podcast ep 4: the effects of music on practice + practicalities of teaching to music

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Some teachers love to teach to music, others feel strongly that silence is best for the mind.

My own preferences and opinions have evolved with the rest of my practice and critical thinking on yoga, but more on that later.

Music is a more subjective aspect of practice, and by that I mean that is subject to preference. If something is objective, it’s considered to be free of the influence of opinion.

Music doesn’t even have that, we might say that we can all agree “music is music”, but there’s lots of music out there that doesn’t make the cut for a music definition.

My teacher says that a practice based on preference doesn’t form a practice, but she’s talking about content and the need to skillfully apply yoga tools. I don’t need to learn to skillfully apply death metal to my yoga practice and call it a cleansing technique. (At least I don’t think I do.)

But preference of music matters. When we hear music we know and like, we’re flooded with dopamine, a chemical that’s involved in motivation and reward, and oxytocin, the love and bonding neurochemical. We get the same feelings when we spend time with friends or see pictures of loved ones.

Which is why, as a 33 year old woman from the suburbs of Toronto, I hear Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl and feel all warm and fuzzy. No doubt I’ll vinyasa for eternity, and someone who loves Hip Hop music and is only developing their taste for a yoga posture practice, may be willing to show up to class when there are sweet tunes. We are naturally motivated to move by motivational music.

If you don’t know the music, you’d be relying on the atmospheric quality of the music. Music written in major keys produces happier reactions, and music written in minor keys tends to produce sad reactions.

And emotive reaction is not necessarily of service to our practice. I learned a long time ago that you may make women of a particular age cry in your classes if you play too much Stevie Nicks or Joni Mitchell. ESPECIALLY the second recorded version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now.

A study on teenage drivers demonstrated that they made more mistakes while driving when listening to music of their preference, rather than “safe” music chosen by a driving instructor. We could say something about the teenage brain here, but it raises the question, if we’re trying to be skillful practitioners to heighten mindfulness, improve practice efficiency and prevent injury, is music possibly detrimental?

Another study showed that listening to classical music improved visual attention in stroke patients. Compared with unpleasant music and white noise, participants rated their moods as more positive and arousal as higher with pleasant music, but also showed significant improvement on all tasks. With the wide variety of contemporary classical available now, there’s lots of music out there that suits modern tastes of instrumental only music and could provide this benefit. (Not to mention the lack of intense crescendos that sometimes eliminates certain classical pieces as possible yoga class soundtracks.)

There is a significant amount of research evidence from studies using a wide range of methods that show prosocial content in media can increase different types of prosocial behavior. What is prosocial? Any kind of behavior deemed altruistic and in the service of good to others. What this means is that the lyrics of our songs might really matter, and that’s terrific because there are so many wonderful yogic musicians now. Think of Trevor Hall’s song “Forgive” – if we played that more in our classes, would our students benefit from a more forgiving attitude?

We can harness the power of familiar music and classical music in our class planning. If we consistently teach to the same music, especially that which is supportive of atmosphere with major keys, few and positive lyrics, eventually those tracks will become familiar to students and they will have that dopamine/oxytocin response.

If you’re interested in some of what I talked about with passive/active practice, Yoga International just published my piece on Functional Movement. The foot exercise I described in this episode is there, so you can easily access it. I’ve linked to that article from the show notes that you can find on the website, www.intelligentedge.yoga

If you enjoyed listening, consider leaving an iTunes review, they really help.

Music Feels So Good:

Driving to Preferred Music Increases Mistakes:

Moderate Noise Improves Creativity.

Visual Attention Improves Listening to Classical:

Effects of Music on Prosocial Behaviour:

Juicy-R – mashup of Notorious BIG + The xx