I never thought I’d be a yogi. I still clearly remember my first yoga class—it was a freebie at a local, high-end studio where the same postures were taught over and over so the teachers-in-training could rack up their countable hours. I was told that downward dog was ultimately a resting post. I couldn’t imagine holding it for longer than five seconds.
But that wasn’t why I didn’t see myself as one of those people in $100 lycra leggings feeling no shame about how my upper arms shook in a tank top. I was born in a small, rural Oregon town to what must have been the only interracial couple at the time. My father was Cherokee, born on the reservation, and constantly mistaken for Mexican (the only seemingly foreign demographics at the time). My mom was white. When I started my college career years ago, I was a first-generation, low-income, Cherokee, female teenager who’d been homeless and living in a car for a year. I “graduated” high school via the local community college’s high school completion program at sixteen. I hadn’t a clue what a scholarship was, and didn’t figure that out until my junior year. Had I known what a posterchild I was as an incoming freshman, or any hint at how to apply for funding, I would have saved myself years of trouble and debt.
As a teenager, and in one of many abusive relationships, music was my outlet. It was my escape. It’s clichéd, but clichés are steeped in truths. I would spend hours walking downtown Portland with ear buds stuffed into my head. To me, Portland was the “big city.” I made music videos in my head, put myself in them, made myself the protagonist and whether it was minutes or hours, that became my reprise. My genres of choice? Almost anything. Rap, 90s grunge, oldies, country (hey, I was a rural Oregonian girl), and 80s metal all had their place. However, there were some genres that just never resonated with me. Classical topped that list.
When it came to the so-called music of yoga classes, I was left underwhelmed.
I grew to love yoga slowly, like an arranged marriage that heats up over time instead of the all-at-once fire of a short-lived affair. Yoga got me through a lot. It got me through my father’s unexpected death when I was twenty-three. Our relationship somewhat mended back together, he collapsed in a Wal-Mart parking lot and was given three months to live. He almost made that deadline. It was Hepatitis C from a dirty prison tattoo needle decades before. Yoga got me through the safety relationship I clung to for way too long following the relentless torture of the relationship beforehand. It was one of the first wellness regimens I stuck to after gaining 150 pounds during my sophomore year of college. Yoga was there when I was scrambling for a life post-master’s program. It was there when I was diagnosed with melanoma at twenty-seven, and then with anorexia at thirty-two. It was my savior when I ran away to Costa Rica to escape a mess I’d made of my life, and it was in Costa Rica that the jungle called me to yoga teacher training. There, I bonded with a band of women who were changing the course of their own lives. We sealed our lives together over hand-knotted hammocks where the massive seven-legged spiders perched overhead and the howler monkeys pounded on our tin roofs before dawn.
With yoga, through it all, there was music. It just wasn’t my kind.
I founded the Get it Ohm! karmic yoga movement (www.getitohm.com) after yoga teacher training to offer free (karmic) yoga to those who don’t have access to traditional yoga studios or don’t feel comfortable in such environments. Although Get it Ohm! is open to all, as a Cherokee I especially seek out Native organizations and communities. Get it Ohm!’s philosophy is based on the Baghavad Gita’s urging of karmic yoga, but it’s also my own take on yoga. Yes, I offer more classical classes, but I also offer classes set to hip hop and rock music. The “That Asana, Though” class and “Namaslay” is wildly popular both with Get it Ohm! and at the nearby studio where I teach three times per week.
Blending yoga with contemporary music might not be the zen-inducing experience some yogis seek out, but it’s definitely what others are desperately craving. There are no rules that yoga needs to be set to Enya and Yanni with the occasional “Ohm” chants and ringing bells. (Plus, if there were such rules, they were lost long ago when yoga was first established. And they didn’t have rap and rock then anyway, so how did they know what they were missing out on?). Through music and yoga, I found my own sanctuary, meditation and path to healing. With Get it Ohm!, I’m helping others to find theirs.
Every yoga teacher is different, just like every musician and fan is different. Planning a yoga class based on a playlist is no easy task. There’s not nearly as much flexibility (excuse the pun) or winging it. There certainly can still be some last minute inspiration, but there are some songs that simply demand certain asanas. Nicki MInaj’s “Bottoms Up,” for example, simply must be coupled with bridge pose. Nothing else will do.
Music also has the power to energize a class, to direct it, to help yogis monotask and that’s really the goal of yoga in general. What we, especially westerners, think of as yoga was never the original intention. Instead, the asanas, or poses, were designed as a sequence of stretches to help prepare the yogis for hours of seated meditation. Nothing disturbs such a power session like getting a cramp. The savasana, or final corpse pose, is a tiny homage to those hours of seated meditation practiced by yoga founders. That’s why instructors will tell you it’s the most important part of any practice. Ideally, the yogi is in a meditative state, but any meditation guru will tell you that true meditation—with blank mind and mono tasking—is exceptionally rare. Even the most devout practitioner would be lucky to achieve a few seconds of true meditation in a lifetime.
