Almost a year ago, I stopped playing music entirely in my yoga classes. When I practice on my own at home, I also no longer play music. This move to “silent” yoga has been a long time coming for me, but lately I’ve actually been thinking about eventually reintroducing music into my classes and my personal practice. I still have strong reservations about this, though, and probably won’t do anything differently in the immediate future.
One of the most obvious benefits of music is that it helps to set the tone for the overall practice, as well as for each individual section of the practice. For instance, a high energy soundtrack (e.g., electronic music, African drums, even AC/DC) can provide that little extra boost during a difficult standing sequence, whereas a more soothing soundtrack (e.g., quiet piano, ambient music, or nature sounds) can help students to relax and let go at the end of class. Many yoga teachers create extensive playlists for their classes, carefully planning the music to suit the energy of each section of the practice. Indeed, music during yoga has become so popular that some teachers even release yoga music CDs and/or post their yoga playlists on their websites.
Interestingly, the benefits of music in a yoga class also give rise to some considerable problems. Most importantly, music can become a crutch. The overuse and overreliance on music, I’ve found, can turn a yoga class into a form of entertainment. This is certainly what I found with my classes. The more students raved about the music, the more I felt compelled to keep finding new and hip music to play in class. Eventually, I started to feel more like a showman than a yoga teacher. I started to feel like my main objective as a teacher was to keep the students as stimulated and excited and titilated as possible. After a while, this no longer felt right to me. I began to wonder, “What ever happened to ‘Stilling the fluctuations of the mind’!?”
Since I stopped playing music, I’ve noticed a number of big changes in my classes. First, the attendance has dropped. No doubt, the most popular yoga classes tend to play music (certainly there are exceptions), but most students do prefer to do yoga to music. One reason for this, I think, is that a silent yoga class is usually not as fun. And to the extent that someone does yoga because it’s fun, they’ll have more or less difficulty practicing silent yoga. Of course, a silent yoga class doesn’t have to be boring or tedius, but if there’s to be any levity or excitement in a silent class, that must come entirely from the teacher and the students themselves.
This points to the real reason why I stopped playing music in my own classes. I found that I was using music as a teaching crutch. I coud easily inject energy into the class or change the tone of the practice just with the music. Of course, the poses I taught would have to match the music, but the music could lead the way, and even compenstate for my lack of planning or poor teaching. Without music, though, all the responsibility is on my shoulders as a teacher to set the tone for the practice and to energize the class.
Finally, I find that music is distracting to one’s practice. It doesn’t allow you to hear your own breath, and it gives the mind something to focus on (i.e., be distracted by), instead of allowing the mind to confront itself and ultimately discover some moments of clarity and freedom. Needing to have music in order to practice yoga is a lot like needing to have the TV on all the time. Both fill the mind with sounds and thoughts, so that the mind never has a chance to settle or to struggle with the difficult task of inward reflection and observation.
Taking all of this into account, though, I may still reintroduce music into my yoga classes (and maybe, sometimes, into my own practice). Most students who do yoga casually do it for fun, not for spiritual release or clarity of mind or anything like that. Moreover, even for those of us who want more out of yoga than just exercise, there’s nothing wrong with using a crutch once in a while, so long as the crutch does not promote dependence. Another way to put it is this: Music used like training wheels can help practitioners to deepen their practice; music used as a crutch will hold them back. So there’s nothing inherently good or bad about playing music during yoga–it’s all a matter of intention.