While on a recent vacation in Bali, I decided to go for a nice and serene experience with Qi Gong. After all, I had some Qi (pronounced “chee”) to clear out and felt I could use a self-care day. A calm, relaxing Qi Gong class would do just the trick.
On my way over, I strolled past small clusters of coconut trees, rustic temples and sleepy dogs lazily resting by the wayside. Envisioning the flowy movements my fellow studio-mates and I would make, I started breathing more intentionally until my breath became slow and steady. Ah, serenity now. Even the cat hanging out outside the studio seemed to know this was a calming place– everything was so quiet, I could hear her purr as I scratched her head.
The instructor was a much older gentleman wearing baggy sweats and a faded-blue t-shirt. His relaxed nature was all over his face and his demeanor. He clearly had practiced Qi Gong for a long time, and his energy added to the sense of calm in the room.
As we began, the veteran students quickly got into their Qi Gong groove, with the rest of us still feeling a bit awkward. But, with the instructor’s calming voice and patience, we were well on our way to finding our own rhythm.
Halfway through the class, we really got into the flow of things. I could feel a wave of heat from my head down to my core and towards my knees. We all began to sweep our arms in unison. Just sweeping in peace, sweeping like there was no tomorrow, nourishing our fascia, listening to our bodies ever so intimately.
“I’M BRINGING SEXY BACK!! YEAH!!”.
Heads turned. Literally.
“THEM OTHER BOYS DON’T KNOW HOW TO ACT”
“I THINK IT’S SPECIAL, WHAT’S BEHIND YOUR BACK”
The yoga teacher next door apparently wanted to share the gift of Justin Timberlake with the entire studio, with no regard for any of the other classes taking place.
I was not amused.
This wasn’t the first time that I’ve observed or participated in a yoga class with inappropriately-curated music, and it’s distracting every time.
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Justin Timberlake– I’ve been known to blast his 20/20 Experience album on repeat. In fact, I am a sucker for pop, hip-hop and all genres in between. But there is a time and a place for fast-paced music with lyrics about hooking up, broken hearts, and life regrets. And in my opinion, a standard yoga class is not one of them.
So how can you make a playlist that’s appropriate for the yoga style you’re teaching and one that will help to create the atmosphere you want? As a life-long musician and co-founder of Deep House Yoga, I have a lot of experience when it comes to creating musical ambiance. There’s an art to creating the ideal yoga music playlist, and I hope sharing my thoughts and tips will help you create the perfect accompaniment to your vinyasa or hatha teaching.
Take this example of how I handle the yoga music playlist when I teach vinyasa. At the start of class, I give my students several minutes to practice their Ujjayi breath and to hear the sounds distinctly. Then, I gradually increase the volume for the first track on the list. So, there is some melody, but not enough that my students can’t hear their breath.
I believe that Ujjayi breathing is so critical to the practice that it’s important to play music that accompanies that rather than drowns it out.
The rest of the tracks remain slow and steady, or I will lower the volume down for a bit. This is to give my students some time to be alone with their bodily sensations before I increase the volume for another track to be heard.
For Savasana, I slowly fade out the last track during the first minute so my students can get the full benefit of their meditation the rest of the time (usually 10-20 minutes).
I’m very careful about the music I play and how I play it because I teach yoga to help my students unearth the layers of stress and feel more connected to themselves. I don’t want yoga to be just another “band-aid” and outlet for stress like any other workouts. Yes, I want some of my classes to induce sweat, but I also want to encourage my students to think with clarity. So, I don’t play any pop music with lyrics that could trigger someone’s memory and distract them from paying attention to their breath. In fact, I often play ambient tracks with indistinguishable lyrics or no lyrics at all.
How else can they learn to listen to their mind-body in a world where there’s nothing but distractions going on 24/7? How does any yoking happen when a part of you loses the mindfulness? How does equanimity occur when your emotions run in various directions at the sound of your music choices?
Does this sound like a huge responsibility?
It should be— people are putting their trust in you to guide them, and that doesn’t stop at anatomy and biomechanical awareness. If you take your music as seriously as you take your cues, your classes will become more fulfilling for your students, and chances are they’ll be more likely to come back.
“Yes, I want some of my classes to induce sweat, but I also want to encourage my students to think with a clear mind. So, I don’t play any pop music that has lyrics that can trigger someone’s memory and distract them from paying attention to their breath.
So, How do you create a good yoga music playlist?
Consider What Yoga Style You’re Teaching
What kind of class are you planning to teach? Is it a creative Vinyasa flow with lots of transitions? Is it a Power Yoga session with fewer Vinyasas and long holds in postures? Is it a gentle Restorative class or are you leading a yoga workshop?
Set Your Intention
Based on what kind of class you’re teaching, think about what intention you have with your playlist. Do you want a high energy, heart pumping class? Or to keep the energy lower, the heart rate slow and steady?
What tracks have been great for your personal practice? Have you heard a track somewhere and felt compelled to put it in your playlist? Have you been in a class where a song was played that pulled you out of the moment? Or found a song that really helped you deepen into your breath or into your bodily sensations?
Read the Room
How are your students responding to your music choices? Do they look annoyed when you blast Massive Attack (even though you LOVE their tracks)? Do they look relaxed when you play a track by Dr. Toast?
Screen the Song Beforehand
Do you still want to play some songs with clear lyrics? Have you read the lyrics in their entirety and think it’s appropriate for the theme of your class? Will it enhance your theme or derail it?
Pay Your Dues
Do you have the licensing to play the tracks in your studio? (Sorry, paying a monthly Spotify account and buying from iTunes doesn’t count). Sure, your friends and studio owners may not be reinforcing this legality, but if your class is popular, you should have your butt covered in that respect! It’s the least you can do to support the artist directly! If you’re in Canada, your studio can purchase the appropriate license from SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers) so they will distribute the fees back to the music creators.
If you lead your own yoga events separately from the studios, you would purchase your own license. Before each Deep House Yoga SF session, my yoga business partner and I would purchase each track from Beatport. There are many different genres of beats on the site with very little lyrics. (These track purchases are tax-deductible, so keep your receipts!) For the studios you teach at, ask if they have purchased business licensing from services like Cloud Cover Music, ASCAP or BMI.
Bookend Your Playlist
Make sure the first track in your yoga music playlist is gentle and slow. If you’re teaching a creative Vinyasa flow, then you’ll want to choose subsequent tracks that begin to speed up as you guide your students towards their peak pose. Then, the following tracks should be slower in pace to bring them to their Savasana.
If you want to get really technical, you could spend some time learning about beats per minute (BPM) and how to incorporate that into choosing different tracks. Not interested in learning what all those numbers mean?? Not to worry at all! What I always like to suggest to other teachers and DJs is that they choose a track that goes with the natural pace of your breath. Try out any of your tracks along with your breath, and you’ll see what I mean.
This might not be noticed by your students, but if you care about providing the best experience in your classes, here’s something to try. If you’re playing music while your students are setting their mats down and hanging out, don’t just shut the music off abruptly when you start your class. The abrupt switch jars the energy in the room.
Instead, fade the volume out, lowering it gradually to silence. Then, start your class. Increase the volume as you start the first track. Lower the volume as you finish the last track. This creates a dream-like experience as your students enjoy every bit of their Savasana.
The same goes for switching to another track. If you suddenly find yourself hearing a track you don’t want to play anymore, fade out of the song, then fade into the next one. It’s just a nice pleasant detail that goes a long way.
Follow these tips, and the power to create a great playlist and a more transformative yoga class will be in your hands (and your sound system). Good luck and enjoy making your next yoga music playlist!