Playing music during a yoga class (some words of advice)

Published on June 24, 2011 by      Print
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By Chang Terhune

Editor’s note: I met Charles many years ago when I worked for a certain bandana-coifed yoga mastah teachah in Boston. I was this teacher’s go-to minion for all things blood sugar and caffeine related. Charles was the manager of the bustling power yoga “institute” we were all headquartered out of. A fast and lifelong friendship was born. These days, Charles and his wife Alice own their own thriving studio in Portland, Maine. They are the real deal — yoga teachers and studio owners who defy every eyeball-rolling stereotype I recently wrote about in my Elephant Journal piece “Successful, ethical yoga studio owners versus crackpots.” I begged Charles — a bona fide writer — to send us something. Thankfully, he obliged. He’s wicked smaht. Also, as a sidenote — and this is just a personal request — if you’re a yoga teacher, please don’t play The Beatles, Jack Johnson, or Van Morrison in class. My head will explode, I promise. Thanks. — Joslyn Hamilton

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Recently a former yoga student (who is now a teacher) asked me about playing music in a yoga class. Here’s my bloviating response. Please to enjoy:

Dear C________,

Welcome to the wild, weird world of playing music in yoga!

It’s not as easy as it looks.

Dropping the needle (to use an ancient term) on an iMix is not the same as crafting a mix of music for use in a yoga class. Forgive me for sounding egotistical, but you’re lucky to have seen me do it, because from all the other music-in-yoga classes I’ve taken, no one else really approaches it and succeeds the way I have. I make mistakes, I learn from them, and I am never going to be a celebrity DJ. But I know good tunes, good asana, and how to mix them together. This is not just because I used two iPods (now a laptop) but because of my very specific approach.

I got the idea when I took a workshop with Rusty Wells and saw my friend Joslyn running over to the iPod every time I heard him whisper, “Zero 7!” or “That Sneaker Pimps song!” A few years later when we were brainstorming class ideas, my wife suggested I do something with music. I took the idea and ran with it. God bless Rusty Wells for the impetus and back bends, but I brought it to a whole new level.

Thus, the M3 (Music Movement Meditation) classes were born.

Someone once asked me how I do the M3 classes. ”Simple,” I said. ”Listen to music obsessively from age 4 onward. Make 2-3 mixed tapes a week for 10-15 years, learning to develop an arc and flow to a mix just like a DJ does at a club — because everything in life is arc and flow. Do yoga for 10 years, all the while listening to your breathing. Then begin to see and hear what songs — from all those years — work in certain sections/poses.”

They walked away a little dumbfounded, but that was my honest answer.

Here are the first things that come to mind if you want to do this right and stand out:

1) VINYASA IS AN ARC. Think about the sequence of asana you teach. Power Vinyasa, for instance, starts off slow, builds, crescendos, and then powers down slowly. So the entire playlist should reflect the arc of a class. Figure out what you’re going to do for the asana, THEN plan the music. Don’t just play Prince all the way through, as I’ve heard an internationally known teacher likes to do. Let the asana tell you what the music should be. Remember: the breath tells us the truth. As long as we let it flow we’ll be fine and working from authenticity.

2) MAKE IT ABOUT THE YOGA. Though music is way cool, and playing it during class is fun, it can be a crutch (Remember people are bombarded daily by sound either by choice or by force. You may like that song that sounds like monkeys typing but it might make a student think of someone at work he wants to shoot with a Beretta). Make sure no song is doing the teaching for you or covering up anything you feel is a shortcoming. It will show up in both the yoga and the playlist. For instance, as much as I love hip-hop and like to play it for it’s intensity and power, I rarely use it in a class, as it’s hard to talk over. I can’t compete with Chuck in that arena.

