Just now, I was about to hop on my bike to go to my usual 4.15pm yoga class in the neighborhood when I was gripped by this incredible reluctance, almost like a force holding me back. For some unfathomable reason, I just didn’t want to go. But I talked myself into it, saddled up and starting rolling down the hill.
That’s when I realized: it’s not my usual teacher. It’s that other guy whose class I went to accidentally last week. And he was playing music. Pop and rock music. Loud pop and rock music. And something deep down inside me didn’t want to repeat that experience.
I’ve been a student of yoga and other meditative practices for over 10 years now, so I have a good idea of what works for me in a class and what doesn’t.
I’m also a practicing hypnotherapist and lapsed neuroscientist who understands some of the workings of the human mind. In this case, I’m convinced that playing loud pop music during a yoga class is potentially harmful. In this letter to all my past and future teachers, I’ll enumerate the reasons why.
Here, I’m assuming a few basic understandings about yoga. First, that yoga is an inner practice, chiefly aimed at allowing us to go within. This aligns with the second of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: yogas chitta vritti nirodhah — the purpose of yoga is to calm the fluctuations of the mind.
Second, that yoga does not engage in harm — the principle of ahimsa. In my reasons below, I explain how certain features of loud pop music violate the first or second principle.
Of course, it is fully within your rights as a teacher to conduct classes however you want. But if you’re interested in imparting the maximum benefit to your students without doing any harm, you would do well to read this article and implement its suggestions.
1) Music, especially when it contains words, makes it more difficult to focus on the yoga practice.
Music is a terrific stimulant for the brain. This is why people love to listen to it and pay huge sums to purchase music, stereos and concert tickets. Extensive studies show that music lights up vast swaths of your brain — not just the auditory centers, but also areas mediating emotion. Add to that the lyrics from a song, and all the language areas of the brain light up, too. In fact, there’s hardly anything that activates more of your brain than a good song.
All of this means that music is also a tremendous distraction to the task of going within. With all that interesting sound coming at you and your brain figuring out pitch, intervals, melody, harmony, the meaning of the words and the appropriate emotional response to them, it becomes much more challenging to focus on the orientation of your thigh in Warrior I pose, the rhythm of your breathing, or the subtle opening of your heart chakra.
It also defeats one of the highest purposes of yoga — that of a moving meditation. I’m not an expert at meditation, but no meditative practice I’ve studied believes loud music or talking enhances one’s ability to concentrate — not Buddhist, not Zen, not yogic, not mantra-based.
Speaking of talking, the lyrics in pop music also constitute a conversation. It’s like someone is talking on a cell phone really loud, accompanied by drums and guitar, and I have no choice but to listen. Conversation detracts from concentration. If you subscribe to yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, then loud verbal music increases the fluctuations of the mind-stuff.
2) Lyrics can have unintentionally harmful side effects.
Psychologist John Bargh did an experiment in which subjects were asked to make sentences out of a list of jumbled words as quickly as possible, ostensibly being tested for speed and accuracy. In fact, there were two tests: one which contained words such as ‘grey’, ‘bingo’, ‘wrinkle’, ‘old’, and ‘Florida’, and another which contained no such words.
What the experimenters were really measuring was not performance on the quiz, but the time it took for the subjects to leave the testing room and to get to the front door of the building after completing the quiz. What they found was both startling and enlightening: those who had words in their quizzes connoting old age got to the front door 30% slower than those who didn’t. This means that for a brief interval following the quiz sprinkled with those words, they behaved as if they had gotten older.
It’s amazing that something as subtle as words sprinkled in a test can affect a person’s behavior measurably. This effect is amplified when the subject is in a highly suggestible meditative state. As such, in my hypnotherapy practice, I use embedded commands to change behavior — “Doesn’t it feel great to quit smoking forever, John?” It’s a standard implement in any hypnotherapist’s toolbox, and it works.
Yoga students are in a meditative and therefore highly suggestible state. So when the pop song blares “just can’t take the pain” or “without you I cannot live” (or confusingly in one hip-hop song, “get offa my boy”), it’s sending commands straight to your unconscious to do — who knows what. All I know is that it’s not what I signed up for.
3) Students have to strain to hear the teacher over loud music.
It takes a tremendous amount of cognitive resources to make sense of what someone is saying in an environment with competing noise. So when a yoga teacher plays loud music, I have to strain to understand the instructions. For me, this introduces unnecessary strain, detracting from the ease, concentration and flow of the practice.
4) Loud music is innately stressful.
You’ve heard the trope that we’re born with two innate fears — those of heights and loud noises. As such, loud noises are absolutely, definitely stressors. Exposure to loudness rapidly activates your sympathetic nervous response and pours adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream.
In some of the yoga classes I attend, the music volume can get exceptionally loud — to the point that I’m almost compelled to cover my ears. Loudness of over 100dB is stressful and uncomfortable. Perhaps it was motivating in my boxing class, but in yoga class, it feels out of place.
That said, music does have its time and place and can be a great adjunct to a yoga class when used judiciously. If you’d like music to enhance your yoga class rather than detract from it, here are some suggestions:
- Pick instrumental music that has no words. Even the most well-meaning lyrics can hit someone in the wrong spot. And remember that lyrics in foreign languages are still lyrics.
- Keep the volume low. If you have to shout over the music to be heard, the music is too loud.
- Resist the temptation to play any kind of music during the final shavasana pose. Silence is its own music which many people in your class have come to seek — some unbeknownst to themselves. Let them have that vital medicine.
A big thank you to all my wise and wonderful yoga teachers to date. Hope you find this useful.