Yoga teachers are divided on whether music should be used to enhance the asana experience for their students. But teachers who do choose to use music should take special care when putting together their playlist, as some selections can be distracting. “If the music is too melodic or too music-y, you are hearing the music more than you are zoning into your practice,” says Murray Hidary, the Los Angeles-based composer and improvisational pianist known as Mind Travel. “You’re trying to achieve a state of consciousness through movement by connecting mind and body; you’re trying to be in that state or trance.”
That doesn’t mean that your yoga class has to be totally silent, though. Hidary, who is also a yogi, has been acoustically engineering binaural beats—a technique that combines two different tones to create the perception of a single one—in his music for the past five years. His intention is to transport listeners to a higher state of awareness to promote relaxation and healing, similar to meditation. Hidary’s catalog of binaural beats on the Insight Timer app are tailored for deep relaxation and sleep. “Since the aspiration of the music is to open up deeper states of consciousness, binaural beats seemed like a perfect addition,” he says.
What is a binaural beat?
A binaural beat is an acoustically engineered auditory illusion. When two (or more) steady tones attuned to different frequencies are sent to each ear, the brain perceives them as a third frequency that doesn’t actually exist. This frequency is perceived as a steady beating or pulsing pattern that influences or “entrains” the brain, and induces alpha, theta, and delta waves to achieve a state of relaxation.
Binaural beats are reminiscent of other genres of ambient music, but are often more stripped down. On their own, they sound like an oscillating drone. When arranged with a slow melody and harmonic movement, the result is a soothing atmospheric soundscape that is distinctly meditative and restorative. The pulsing rhythms of binaural beats reportedly provide a host of benefits, such as reduced stress, improved sleep, and enhanced creativity, but the research is often mixed.
To listen to binaural beats correctly, you need to wear headphones. Here’s an example of how it works: If a 200 Hz tone is sent to your right ear and a 220 Hz tone to your left ear, your brain would perceive a pulsing or beating frequency of 20 Hz (20 beats per second). This frequency, which is too low for humans to naturally detect, can help you feel calm and relaxed.
According to Hidary, there are technically an infinite number of possibilities for binaural beats, since there are an infinite number of frequencies. He’s built a library of hundreds of them, and is conscious of how each one will be perceived. “As incredible as the brain is, it is also incredibly predictable,” Hidary says. “I can predict with precision exactly the way the brain will hear it.”
When you listen to Hidary’s music, you will barely detect a binaural beat. He says he “tucks” the beats inside his music by rendering them so subtle they’re almost imperceptible, yet the brain still hears—and responds to—them nonetheless. Listen to the example below:
What is brainwave entrainment?
The science of brainwave entrainment suggests that the human brain can be synchronized to the vibration of external sensory stimuli, such as sound, to reach a certain desired state, which may promote relaxation, improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and enhance creativity, among other benefits.
The human brain generates electrical activity in the form of brainwaves 24 hours a day. Machines called electroencephalograms (EEG) can measure the oscillations of brainwave patterns using a unit of frequency known as a hertz (Hz). Here’s a look at the five different brainwave frequencies and how they affect us:
- Gamma (35 Hz and up): Concentration; laser focus; problem solving
- Beta (12–35 Hz): Functional and useful; anxious; sometimes relaxed
- Alpha (8–12 Hz): Relaxed and passive; a healing state often experienced during meditation
- Theta (4–8 Hz): A deeply relaxed state; inward focus; the dreaming state (REM sleep)
- Delta (0.5–4 Hz): The deepest sleep state (non-REM sleep)
In everyday life, humans operate on beta waves. Though meditation and yoga on their own can effectively promote relaxation to activate alpha and theta waves, binaural beats can help get us there faster.
“Embedding binaural beating frequencies in music is the most well-known auditory technique for brainwave entrainment—but certainly not the only one,” says Daniel Schotsborg, aka Anthoni Logos, a composer, researcher, and philosopher based in Amsterdam. He uses brainwave entrainment technologies that include binaural beats to tune his music to the orbits of the planets and the frequencies of the color spectrum. He is also the founder of Qualia+, a library of streamable meditation music. His technique often involves taking the listener on a journey from alpha to theta brainwave frequencies.
