Flowing with a solid playlist is the biggest thing right now—and it's bringing yoga to the masses. But does adding music to your practice still respect the original intentions of yoga?
Photo: Y7/Brad Warsh
In the midst of every Vinyasa flow, there are a slew of distracting thoughts that can detract from your practice. "What am I going to whip up for dinner after this?" "How am I going to submit that story to my editor on time?" (Just us?) Sometimes the sound of your own breath and the sighs of those around you can get you stuck in your own head, and the only thing that gets you out of that overthinking space is an awesome playlist.
Clearly, a lot of people feel this way: Yoga with music is all the rage, whether it's a hip-hop flow, or a rock, pop, or acoustic sequence flowing through the speakers. A departure from what we tend to think of as "traditional" yoga—a slowed-down, quiet step away from the rest of your day—what's hot right now is an athletic, fast-paced flow for maximum sculpting. And then there are the fun yoga hybrids out there, like adding beer, wine, and even goats to the mix.
But have we gone too far in the quest to make yoga appeal to all? Some subgroups of the yoga community feel that yoga should be stripped down and silent to help students achieve steady, meditative breathing and pratyahara—a withdrawal from the senses. In fact, adding words to the equation other than the instructor's voice (especially English lyrics, which we're always tempted to sing along with) can detract from the entire spiritual experience of yoga, some instructors believe. So, if your flow contains a kickass playlist, is it still "real" yoga? Or is the music a distraction from the intentions of your practice? A variety of experts from all kinds of yoga backgrounds weigh in.
How Music Connects Your Yoga Practice
For Sarah Levey, the founder of Y7, NYC and LA's OG hip-hop yoga studio—complete with a candlelit, 'grammable studio space—what was missing in the yoga world was a relatable, inclusive experience that is consistent across studios. And that's exactly what you'll get at Y7: the hottest hip-hop beats (and rooms—they're heated to a toasty max temp of 90 degrees), a Zen zone-out session, and a new tribe of trendy yogis. And the music is precisely what drives the entire class and pushes you through to the final Savasana. "We use the beat of the music to fuel the breath and guide the energy of the room," Levey says. "Yoga is such a mental practice, and it's a lot easier to hold a plank for 10 breaths when there is a dope beat playing, rather than silence." Plus, listening to music, especially in a social setting surrounded by others, has also been proven to bring a healing dose of stress relief, lowering the hormone cortisol.
In addition to firing you up mentally, music is a universal connector—and many yogis agree, it makes the yoga practice way less intimidating to the outside world. Because you can just let the music take you, there's less of a self-consciousness or even a self-critical pressure to hit every shape as it looks on Instagram. And this accepting vibe seems to translate to the outside world. "For me, a true yogi accepts all aspects of themselves unconditionally, so a space that is inviting and welcoming to everybody is key," says Chris SantaMaria, an instructor of 305 FLX, a new bass-bumping yoga-stretch-dance hybrid class launching this month at 305 Fitness in New York City. (Related: The Boxing Yoga Mash-Up Workout for a Fierce Body and Calm Mind)
Emmy Singer, founder of Nashville-based beats-induced studio Inner Light Yoga, tries to always stay consistent with that welcoming approach, and believes music helps to further build community—which totally makes sense, especially in Music City (don't miss it or our other Nashville healthy recs). "I see music as a universal connector," Singer says. She compares a class at ILY to having an experience at a concert for your favorite band: "There is nothing more beautiful than being at a show with thousands of people and hearing every single one of them, including yourself, belting your heart out and truly being in that moment. Vivid moments in our lives can be so deeply connected to music."
Music and yoga can help you connect not only to your instructor and your fellow yogis, but to the essentials of your own practice: your breath and your body. "Having that rich, intentional inhale and exhale continuously flowing in and out of your body allows for so many doors to open up," says Singer. The beats thrumming through the speakers, through your body, and all around you can help keep that breath flowing. "When you don't think you can hold warrior II any longer, but the music is bumping, it might make you stay there for that extra breath, which in turn can make you grow," says Wade Helliwell, a pro-basketball-player-turned-yogi and co-owner of Sweat Yoga in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood.
At Sweat, the philosophy is to almost make you forget where you are and what you're doing. Each class begins with a warm-up and then the instructor runs through a sun salutation sequence that the students can then take at their own pace and feel with the music. "Over time you start to absorb the flows without too much thought—it's just you, your breath, and the music. When those three things come together as one, you can go on your journey and reach a peak feeling headspace that maybe you don't without the music," Helliwell says.
Music can also set the tone of the whole class, to help inform the flow and dig deeper into the practice. Bulldog Yoga in Villanova, PA, swaps in and out hundreds of specially curated Spotify playlists into their classes. In one of their "Invigorate Rock" power yoga classes, you can hear anything from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles to Green Day. Or yogis can jam out to Adele, John Mayer, and Dave Matthews Band in "Activate," a deep stretch "slow flow" class with a chill-out, easy like Sunday morning-type playlist. Hearing your favorite artists pulsing through the room can also get your body further into the groove and help you sink lower into every pose.
The Argument for a Silent Flow
"Yoga, at its essence, is a means to peace," says Nicole Katz, cofounder and instructor at Yoga 216, a New York City studio (complete with spa treatments too!) that cultivates an intimate, quiet (yet still sweat-dripping!) practice in its six-person, heavily personalized classes. While the studio does include low, soothing music in class to help students drop into focus more quickly, it has skipped out on the high-volume, heavy-bass music trend, in order to keep classes therapeutic, anatomy-based, and safe—the larger these classes get and the more elements added to the basic practice, the less direct attention students get from instructors during class, Katz believes. "Classes are often too large for teachers to get to people who need help before it's time to change poses in these very fast-paced classes. Our industry needs to stand up and take action in this department," she says. That's why she recommends all yoga instructors first and foremost undergo proper anatomy training to understand the way the body moves to be able to properly assist students and help avoid injury—that way, they can safely and successfully escape into their Zen zone.
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Aditi Shah, a New York City–based yoga instructor and Athleta brand ambassador, brings an interesting cultural perspective, as she's grown up with yoga as a part of her heritage and spent years training in India. For her, yoga is inherently tied to spirituality: "An essential practice of yoga is one which conveys an experience of meditation, a return to one's higher self," she explains. When we think of meditation, we typically envision a completely silent, eyes-closed environment, but meditative yoga can actually take shape in various ways, as long as it opens your mind's eye further to yourself and the world around you. She never experienced yoga with any kind of music until she moved to New York, but now incorporates some quiet, lyric-less music at certain very meditative points in her class now, especially the ending Savasana period of class. "However, I believe there is inherent value in learning a practice in the traditions of its heritage," Shah says. While experts like Shah aren't entirely anti-music in their approach, they feel it's worth familiarizing yourself with yoga in its original form to understand the spirituality behind the silence.
But at the end of the day, it's difficult to define what yoga needs to be to establish its "realness." After all, even traditional yogis who don't incorporate beat bumping playlists into their classes agree that all forms of yoga have bent the rules at some point. Yoga has experienced such an evolution in recent years, and will likely continue to evolve to fit yogis' various definitions of meditation and peace—and to meld with current trends in the fitness space. (One example? Sound Off yoga, which combines the idea of silent disco with the meditative practice of yoga.) In the words of Katz, "if it helps you find clarity of mind and space for perspective, is your practice any less yoga? I don't think so."