Music in Yoga Fitness

July 30, 2020 • Posted By Veronica

Yoga fitness in America is how most people come to be aware of yoga, and commonly envision it practiced by: “urban business-people at a lunchtime fitness class (Strauss 2005, 1).” At the time I conducted this research, I worked as a studio manager for a chain of power yoga studios with over 200 locations nationwide and was a registered yoga school through Yoga Alliance. “Yoga Alliance® is the largest nonprofit association representing the yoga community. [Their] mission is to promote and support the integrity and diversity of the teaching of yoga (Yoga Alliance 2018).” For this reason and because of my proximity to this sub-culture, I chose to begin my research with the way music is used in this facet of modern yoga culture.

I sat down to an interview with someone in the company that helped shape and set the standards of how music is used in their yoga classes on Thursday February 6, 2020. When I asked about the significance of music in yoga and why is it important, they said,

“I think that the benefit of music is, since it is going through the auditory experience, which is directly connected to the heart chakra, there is this wonderful ability for people to unlock the heart as the gateway to the spirit. For those of us in such a busy day-to-day world, having the advantage that music offers to drop to the ‘inner’ space from the outer whirlwind, I think is such an impact when mindfully placing music that aligns with an instructor’s core values and those of the greater community that they teach in. (personal interview, 2/6/20)”

They went on to emphasize the importance of filtering music and lyrics through ahimsa, non-violence, or non-harm, because in a yoga class a student is unable to simply turn-off their ability to hear the same way they can close their eyes. In that way the individual instructor’s preferences can be forced on to the students, so it’s important that the music is always intentional and mindful.

This perspective was reinforced in an email exchange with another high-level teacher trainer, on February 18, 2020. “We want music to be screened to high, holy heaven so that nothing could be harmful, to anyone.”

In my time as a studio manager, screening music played in classes is easier said than done, as many young yoga teachers bring in playlists full of their favorite hip-hop songs that often include explicit lyrics or unwittingly include songs that sound fun and upbeat, however the lyrics themselves are expressing violence. For example, I once took a class in which an instructor hadn’t listened to or looked up the lyrics to the song, “Pumped up Kicks” by Foster the People, and she was mortified when the content of the song lyrics about school shootings was revealed to her.

Many individuals in yoga culture believe that including explicit or violent lyrics in a playlist for a yoga class, is harmful on a very subtle level. I add this because in the teaching that I received, studies were often referenced focusing on effects of music and intention on the formation of water crystals as example of how subtly the human body can be receptive to different influences and intentions. In a 2006 double-blind test of the effects of distant intention on water crystal formation, the results were consistent with the hypothesis that water treated with pleasant intentions would result in more pleasing crystal shapes, even from a significant distance (Radin et. al. 2006). Further, Masaru Emoto (also part of the 2006 study) published a book The Hidden Messages in Water which documents the impact of different types of music on water crystals (Emoto 2001, 17-27), implying in his prologue that if the shape of water crystals can be so easily affected by music or intention and the average human body is 70 percent water, there could be significant impacts to the human body from the same music and intentions (xv).

When I asked about the purpose of music in yoga and if it’s more to support the students that come to their mat looking for a workout, or for the students looking for a physio-spiritual practice, the answer I received was:

“I think the answer to that is yes and yes. Many people come to yoga initially for the physical aspects. Whether it’s because they want a good workout, or because they regularly do more intense physical workouts and they need something that will balance and bring them more longevity. And then there’s the people that want something that trains them physically as well as spiritually—at the same time, in a practical application, in a way that allows them to be a better human. I think that eventually they also merge; eventually everyone gets the spiritual benefit as well as the physical benefit. In the same way, music is the on-ramp or the gateway. Some people are intimidated or freaked-out by the idea of chanting. So, playing music in class becomes a tool for accessibility as well as for opening the heart. It just makes it feel more comfortable for people.”

Many critics often claim that yoga fitness is not “real” yoga because of the emphasis on the physical workout of the body, such as Mark Singleton’s reference to Swami Vivekananda’s stance as, “uncompromisingly reject[ing of] the “entirely” physical practices of haṭha yoga. . .Vivekananda makes an emphatic distinction between the merely physical exercises of haṭha yoga, and the spiritual ones of “raja yoga,” a dichotomy that obtains in modern yoga up to the present day (Singleton 2010, 71).” However, Mulasagaonkar says, “Music is also directly concerned with the body from which it emanates. Bharata has expressed the same idea by talking of the human body as ‘Sariri Vina’. Svaras (musical notes) are produced primarily by the body and secondarily by the […] instruments (Mulasagaonkar 1980, 49).” The author then refers to several verses of Bharata’s Natya-Sastra, a Sanskrit text on the performing arts (in the original Devanagari script that I wish I had the knowledge to read and translate) which Mulasagaonkar says, “state very clearly that svaras [musical notes] are originally manifested in the body” and that,

“Yogis, making the human body a laboratory for spiritual sadhana [daily practice], tried to locate the seat of intelligence in the body. As a result of this effort they experienced unknown truths and communicated their insight to society for the elevation of life. Among their gifts to society are Nada (sound) and Sangita (comprising vocal music, instrumental music, and dance). From their deep spiritual experience yogis gave a subtle and comprehensive description of the nature and power of the Nada-tattava—the complete knowledge of things is possible only through the direct perception (49).”

In an article exploring therapeutic aspects of Indian Classical music, which I’ll discuss more in the next section, there’s reference to Arnold’s work in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Vol. 5. South Asia: The Indian Subcontinent, stating that, “the third component of sangeeta [vocal music, instrumental music, & dance], which is nrutya or nrita [dance], does not imply dance in its strict meaning, but movement in general.” (Dona 2012, 8; Arnold 2000, 21).

