Music in yoga isn’t for everyone, but it can be invigorating and transcendental.
By Katie Sutherland and illustrations by Andy Potts.
Hatha yoga practitioner Leonie Brawn recalls the day she learned to let go. She was lying in Savasana (Corpse Pose) after a dynamic vinyasa flow class when her teacher played a gospel version of the Beatles song ‘Let it Be’.
Pregnant at the time, an epiphany carried Brawn through to the stress-free birth of her third child and beyond. “That moment, lying there in Savasana, empowered me to let things be in my life—not to obsess about the small stuff,” she recalls. “I’ll often go back to that moment if I need reminding.”
Like many of us, Brawn had heard ‘Let it Be’ countless times before that day, but she had never surrendered to the message or the music in such a way. Her teacher, Mandy Kopcho, says that this is where music can be an incredibly powerful tool in yoga, if used mindfully. Whether it’s a literal interpretation of the lyrics, as in Brawn’s case, or an emotional response to a Sanskrit mantra, the power of music can be uplifting and potent.
Kopcho, co-owner of Power Living Yoga in Sydney’s Bondi Junction, doesn’t always choose to play music in class, instead she often prefers the sound of some 40 people breathing and moving at the same time. However, she says that offering a heartfelt song in Savasana can treble the experience of stillness and complete surrender.
“It really just depends on the energy in the room,” she explains. “Sometimes, when you come to Savasana, silence can be a really powerful tool. Often I’ll let a music track come to its natural conclusion and then just let the silence ring in the room.
“When I’m in that space, I’m just swept away. It’s like swimming in a cool pool; you’re bathing in silence. That’s the ultimate goal of the yoga practice—to experience that freedom from thought, from mental dialogue and conversation. Sometimes music can assist in bringing you to that place of silence, of joy and stillness within.”
While chanting has long been an essential part of yoga, recorded music has not. However, music’s popularity is growing as teachers consider ways to apply yogic principles to a Western lifestyle. While some teachers use music purely in the background to create ambience, others incorporate it into the practice, exploring music styles as diverse as punk rock, folk, classical and kirtan. Some schools even set up live bands in the corner or have dedicated music theme nights.
The Jivamukti method has embraced the use of music since artist-musicians David Life and Sharon Gannon founded it in New York in 1984. They approach it from a Nada Yoga philosophy, of which there are many references in the yogic text Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Nada, Sanskrit for “sound”, is believed to be the essence of all energy. Nadam is the “unstruck or self-generated sound”, such as the vibration of Om.
It is believed that to fully experience Nada Yoga, we must practice pratyahara, the drawing in of the senses and shutting out of as many external sights and sounds as possible. This requires great focus, and Jivamukti suggests that a prerequisite could be to refine the ability to listen to external sounds—starting with the appreciation of “good music”.
By “feeling music, rather than trying to analyse it intellectually”, we can “bypass the thinking mind and move closer to the heart”. Some people know this as non-attachment.
Of course, good music is entirely subjective and practitioners attending classes at the Jivamukti Yoga Sydney school will encounter a huge variety of recorded artists—from jazz great Nina Simone to pop idol Prince. The school recently held a fundraising workshop themed “’80s, early ’90s, Acid House” and is planning another called “Punk-asana”.
Message in the music
Teachers are encouraged to be creative with their playlists for classes. The only limitation, explains Jivamukti Yoga Sydney director Katie Spiers, is that the music should be of a spiritually uplifting nature, with a view to changing our mood and mental state in a positive way.
“Even the founders of Jivamukti, Sharon and David, interpret this differently,” she explains. “Sharon likes the music to be quite peaceful and obviously spiritual, while David will play hip-hop in class. He might play a piece that has swearing in it or quite graphic language—he believes that hip-hop is a contemporary interpretation of Nada.”
Spiers describes the use of music as “a piece of theatre or choreography for a dance”. The tempo and volume are controlled as the practice moves in and out of dynamic asanas, into seated postures, then inversions and eventually meditation.
