Let the Music Move You
On a recent Sunday morning in Venice, California, I went to the Exhale Center for Sacred Movement to take a yoga class, and a world-music rave broke out. At the front of the room were five guys with guitars and a seemingly infinite variety of percussion instruments. They were about half of a loose-knit L.A. ensemble called Shaman's Dream that's been playing live music for yoga classes since 1998. Studio co-founder (along with Craig Kohland) Micheline Berry was the morning's yoga teacher.
For the first half-hour, Berry put the class of 80 students through a strenuous vinyasa practice. Shaman's Dream played quietly and unobtrusively. Then, Berry asked us to shake our hands and bob our heads, to feel the drums inside our minds. Soon, we were all swaying side to side, and the band's rhythm intensified. Within a minute, the whole room was hopping, dancing, shimmying.
"what are you shaking loose this morning?" Berry shouted into her wireless headset. "Whatever it is, let it go!" She whispered to one of the musicians; a deeper percussion tone was needed. He obliged. The class, responding in kind, went electric with rhythm.
"weeeee-oooooh!" shouted the teacher.
"weeeee-oooooh!" we all replied.
Then, just as our movement had intensified to the point of frenzy, Berry threw up her hands. The music stopped. We stood on our mats, sweaty and drained, and gave the band a standing Tadasana ovation.
"Crazy!" said the guy in front of me, and it was crazy. In less than a few minutes, we'd been whipped into an ecstatic state.
Scenes like this might not be the yoga norm, but an in--creasing number of teachers and musicians are working together to create an invigorating hybrid of live performance and physical practice. This fusion spans genres and moods, sometimes leading to rapturous dance but other times inviting extended periods of quiet contemplation. It's a natural marriage between two disciplines that, at their core, are designed to bring about a transcendent state of mind. This merging of the sonic and the physical, while not devoid of ridiculous moments, could mark an evolution in the way we experience yoga.
After class, I talked to Berry, who's been leading classes like this one since 1998, before mixing live music and yoga was much of a trend. "We have our moments of musical chaos," she said. Sometimes the sound equipment doesn't work right, the musicians and teacher are out of sync, or students don't respond to the music. "But that"s the price we pay for moments like today, where there's no musician, no yogi—where we all disappear into a common flow of breath and movement. It's a deeply inspiring relationship. Your sound touches someone, and they're really able to receive."
Thirty years ago, the occasional teacher would put on a New Age, space-voyage cassette during class, but most yogis practiced in silence. The idea of bringing music and asana together had yet to take shape when Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga, was invited to speak at 1969's Woodstock festival. There, he observed how powerful music and vibration are—powerful enough to be the beginning of peace7mdash;before leading a chant. "So, let all our actions, and all our arts, express yoga," he encouraged the crowd. "Through that sacred art of music, let us find peace." Satchidananda was bringing yoga to the music scene back then; now, folks are bringing music to the yoga scene.
In the late '80s, a few people began giving yoga a musical jolt. Steve Ross (a former studio musician for Fleetwood Mac, the Beach Boys, Men at Work, and other big-time bands) was one of them. At the time, most yogis would've found practicing to Prince unnecessary at best and generally disrespectful or unyogic. Ross disagreed. Living in Los Angeles, he saw his students driving to the studio with stereos blaring or arriving in class wearing headphones. Music was an integral part of their lives, and it seemed almost unnatural for them to do yoga in a silent room. So Ross started adding the funk to his class, and now he can't imagine teaching any other way. "Have you ever watched a movie without music?" he asks. "It's the same with yoga." Music is the score of the practice, letting you forget your personal drama, he asserts. Also, it's fun, and to Ross's mind, yoga should be fun.
