Drop in on a yoga class anywhere in America, and chances are good that you'll hear a melody wafting from a nearby boom box or stereo. Be it Sanskrit mantras, soft synthesizer textures, or even contemporary indie hits, music is often an integral part of yoga instruction in the West.
But Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga and teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar, did not hold trance dances for his students. "Even 15 years ago in the United States, you didn't hear music in yoga class," says Sharon Gannon, the cofounder of Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan. Gannon and her partner, David Life, played a pioneering role in bringing music into the yoga studio. Musicians themselves (check out Neti-Neti by their group, Audio Letter), Gannon and Life helped foster the careers of Jai Uttal and Krishna Das, among others. They worked closely with musician Bill Laswell in creating his asana series of albums and the Meta record label. Gannon says she and Life are merely applying bhakti yoga to asana practice, by introducing devotional chanting and live music in class.
"David and I studied yoga scriptures, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in particular emphasizes music. It says the whole purpose behind Hatha yoga is to purify the nadis (energy centers) so that you can hear the inner, primal sound current—the sound of Om. Listening to certain kinds of music can help you develop this capacity for hearing. And so the playing of music became part of the method of yoga that David and I teach."
Aadil Palkhivala, a teacher who has practiced yoga since his childhood in India, thinks differently. For Purna Yoga—a method he synthesized from classically based traditions including Iyengar Yoga, Ayurveda, and the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and others—Palkhivala has chosen quiet. "There is a very big place for music in the world, but there is no place for music in yoga class," he says.
"My teaching is designed to help the student find his or her own nature—the divinity within," Palkhivala continues. "And that cannot be done while music is playing. Music becomes an impediment—a distraction. Many people need that distraction because they're so caught up in their own minds. But I would ask, why are we so afraid of silence?"
Of course, silence is not what all yoga teachers are trying to avoid when they turn up the volume. "If you're teaching yoga in a health club, music is a must," says Beth Shaw, founder of YogaFit Training Systems Worldwide. "Music can help mask exterior sounds from weights, cardio machines, and people talking outside."
Shaw has created several YogaFit CDs, compiling tracks by everyone from tribal trance dance innovators Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors to ambient electronic artists like The Essence and Solar Moon System. Most YogaFit CDs include tunes for warming up, working out, and cooling down so instructors don't have to change CDs during class. Shaw says with CDs teachers can stop checking the clock: "When the music starts to slow, you know it's time to cool down and do deep, relaxing stretches."
Decisions about playing music are highly individualized. While it seems pretty certain that music during practice isn't traditional, many contemporary teachers and students are trying to balance the classical wisdom of yoga with the realities of modern life. Fortunately, for those who do opt to play background tunes, there is an abundance of music recorded for yogis with Western ears.