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A Beat You Can Breathe To: Yoga and Music

by Julie PetersJuly 10, 2014
Practice

Have you ever noticed the music yoga teachers play in class?

We know intuitively that music affects our emotions. It hits us deeply, unconsciously,  elevating us, calling forth an old memory, or even causing us to squeeze on the gas pedal a little harder. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his book Musicophilia, explains that the parts of our brains that understand music are intertwined with our limbic (emotional) and motor (movement) systems. Sacks writes, “Rhythm in this sense, the integration of sound and movement, can play a great role in coordinating and invigorating basic locomotor movement.” No wonder we can’t help tapping our toes when a certain song comes on the radio.

In Vinyasa or Flow yoga, we intend very clearly to connect with the rhythm of the breath. We breathe Ujjayi, a slowed down, smoothed out breath that sounds a bit like a whisper, and link every transitional movement to either an inhale or an exhale. Your breath becomes a dance partner, and when you are really in the zone, your breath leads the dance. 

Classically, Ujjayi breath is a four count inhale and exhale. Some teachers count the breath out loud, but a good song in 4/4 time with a steady tempo can get everyone in the room breathing together effortlessly. The yoga playlist is an unsung art: if we listen with our bodies, a good groove can help, while an irregular beat can throw us off. What we need is a beat we can breathe to.

The yoga playlist can also set musical moods, from calm and contemplative to fiery and intense. Since we hear music both physically and emotionally, we must be mindful about using it in a practice with such physical and emotional resonances. Whether it’s Tibetan monks chanting or Avril Lavigne, we must acknowledge that the music we choose creates an emotional flavor for our slow dance with the breath.

Many of my students love my yoga playlists, but I’m also aware that some of them must really, deeply hate them. Everyone has their preferences, and some people like their yoga in silence, with the steady beat of the heart as their only metronome. It’s good to acknowledge that you can’t please all the people all the time, but in the end, the music isn’t for my students. It’s for me.

If you put a few pendulums in a room together, swinging at different phases, they somehow hear or feel each other and sync up. This is called entrainment, and it also happens in a yoga class. As the teacher, I need to be the pendulum whose rhythm everyone else matches up with. No matter what’s going on in my life, and even if no one else notices the actual tunes, I know my playlist will get me in sync with the tempo and mood I am trying to share.

In your teaching or home practice, explore how music affects your movement. Some songs even make me want to do backbends or inversions, while others make me crave deep, seated forward folds. There’s a secret language in the music that can accompany our dance with breath. As the poet Mary Oliver has said, "Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter."


Julie Peters

Julie Peters is a staff writer for Spirituality & Health. She is also a yoga teacher (E-RYT 500, YACEP) and co-owner of Ocean and Crow Yoga studio in Vancouver, BC, with her mom, Jane. She is the author of Secrets of the Eternal Moon Phase Goddesses: Meditations on Desire, Relationships, and the Art of Being Broken (SkyLight Paths 2016) and WANT: 8 Steps to Recovering Desire, Passion, and Pleasure After Sexual Assault (Mango Media 2019). Learn more at www.jcpeters.ca. Follow her at @juliejcp.

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