Why I Never Use Music & Why You Might Consider the Same (Especially if You Teach…)

yoga & MusicA friend was surprised to hear that I never play music during yoga classes or in my own practice.  She went on to mention the fact that she had never been to a yoga class where music wasn’t played, and had assumed that it was somehow essential.  However, when she contemplated what it would be like to practice without music in the background, she realized that she would very much prefer it that way.

Of course, there are many people who enjoy music as part of their practice, and certainly many teachers who use it, so I would never presume to say that they are wrong for so doing.  However, there are several very concrete reasons why I choose not to use it, and I would encourage you, whether you are a student or teacher, to at least consider the following before making your own choice.

Reason One: The (Highly) Personal Nature of Taste

The first and simplest reason to skip music in the classroom is the fact that we all have different tastes.  Simply put, the very piece that one person might find “soothing,” another might find distracting or even irritating.  This issue becomes even more important when we consider the fact that for many people, simply attending a yoga class is already challenging – that is, they are already stepping outside of their comfort zone in the very act of challenging themselves in front of a room of strangers.

This challenge is further amplified when we consider the fact that today’s yoga classes tend to vary greatly, both in terms of style and content – that is, students are often unsure what to expect and whether they will be comfortable.  If we then add music that may or may not resonate for each student, it seems we are adding yet another element that might prevent a class from feeling welcoming and inclusive.

Reason Two: The Power of Tempo – Sequence, Pose, Breath

Beyond this personal factor, however, there is a far more important reason that you might find it best to skip music, and that is the unconscious influence of tempo.  Obviously, every recording has its own “pulse” or beat, and we all have a natural tendency to synchronize with that beat, not only in terms of our movement, but even in terms of our breathing.

The significance of this becomes clear when we think about what the purpose of our asana practice is in terms of these two factors.  In our tradition, we firmly believe that we all have a natural, healthy rate of motion and respiration relative to each pose – a speed at which it feels good and constructive to move both in and out of each asana, as well as a rate of breathing that is most healthful to us.  This then raises the questions: “Do we want to move in synchronization with some external source, or do we want to move at our own, natural pace?  Do we want to breathe more quickly or slowly because we are unconsciously matching a piece of music or because we are mindfully guiding our breath in a way that suits and serves us?”

For me, the answer to both of these is clear.  However, even if you think it might be constructive to use an external source to guide movement or breath, the problem of using music still remains, for the simple reason that, again, we all have very different natural rates of both movement and respiration.  As a result, the very piece of music that might help one student to slow down might unconsciously encourage another to speed up.  Even more importantly, a track that might encourage the perfect rate of movement for one student might also induce him or her to breathe too quickly or two slowly, or vice versa.  Simply put, when we add any external source that is likely to distract us from listening to the signals of our bodies, we are actually moving away from the mindfulness that is the very essence of Yoga.

Not to over-state the case, but, for any teachers reading this, I’m going to add a couple more components related to this that are very much worth considering, and those are class pacing and flexibility.  As teachers, we all know that different poses have different rates of movement.  As a result, unless the flow of your class happens to be perfectly synchronized with your soundtrack, the odds are that you will have accidental periods of “inappropriate overlap” – for example, a quicker song will still be playing as you enter a slower pose, or a slower one starting as you are in the middle of a faster asana.  Of course, we can avoid this by sticking to a strict pacing, but then we are failing to honor the pacing of our students – all in the name of staying in synch with our playlist.

This last point leads to the greater topic of our responsibility as teachers to adapt to our class.  Of course, we all enter each class with a general idea of what we would like to offer our students, but one of the most important aspects of being a truly skilled teacher is being able to adapt what we offer to the needs and abilities of the students at any given moment.  As the class starts, experienced teachers know how important it is to watch breathing patterns, watch signs of effort, and then adjust both the pacing and the selection of poses to match where the students as a whole are on that day.

