On Making Yoga Playlists

Recently, I was interviewed by YogaCityNYC’s Alystyre Julian about making playlists for yoga classes. It’s always an honor to be interviewed by YogaCityNYC, and I love to hear the philosophies of the other teachers featured. See the article here.

The article text is actually quite abbreviated, understandably, so here is the full text I wrote about my playlist philosophy, which stems from the guidance of all my teachers at Jivamukti (scroll down to read it).

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I teach vinyasa yoga in the Jivamukti Yoga lineage. In our method, using sound* as well as silence is an integral part of the class experience. One the five tenets of Jivamukti Yoga is Nada Yoga, the yoga of sound. My teachers, Sharon Gannon and David Life, have inspired us to use sound creatively in class in order to support the rhythm of breath and movement, to uplift the spirit, to inspire the students to go deeper into their practice, and to teach deep listening. In the Jivamukti teacher training, we experimented with practicing to different types of music and observing the effect that it has on our bodies and minds.

Natalie Ullman, my first Jivamukti teacher, once spoke with me about the idea of the music in class creating a “force field” around the students. That idea and the way she phrased it has deeply inspired and shaped the way I create playlists. I hope to create an atmospheric, hypnotic feeling with music that takes you inside, that can bring about a meditative state, devoid of thinking. The music has to be at a certain volume (not too soft, not too loud) to create that dimensional, immersive experience. It’s as if the music is wrapping around the practitioners and protecting them.

Every class I teach at Jivamukti has a philosophical and asana theme, and I always choose music to support that theme. Sanskrit mantras have a powerful resonance that builds that force field in the mind. Longer ambient tracks work best to maintain a trance-like state. (Shorter tracks can create a choppy, interrupted feeling, which is counter productive for the continuous flow of vinyasa). It’s very rare that I use a track with English lyrics; it’ll only be in the playlist if it has a message that’s connected to the theme of the class.

Otherwise, I find lyrics to be distracting. Music that the students might already know from another context could take their mind off the practice, out of the present moment, and bring them into prior associations and memories, encouraging the mind to formulate thoughts, likes, and dislikes. Music has a vey powerful influence on the mind, the emotions, and the nervous system, so I think it’s important, as a yoga teacher, to be a caretaker; not to be aggressive and manipulative in the use of music in a yoga class.

My mentor at Jivamukti, Narayani (Nicole Nichols), is an expert on the subtle body, and she uses music as a way to connect with the subtle body and its energies. Her way of thinking inspires me. Sometimes, when I make a playlist, I think of it as the expression of the crackling of energy through the nadis (the subtle body’s channels), the energy moving up through the chakras. That energy has arcs, spirals, highs, lows, and finally a still point.

Swami Satchidananda coined the phrase “unity in diversity” and this is something my teacher David Life has emphasized too. Using diverse music from different sources and styles (electronic, ambient, world, mantras) and music in a variety of languages and from different sacred traditions, creates an atmosphere that unites the class.

I used to do a lot of research on iTunes to find ambient, atmospheric music, and in the past I’ve used music from lesser-known, subtle film soundtracks, because they usually have a sense of a story and atmosphere. But nowadays, the main source of music is my wife, Nora Heilmann. She’s an artist and a Jivamukti yoga teacher and an avid music researcher. She listens to new music all the time, and shares it with me. But we put our playlists together quite differently, so they’re never similar. Nora plays the Didgeridoo and harmonium, so sometimes she’ll play live music in classes I teach.

*recorded or live music, spoken word, audio recordings

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