during my sun salutations. I always use the version of Kai Franz (listen to it here or stream it via Spotify Kai Franz – Surya Namaskar). This really helps me to get going if I need some motivation. Before you know it you did 12 rounds of sun salutations just because you flow with the music which provides you with an even rhythm and a steady pace. And it doesn’t even feel like an effort really.
But also less traditional music can work really well. Some yoga teachers like to set an intention for each class while others work with themed practices like detox flow, grounding, heart opening poses etc. Think about how you can use music to deepen your practice here, it can really strengthen the intention or theme.
Where do I find music?
The sky is the limit when it comes to finding the right music to use during your practice. There is so much available online and via streaming services like Spotify. Think singing bowls, mantras, guitar, duduk, ambient or music with lyrics like this one and also this. There are complete albums to use during your yoga or meditation practice. You could also look for playlists on Spotify (there are plenty!) for more inspiration. You can use Spotify to set up your own playlists as well. Music producer Moby recently released a playlist that he uses during his own yoga and meditation practice. You can find it on his website and stream or download it for free!
Taste in music is very personal, so take your time to find something that inspires or moves you. Also, write down the names of songs that you randomly come across and think you could use during your yoga practice. If you don’t know the name of a song you can always use phone app Shazam to find the details for you (open the app, hold it next to the speaker and it will recognize the song).
If you still find music too distracting, try to focus on your breathing instead of on the music. Just breathe a little louder. You will notice that after some time your breath, movements and the rhythm of the music are synchronized. Your body and mind will intuitively respond to the music. Now try to not getting into the flow!