Singleton also wrote about the work of Genevieve Stebbins, an American woman who was, “extremely influential in forging esoteric systems of “harmonial” movement associated with yoga that directly prefigure (and enable) the “spiritual stretching,” breathing, and relaxation regimes in the popular practice of yoga today (Singleton 2010, 142).” Stebbins partially trained with Ruth St. Denis, a famed dance teacher who in the early 20 th century that marketed herself as a mystical Indian dancer (144; and Srinivasan 2004).

As discussed in Sarah Morelli’s book, A Guru’s Journey and Srinivasan’s 2012 monograph, Sweating Saris, Ruth St. Denis visited Coney Island in the summer of 1904 during a time when Indian kathak “nautch” dancers that had been brought to perform in America in 1880, had continued to perform “in less distinguished venues” after not living up to what American audiences expected of Oriental art (Morelli 2019, 48-49; Srinivasan 2012, 54-74). After St. Denis’s visit to Coney Island she developed her Orientalist performances that launched her career as a mystical Indian dancer. This compared to the stories of Indian dancers Rukmini Devi, Leila Sokhey, and Uday Shankar (50)—appears as a clear case of cultural appropriation on the part of St. Denis. While Singleton states that, “both sides claimed to be teaching and performing the original, authentic dance of India. . . as is the case with dance, European and American yoga teachers who emerged at the same time claimed to be presenting the original, authentic yoga of India, in spite of many patent innovations (Singleton 2010, 145).”

Singleton devotes the entire last chapter of his book to the yoga system that was developed by T. Krishnamacharya during his time in Mysore, India from the 1930s to the 1950s under the patronage of Maharaj Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV, where Krishnamacharya’s most famous students (K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, Indra Devi, and T.K.V Desikachar) studied before disseminating his teachings. This is important because the workout style of power yoga most popular today was allegedly disseminated and transmitted through such disciples of Krishnamacharya. This style of yoga has been popular in America since the early 1990’s (176).

Morelli’s book documents the history and life of Pandit Chitresh Das, a teacher and performer of a classical North Indian dance tradition called kathak dance. In the sixth chapter, she highlights Pandit Chitresh Das’s innovation of kathak yoga in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a means, “to bring together the musical, rhythmic, and kinesthetic elements of the dance in a new way (Morelli 2019, 124).” This innovation was brought about, in part, by a need for traditional kathak dancer and guru Chitresh Das to bring together the diverse population of his California dance schools. “In the practice of kathak yoga, dancers multitask within a set of integrated and complimentary practices, dancing while themselves producing the most basic musical elements necessary for dance accompaniment: thekā [a pattern of mnemonic sounds that indicate drum strokes for a specific rhythmic cycle in Hindustani music and dance] and laharā [a repeating melody used to reinforce one’s sense of the rhythmic cycle] (125).” Through the consistent practice of this type of multitasking, “a nondualistic sense of union can be experienced (129).”

While I would not equate modern power yoga practices with the level of intense precision and technique required for the kathak yoga I experienced in the ten weeks of Morelli’s “Dance of India” advanced seminar, I would say there are similarities in the effect the practice has on one’s mind and body. Especially when compared specifically to yoga sculpt formats that incorporate dumbbell weights into the yoga practice, while moving, breathing, and counting with the beat of the music.

As Shah, a Kathak dance scholar, quotes, “By daily practice all physical and mental obstacles in the way of correct practice are gradually eliminated. The goal of such virtuosic systems is reaching a state of “accomplishment” (Sanskrit, siddhi [power or ability]) in which the doer and the done are one. Through such actualized practice comes both control and transcendence of “self.”” (Shah 2008, 7; Zarilli 1990, 131).

Also, in kathak dance there exists the concept of nṛitya, dance that combines storytelling and rhythmic expression. Similarly, among yoga teachers wanting to honor the culture yoga comes from, the practice of sequencing power yoga classes that incorporate Hindu myths has become increasingly popular. This is illustrated in Alanna Kaivalya’s 2010 book Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition, Zo Newell’s 2007 book Downward Dogs & Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis, and other books that associate different myths with specific postures. Along with this trend, there are many music artists that use modern songs to tell these stories in their lyrics and are then often used in conjunction with an instructor’s yoga sequence. For example, MC Yogi’s 2008 album Elephant Power includes songs such as “Ganesh is Fresh” featuring Jai Uttal, and “Rock on Hanuman” featuring Krishna Das—which instructors have included in playlists for classes themed around stories of Ganesh and Half Moon Pose (Kaivalya 2010, 144-147, or stories of Hanuman and Full Splits Pose ( Kaivalya 2010, 76- 85). Though, one of the many challenges of music in yoga fitness is the legality regarding use of copywritten songs during a public yoga class.

Modern science and statistical analysis have shown that music, when combined with exercise, lowers ratings of perceived exertion (Potteiger et. al, 2000), and when done in a group setting, creates closer connections with friends, family, and community, i.e. creates union (MindBody Online 2020, 37-38). For these reasons, some yoga teachers incorporate a music formula for their cues: (action, action, breath, breath) in the teaching of their fitness based classes, and train instructors to teach to the beat and find the top of a musical phrase in the popular music used during classes.

Power of Sound: Music in Yoga Survey Responses

The following data is from an anonymous survey completed after a yoga class I led that intentionally incorporated different uses of recorded music, live music, and silence. The intention was to conduct two of these classes, however the second event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Students volunteered to receive an email survey and gave the following responses: