There are perhaps as many ways to brew up a playlist as there are styles of yoga, including letting a bot or someone else do it for you. I’m a DIY kinda gal (and a bit of a control freak) when it comes to most things, so I’m about as inclined to buy a ready-made music mix or let an algorithm curate my tunes as I am to buy cookies in a box.
Making the playlist has always been one of my favorite things about facilitating a class or workshop experience: it’s an opportunity for me to enhance or support the dharma or asana theme, and to show the students how much I care—“Yessss, I chose this music just for you, just for today!”
What follows are my thoughts about birthing a playlist to serve your particular needs.
When scheming on the musical scheme for your class, consider who, what, and where you are teaching. Who are your students? Unless you’ve been hired by an assisted-living facility for aging punks, it’s probably not a good idea to blast the Ramones if you’re teaching chair yoga to seniors. Michael Franti and C. C. White are perfect (at least in my mind) for a class of energetic vinyasa students, while a playlist loaded with Deva Premal and Jim Beckwith is more suited to those seeking a meditative yin or restorative dive inward.
What are you teaching? The style of yoga and the music you choose should be like the breath and movement in vinyasa: two wings of the same bird, both serving the creation of a transformative experience. Your playlist for a hot power class is not going to work for a gentle flow—and it shouldn’t. The experiences you are creating in those two different classes are as different as, well, power yoga and gentle yoga.
Where are you teaching? When I taught in the big city at a big studio with a big sound system, and music was as integral to class as savasana, I had no qualms about rocking the rock or pop or hip-hop. But now that I live in a much smaller town and teach in smaller studios and other venues where the stereo might be a glorified boom box, and silence in classes is as golden as Krishna Das or Ryan Adams, not so much. If there’s music in every class at your studio, you can probably push the soundtrack envelope by throwing in some rap or heavier rock (if that’s what you and your students are into), and it won’t be distracting. If you’re teaching in gyms or corporate environments—where students aren’t down with Hindu philosophy and iconography, or might be offended by what they perceive as religious overtones—you might want to skip the Ganesha, Kali, and Shiva mantras. That said, I used to teach in a high-end gym with t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e acoustics, so if I played music with non-Sanskrit words, they sounded like mud (not exactly sweet on the ears). Sanskrit, on the other hand, flows like a mellifluous river of sound to most people, so the acoustics never seemed to be an issue.
I had a friend who was such a strict vinyasa-ista that all her music grooved at 84 bpm to align with and support the breath. It was sublime. Me, I always play harmonium and chant at the beginning of class, and I opt for music that keeps my opening mantra alive and resonating for the duration. I may put five or six versions of, say, the maha mantra in a playlist—a waltzy one, a jazzy one, a reggae one, a meditative one—and throw in some songs about love to underscore Krishna’s essence. I am also fond of using spoken word—by Ram Dass, Alan Watts, and my teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life, among others—during shoulderstand or savasana to add another layer of depth to the class experience. It is also essential to think about the arc of a class: for example, higher energy tunes will get students warmed up, and mellower ones will bring ’em down (and you don’t want to bring ’em down unintentionally).
My mentor back in the day cautioned against using songs with words during standing poses. Although I hesitate to disagree with her, even these many years later, I think lyrics are fine as long as they’re familiar and they don’t compete with alignment instructions or any dharma you weave through class. And they should definitely have a positive message. Profanity? I avoid it. Why? Well, here are some synonyms for profanity, courtesy of Merriam-Webster: “curse, cuss, cussword, dirty word, expletive, four-letter word, obscenity, swearword, swear, vulgarism.” Words are vibrational, and I just don’t think those vibrations are going to purify nadis and lead to enlightenment. And for me, yoga is all about enlightening up.
I will unabashedly drop in Seal’s “Fly Like an Eagle” for an arm-balancing workshop or Diana Ross’s “Upside Down” for an inversion workshop. And there are a gazillion holidays and deities to inspire and anchor playlists. Although in general I think politics should stay out of the studio, I couldn’t resist making a “Yes We Can” playlist during the 2008 presidential campaign, because the sentiment was so uplifting. I will take advantage of the opportunity to celebrate or honor someone’s life and joyously create a fork in my playlist road: Nelson Mandela’s passing gave me the excuse to play a lot of African music. Prince’s? Well, any excuse to play Prince, right?
I love music, but I am anything but a music aficionado. I can’t remember lyrics or the names of artists—there are sooooo many! I rely on my love of chanting and KCRW’s mind-blowing DJs (humongous shoutout to my main man, Jeremy Sole!) to freshen up my music library, to find swoony vibes that make my students go “Who was that?!” And I rely on the “genius” function in iTunes to remind me what all is in my library in the first place.
I incorporate pop, soul, reggae, jazz, dub, electronica, mantra, kirtan, and movie soundtracks (Adele when Skyfall came out? Absolutely!) to keep students inspired and surprised. I listen to Pandora and Spotify and other people’s playlists, and though I might grab a song or two from a friend’s Spotify or SoundCloud mix, my sensibility is mine alone. White Swan and Derek Beres and DJ Taz Rashid (and others) very generously offer free downloads of their mixes from time to time. But since what works for, say, Shiva Rea in a festival setting isn’t likely to work for my Tuesday 6 p.m. class, I have learned to be my own DJ. And so can you.