3) DON’T FLINCH. In every VSS (Vinyasa Soul System, another class which is taught by my wife and which I DJ) or M3 (what I called my solo music-based classes), I put in some music that I am pretty sure no one in the class besides my wife might have heard. It’s got to be something that makes me uncomfortable to play in a class. Not because it’s raunchy or anything, but because it’s challenging to the listener and the idea of “yoga music,” which I personally cannot stand for the most part. People have to get that without dark there is no light. As it is in life so it is in music and yoga. I’ve played stuff that no one in their right mind would play during a yoga class: GODFLESH, THE YOUNG GODS, INTERPOL, CABARET VOLTAIRE, THE WHO, GARY NUMAN, NOTORIOUS B.I.G., etc. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. But again, you’re letting the asana tell you what to play. Also, I never play 2 songs in one class by the same group. Keeps it fresh. And I try to never repeat songs. Also tough but it hones the mind and the ears!

4) MUSIC WANTS YOU TO BE FREE. As for classic songs of mine to borrow? Ha ha ha! I’m flattered because the music’s there for everyone! You know all the stuff I like and listen to: Afrobeat, dub reggae, rock, gospel, African music, techno, jazz, funk and everything in between and above. But that’s me. What are your classics? See, you as a teacher must develop your own language of music to describe, enhance and reflect the asana just like you would develop your own voice for teaching.

Look, C________, I’m not being a jerk here, but this must be a learning experience for you. For instance, many other studios have tried to do a music/yoga class soon after ours began (we’ve been doing M3/VSS’s since 2006, mind you). Fine, I say. Have at it. Their playlists go something like this: half Moby, half Coldplay, and some Michael Franti (oh, that sounds like the monster from a yogic horror movie!). Playing all the hits, as it were, and preaching to the choir. These are songs that people know already, and they indicate a certain mood or gesture just like a red light means “stop” and green means “go.” Yogi gets happy hearing “The Sound of Sunshine,” sad hearing “Miss You,” and mellow hearing “Porcelain.”

At the same time, I was doing things like trying to figure out how to play parts of 3 different songs at once and make it all work as one cohesive unit. (And you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen housewives doing sun salutations to grindcore metal… and loving it!)

What happened to those other classes at other studios? Well, they abandoned their music/yoga classes after doing 3-4 and we’re going into year 6 with the VSS/M3 classes. Make of that what you will.

I’m not trying to dissuade you (I know I can’t because your passion is clear, bright and strong, just like you!), but what I’d hate to see is another yoga teacher just pressing “play” on an iPod or CD player – yes, some people still use those – and teaching along to a soundtrack of their choice. Music is my heartbeat just as I know it is for yourself and others. Yoga is what regulates that heartbeat, allowing me and everyone else who does it to experience true beauty. To simply drop music into a class cheapens everything from the teacher to the asana to the music.

Good luck! Tell me what you decided to play!

P.S. Never play music all through a yoga class. That’s phoning it in in the worst way possible. You might as well stand up there and play a CD of another teacher.

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About Chang Terhune

Chang Terhune is an Associate Baptiste Power Vinyasa Teacher, with both Level I and Level II Teacher Training with Baron Baptiste under his belt. He has also done a month long yoga teacher training with Ana Forrest. He completed the Assisting program in 2005 at the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute (BPYI) in Cambridge, MA. Before moving to Portland, Charles was assisting classes at the Cambridge studio. Charles had been part of the Volunteer Program at the Cambridge studio since September of 2001, when he was asked to interview for the position of manager. He was hired as the facilities manager in February of 2002. He spoke at a panel discussion entitled “The Business of Yoga” at the 2004 Yoga Journal Conference in Boston.

 

 

 

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32 Comments !

  1. linda says:


    nothing worse than listening to a yoga teacher’s bad taste in music. I would not subject unsuspecting people on my tastes in music….John Coltrane or Mahavishnu Orchestra anyone?….why do it to me?

    and nothing more distracting that watching a teacher F with her Ipod every 5 minutes. give me break…and my money back.

