Yoga - with music & flow or silent & slow?
As Yoga teachers and retreat leaders, Susie and I often get asked whether we do a full practice every day and the honest answer is no, absolutely not.
Despite having Yoga-centric careers and a deep love and connection to the practice, the science and the philosophy, we are the same as everyone else when it comes to nurturing a full-length daily session on the mat.
For me personally, I always try to at least roll out my mat, sit and breathe and have a gentle stretch and ease out my hips and shoulders - but that has as much to do with age and stiffness as it does with the practice!
But a full hour and a half practice every day? No way, it just doesn’t happen - as much as I would love it to.
On our retreats and within our Glow community, we’re always talking about finding your way to the mat each day - even for the shortest, sweetest time, but we know this daily commitment is a habit you have to build - it’s a muscle you have to keep flexing to feel the benefits and reap the rewards.
So it came as a bit of a shock to me recently to find myself struggling with my daily practice. I hadn’t changed anything about my routine and my sacred ritual that I’ve followed for years, but I was finding myself floundering on the mat, feeling uninspired and totally not getting into my flow then realising after twenty minutes or so that my mind had been wandering and I wasn’t being even remotely present in my practice.
Then suddenly I did something I haven’t done in years. I turned off my
music and practised in silence.
In recent years there has been a lot of discussion in the western Yoga community about the use of music in studios and one-to-one classes, about whether it is ethical, whether it is distracting and whether it is even detrimental to the authenticity of the practice. And of course we know that the ancient Yogis of India certainly weren’t practising with a Spotify playlist in the background.
On our Glow retreats music is a big part of the studio experience - particularly for the morning practice - and we feel very strongly that the playlists we carefully curate become part of the identity of each retreat. Also, it feels so much more unifying for a group of often strangers of mixed abilities practising together in a retreat environment to have a soundtrack to the experience that bonds the group. It also becomes a bit like a comforting blanket and we have a few signature pieces of music that are so loved by clients that we include them on every Glow retreat.
However, our evening Yin practice is usually quieter and either completely music-free or with just a subtle sensory soundtrack such as ocean waves or binaural beats.
It has gradually become a bit of a habit in my own practice to switch on the music as soon as I start moving on the mat, until recent occasions where the music was preventing me from really tuning in to myself, my breath and my movement.
While a favourite track could elevate my mood, it was also allowing my mind to wander, meaning my practice became secondary and sometimes I was simply ‘going through the motions’ rather than really thinking about and feeling into what I was doing. I was getting myself into a Yogic rut on the mat!
So what happened when I turned the music off?
Well, for starters the connection to my breath has been restored as I take myself off auto-pilot and take my focus inwards. This is the power of breathwork when you really invest in it; there is an alchemy of biological reactions that are there to be noticed and that can easily be drowned out if we are not finding our own rhythm and length of inhalation and exhalation.
One of my favourite cues in teaching is to ‘match the breath to the movement and the movement to the breath’ which is harder to do if you’re listening to music instead of yourself.
Secondly, since pausing the music I've dropped out of my ‘Go To’ flows and started going deeper into individual asanas. I've got out my books and been studying poses in a way I haven’t done for years. It is actually thrilling to study the physical practice again - it feels like meeting up with a beloved old friend as I pore over my ancient manuals, break down the asanas from start to finish, check my alignment & use props.
I'm being teacher and student at the same time and practising poses I haven’t attempted for so long - and rediscovering some absolute beauties I had forgotten about.
I’m certainly not flowing in these practices - it’s more like a stop / start / study affair - with much closer leanings to Hatha Yoga, rather than the Vinyasa style I trained in, but it takes me back to the Yoga I first used to practise in the nineties, which was my refuge from a crazy and challenging career in the fashion industry.
And the other thing that has changed is the way I feel after a slow and silent practice. I’ve definitely been feeling calmer and more grounded which I think is not only due to the slower style of Yoga I’m practising but also the more connected and mindful I am throughout the practice.
It kind of suits this time of year too - when it’s cold outside it feels so comforting to cocoon on the mat with a big jumper and some candles and slowly work through my practice with clearer focus and with deeper attention.
No doubt the music will return to my practice at some point; probably when the sun comes back out and we start preparing our summer Glow playlists, but for now I’m enjoying the silence, the opportunity for quiet connection and introspection and of course the great joy that comes with being an eternal student of Yoga.