Now, in the iPod era, it's rare to find a yoga teacher who doesn't use background music at some moment in class. Live music is the next wave. High- profile yogis are forming cultural and economic alliances with musicians. Shiva Rea, who was at the vanguard of teaching asana accompanied by live music, offers her Trance Dance (think nightclub rave, minus drugs, plus yoga) with mix masters like Cheb i Sabbah and DJ Dragonfly. Jivamukti's David Life and Sharon Gannon, who created a practice DVD with Spearhead leader Michael Franti, often invite musicians, including MC Yogi and Lokah Music, to perform at their workshops. The modern mantra musician Wade Morissette has accompanied classes taught by John Friend and Baron Baptiste.
Franti, who has recorded a half dozen studio albums with Spearhead and two solo albums, acts like a bridge, connecting the worlds of yoga and music. His Power to the Peaceful festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park attracted 50,000 fans in 2008, and the free outdoor asana practice there drew nearly 1,200 yogis. Franti boasts of visiting a different studio nearly every day when he's on tour—making a yoga connection on an intimate level in every town in which he plays. He has accompanied classes taught by Gannon and Life as well as by Nicki Doane and Eddie Modestini. When the touring schedules of teachers and musicians intersect, Franti accompanies a workshop, and the teachers repay the favor by leading his band in a happy, sweaty practice. The shared love of music and yoga creates a palpable synergy and sense of community.
"I don't think every single yoga class should be a dance fest," says Doane. "Sometimes it's a distracting element when you're trying to get into your own stuff. But in terms of opening people into a heart space, yoga and music complement each other beautifully." Music takes people out of their heads, she says. It allows them to calmly focus on their breath, no matter the location. Since befriending Franti, Ziggy Marley, and other musicians, Doane's found herself teaching yoga in beer-soaked bars, backstage green rooms, and the parking lot next to the bus, drawing in musicians from other acts and even fans.
Of course, not everyone sees a place for music on the yoga mat. Dedicated Ashtangi Edie Brickell, leader of the New Bohemians and the wife of Paul Simon—who was introduced to yoga by her friend Sting—isn't interested in playing or listening to live music at yoga classes. She doesn't bring music into her own practice, because she finds it distracting. Yet Brickell still attests to how yoga and music work together. "Yoga nurtures my artistic life in the same way that it adds to all of my life by just making me feel better," she says. "Yoga and music both allow you to feel and express your own rhythm."
And for many people, practicing in silence is key to finding that internal rhythm—which is why yogis who love to groove to the beat also enjoy the quietude of a nonmusical practice. "We're surrounded by music and noise," says yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater. "For many people, yoga class is the only time in their day when there's a chance for quiet." Practicing in silence offers an introspective moment. "When there's more stimulation on the outside, you're pulled out of yourself," Lasater adds. So you have to arrive at your own sense of balance, knowing when you'll respond to a big blast of heart-opening vibration and when you'll be happiest looking quietly within yourself.
The growing interest in live music in yoga classes, says Russill Paul, author of The Yoga of Sound, stems from a cultural need to connect yogic energy to a "mother tradition." Yoga in the United States, he says, has developed more as a communal experience than as an individual practice, and the music component strengthens the communal experience. Unlike India, he says, the United States lacks a cultural-energy framework for practicing yoga. "Music is a way to connect to these larger cultural energies," he says. "That's why it's making more and more of an impact." In other words, our Western yoga infrastructure is so new that the practice is still in the process of evolving to fit our needs. We don't have a long yogic tradition, but we have a great musical one. The rise of music in yoga classes, Paul says, is almost a subconscious cultural drive to bring the two together.
"Now comes the question, 'Where does American yoga go from here?' More and more we look for ways to develop an authentically American tradition of yoga," he says. "This is a great avenue that can be explored."
Musicians are certainly tapping into the convergence. Earlier this decade, Joshua Brill was playing ambient guitar soundscapes at conscious gatherings around Chicago. "People would come up to me and say, 'This would be great for yoga,' " he says. He answered an ad on Craigslist for a guitar player for a candlelight yoga class in Chicago, and he left the experience transformed.
