Letting Sound Be Itself

Having done yoga for 15 years without music I was surprised to learn that there were people with the opposite experience. For some teachers the fusion of yoga and music is a given. One teacher wrote: “if you don’t use music in your class, then you are just being lazy” Gosh was I being lazy? I asked a student at my class if he would like music during the class and he said “No, there is too much to think about already” while another student said to me “I love doing yoga to music.”

I then started teaching yoga in gyms where there is an expectation that you play music. For the first time I went down the path of putting together yoga playlists. This has been a clumsy and time consuming journey.  I began googling for suggestions of what songs to play and found suggestions like Love is my Religion by Ziggy Marley or Follow the Sun by Xavier Rudd and I started noticing classes that fused house, dance or heavy metal music with yoga! I was becoming confused about the role of music in yoga.

The choice of music seemed to depend on the teacher and their understanding of yoga or the purpose of the class. There have been times when I have surreptitiously turned the music down because it seemed wrong for the moment. Other times the music has added to the atmosphere and to brought the room together. But both music and yoga are very personal and what I was feeling may have been different to what another person was experiencing. I wondered how music encourages pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) or encourages the purpose of yoga – self-study?  In addition to studying our relationship and understanding of a pose was the music also asking us to think about our response to the music? Is this too much? While I have not found my place regarding the mash of yoga and music, I have discovered that this is a topic worth exploring and generates some interesting thoughts on the intersections between yoga, music and silence.

The most interesting part of using music when teaching yoga is when I have used it to highlight silence. Sometimes I use music right through the class and then for savasana (the corpse pose at the end) I turn off the music, or as the musician John Cage might say, I use a different type of music – silence.  John Cage believes there is no such thing as silence and has said “the sound experience that he prefers to all others is the experience of silence.”  When the music stops, more nuanced sounds become evident such as the sound of your breath and if you are lucky enough to be doing yoga by the beach or in the countryside, the sounds of nature.  For those of us in town – the sounds of traffic and building works. But wherever we are there is greater awareness to the sounds around and within us. It opens your mind to the world outside and the outside inside.

John Cage has a famous piece of music called 4’33’’which consists of 4 mins and 33 seconds of silence. (worth a watch it is very funny watching the pianist enter, sit, open the music book, put on his glasses, close the piano lid, put on the timer, sit there, close the music book, bow and receive enthusiastic applause). Arvo Pärt too makes much use of silence in his music and people have said that through listening to his music you have to open your senses, the heart, and the soul. You have to let the music touch the strings of your soul. You have to step out of your comfort zone, the daily routine. Take time. Wait. (the type of experience sought in yoga). Pärt has said, the most tender instrument of all is human soul. Indeed the revered yogi BKS Iyengar has said that “Yoga is like music: the rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul create the symphony of life.”

Yoga and music allow you to feel the experience, express the inexpressible and seek your relationship to the music, to the yoga pose, to the experience. Aldous Huxley who has much to say on music and silence (see one of my favourite sites Brainpickings on this subject) says that:

Listening to expressive music, we have, not of course the artist’s original experience (which is quite beyond us, for grapes do not grow on thistles), but the best experience in its kind of which our nature is capable — a better and completer experience than in fact we ever had before listening to the music.

But the most complete experience of all, the only one superior to music, is silence:

When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music. And if the music should also fail? Well, there was always silence to fall back on. For always, always and everywhere, the rest is silence. – Aldous Huxley, The Rest is Silence

In thinking about music in the context of a yoga practice, it has, as yoga often does, taken me to the opposite of this inquiry – silence – and to think about the relationship between music and silence.  So now instead of getting my music from recommendations through googled sites I have chosen to avoid the reggae, the dance, the heavy metal, the familiar, the top ten and the new age floaty flutey muzak. I seek music that makes use of silence, that avoids telling you how to feel, and look for music that lets “the sound be itself.” I gravitate towards instrumental music or music sung in a different language or that has undecipherable lyrics – “I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouche, Scaramouche will you do the Fandango?” – well maybe not that song! – and I use it to enhance the experience of silence at the end of the class and in turn enhance the awareness of without and within – the symphony of life.


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