Music in Yoga Class?

Is music beneficial to the practice of yoga, or is it simply a distraction? In Part 1, we discussed how the tantric traditions of Kashmir Shaivism and Rajanaka view externalities such music, wine, or sexuality: Not as temptations to be overcome, but aspects of the divine to be celebrated and integrated into experience—within moderation.

More commonly, however, this tantric perspective is appropriated by the hedonic treadmill of modern consumer society. Philip Urso touches on this in his blog, where he laments the usage of yoga in music classes as a blanket condemnation of the idea that “yoga is everything,” so you can “do everything you want and you will awaken.” This reflects a common thread underlying American new-age yoga culture; Americans like to do what they like, and what feels good. Thus, we get Hangover, 420, chocolate, wine, sex, and nude yoga classes, among others.

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Yet, Urso’s reasoning is a slippery slope. Just because the impulse towards overindulgence exists does not mean we should condemn the externalities themselves. If we consider that the entire world is a refraction of constantly expanding divine consciousness posited by Rajanaka, it’s our relationship to the world and its offerings that’s most informative. Traditions such as Kripalu yoga teach that yoga is fundamentally relational; 99% of yoga happens “in the world” and not on your mat. Kripalu yoga invites practitioners to undertake actions aligned with greater evolution, rather than habitual over-indulgences that can detract from well-being.

Music is one externality that extrapolates to life off the mat by enhancing the intermediate- or advanced-students’ capacity to manage competing stimuli in awareness. Music also sets the context for sacred space, facilitating deeper experience. Still, there are good reasons to inquire into the usage of music in yoga class and determine if it’s of service to either you as a practitioner, or your students as an instructor.

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Urso points out that many teachers use music to fill space, as a substitute for teaching mindfully. Yet, for more intermediate or advanced students, music in class can be an opportunity to more skillfully engage with distractions. His concern that music turns yoga into another form of entertainment is warranted. Yet, in commenting that entertainment eliminates the chance of transformation, he delineates an artificial distinction. Music can be a conduit for transformation. The right music does not just entertain, but invokes a state of mind that can be as sacred as silence. It does not have to be kirtan to do so. Like “thin places,” it can be music that brings you back to yourself, inside yourself, into the sweetness or sorrow of the present moment.

Like yoga, music can be powerfully evocative of the human spirit. Music is vibration, and as such embodies spanda, a KS construct referring to “movement in something that is motionless,” “a throb, a heaving of spiritual rapture in the nature of the divine.” Who among us has not had a transcendent or spiritual experience when listening to music?

Consider Sutra 18 from the Roche’s Vijnana Bhairava Tantra:

Immerse yourself in the rapture of music,
You know what you love. Go there.
Tend to each note, each chord,
Rising up from silence and dissolving again.
Vibrating strings draw us
Into the spacious resonance of the heart.
The body becomes light as the sky,
And you, one with the Great Musician,
Who is even now singing us
Into existence.

What do you think about music in yoga class?


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