Obviously, if our “soundtrack” for our practice is already locked in, even if it was perfect for our original thoughts, how will it serve our students based on where they are at?  Do we simply try to ignore the pacing of the songs and encourage our students to try to do the same?  Or do we interrupt class in order to change the music?  Clearly, not being restricted by a play-list gives us far greater freedom to tailor our offerings to meet our students’ needs as they vary from class to class or moment to moment, demonstrating the true flexibility that Yoga is ultimately all about….

Reason Three: “Outer Voice” vs “Inner Voice”

A third factor to consider might seem like a continuation of the previous thought, but I believe it’s important enough to single out, and that is the distinction between “inner guidance” and “outer guidance.”  Vyasa, one of the great sages of the Yoga tradition, once observed: “Yoga teaches Yoga,” and those of us who have been practicing and teaching for many years understand the wisdom of this observation.

Simply put, while we teachers have the capacity to share insights and observations with our students and of course to help them stay safe as they develop their own relationship with Yoga, we know that our primary purpose is simply to support them in getting in touch with their inner wisdom, so they can find the poses and the form of each pose that serves them.  But if this is truly the heart of teaching, then anything that potentially distracts our students or keeps them from connecting with that inner wisdom can be seen as a hindrance to this process.

Of course, this isn’t to say that all distractions should or even can be eliminated, but, as teachers, I believe we have a responsibility to do all we can to support our students in connecting with that inner voice.  While we can facilitate that process and, most importantly, help them navigate it in a way that is safe, I believe it is our job to gradually minimize the external distractions and help our students connect with their inner understanding.  To the extent that music can distract from or impede this process, I believe we are better off without it, just as we are better off without the idea that we “need” expensive yoga clothes or elaborate props in order to practice both well and safely.

Reason Four: Facilitating Safe & Clear Guidance

A final reason to consider omitting music in the classroom is the simple reason of “limited attention.”  Simply put, we all can only process so much information and so much stimuli and the same time.  We are already asking our students to listen to what their bodies are telling them and also to listen to us – which means that, when we add music, we are increasing the likelihood they are going to compromise one or both of those factors.

This is especially important in beginner’s classes and drop-in classes.  Unless your class is made up entirely of experienced practitioners, the ability of your students to hear you and stay focused on your guidance are both crucial to a productive and safe class.  In fact, if your students are all highly experienced, your guidance is arguably even more important, as their practice will presumably be more intense and the nuances of your instruction more valuable.

While it is obviously possible for students to ignore music in order to focus on our guidance or for us to speak up to be sure insights are heard, it is clearly far more effective to reduce distractions by avoiding music in the first place.  Again, while both we and our students clearly have the capacity to overcome this challenge, remember that the Yogic view is that life already has plenty of challenges and there is no need for us to add to them.

A Valid Reason for Including Music & Why You Might Reconsider It As Well

To conclude with one of the arguments in favor of including music, the most common reason is to help our students block out external distractions, such as noise outside the studio.  While this is completely understandable, especially in venues where the yoga room is located within a larger athletic facility and in turn subject to the noise inherent in such a surrounding, I would suggest that even here you might want to consider changing your approach.

Again, if we ask ourselves the purpose of our asana practice, clearly one of the major goals is to build our ability to focus.  Simply put, we know that wherever we are and wherever we go, there are always going to be distractions.  Even when I lived at an ashram, there were frequent interruptions, both of yoga classes and meditation sessions.  If we always respond to these either by moving away from them or trying to “mask” them, we will spend the rest of our lives in those activities and never get to the practice itself.

Again, classically, the yogis would say that one of the primary purposes of our asana practice is to learn to overcome these distractions and to not allow them to disturb our equilibrium.  In that sense, while the use of music might serve a valid role in certain circumstances and stages of our development, eventually we will want to wean ourselves from it and learn how to maintain our peace without it.  For this reason, while some circumstances might naturally suggest the use of music, we might actually better serve our students if we help them learn to focus without it from the very beginning.

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