What Does 'Yoga Music' Even Mean?

What Does 'Yoga Music' Even Mean? I ask this question as much out of wonder as bewilderment. My days literally revolve around these two art forms—the teaching of yoga and the playing, listening and writing about of music. Where the two meet, I have devoted my life. Still a persistent yet undefined image of ‘yoga music’ continues to wield its confusing head, saturating studios with a vague and uncertain amalgam of styles that do not necessarily coalesce. If the children of early ‘70s acoustic nature folk studied poorly pronounced Sanskrit and prose about flowers blooming and sunrays beaming, you have ‘yoga music.’

But we’re so much better than that. India may be a starting point for this indescribable subset of music, though which system are we discussing? Kirtan, bhajans, Hindustani and Carnatic fall into the general category of what can possibly be described as ‘yogic.’ Do we then contemplate bhangra and Rajasthani folk? I’ve played Asha Bhosle in my classes before—would filmi make for good yoga music? I’m sure it has on some dreamed up bus or train ride in a long Bollywood montage. I just haven’t been brave enough to drop a funked out Mohammed Rafi track during the flow; perhaps the fault is mine alone.

Just as America has immensely altered yoga—like any imports, there are very beneficial and very unfortunate consequences to this—we have created a musical form that really never existed before. With its emphasis on Sanskrit chants directly related to the mantras associated with bhakti yoga, kirtan certainly has its longstanding relationship to yoga. And I’ve talked to a handful of classical Indian musicians who say that their music is their yoga, which makes sense: classical asanas and pranayama were performed at certain times of the day, to attune the yogi to nature’s rhythm. Ragas were invented with the same idea in mind.

There is something more relevant and global at play here, however. While this is hard to picture in today’s constantly shifting and easily downloadable societies, all folk musics shared common qualities. The most predominant is that the songs reflected the culture that the musicians lived in and their natural environment and, not as common but important for our purposes, trance. First, cultures: In his travel masterpiece, The Middle Passage, V.S. Naipaul writes, “No song composed outside Trinidad is calypso. The calypso deals with local incidents, local attitudes, and it does so in a local language. The pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider.”

The curmudgeonly Naipaul cannot be blamed—the text is nearly a half-century old; his point is valid for his time. Calypso is certainly a product of its environment, and is best understood on its home turf. Perhaps this generates my own bias, with the beats and bass of hip-hop being New York inventions. This is why rap is as valid a ‘yoga music’ in my classes as anything. Our streets are sharp, angular and punchy, and the music originating here mimics that architecture. Yet few would consider hip-hop in these terms alongside Jai Uttal and the Mayapuris.

Language and environment are the specifics; trance is global, which is where music and yoga truly meet. The raga is a form of meditation, each piece defined by specific guidelines with room for ‘coloring,’ or improvisation, by the performer. This is why Ravi Shankar and Pran Nath can perform the same alap and each version sounds a world apart. Numerous musical forms seek the same form of meditation, from Gnawa and Voodoo to dub and flamenco—flamenco pre-guitar, when communities would gather and make songs out of thigh slaps, hand claps, foot stomps and voices. This form of meditation, in which the place where what we are doing, where we are doing it and how intently we are focused on the one thing we are accomplishing are the same, is the aim of the yogi: unifying all seemingly disparate elements into one continuous moment.

Sometimes this happens with Krishna Das. Sometimes, A Tribe Called Quest.

Which is why the term ‘yoga music’ seems so fleeting and undesirable. If the point is union, why are we judging the vehicle that carries us there? If I throw a sitar over a beat, does it qualify for this category? If I burn copal instead of Nag Champa, am I fooling myself? It certainly doesn’t feel that way when I’m in the midst of the flow.

Below is a playlist specifically comprised of songs that you’ll never find labeled as ‘yoga,’ all of which have proven themselves perfect for my classes, followed by a video with Strala Yoga owner Tara Stiles in which we discuss these very topics.

EarthRise Non-Yoga Yoga Playlist

1. Silent Song (EarthRise SoundSystem Remix) – Eccodek

2. Endangered Species (Raeo Remix) – Nickodemus

3. Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long – Erykah Badu

4. Shine – Oum

5. Electric Relaxation – A Tribe Called Quest

6. Embe Ashafergne – Abyssinia Infinite

7. Ivat Idounia Ayasahen - Bombino

8. Tenalle Chegret – Tinariwen

9. A Few Good Words – DJ Center

10. The Tryst – Azam Ali

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