Psalm 100 1-5
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!”
Music is one of the most universal ways of expression and communication for humankind. It’s present in the everyday lives of people of all ages and from all cultures around the world. Music is plural not singular – no one group can lay ownership to music. Our ancestors all made music of some kind, and more than likely they all had the same intention behind making music: to express a thought or feeling or try to tell a story. Whether informal or formal, the creation of music, song, and melody by individuals and groups is an activity we have in common.
The effect of music on human beings is truly remarkable. Music has the ability to impact brain function and human behavior: it reduces stress, pain, and symptoms of depression as well as improving cognitive and motor skills, spatial-temporal learning, and neurogenesis, which is the brain’s ability to produce neurons. Music can have a positive effect on people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
It’s almost impossible to find someone who doesn’t feel a strong connection to music, because music can also have profound emotional effects on us. Different music affects people in different ways. By paying attention to how you react to different forms of music you can pick the kind that works to create the bhava (energetic) that helps you. What works for one person in creating a positive bhava might be distracting and disturbing to someone else, and what helps one person unwind and feel at ease might make another person jumpy.
Music in yoga asana classes is a relatively new phenomenon that has its root in the American yoga movement of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Before that, the only sound in a yoga asana class was the teacher’s voice and the students’ breath. Traditionally, Nata Yoga (yoga of sound) did not involve listening to external music over a speaker system but was an attempt to listen to the unstruck sound within oneself during meditation.
The modern addition of music in yoga asana classes has its negative and positive points. When we play music in a group yoga asana class, we should be tapping into the world of Music Therapy rather than using music for entertainment or personal preferences. Music Therapy is a type of expressive art therapy that uses music to improve and maintain the physical, psychological, and social wellbeing of individuals – it involves a broad range of activities such as listening to music, singing, and playing a musical instrument. This can be very uplifting and positive. The negative side to having music in a yoga class is when the music becomes a distraction, causing agitation of the mind. Yoga is essentially about inner silence, or rather inner stillness. Patanjali defines yoga as “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha.” Translated from Sanskrit this means “yoga mind storms stop” – or, to put it differently, “yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind.” According to this philosophy, calming the fluctuations of the mind leaves mental stillness, which enables you to experience life as it really is without distracting thoughts, attachments or judgments. So if the music in class takes you back to your years in high school or reminds you of your feelings about an old lover, then music in the yoga class is counterproductive to what you are trying to achieve.
If we categorize music according to the Gunas, the three qualities found in nature — sattva, rajas, and tamas – we can start to understand how music can play a positive role in a modern yoga asana class. Tamas music causes us to attach to feelings and emotions related to the small self or ego; tamas music will cause feelings of laziness, lust, power, greed, anger, jealousy and fear, all emotions we are looking to overcome in a yoga practice with or without music. Rajas music is upbeat, invigorating and energetic, and can be a great motivation during Surya Namaskar or back-bending asanas, which both require lots of energy and stamina. Sattva music, the most powerful in a yoga asana class, is spiritually uplifting, has positive messaging, and helps to focus the mind inward. Sattva music can be found in all forms of music – pop, classical, new age, and spiritual traditions – but whatever the tradition is, the point of the music is to bring a sense of peace, spiritual clarity, and wellbeing to the listener.
As students of life, when we listen to music we try to understand the music on a deeper level. Observing yourself as a witness, ask yourself why the music affects you in the way it does, and whether it is the effect you are looking for. Note if you are more attracted to music that is instrumental or vocal, more lyrical or rhythmic, or music that has lower tones over higher tones. Ask yourself why the music you like is therapeutic for you, but try not to be judgmental about what others may think about your musical preferences, and try not to project your judgments upon their musical choices. This becomes an exercise in observation of the thoughts and feelings, practiced with a calm and focused mind.