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