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. KundaliniYoga 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."
Years ago, Rusty Wells, a Bay Area-based Bhakti yoga teacher, wouldn't play music with English lyrics in his classes.
"I was afraid people would sing along, lose the breath, and get out of the moment," he explains. Instead, he opted for the sacred music of Krishna Das and Bhagavan Das. But when those artists became popular and his students sang along anyway, Rusty saw it as a sign to "let it be what it is."
"Now," he says, "I tap into music, whether it's Beck or Black Eyed Peas or Krishna Das again."
Isn't Wells worried that Western pop music is less holy or wholesome than chant music? "It depends on how the teacher places it," Wells responds.
Music is at the epicenter of Wells' signature class, Bhakti Urban Flow. "The urban part is key," Wells says. "It demonstrates a city vibe, what's it like to live in a city: intense, frenetic. I bring music to match that pace, to stay ahead of it. The class comes to a crescendo that brings us face to face with who we are."
Wells bristles at the notion of an authority judging some pieces of music as "spiritual" or "sacred," and others as profane. "It pisses me off a bit," Wells says. "It's so personal."
Wells carefully devises daily play lists for his lessons. "It is my lesson planning," he says.
When he hasn't planned ahead, Wells has seen the pitfalls of music in class. He recalls the time he played a CD handed to him moments earlier by a well-meaning student. "I couldn't trip across the room fast enough to yank it out," Wells says. "It was just wrong. It was the sweetest song you ever heard, but I got sugar poisoning."
Tips for the Musical Teacher
With so many diverging opinions about the use of music in yoga class, it's good to have guiding lights and wise words. Surprisingly, even teachers who make different choices about music are in general agreement on some basic principles:
What's My Motivation? Why you play a piece of music in class is just as, if not more, important than what you play. Says Erb: "If music feels like it's supporting and coming from the teaching of the sutras, then we should have a playful experience in our practice. But if it's an indulgence, or [a way of] seeking diversion [or] entertainment, then that may be coming from the ego needing to prop itself up."
Are You Experienced? Doing something unconventional in a yoga class is not unheard of. But the right to break the rules is earned through years of experience and an intuition honed over hundreds of classes. Gurushabd Singh Khalsa—Gurmukh's husband and partner in their Los Angeles studio, Golden Bridge, and an expert in the science of Naad, or sound current-acknowledges that Gurmukh doesn't always follow the guidelines set out by the late Yogi Bhajan, the master of Kundalini Yoga. "After he started teacher training, his take was, 'I can't give teachers license to do anything they want, because they do not have the proper discrimination yet,'" Gurushabd explains. "That does not apply to someone like Gurmukh, who's been practicing these teachings for 35 years and absolutely manipulates the music to raise the consciousness in her class. So how do you apply this ruling? It's very difficult." Experience is the key.
The Sound of Silence. "Sound is there to reveal silence," says Erb. When the music stops, there's still so much song: the sound of your breath, the beating of your heart, the cacophony of nature and humanity outside the studio. Sometimes music can mask the more subtle sounds that bring us closer to our inner rhythms. "The illumined state of mind, the atomic level of wave energy within ourselves, is all completely sound," says Gurushabd. "There's no getting away from sound."
The Ear of the Beholder. "Sometimes music makes you feel that you have had some kind of experience," Lerner says. "But music may be confusing what it is you experience." Ultimately, Lerner and Erb are cautious about music, because they know that it is highly personal.
Perhaps my Bob Marley catharsis was extraneous to the yoga. And yet, there's a part of me that longs for the real and the raw in my yoga practice. For one, I'm tired of "yoga music," the ubiquitous, fluffy ear candy that you hear in waiting rooms and classrooms across the country. Others might call it "spiritual" music because it's lilting, but to my ear, much of it is listless and insipid, with no spirit whatsoever.
Give me Bob Marley any day of the week.
Dan Charnas has been teaching Kundalini Yoga for more than a decade and studied under Gurmukh and the late Yogi Bhajan, Ph.D. He lives, writes, and teaches in New York City.
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