I stopped playing music during the yoga classes that I teach many years ago. Music is a distraction to me as a teacher and it can also be a distraction to students. Yoga is more than an exercise class - it is movement, breath work, meditation, and self-discovery. I view each asana class as a mindfulness practice. And I believe that playing music during asana class can have unintended consequences for students.
Here are five reasons to stop playing music and embrace the silence as a yoga teacher:
1. Silence encourages inward reflection, focus and observation
I want my students to look inward and become comfortable with what they see there. I want them to stay present with each experience and each sensation as it arises, even the difficult sensations. I want them, over time, to be profoundly moved by their practice. I want them to have a physical, mental and emotional experience. If I want all that for my students, then I have to create the circumstances for all this to occur. If I play music, I can almost guarantee that no one will look inward or notice each sensation as it arises. Instead, they will distract themselves with the music so that they don’t have to dwell too deeply on their internal landscape. As a result, their experience will be confined largely to the physical realm.
2. Music can elicit powerful emotional responses that are not conducive to finding internal stillness
Music often elicits emotional responses in people. I’ve had students tell me that they struggled through class because of the playlist. I’ve had the response whether the music was upbeat pop music, music with words, classical music, traditional Indian music, chanting or instrumental. Their emotional responses varied from happiness, nostalgia, deep sorrow to anger. Do I want my students to be pulled in different directions while I’m trying to focus their attention inward? Shouldn’t I let the class be the experience? Introducing music that can influence emotional responses in your students creates an artificial environment. Someone might walk into a class with one mindset or agenda, then they hear a song that takes them back to their first love, or a lost friend or relative, and all of a sudden they are contending with powerful emotions that have nothing to do with their current state of being.
3. Silence allows the teacher to assess and direct the flow of energy in the room
One of your jobs as a yoga teacher is to gauge and guide the collective energy of your students. People come onto their mats with all kinds of experiences, both immediate and long-term, which can affect their practice on any given day - a rough day at work, a break-up of a relationship, moving to a new city, allergies, getting cut off in traffic, the death of a friend, depression, elation… the list goes on and on. One of the greatest challenges as a teacher is to take all of these people with all of their unique experiences and energies, and guide them through a practice that encourages stillness and release at a deep level. This is a great responsibility and a skill that must be continually practiced.
There are days I’ve walked into class ready to teach a vigorous core flow and found that the energy of the room didn’t fit that scenario. Maybe there was a sense of stillness or slowness among my students that called for a gentle and energizing backbend practice followed by some deep hip opening. On those days music would have obscured my perception of my students and masked what they truly needed. In order to stay fully present as a teacher and awake to the needs of your students, you need to eliminate distractions to your own observational skills.
4. Hone your teaching skills
One major reason why I used to play music, and a reason I’ve heard given by other teachers, is that it fills space and takes some of the pressure off of them. This was very useful to me when I was a new teacher. I was nervous, didn’t have a lot of skill at verbal cues, and didn’t feel adequate to the job of teaching yoga. Learning to teach without playing music has forced me to think a lot about how I teach and the way I want to communicate. For some teachers, music is a crutch that they rely on to fill the space. It can even allow them to check out mentally from the class, knowing that their students are being entertained.
5. Distraction - limited amount of auditory processing that can occur
The human brain can process only a limited amount of information at a time. When students are presented with multiple forms of stimuli, they can’t pay good attention to any of them. Their attention is split. So as a yoga teacher, I wanted students to be paying attention to their alignment and the inner workings of their mind instead of tuning out to the music. I took a workshop once with a wonderful yin teacher. When a student asked her why she didn’t play music in her classes, she replied “I don’t want to compete with that.” For me, that was one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments. I realized that the music was competition for students’ attention.
What happens when you stop playing music as a yoga teacher? When I stopped playing music, a few people commented about it and asked me why I had stopped. It took one student a year and a half to notice it… and this was a student who regularly gave me CDs of his favorite music! I might have lost a couple of students, but not enough to cause my class sizes to drop. In fact, my classes have continued to grow since then, being larger now than they ever were when I played music. The students who crave the distraction have found other teachers. But I feel like I have a much deeper connection with my students. I see them more clearly, I respond to their physical cues on a more subtle level. I can tune into the energy of the class and guide the class in a more easeful way.
You may be nervous about making the switch from music to no music. The hardest part is the beginning. You may feel awkward or feel like is something missing. But rather than rely on something outside of yourself, try to become comfortable with the silence and with yourself. Show up to class mentally, physically and emotionally. Be prepared. Make a class plan. Pay attention to the tone of your voice, the phrasing of your instructions, the precision of your physical and verbal adjustments. Don’t import the awesomeness. Embody the awesomeness. Your students will come. And they won’t care one bit about the lack of music.
I have a teacher and colleague that I admire very much who tells me that sound can be therapeutic and that used correctly, it can be healing. I think she is right. But I also think it is heavily dependent on context and individual. And offering sound therapy in the form of gong or traditional forms of Indian music must be done in a thoughtful way, in which the teacher has a good understanding of the student’s background and the sound being used. There are experienced teachers who use sound skillfully to guide students to a deeper understanding of themselves. But many musical offerings in yoga class are not so thoughtful, skilled or individualized. They are playlists of pop music songs with lyrics that are often inappropriate to a yoga class and a mindfulness practice.