There’s also some confusion over what exactly constitutes “meditation.” We tend to think of it as sitting in silence with eyes closed, perhaps with the occasional “ohm.” That’s certainly the way some people achieve meditation, but again there aren’t any hard and fast rules. Meditation is internal reflection, a quiet mind, and mono tasking. You aren’t thinking about how your butt itches or what you’ll have for dinner or the next item on your to-do list. Odds are, all those people splayed out in savasana in yoga class aren’t in true meditation, but that’s okay. Hopefully, though, they’re trying.
Personally, I’ve never achieved a meditative state in a guided savasana. The one exception? In yoga teacher training. We were guided through several options for meditative states, and one included “candle meditation.” It involves staring intently at the flame of a candle to block out any other thought processes. When done in a dark room, it can relatively quickly put you in a state that feels semi-high but incredibly clear—at least for me. That was my one and only meditative state in a guided practice.
Music, on the other hand? It can be consumingly meditative, and it doesn’t need to be instrumental, classical, or otherwise “high brow” to achieve this. When I walked for hours through the Portland neighborhoods and streets, I was often achieving genuine meditative states. It wasn’t constant, but it happened. It eased my mind, and in some moments truly cleared all other thoughts. I walked for miles, often on auto pilot. However, instead of being consumed by worries and mindless tasks at hand, I was simply being.
Who says you need to wait for savasana to achieve meditative states? Who says that you need to be still, or that it needs to be quiet? There’s no doubt that music has the ability to heal. Numerous studies have shown us that, and common sense says it pretty blatantly. Researchers at Harvard have explored “Music as Medicine,” Psychology Today has reported on the healing powers of music, and the American Psychological Association has recently showcased how music heals. These three examples are just a tiny note in the orchestra.
“Healing” and “medicine” and both highly subjective terms. We need health for our whole selves including our physical bodies, mind, spirit, emotional and social well-being. Music indeed heals. It can help us achieve meditative states, it can improve our mood, it can increase or decrease energy, and it can help get us through a workout. There’s a reason elite runners aren’t allowed to listen to music or wear headphones during place races. They can get an advantage! Just like the healing prowess of music, countless studies have shown the positive impacts music can have on a workout.
For decades, one trick for studying has been playing music. It can serve as white noise, it helps with concentration, and it aids in (you guessed it!) monotasking. Replace “study” with “yoga” and you really have something. Of course, it’s not for everyone. I’m sure I include some songs that students don’t like, and maybe for some yogis this type of music can be distracting. With the vast majority of classes I teach, I stick with staple “yoga music.” Still, for those who want something different, there are always those hip hop and rock yoga classes.
In some cases, simply knowing the music would be to their liking brought students to their very first yoga class. In yoga, such music can also bust stereotypes and bring those snobbish walls crumbling down. I remember my first yoga class clearly. It was very intimidating, I felt out of place, and everyone was so eerily quiet and seemingly experts that I felt strongly like I didn’t belong. That can be the atmosphere and unfortunate attitude in many traditional yoga studios. Get to know the crowd, though, and you’ll discover they’re just people like everywhere else (although with strong opinions on mat brands and a penchant for sweat-wicking clothes).
But a hip hop or rock yoga class? You’re free to chatter before class. You can sing along (if your pranayama allows). You can laugh at yourself as you fly through a warrior series to Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior.” If there’s a particular song-asana combo that you just can’t get into, you’re very aware that you just need to keep at it for three or four more minutes before the song changes and you’re onto something else. Contemporary music and yoga can go together, no matter what your stuffy guru says. There’s no right or wrong way to practice, just like there’s no right or wrong song, artist or genre to listen to. I grew up in a town where country music was scoffed at because it was all we had. Instead, you were to embrace rock, grunge or rap. I certainly did hug those tough genres close to me, but I did so with the occasional Shania Twain or Garth Brooks in between.
For me, music has been a conductor of my life. It’s the central thread that ties together what I love and takes me down paths I never saw coming. We place great importance on choosing the theme songs to our lives, and with good reason. Everyone remembers the first dance at their wedding. Songs have strong holds on us, just like scents. I hope that, at least for one of my students, one of those songs signifies the beginning of a lifelong practice.
Could I have guessed at 22 that I would be teaching a rap-infused yoga class to first time yogis? Not at all. But I also never would have guessed that I could fall in love with an instrumental song on the classics station. (If you’re wondering, it’s “The Butterfly Waltz” and it’s, as they say, unbelievably moving.)