She admits that the Jivamukti approach to music isn’t for everyone, and nor should it be. “It’s not a method that everyone’s going to be drawn to; it’s not a calling that everyone’s going to have. We might even go to the extent of recommending a different teacher or method for someone who’s looking for something else.
“Some people like to practice in silence, some people like non-descript, quiet, gentle music in the background. But
if that’s what you want you’re probably not going to get that in a Jivamukti class.” That said, the practitioners who do attend Jivamukti classes can often be overheard commenting on how much they enjoy the music—and how it can inspire them to do a stronger or more relaxing practice.
Music for the brain
Advanced certified Jivamukti teacher Keith Kempis, also a musician and high-school music teacher, says there is a science to creating a playlist for a yoga class. Most Jivamukti teachers will spend just as much time putting together their playlists as they do their sequencing.
“The idea is that one song could actually be the song that clicks you into enlightenment,” says Kempis. “And when we become enlightened, we actually hear an inner orchestra, or the Nadam.
“You want every song on your playlist to have the essence of Om in it. If you chant Om every day—if you’re really in tune with that sacred vibration—you will know inherently which pieces of music to choose.”
Kempis says music should help to keep students present. Even in a restorative class, a jazz or blues soundtrack can be key to keeping practitioners in the moment, and not drifting off to sleep.
“Music is a great way to get high,” Kempis laughs. “If you refine your ears by listening to or playing music, or being a participatory member of music, like in kirtan, you are using the chemical laboratory that is your mind. You’re switching to a higher level of thinking, a higher level of experience.”
Indeed, brain research shows that listening to and playing music releases neurochemicals that have the capacity to alter our emotions and mood, often manifesting in physical effects, such as shivers, goosebumps or tears.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks explored how music can build neural pathways in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Picador, 2007). He tells of people with terrible amnesia or Alzheimer’s disease for whom music can “restore them to themselves”.
The sound of silence
Research aside, music and yoga do not always have to go hand in hand. The essence, as Yoga Track owner Claire Havey explains, is finding a practice that brings you to a place of complete calm. This may involve music for some, but for now, she’s sticking to classes taken in silence, with some chanting.
While she’s happy for others to experiment with playlists, Havey believes there comes a time when silence should be respected, and that is during pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses. “I can see the logic of using music within practice,” she says. “I can see how you could use the transcendental nature of music as an outside rhythm.
“But I do think that when you reach that point, when you’re practising pratyahara—whether in your asana or meditation—that’s the point where you do need to let the music go, not use it or rest on it.” This is, after all, when that listening finally comes into play and we can be at one with silence.
Creating a thoughtful playlist
- Choose songs that are uplifting and inspiring.
- Select songs that have a rhythm consistent with the sequence. Tempo is important during Sun Salutations, for example, and not so much during inversions.
- Use the music mindfully: increasing the volume as the asanas become more dynamic and decreasing it during seated poses and meditation.
- Sanskrit mantras can be less distracting than songs with English lyrics, although consider your audience (beginners may find Sanskrit challenging).
- Consider song lyrics—what is the song really about?
- Listening to music in yoga can be cathartic. Songs can elicit different memories and emotions for people. Let students know this is normal and healthy.
- If you’re a teacher, listen to the energy of the class—and recognise that there is a time for silence.
Tracks to consider:
The list of potential songs to include is endless, but here are a few artists and albums to get you started.
- Bob Marley Legend
- Nina Simone Greatest Hits
- Mozart, Bach or Brahms
- George Harrison All Things Must Pass
- John Lennon Imagine
- Eva Cassidy Songbird
- Michael Franti Everyone Deserves Music
- Geoffrey Gurrumul
- Yunupingi Gurrumul
- Deva Premal & Miten More than Music
- Sacred Earth Divine Devotion
- Snatam Kaur Grace
- Krishna Das Breath of the Heart
Katie Sutherland is a freelance writer and vinyasa yoga practitioner based in Sydney.