How to Set the Right Tone with Music


By Jodi Mardesich  |  

As soon as I enter the shala and hear the moody, spacious music, my mental chatter volume subsides. I forget where I’m going later, where I came from, and I’m ready for yoga—that sweet state of union of the body and the mind.

After attending ?Flowmotion class with Sarah Tomson Beyer for more than a year, I have a Pavlovian response to the music she plays. The music invites me into a state of surrender, daring, and acceptance. Her sequences start slow, pick up momentum, pull back a bit, and build again to a crescendo. At the peak, the music is thumping and we’re trance-dancing; then the music leads us back toward the surrender of Savasana—and all the poses are choreographed to her playlist.

“People have been dancing to rhythm for centuries,” says Tomson- Beyer, a yoga teacher and physical therapist in Park City, Utah. “Why is it so strange to move your body when it happens to be in a yoga studio?”
I confess that I used to be one of those teachers who was afraid of playing music in class. The vibration of sound literally can change your energy or shift your mood. It can be a positive shift, but can also agitate or offend. I worried that my musical tastes might not gel with my students’ preferences. And while music is appropriate for some classes, like vinyasa, it might not fit with some styles, where there is a lot of verbal instruction and less flow (think Iyengar).

Set the Mood

The ubiquity of iPods, along with playlist-building technology, has given teachers a way to personalize music for their classes. Andre Daley, a teacher and founder of Wholly Yoga in Grand Rapids, Michigan, used to rely on presequenced CDs from Yogafit. “I didn’t have to think about the flow of the music from warm-up to active flow to floor work to cool-down and relaxation,” he says. But now that he creates his own playlists, he can match the songs to fit his sequence—and also his theme. (See his lists on asteya and change. “With a little creativity and a lot of work, the whole practice comes together around the intention or focus of that practice,” Daley says.

Andrea Drugay, a teacher in San Francisco, agrees. “The right music can provide the inspiration to guide a class (or be guided in a class) into new directions that the teacher or students might never have imagined before,” she says.

So which comes first, the music or the sequence? It depends on your planning style. For Drugay, it’s the sequence, followed by music. “The playlists I use for my Power Yoga and vinyasa flow classes have more high-energy tracks than those I use for gentle flow,” she says. For restorative and prenatal classes, she keeps it simple, repeating a track of Tibetan bells with ocean waves. (Www.33bowls.com)

For Tomson-Beyer, it’s usually the music that inspires her class. “Once I have a combination of music with a consistent theme throughout, I then see what movement arises from that feeling—power-filled movement if the music is intense or fluid, watery movement if the music and mood are more mellow.”

Cue Yourself

Creating a playlist is an art that can be more time-consuming than scripting a sequence. But aside from setting the tone for the class, a skillfully designed playlist can also give you cues and remind you what to teach. It helps with timing and the pace of the class, Tomson Beyer says.

Planning ahead, Drugay starts with songs that she knows work, from Krishna Das, Thievery Corporation, or Deva Premal. She drags a few songs into a new playlist, listens to snippets of other songs that might fit, and builds from there. “I’ve successfully worked in music from Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Mozart, bebop jazz, hip-hop, and underground techno tracks, just by keeping an open mind when I’m creating a playlist,” she says.

Getting Technical

There are several different ways you can create a selection of music for your class:

Create a playlist via iTunes on your computer. “The iPod playlist is great because most studios have the proper hardware cable that you can easily hook into,” says Tali Koziol, an aspiring yoga teacher in Denver who regularly publishes playlists on her blog. Songs created in the playlist are synched to your iPod next time you connect it. You can go old-school and create a CD of your playlist if an iPod hookup isn’t available.

Create a playlist online. Playlist.com hosts playlists you create, giving you the choice of songs uploaded by other members. However, it requires an Internet connection if you want to play it in class. Also, songs come and go, and if a song is removed from the site, it’s no longer in your playlist.

Share your playlist. You can help students recreate the vibe they’ve experienced in class by publishing your playlists. iTunes lets you create an iMix, which shows up in the iTunes store. Your students can preview songs (iTunes plays 15 seconds only). Drugay has been publishing iMixes of her playlists for more than a year, and she publishes them on her blog as well (http://shapeshifteryogamusic.blogspot.com). Playlist.com lists work well for sharing on a website or blog. “I can arrange the songs as I want and generate the code to embed the playlist or easily link to the URL when sharing it,” says Koziol.

If you’re looking for inspiration, you can listen to Pandora Internet radio. You create stations by typing in a favorite artist. Pandora then streams songs it thinks you will like. Blip.fm is a great way to find songs by keyword. Searches on names of Hindu deities like Ganesh bring up a wealth of results. Or search for yoga playlist online. Many teachers publish theirs.

All these tools make it easy to create playlists and get used to being the deejay for your class. But they require advance work, and if you’re not prepared, music—or the technology itself—can be distracting in unintended ways. For example, if you forget your iPod or don’t have a CD, you might want to think things through before streaming Pandora Internet radio off your cell phone in class. It might work, as long as the random songs that stream on a station work for the class—but you’d risk a phone call ringing through and disturbing class.

Playlist Tips

Be mindful of transitions. “The music has got to flow seamlessly, like breathing,” Drugay says. “If a track ends abruptly or starts too loudly, that won’t work. Gentle beginnings and endings are key, even if it’s a high-energy song.” Settings in iTunes let you edit transitions between songs. “I often will edit the start and stop time of each song and have a fade between songs with a cross-fade,” says Sarah Kohl, a teacher in Columbia, Missouri.

Be flexible. If a song isn’t working, skip to the next, or shift to another playlist. “Once or twice, a song that I’d thought was awesome when I was making the mix turned out to feel awkward during the class. But that’s rare,” Drugay says.

Go for it. It can be distracting when a teacher isn’t confident with her music. “I’ve been distracted only when music is turned down extra low, like the teacher wants it to be there but also doesn’t,” Drugay says. “Make up your mind, I say, and be confident in your decision.”

Practice makes perfect. “I always do a personal practice to a playlist before I debut it in a class, just to be sure,” Drugay says.

As teachers, we create and hold a space for our students. Our sequencing sets a mood and a pace—and music can augment that. Kohl’s classes often have a mix of students whose ages range from 16 to 75. “I don’t want to isolate any of them, but I also don’t want to discourage folks from experiencing something new,” she says. “Also, I find that a mix-up of music helps keep folks ‘in the moment,’ because they never know what’s going to happen next.”