    • Chang says:


      Linda, I fully agree. My natural inclination is to put in things I really like but may not translate well to others ears. My wife always says, “Can you put in some popular songs other people have heard?” when I’m getting too esoteric. And yes, watching the teacher fidget with an iPod is a major distraction. I hated doing it and it was a major impetus to streamline my process.

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  3. Yoga Playlist Egoist says:


    I love this article! Thank you for this funny, insightful piece. Music is such a personal and hence subjective choice and I have been distracted by ‘annoying’ music and playlists that repeat week after week (Thank goodness the teacher is awesome!)

    I am so guilty of being attached to the class playlist mainly because my ego tells me I have decent taste in music. Though my teacher trainers have warned us to avoid using popular music new and old in case it triggers memories and thereby distracting the students.

    I will call myself out on this- I am guilty of overplaying Thievery Corporation and Deva Premal, and I probably have annoyed my students with my music. Sorry: (

    Here are my pet peeves:
    1) Please no top 40, pop, electro-synth vocal shit, and anything clubbing music! Black Eyed Peas- No, thank you! (yes, I sometimes hear this at power vinyasa flow type classes) We are not at a high school dance or at a club. it’s too distracting and annoying.

    2) Please please do not play Wah! for a power flow class. I have no problem with slow Wah! in a restorative class. The music in a sweaty-my-body-is-on-fire setting is not meditative, but rather it stokes my mind to have these unyogic feelings of annoyance.

    3) I notice for a while, and even now, that Garden State sound track gets overplayed, same goes for Radiohead. Although that’s not egregious at all. It’s actually good music.

    Ok, I better finish this ego-filled rant… Thanks for the article and thanks for letting me vent.

    • Chang says:


      I am a recovering musical bigot. I used to be incredibly, horribly snobby. It’s lessened over the years but sometimes it still rears its ugly head. WAH! sets my teeth on edge for some reason. I just can’t deal with her. I know some people love her music but it makes me nuts. Glad your liked the article.

  4. Yogini5 says:


    Glad you mentioned use of hip-hop in classes. No matter how softly it’s played, it’s sure to set my teeth on edge.

    And I’d never liked practically everything The Beatles did before their breakup …

  5. Matthew says:


    This AM, my friend said: ” I think that music should only be played by a professional Yoga-DJ with certified Yoga-DJ training. I’m giving a class next Thursday……….”
    But is the class accredited?

  6. Jenifer says:


    LOL Yoga DJ Certification. Great concept. :)

    No music is my preference. But it does freak some students out. I had one yell at me “We NEED music.” and I said “ok, then put your ipod into your ears then.” She got mad and stormed out.

    Then made a complaint to the owner, who fired me for not loving the students (this was also after I refused the cuddle party invitation). Ew.

    Anyway, music has it’s place, but — yeah — it’s gotta be chosen carefully.

    • Chang says:


      Cuddle party? Eww. I thought they only had those at science fiction conventions!

      Yeah, I should mention that silence has its place in the mix, too. I rarely teach with music. These classes we do are very infrequent because we found that doing them too often a) diluted the power of the practice and the music and b) people just came to them for the music. Kind of a “is that bad?” thing that was. A studio in town here plays music throughout class every class and many have told me they find it annoying as well. Silence is golden. So is ABBA Gold!

  7. Brittany Rice says:


    As my ex-sorority sisters used to make me say during chapter, “Ditto Rice.” I LOVE your article. Agree 100% “”Listen to music obsessively from age 4 onward. Make 2-3 mixed tapes a week for 10-15 years, learning to develop an arc and flow to a mix just like a DJ does at a club — because everything in life is arc and flow. Do yoga for 10 years, all the while listening to your breathing. Then begin to see and hear what songs — from all those years — work in certain sections/poses” <<<< Love also that you listen to African….Unathi, Freshly Ground, and Goldfish are all great South African artists I LOVE to play during class. :)

  8. Prajna Vieira says:


    Nice article! I don’t mind hearing pop, r&b, hip hop, etc. in my classes, but I’ll tell you that if it’s not interspersed with SOMETHING in Sanskrit I feel a little rattled. There is a LOT of incredible, soulful, gorgeous music out there that is designed for yoga specifically– it’s not all cheesy new age fluff. My favorite playlists inlcude stuff from both ends of the spectrum. I’ll take Girish OR James Vincent McMorrow for my standing poses, please, and The Album Leaf OR Benjy Wertheimer in Savasana. I like there to be a balance, because leaning to heavily to the pop side OR the kirtan side can be tiresome.

