Why is the kind of music we use in Yoga important?

I’ve been to hundreds of Yoga classes in the past 18 years and I have heard every kind of music played during Yoga from new age to hip hop to hard rock! I’ve also heard many opinions from different sources about what kind of music should be played in Yoga or even if any music should be played at all.

As a composer and someone who has studied music from a classical perspective, I can comment on how the structure of music effects the human brain. There is something we take for granted in Western music which is called tonal music. This is music that has a structured melody and follows fairly predictable chord changes and transitions. Most pop music follows this format and we are very used to this music as it is in our neurology.

Our brains can actually predict what the next note in a song will be based on the information that is stored from previous experiences. This can cause the awareness to be pulled into the music and actually await the resolution of a chord progression with a bit of tension of the nervous system.

Now, I am not saying this is bad. What I will say is that this kind of music pulls on your attention. When it is played during a Yoga class, it will be a distraction even if it is subconscious.

Proponents of refraining from playing music during Yoga point out that some music feeds the EGO and should not be utilized during practice. The point of Yoga practice is to still the mind and anything that engages it can be counter productive.

I would propose that it is more simply a fact that the more things you place in your environment to distract you from being present during Yoga, the harder it is to connect with the present moment. This would include digital devices and music!

The compromise between music that pulls your attention and no music at all is actually quite easy. Here are a few guidelines for choosing music that can actually help you deepen your presence in Yoga practice.

1. Avoid music with lyrics. Words will always pull your attention as well as connect you with possible associations to previous experiences. (A song that played when you were a teenager and reminds you of your first love) While these might be pleasant memories or associations, they will engage your mind and set a stream of thinking in motion.

(the exception to this is chanting because it invokes the names of the Divine)

2. Avoid hard and driving rhythms. Very strong rhythms will likely engage your nervous system into a state of primal alertness.  This is why hard driving music is used in commercials for sporting events. They engage a primal drive to fight. We are striving to quiet the nervous system in Yoga so this is not a good match.

3. Use music that is intended for Yoga and meditation. Most composers of this kind of music understand how to use absence of a tonal center to create spaciousness in music. Another use of music for meditation is chanting that moves up and down one key the whole time it plays. The entire chant may stay in the key of C# while the vocalist moves within that key with the chant. This creates a hypnotic effect.

4. Try occasionally to practice with no music or perhaps naturally occurring sounds such as the waves at the beach.  We tend to get very attached to the need for external stimulus such as music so it can help our practice of presence to expreince a lack of input. While this may create resistance in the mind, it is a good chance to hear those thoughts that have been running under the gun in your subconscious.

With all this being said, if you want to practice Yoga while listening to Led Zeppelin, it does not make you less spiritual! I’m not judging what is right and wrong for your Yoga practice. This is only a guide to make your path more intentional.

Just get on the mat and practice!