Music and Yoga

Everything about a vinyasa yoga class is meant to make us musical. The pacing of the ujjai breath, even inhales and exhales, are the metronome for the practice. The sound of the ujjai breath is the body’s own chamber orchestra. The movement of the body between the poses is like the movement of notes in each measure.

My teacher Sharon Gannon says, “In order to transcend time, we must first become a master of timing, we must become musical.” In Sharon Gannon’s brilliant and remarkable essay “Yoga and Music,” featured in Arcana IV: Musicians on Music edited by John Zorn, she beautifully details the philisophical, spiritual, and practical relationship between yoga and music while weaving a history of yoga’s journey to the west through music as well as a snapshot into her own experience with yoga and music.

“In the vast spiritual literature of India, two types of sound, or nadam are spoken of: anahata nadam and ahata nadam. Anahata nadam means “unstruck” sound–it is not heard by just the physical ears, and no one can make this sound. It is the primal essential nature of the universe; it is the sound of God. Yogis hear/feel this sound during deep enlightened states of meditation. Ahata nadam means “struck” sound–it is music that we can hear with our physical senses; it refers to sound that is made by striking two things together, like when a musician strums an instrument or blows through a horn or hits a drum, or when a singer sings–air strikes against the vocal folds, and sound is produced. Ahata nadam in the form of music can lead one to an experience of anahata nadam…..” (Sharon Gannon, Yoga and Music)

In the eastern system, the ground of reality is vibration or sound. Everything comes from sound and everything is sound. The syllable OM is a representation of this universal vibration. Likewise in the western scientific system, even all apparently solid material is in a constant state of change, motion, vibration. Light and matter are all packets of energetic vibration, pulsation.

“The aim of hatha yoga practice is to realize sound as the source of creation. This realization is the outcome of being in tune with the source of creation, which naturally occurs when the yogi achieves harmony with the earth and all this manifest. The perfection of yoga asana is realized by aligning oneself with nature for the benefit of all–it is the perfection of one’s relationship with all beings and things.” (Sharon Gannon, Yoga and Music)

Ha-tha refers to the union of sun and moon, or the balancing of the two sides of the subtle body. The left side of the body being associated with the feminine principle, which is controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, the creative, intuitive, spontaneous brain. The right side of the body, associated with the masculine principle is controlled by the left hemisphere, which is the analytical, mathematical side. Music is a unique activity which activates both hemispheres of the brain equally. “In addition to this left hemisphere activation, we also found activation in an analogous area of the right hemisphere. This told us that attenting to structure in music requires both halves of the brain….” (This Is Your Brain on Music, p 130) Music is Yoga.

Further, music is the most primal human activity, it is common to all people across time and across the planet. Music is the thing that connects us to our humanity. When we listen to or play music, we are literally activating the most ancient part of our brains as well as the most evolved. Both the cerebellum, involved with base line regulatory systems like breathing and heart beating and basic emotional response, and the frontal lobe which is associated with sophisticated thought, intuition, planning. The activity of music has a twofold purpose. First, music is a socializing force, meant to connect people and communities. Secondly, music is a means by which to uplift ourselves towards a greater understanding of ourself and the universe. Music is the most primal thing we do and simultaneously the most exalted.

Nada Yoga is a practice whereby the practitioner perfects external listening in order to cultivate internal hearing. In other words, by refining the senses through listening to music, or hearing instructions from a yoga teacher we cultivate the ability to listen deeply. Then turning that sense inward, we will eventually hear the sacred “unstruck sound.” When you hear the self-originating sound, you will realize that the vibration of your heart is the same as the vibration of the whole of the universe.