Does Music Belong in Your Class?
It was one of the worst days of my life. I had been dumped by my girlfriend the night before, and so I did something to save myself: I limped into Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa's Sunday morning yoga class.
I don't remember the set she taught. I don't remember the postures we did. But I remember, clear as a bell, my moment of epiphany—when Gurmukh played Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." Almost a decade later, that merging of yoga and music stands out as one of my greatest healing experiences. Everything, indeed, was going to be alright.
But here's the thing about that moment: Technically, it was against the rules. Kundalini Yoga teachers aren't supposed to play anything but music approved by 3HO, the organization that certifies and codifies Kundalini Yoga. Bob Marley isn't on the list. Neither is most of what contemporary yoga teachers would call "spiritual music"—from the ethereal strains of Deva Primal to the chants of Jai Uttal and Krishna Das. And for other forms of yoga, such as Iyengar, music in classes is a rarity, period.
Does music have a place in the yoga studio? If so, what kind of music belongs there? And if so-called "spiritual music" is the only kind that does, who gets to determine what "spiritual music" is?
"If music doesn't serve the principles of focus and concentration, it shouldn't be used," says Karl Erb, a San Francisco-based Iyengar instructor with more than two decades of teaching experience. "That's why I don't use recorded music in class."
"Basically, music is organized noise that affects us," says Dean Lerner, a senior Iyengar teacher and codirector of Pennsylvania's Center for Well-Being. "When you're drawing your mind and consciousness to various aspects of your physical and mental being, external sounds like that are a distraction."
Both Lerner and Erb speak of a competition between the music and yoga that draws the student away from one of yoga's eight sacred goals: pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses.
Instead, Lerner and Erb recommend complete focus on the practice. Yoga, says Erb, is about the "reining in of the wandering and chattering of the mind." And one of the keys to doing that is to stop seeking the diversion of music.
Point taken. But the irony is that both Lerner and Erb sometimes use recorded music in their personal practice. And they both marvel at Ramanand Patel's work with Indian vocalist Amerkesh Dasai in bringing live music into his classes.
The preference for Indian classical music in yogic circles is not simply about geographic origin. As Erb explains, "The classical raga system, the seed syllables associated with the parts of the body, the sounds and melodies associated with specific moods and time of day—those are very well suited for yoga. There's a methodology and craft there."
On the other hand, Western music can be, as Erb says, "angry, cathartic, emotive." Not bad, necessarily. Just not aligned with what many believe to be the true purpose of yoga. "I play electric guitar and go dancing," Erb says. "I don't call that my yoga practice."