In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about silence, or the lack of music in yoga classes. As I’ve been practicing yoga without music more often now, it has given me a lot of opportunity to reflect on this experience. In the past I have always enjoyed both silence and music in yoga for different reasons. But now I wonder if the use of music in class is really just a distraction?
The second of Patanjali’s yoga sutras is “Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah” frequently translated as “Yoga is the stilling of the thought waves of the mind”. In this context, when I am looking to still my mind and reflect on what comes up for me in present moment awareness, I am discovering that silence is super effective. As a teacher and as a student I am seeing that silence has the ability to bring us closer to the ‘edge’ on the yoga mat. The edge being that place of slight (or not so slight!) discomfort where we are confronted with our hidden selves and the process of transformation can begin. So despite the discomfort we want to move towards that edge, not away from it. Beautiful music can certainly ease discomfort in challenging postures and give your mind a focus away from your direct experience.
I’ve discovered that Savasana (corpse pose) is exquisite in silence. I have been flitting delightfully in that delicate space of almost being asleep, almost dreaming. And when savasana ends I come out feeling so much more refreshed. Karoline has also noticed that the students in her Bikram classes stay longer in savasana when there is no music in the room. It is providing a deeper experience.
As a yoga teacher I realize I have almost hidden behind music/sound in order to ease the experience of the students in confronting themselves. I also noticed that in silence I am much more attuned with the students in the room; more deeply aware of their experience. And the sounds of bodies moving, and lungs breathing can set the stage for concentration instead. If we are just doing exercise or stretching, music might play a more significant, welcomed role in keeping us entertained or engaged. It can elicit great emotions and send you off into all kinds of pleasant (or not pleasant) thought patterns. It can calm you down or get you fired up.
I am not against music at all. It does have benefit, and can really lift up the room at times, and can certainly help us move through tough moments (especially in Kundalini yoga, where we are doing the same motions for what seem like eternity!). Effective Mantra music when done in the right naad is also a great expedient to the focused mind, although it is still an outside stimulant.
On a related note: For some time now, I have been really interested in the subtle and largely unconscious effects of music and lyrics on human consciousness. I have read much research about it over the years, and encountered enough information to make me very cautious about what I listen to on a regular basis, and certainly when in a suggestible state, like yoga and meditation. Dr. Emoto, in his book “Messages from the Water” beautifully displayed the effects of music on water. And since our bodies are approx. 70% water I took notice. Studies on plants, and mice have also shown similar findings, largely that certain types of music are really not beneficial or health affirming at all. In a vibration based universe is it any wonder?
And it’s not just the musical style or genres that affect us the lyrics do as well. It was not a surprise to me when about 9 years ago, the American Psychological Association released results of a series of experiments they did showing that violent lyrics increased aggression related thoughts and emotions. Later studies showed that lyrics with sexual suggestions led to teens engaging in sexual behaviour much earlier on in their lives. I learned that background music with lyrics negatively affects workplace concentration, but without lyrics it can be productive. What surprised me the most was the power of words to positively or negatively affect behaviour, mood and thinking (called priming). Lyrics in music are words embedded with the beat or cadence of instruments, often listened to repeatedly, and are likely much more effective at priming than written or spoken words are. In fact a study at Kansas State University showed that after listening to the Star Spangled Banner people become more close-minded and prejudiced, but those listening to children’s songs displayed more empathy and acceptance towards others. It makes me wonder if some of the ills of society are routed in our musical choices. Have you ever woke up in the middle of the night and heard a song repeating in your head? Your subconscious is eating that stuff up and effecting your thought patterns and your personality. Hopefully you wake up with positive mantra music in your head and not lyrics with themes of dystopia.
In any context I think we ought to be careful what we subject our subconscious minds to, but especially when doing yoga and meditation. Music is still an option in yoga practice of course, but if we are truly interested in the act of yoking the body, mind, spirit I think silence plays a significant role in that achievement. Hence why it becomes an edge for so many of us.
My recent experiences have shown me that the silence has provided a deeper, much more meditative, moving experience for me. Funny enough when I’ve tried to extend that practice out into my life, it’s been more challenging. I’ve been reminded of my level of discomfort just being alone in my car without music playing. Driving in silence is a big discomfort for my mind. So as always yoga culminates off my mat, and into my life.
How much time do you spend in true silence? Where you are not reading, not speaking, not focused on outside stimulus? And what are you listening to in your yoga practice? Is it the sound of your breath, a mantra or Jay-Z?