Yoga, Music & The Art of Listening
We all love music, don’t we?
Music and movement have been united since drumming and dancing around the fires of our ancestors and more recently to the night club and festival party scenes of today. It can also really help create an ‘atmosphere’ in a yoga room, but lately I haven’t been playing music in my classes and there is a good reason why.
“When the mind runs after the wandering senses, then it carries away one’s understanding, as the wind carries away a ship on the waters. Therefore the wisdom of whose senses are withdrawn from the objects of the senses stands firm” (Bhagavad Gita 2.67).
So, what does this mean? The mind running after the wandering senses?
When the mind follows the relentless pursuit of stimulation and sensation is it at the expense of our physical, emotional, and mental health? Do we need more stimulation in an already often bombarding world? The above teaches us that when our senses are not disturbed or influenced by things that could possibly make our minds wander, we can stand firm or be calm in the stillness. Wisdom and understanding will come as a result of not being so easily led astray by our senses.
Over the past few years I have gone through stages with yoga playlists in my classes, but for 20 years I practiced in silence. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy music and the creative process like most, but when I’m practicing and teaching without music, I am able to dive deeper and listen clearly to the students. The silence helps me do that. I love the students that remember their attention to detail of our entire practice, and what I was actually teaching, not what song I played.
For me, yoga is a conversation with my body. I need my complete attention there in order to hear what it has to say. There is also a grace and art to moving and breathing as with any form of exercise and the way you carry yourself through your day in any given situation sets the mood of your mind. Your actions and responses (or reactions) will teach you about the person you are in that moment.
I am noticing that students are dropping into “the zone” easier without the music playing, when their focus is honed on their own practice and my alignment cues. I sense the difference at the end of practice, I feel it in the room. The sound of silence.
As a teacher it’s my job to help you listen. Not specifically just to me, but more-so listen to your breathing and the sound your feet are making in your practice. It will teach you so much about how you are progressing on your path. It will also teach me if you are listening.
Silence can be crucial in your yoga practice to help you listen to the sound and rhythm of your breath. Equally as important as I mentioned, is the sound your feet are making through your practice. Is there a heaviness to your step? To your breathing? How can you hear this with music playing? I’ve been in classes where I can hardly hear what the teacher is saying over the sound of the music and the thumping of people’s feet. With no music playing I hear instantly when there is heaviness and someone is pushing themselves to do something that maybe their body is telling them they are not ready for. We are aiming for grace and elegance and knowing how to listen is fundamental in achieving this in your practice. It is one of the most important things you could do on your mat. Sure, listening to music is also fun in the practice, we feel like we are dancing on the mat and that’s great. Maybe learning to listen to yourself amongst the noise and distraction of life is a good lesson also. There is a season for everything right?
I understand that noise is around us constantly, there can be a music to the nature of our world. Even traffic could be a form of music. Students have often told me they love my playlists and sometimes I too enjoy moving and grooving, but now it feels different. I know noise is everywhere and the path of Pratyahara is not to be so easily disturbed by the external stuff. To not get so easily distracted. I get it now. I can remain calm in the cacophony of noise now that I’m older and more experienced, but maybe not so much in my 20’s easily influenced by the energies around me. Anxiety is in many people, they are absolutely over stimulated, and calm could be just what they need.
I notice it straight away when I hear huffing and puffing in the class, and when this has happened, students have lost the point of the yoga practice. Yoga teaches us to listen, to explore the depths of our potential and the workings of our mind. In order for the magic to happen we need to be able to direct our clear attention to the parts of the body asking for our attention. We direct this attention through calm intention and calm breathing. We know energy flows where attention goes right?
Let the practice be soft, strong yet calm and serene. Be gentle on yourself. You deserve it.
I’m diving into Pratyahara, into the depths of silence, being in the world but not of it and not so easily swayed by the barrage of anything hoping to get my attention. I’m practicing yoga and finding a connection with my breath and movement of my body. Such a gift to be able to move as we do. In quiet I can tune into subtleties that with music is not as obvious. As a teacher, I’m connecting to the room of students in front of me, sometimes 70 people at once. I listen to each and every one of you. We are in it together.
With no music it makes students more conscious of the sound they are making in the practice. It’s like they know the rest of the room can also hear, so actively work to be quiet and calm, to not be the one making all the noise… (and I’m constantly reminding them!) When loud music is playing, the loud footsteps and thumping and huffing and puffing can get lost in a cacophony of noise. Already jacking up a nervous system bombarded with external stimulation.
What is pratyahara again?
If you are easily disturbed by the noise and turmoil of the environment around you, you will need to practice pratyahara. Without it, you will not be able to meditate. Yoga and meditation are no different.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb of the eight limbs of yoga, is composed of two Sanskrit words, prati and ahara. “Ahara” means food, or anything we take into ourselves from the outside. “Prati” is a preposition meaning against or away. “Pratyahara” means literally “control of ahara,” or “gaining mastery over external influences.” You could think of it as a type of sensory transcendence, where the calm waters don’t become massive waves crashing to the shore because a pebble was thrown in the water. It is during this stage of understanding yoga that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. Tricky in an era of social media, likes, follows, comments and buy my this or that.
Anything that takes your focus away from the external impressions and creates peaceful and positive inner impressions is pratyahara. So, take time to detox from the media and music in yoga, move yourself into a place of peace. Focus the mind and the senses will follow. If we are moving toward focus and meditation and ultimately an enlightened state of bliss then possibly removing (maybe temporarily) another external noise could help.
Always with patience and practice.