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The power of music is undeniable. Music moves us. But its effects go far beyond our surface experience of song and rhythm. If you’ve been to a symphony performance, you’ve heard the musicians simultaneously tuning their instruments to the same note before they begin playing together. If one instrument is slightly out of tune, the other instruments pull that instrument into tune, in a seemingly magical but actually natural phenomenon known as “entrainment,” the process of waveforms coming into sync. The result is a harmonious expression of sound.
On a visceral level, we’ve experienced something similar when our breath or heartbeat naturally falls into sync with that of our loved ones, or when we’ve clapped or tapped our feet in time at a concert or kirtan. As human beings, we instinctively experience synchronicity through both hearing sounds and feeling rhythms in our bodies. In no place is this more intensely and profoundly experienced for yogis than in a group yoga class. When we practice together, moving and breathing as one, we naturally come into rhythm with one another—whether we’re practicing to a Led Zeppelin soundtrack, a classic Sanskrit bhajan, or simply to the sounds of our coordinated Ujjayi breathing.
This visceral experience of oneness through rhythm and sound is like a signpost pointing us to the deeper experience of yoga, the state of enlightenment. I had my first hints of this in my first Jivamukti Yoga class, when the instructor seemed to perfectly time the rhythm of our movements and breath with the driving beat of Krishna Das’s “Baba Hanuman” chant. By the end of class, I felt as though I could lie perfectly content in Savasana until the end of time. I’ve had other moments like this while working with groups to coordinate Sun Salutations without instruction, led only by our synchronous breath.
A body of students moving and breathing in unison is similar to the movement of a school of fish. The idea of leaders and followers falls away, and even if only for a few moments, everyone feels what it is to move as one. Nada yoga, or the yoga of sound, is a practice of engaging in this natural pull toward harmony. From this point of view, the goal of yoga, enlightenment or ultimate freedom, is to be in sync with all that is. It is perfect balance or alignment. It is the dissolution of resistance. It is, as Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati, the founder of Ananda Ashram, has said, “the state where we are missing nothing.”
We first learn to access this harmony through outer means like music, chanting, kirtan, and even our coordinated Ujjayi breathing. As we go deeper in our practice, we develop a deeper state of awareness, a kind of inner listening that allows us to touch a perfect harmony within. Eventually we can align ourselves with the most subtle vibration of the universe: what yogis and mystics have described for millennia as the sound of Om. This is the experience of music and yoga. It is profound and yet profoundly simple. It is perhaps the sweetest kind of journey, because it is the one that will ultimately lead us home.
Discover a deeper connection to yourself and others when you focus on the rhythm of your breath.
- Sit next to a friend or loved one and quietly notice how quickly your breathing falls into sync. You may also try placing one hand on your heart and one hand on theirs to feel how quickly your heartbeats fall into rhythm.
- Pick a favorite song and do a Sun Salutation while aligning your breath with the rhythm of the song. Notice how your mood and energy shift when you create this kind of rhythmic alignment.
- Attend a yoga class with a friend and make a pact to breathe in sync with each other. A nicely audible Ujjayi breath will assist with this. Listen to your friend’s breath and, as you coordinate movement and breathing, see how this focus changes the energy of the practice and deepens your connection with your friend.
Alanna Kaivalya is a yoga and philosophy teacher, a singer, a songwriter, and the author of The Myths of the Asanas. She is based in New York City.