When I went through teacher training in 2003, music was never used in the lead teacher’s classes. He felt it a distraction to concentration. While teaching without music is a style—one I enjoy from time to time—research has shown the opposite to be true: music can help you focus more than silence, especially in a city like New York with its innumerable ambient sounds. With car horns, cat callers, and peanut vendors constantly battling for your auditory attention outside the building, a good soundtrack becomes a reliable friend.
Nothing, in fact, affects as many regions of your brain as music. It is the only non-essential evolutionary tool that’s been a constant in our species. (Essentials include food, sex and shelter.) Some anthropologists and neuroscientists speculate that music not only predated language, but actually helped form it in the first place—lullabies, a universal feature of all cultures, were among the first methods by which mothers communicated with their newborns.
Music is in all of our lives, all the time. Restaurants know what music to play to hurry you out, while retail stores understand what makes you linger and browse. These marketing techniques are predominantly accomplished at the subconscious level. Whether or not you’re even ‘hearing’ the music, it’s still affecting your neurochemistry.
This is why it was odd that music was considered a distraction by my former teacher; perhaps he just didn’t know what to play, which is a real concern among yoga instructors. In fact, that’s why I dedicated my life to studying the intersection of movement, music and neuroscience. I’ve taken too many classes in which the teacher played the wrong music at the wrong time.
Understand, this has nothing to do with taste. But there are so many crucial considerations when creating your class playlist. For example, I’ve taken a number of flow classes in which the speakers pumped classical Indian music. A study conducted at the University of Berlin showed that sitar music is the only tested genre that actually lowers levels of cortisol in the listener’s blood. Cortisol, the ‘stress hormone,’ plays an important function in our body: it helps in tissue recovery and repair. (Prolonged elevation is the problem.) Essentially, the teacher was telling us to flow while the music asked our brains to relax.
I’ve also been in Savasana while a beat was bumping. That’s the last thing you’d want in a posture designed to relax your students. Beats increase our heart rate and pain threshold; they tell our bodies to move thanks to entrainment, syncing to a rhythm, which also releases dopamine in our brain. While humans crave dopamine, that’s not the channel you want it to be released through while acting like a corpse.
And then there are lyrics. Most of what I play in my classes is either instrumental or sung in another language, though there’s nothing wrong with using English language songs. Yet being aware of how this affects your students is important. When we are listening to speech, Broca’s area, where we process meaning, is activated. (The other language region, Wernicke’s, is where we produce written and spoken language.)
As human beings we have a limited attention span: 120 bits per second. Listening to your instructor requires 60 bits. If you’re listening to two voices at once, that taxes your attentional system. It makes it very hard to then relate what the teacher is saying in your body if you’re also being pulled away by a song.
Music is one of the yoga instructor’s most powerful allies. Teachers in other movement disciplines know this: dance, studio cycling, and main studio formats all rely on rhythms and melodies to thrive. Knowing what music to play and when to play it can elevate your classes to another level. Poor selection, however, can completely create a disconnect between what your body and brain are doing. I’ll be exploring more topics in-depth on this site aiming at the former.