    And I’m so with you on the not playing for the entire class thing. When I’m teaching I never play for the first 15 minutes or so … it gives people time to hear their breath and just be in silence.

    • Chang says:


      Prajna,

      I agree! I make sure to throw in something with an element harkening back to yoga or traditional Hindu or Indian culture in each of these classes. Anoushka Shankar, Karsh Kale, Cheb I Sabbah, Ravi Shankar, etc. I make sure it’s in there. Always gotta remember we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.

      Bill Laswell has doen some amazing music inspired by the Jivamukti style of yoga, often with Zakir Hussain. Oh, the list goes on!!!

  9. Chang says:


    Thank you very much for all your kind responses. I appreciate it. Since you all liked the article so much I thought I’d share a couple links with you of these VSS (Vinyasa Soul System) classes my wife and I did. This is actually from a yin yoga class we did (imagine the room lit by candles. It was awseome!).

    First: the class with my wife’s teaching.

    Second: just the music.

    I hope you enjoy both. I wish I could provide a playlist but I never typed one up. Someday.

    You can find more of my music on http://soundcloud.com/chang and mixes at http://www.mixcloud.com/dr_savasana/.

    Namastizzle!

  10. Helen says:


    Could you please tell me when you teach at your studio? I will be near Portland from July 2-16, staying on Peaks and would love to experience your class. Is the studio close to the ferry?

    • Chang says:


      Helen, I am honored that you would like to take my class. I teach Tuesday & Wednesday at 5:45PM. While we are not close to the ferry (we are on the other side of the Portland Peninsula) it’s a 20 min. walk or short cab or car ride. And our other teachers are also great. Please come see us at Portland Power Yoga!

  11. insulted says:


    You guys sound like jerks that need to turn your music off and listen to yourselves! So arrogant! Knocking others cause you think your cooler!!!?? There is a lot of yoga and a lot of music out there- to each his own! Shame on you “yogis” :(

    • Chang says:


      Dear Insulted,

      You may need to re-read the article and the comments I’ve made. I keep the music off most of the time. I rarely play it in class.

      And I know for a fact I am not cooler than anyone else because I have a twelve year old daughter who tells me all the time how uncool I am.

      Please don’t confuse arrogance with confidence in what I do. There is a difference. I agree with you about the multitudes of yoga and music and the infinite combinations thereof. Nowhere did I say the yoga I do and the music I play is better than anyone else’s. As a yoga studio owner of 5 years and teacher for 8 I tell people all the time, “There is a style of yoga for everyone. This may not be for you.”

      I hope you find something that’ll turn that frown upside down. I like to listen to Tiny Tim’s “Living in the Sunshine” when I’m upset. And about ten minutes of viparita karani. It’ll turn any yogi’s day around.

      • linda says:


        “turn your music off”

        uh, I think that’s what we were saying. just sayin’

        “don’t confuse arrogance with confidence in what I do. There is a difference”

        love this.

        pranams.

  12. Brad says:


    Frikin funny!!!!!

    I love this. I am new to this blog and need to find a way to express the disappointment of what western “modern” yoga is. You guys have already done it. I laughed so much. What a better way to make light of such a superficial culture than to be superficial about it. :)

    Hey, insulted. Brother, look in a mirror. And then also, I heard Christy Turlington has new book on yoga that you might want to get. The newest tunes is not anything but a way to draw you further away from what the purpose of yoga is.

    People can you hear it?!!

