Scientists report that the sense of smell triggers memory more poignantly than any other; if you are a listener, music boasts the same effect. Sitting on a mat in a yoga room on the fourth of July 2010, all I wanted to do was forget where I had been the year before and the year before that. The class began. The instructor had created a playlist that “celebrated” America’s Independence and Bruce Springsteen came blaring through the speakers—I time warped to the year before. This is where the work happens.
Knowing that it is my job on that mat to stay present, music with words I can understand have a way of pulling me this way and that—especially music that I associate with “once upon a time.” I know that a class that doesn’t give me what I want presents a challenge: what do I with discomfort. I do my best to practice Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) when I am confronted with non-yoga music in a yoga asana class.
I realize that not everyone feels assaulted by hearing their favorite song from two years ago, but if the practice of yoga intends to be timeless, bopping along to your favorite jam from college creates a sense of time and distracts from a practice intended to clear away distraction. The continuing trend of playing all varieties of music during an asana practice interrupts stillness and sometimes turns a philosophical tradition into an exercise class. Exercise is good, but it’s not yoga.
Traditions change; yoga is no exception. As with most traditions that change, there is a sacrifice—it may not be disastrous to trade silence or Sanskrit chanting for Techno and the Boss, but we owe it to the practice to ask whether that change serves the stillness we cultivate or undermines it.