FUELING THE BRAIN WITH SOUND:
How Music Can Enhance (and detract from) Our Yoga Practice
by Julia Bersin (@jbersss), Sound Evangelist and trüFORMAT Instructor
Over the years, music has become a buzzing topic for yoga instructors. Should I or should I not play music in class? If I’m going to play music, what genre is best? Is there a formula for the perfect yoga playlist?
As teachers, these questions pose an interesting challenge. For one, we feel the pressure to adhere to teaching “best practices” or rules, which vary widely by type of yoga, instructor style, and studio culture/region. More importantly, though, we have the responsibility of understanding how music affects our students’ experience, and the mental and physical impact of using sound to complement our instruction.
And that experience starts with the brain. Here are a few facts to consider about music and its effect on brain activity to help inform your stance on the music-yoga debate:
1) Music has gone viral. It’s everywhere. With the growing presence of both live and digital music, we have access to the art of sound 24/7, whether we seek it out or not. It is playing at retail stores, in our gyms, at concerts and festivals, in movies, and, most prominently, through our own headphones as we walk down the street.
Why has music grown so much in popularity? Well, in addition to technology...
2) Music elicits a strong emotional response. Most of us have experienced excitement when our favorite song comes on the radio, or perhaps felt sadness triggered by a song playing during a dramatic movie scene. Long before the days of Titanic, Coachella, and Spotify, our sensory cortices -- the organs responsible for processing input from our senses -- evolved to emit emotion in response to sound.
Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin talks in depth about this emotional response, specifically the pleasurable type, in his book This is Your Brain on Music.
“Listening to music (causes) a cascade of brain regions to become activated in one particular order...a network of regions--the mesolimbic system--involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens...Music is clearly a means for improving people's moods” (Page 191).
No wonder we’re constantly seeking out music! When our brains get flooded with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel pleasure, we learn quickly that we should repeat that action to keep feeling good. And this is why…
3) Our positive emotional response to music has a strong influence on our behavior. Retailers, marketers, television producers, and fitness instructors are well-aware of the power that music has on behavior. These professionals use music strategically to motivate us to take action, whether that means pedaling a little bit harder in a Soulcycle class or pulling the trigger to buy that new big-screen.
So how does this behavioral motivation apply to a yoga practice? There is an element to yoga instruction in which you’re motivating your students to persevere, (i.e. holding chair pose for one more breath). Music can enhance that motivation, helping students feel more determined and focused.
At the same time, music and the associated emotions can be distracting, whether the emotions are positive or negative. For example, say you’re knee deep in pigeon pose, and you hear a song that reminds you of your ex-significant other. Immediately your mind moves away from the sensation in your hip and onto your last interaction with that partner.
So knowing music’s impact on emotions, motivation, and mindfulness, is there an answer to our yoga-music debate? To use, or not to use? What kind? And when and how to use?
My answer is, if you choose to use music, do so with education and intention.
Need some musical inspiration? Here’s one of my favorite playlists from this spring!
Now that you know the science, here are five simple ways you can confidently use music in class to create an environment that fosters both a mindful and a motivating yoga practice:
Your playlist should match the pace of your flow, with an ascent and a descent. Usually this means more upbeat music during the active part of class (to increase motivation and energy) and slower music as you approach savasana. Tip: Go through your full practice with your playlist before using it in class to make sure the timing is right.
Choose non-mainstream music. Some teachers love teaching to the Top 40 hits, but you run the risk of students recognizing every song and anticipating what’s coming next. As a general rule, the less likely your class is to recognize the music, the less distracting it will be.
Minimize lyrics, if possible. Lyrics require mental processing and attention, particularly lyrics with longer, drawn out phrases (like rap music). If you choose music with lyrics, lean towards fewer words, a repeated mantra, or a different language. This will allow students to tune them out more easily and keep their focus on breath and sensation.
Choose music that enhances your teaching. This should go without saying, but it is often overlooked as teachers tend to focus on student needs only. More than anything, the students need an effective teacher, and to be an effective teacher, your environment matters too. Therefore, choose music that helps you instruct to the best of your ability and with confidence.
Get comfortable teaching without music, too. Technology inevitably fails us at times or there may be a day you end up teaching in an environment in which music isn’t appropriate. As the instructor, you should feel confident motivating your students using breath, verbal, and visual cues without relying on music in the background. When you have the fundamentals locked down, the music can simply be icing on the cake.