  13. Erin says:


    When you say “Never play music all through a yoga class. That’s phoning it in in the worst way possible. You might as well stand up there and play a CD of another teacher,” do you mean that it would be better to play one song for instance, followed by silence, then another song or two? Hopefully I am not being too obtuse here. I am teaching my first class on Saturday and would love some insight.

    Thanks!
    Erin

    • Dr. Savasana says:


      Erin,

      Good question! I mean it like this: unless it’s a class where you have specifically stated you will play music all the way through, do not. And what you wrote is perfect. A song, some silence for a few minutes then another song is far more effective use of music as medicine than what I wrote about. I was in a class last night and the teacher pushe play in the iPod and let it play straight through class. The music was slow, cloying and soporific. I felt simultaneously anxious and drugged. Not fun for a yoga class.

      Hope this helps! – Dr. Savasana

  14. Autumn says:


    The normal instructor was out today as her home was destroyed in our Colorado wildfire. The guest instructor was using a the theme “hero” to run her class as a way to thank our fire fighters and others that have saved our community.

    I am used to nice calming meditative music that backgrounds the instructor. The crap she played today ruined my yoga! It was good music, but it did not belong in class.

    1. I could not hear her. Frustrating!
    2. It was over stimulating. When I do yoga I like to focus, breathe, clear my head, and practice balance. All I could think about was the music.
    3. It seemed to force the flow and I felt like a had to go at the pace of the music.
    4. Overall it seemed like a pilates class. It was AWFUL!!!! I will avoid this instructor and any class that plays pop music during class. It just does not belong! If instructors feel so inclined to add this to their class then I think their should be a note in the class description as it totally defeats the purpose of the philosophy of yoga.

  15. Gina says:


    Thanks for all the food for thought. I’m going to be teaching my first actual public class today and it’s one of the things I had last on the list to think about. When I was in teacher training and we were doing our practicals on midterms and finals, I was concerned with the fact that I didn’t use music and how people would respond to that. Don’t get me wrong—good music can definitely be a plus for practice or for a class. I know myself when I practice differently it depends on what I am doing. For instance, I will put on my iPod or a CD when I am working on something specific or have a random flow going. I can’t really, however, see working through Primary Series Ashtanga listening to anything but my breath and maybe the teacher if it’s a lead class.

    I’ve noticed over the years that some people dig it, some people don’t, some people are very specific about what they like. It’s not easy to make everyone happy. I remember years ago when I’d first started going to classes I would take mid-morning class due to my work schedule and usually the other people in the class were older ladies, most middle age to retired age, who had been attending that studio for ages. After a particularly relaxing and focused class, I was going to comment to my teacher about how I really enjoyed the music with Sanskrit chants she’d had playing in the background. Before I could get a chance, another woman went to the teacher to comment on the class and said, “It was a great class, but you’ve got to get other music. Just soft music, not stuff like today with people saying stuff” or something to that effect. I agree that lyrics can be distracting in some cases, but I felt differently than she did as the music was instrumental in me having a different experience. I’d also had a similar experience when I was in massage school where we were doing hands-on practice and someone decided throw on Bob Marley rather than the usual piano laced spa music. Even though I had been tired of the spa CD we’d had to listen to incessantly, I felt the reggae was not really helping me to relax or focus for that purpose. So I agree that it’s very subjective and we need to be conscious of what our intentions are and what sort of energies we are working with so that they enhance the experience and not detract from it.

    You’ve also got me thinking after doing my studies about how I’d changed it up a bit and was using Magna Canta’s ‘Enchanted Spirits’ CD to practice Sun Salutations when we were in the midst of studying our Classical Hatha section. Very different from what I’d usually done (say instead of sitar music or New Age alpha wave stuff). In one way it really worked for me to focus and experience something new and in another way I almost felt like I was doing something “wrong” LOL. I’d had other types of music I’d felt interested in trying while practicing and maybe I’ll have to experiment more. I know I do like both.

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