"After a deep meditation," Brill moved to California in 2007 to pursue the path of playing live music for yoga classes. The scene was really taking off there. Since then, he's played at dozens of workshops and retreats, has partnered with several yoga teachers in L.A. and San Francisco, and says he's developing a deep understanding of the relationship between sound and asana.
"It's like scoring a film in real time," he says. "When the class energy is rising, I'm playing music supporting that. When it comes down, I bring down the music. One of the things I love about it is the delicate space that I'm holding. It instills 100 percent awareness inside myself and outside. When I'm playing in the classes, I'm practicing yoga." Brill says he's working with sacred principles of music or sound. "Certain combinations of notes and rhythms align with our breath and heart waves and brain waves. Everything is inward and outward evolution or involution of energy," he says.
For other musicians, it's less about science and more about the essentials of music theory. According to Kalani, a percussionist and music educator who sometimes accompanies yoga classes at YogaWorks' Center for Yoga in Los Angeles, a musician should approach the practice with a proper understanding of basic musical elements, like rhythm, spacing, phrasing, and layering. At its best, music completely matches the physical pace of the asana practice.
But no matter how they arrive at a method for playing during practice, says Paul, the important thing is that the musicians enter yoga deeply themselves, and then start to develop music that comes from the practice. "There's a real joy in the intersection between the two," he says. "It's actually becoming a yoga itself."
Morissette, who's played with Brill and has both taught and accompanied classes with live kirtan, says, "When I sing, I don't ultimately know what frequency or vibration I'm putting out. It's obvious that music and sound vibrations inspire people. If you can get the right sound to support the energy of the practice, it's just a nice extra layer to facilitate the focus of the mind and have more enjoyment."
Or, as the Grammy-winning Jamaican musician Ziggy Marley puts it: "Yoga makes you high. It's a great feeling. If you've done yoga and you go onstage, it lifts you to another level. You're light...It's a special feeling. It's not comparable to anything else, not even herb."
Onstage, one of the Shaman's Dream guys was singing an old gospel standard to a low and dirty blues backbeat. He strummed his guitar like Robert Johnson.
We writhed on our mats, doing slow vinyasas and moving into Upward Dog. "Rise out of the bayou," Micheline Berry said, "of your pelvis." We did. This, I thought, should be easy to dismiss. But the music was great, and so was the flow.
The music picked up again. Berry swayed in front of the class. "Before Zoloft, before Paxil, before Saint John's Wort, before Freud or Jung, there was rhythm," she said. "It was how we healed ourselves. Where does this heartbeat come from? The breath? We are so involved in our urban lives full of hip cynicism that we forget we are magical, mystical beings. Each and every one of you." Oh boy, I thought. I really live in California now. I braced myself for another kriya.
Within a minute, Berry was banging on various blocks. She handed a sparkling hula hoop to a beautiful woman, who began a wild dance—whipping the hoop around her body, kicking it up and down, flinging it overhead. The band went full tilt; we all danced in a tribal frenzy.
The class exploded in mad applause. Berry took a bow, then introduced the band. "This is why I teach in Venice," she said. "I couldn't get away with this anywhere else." Possibly, I thought. But a few minutes later, as I sank into a totally legitimate Savasana while Berry played the harmonium and chanted, it occurred to me that this actually could happen anywhere.
Later, Berry apologized. She'd accidentally left her Tibetan bowls at home. The band liked to place and then ring them on people's bodies during Savasana.
"It creates an altered state of consciousness," she said.
"Sounds nice," I said.
"It is," she said. "The body likes to be bathed in sound."
To read more about Michael Franti, read Everyone deserves Music.
Neal Pollack has written several books, including the bestselling memoir Alternadad. His next book is about American yoga culture and will be published by Harper Perennial in May 2010. He lives in Los Angeles.
Subscribe to YJ
Join Yoga Journal's Benefits Plus
Liability insurance and benefits to support
teachers and studios.