Schotsborg references the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens’ pendulum clock experiment to help define “entrainment.” In 1665, Huygens set two pendulum clocks in motion and discovered that the sway of the pendulums will always eventually synchronize at the same frequency, regardless of their starting position. Schotsborg says the same principle can be applied to the human brain; each area of the brain is influenced by the frequencies of surrounding regions.
“The effectiveness of these entrainment techniques is that when the auditory and/or visual cortices are stimulated at these frequencies, a ripple effect happens within the brain,” he says.
What current research says about binaural beats
When Schotsborg began researching binaural beat techniques more than 12 years ago, he says, the evidence on their effectiveness was still lacking. But in the years since, a growing body of scientific literature supports the use of this technology for benefits such as:
- Deep relaxation. In 2017, a study published in Frontiers of Neuroscience found that a 6 Hz binaural beat on a 250 Hz carrier tone effectively induced a meditative theta state of deep relaxation in a short period of time.
- Improved sleep. A 3 Hz binaural beat in the delta range on a 250 Hz carrier tone improved sleep quality in participants compared to the control group, according to a 2018 study published in Frontiers of Neuroscience.
- Reduced stress and anxiety. There is growing evidence that binaural beats can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, notes a 2019 meta-analysis suggests. The effect depends on factors such as the frequency used, the time spent listening, and the moment in which the listener is exposed to the technology and other surrounding circumstances.
- Pain management. Binaural beats attuned to a theta frequency effectively reduced symptoms of chronic pain in participants, according to a 2016 study.
- Improved mood. In 2015, a review in Frontiers of Neuroscience examined the effects of auditory beat stimulation (ABS) using monaural and binaural beat technologies and determined that while results are often mixed, there is potential for use of ABS as a therapeutic tool to regulate mood. The researchers indicated that many factors can affect outcome on mood, such as carrier tones or the use of pink or white noise in the background, which can amplify a listener’s experience.
- Enhanced focus and creativity. Some research has shown that while alpha binaural beat stimulation may be beneficial for some people, it may not work for everyone. In fact, a 2013 study showed that binaural beats actually impaired creativity in some subjects, while enhancing creativity in others. The authors concluded that binaural beats are not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to cognitive entrainment and vary based on an individual.
How binaural beats can enhance your yoga practice
Binaural beats and similar music therapies have increased in popularity in the wellness world, particularly within the realm of sound healing. Take Tuawki (pronounced two-ah-key), a new sound and vision music group that uses single notes and tones in their work. They describe their recordings as binaural by nature. The group’s debut anthology of meditative recordings features rose quartz bowl tones attuned to the frequencies of the cosmos, chakras, and zodiac. “Binaural tones occur naturally through the phenomena of acoustic resonance,” explains a representative for Tuawki, adding that the recordings are arranged to create an expansive sonic experience for the listener.
As a meditation practitioner, Schotsborg composes music to accompany meditation such as his NeuroSonic Calibrators to “gently nudge” the brain into the deeper states of consciousness. “These soundscapes are specifically made for you to meditate deeper and gain access to the powerful core of your being,” he says.
Hidary says his intention for a listener is to fully embody transcendence, “to unveil what lies just behind our ordinary experience of the senses—the hidden wonder and mystery of ourselves and the whole universe.” (For an optimal listening experience, Hidary recommends earbuds or noise-canceling headphones when tuning in with binaural beats.)
With most yoga teachers livestreaming their classes on Zoom, music that uses binaural beats could prove more effective for students than a choppy playlist layered over the audio. But just like a yoga practice, music is subjective. “Everyone’s practice is personal,” says the representative for Tuawki. “For those who’d like to bring in additional sound, binaural beats could enhance the tempo and provide additional guidance for your practice.”
Schotsborg says he’s received an enormous amount of positive feedback from thousands of listeners who have used his binaural beats during yoga and meditation. “The beauty of these auditory techniques is that they’re non-invasive, side-effect free and cost-effective to produce and distribute,” says Schotsborg. “With more serious research coming out, and now more than ever, a growing need for mental health support, I think that it is very worthwhile to continue to push this new field of ‘well-being music’ forward.”
To listen to more binaural beats, check out the extensive Binaural Beat library on Insight Timer.