Ashtanga Taboo: Playing Music

I know. Touchy subject.

There are lots of reasons why it’s a touchy subject. It’s not traditional. It’s distracting. It drowns out the sound of your breath. I could go on.

But my early Ashtanga teacher, Shayna Liebbe, played music. And I don’t mean ambient groove or chanting. Shayna played Pink Floyd and Tool.

Eventually her students started making mixes for class—me included. I made maybe over a dozen mixes for Shayna. She often took requests from the class. But it wasn’t all fun and games. She managed to get us through the entire  First Series in the hour and a half allotted to her by YogaWorks. She made us recite the Yamas or the Niyamas during navasana. She read us the Yoga Sutras in savasana. But her class was always fun. We still miss her, Steve and I.

Shayna got some push back for playing music, but it was the reason I kept doing Ashtanga. I was down to the wire: Either yoga was going to help, or I was going to get spinal fusion surgery. I was in intense pain all throughout practice. The music gave me a place to go while I learned to get control of that pain. The music was an asana delivery device for me.

Divine Fits got me through surya A. Via NPR.

Flash forward. Here I am with a mostly home practice. I’m long years away from those first, agonizing forward folds; I’ve spent hours in silent Mysore practice, listening to the breath. But it’s tough—as a lot of you know—to motivate yourself to roll out the mat, face the front, begin, and stay going right through the closing sequence.

So it was yesterday. I had a thousand things to do. I was tired. My knee hurt. I didn’t wanna do anything. Then, a memory of something Nancy Gilgoff said came back to me. “I practice at home. Sometimes I have trouble getting started,” someone remarked. “Music helps,” Nancy said, “I listen to Santana.”

As a result, I felt pretty justified when I sat myself down, opened up the computer, and made myself a playlist. I rolled out my mat. I said the opening prayer, and hit play (the list is below if you’re curious). Thanks, Shayna. And thanks, Nancy.

Would That Not Be Nice, Divine Fits

The Wolves, Ben Howard

River to Consider, White Denim

Summer-Blink, Cocteau Twins

Black Tin Box (feat. Lykke Li), Miike Snow

Mausam, Nitin Sawhney

No Diggity, Chet Faker

Trip, Vacationer

Nothing But Our Love, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Unto Caesar, Dirty Projectors

100 Other Lovers, DeVotchKa

Bittersweet Symphony, The Verve

Ritual Union, Little Dragon

Champagne Coast, Blood Orange

Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car, Iron & Wine

Bring the Mountain Down (feat. Grant Lee Phillips), Carmen Rizzo

City Don’t Cry, Page & Plant

Over the Ocean, Here We Go Magic

Beloved, Anoushka Shankar

Tambura Evening Meditation, Harish Johari

Posted by Bobbie

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

12 thoughts on “Ashtanga Taboo: Playing Music”

  1. I do this, too. I know that the hardcore traditional Ashtangis don’t like to play music, but I like it sometimes. Most of the time the breath is enough, but on these really unmotivated days it’s such a help to put some music on. And sometimes it just feels right and I want to listen to good music while doing Ashtanga.
    Is it traditional? No. But it’s MY practice. And yours. And no one has the right to tell anyone how they should do their practice (espacially it’s something trivial like music)
    Have a nice weekend 🙂

  2. Music is akin to doping for some in the Ashtanga world, LOL!

    Yes, some would say, you are “borrowing” your energy for practice from the music, that it’s distracting, etc. But, I believe music can be very helpful when you need motivation to practice. If we are all going to be honest, some days the motivation is low to none. If it helps a student to dig the well a bit deeper that day, or even begin, where’s the harm?

    Great playlist, btw. 🙂

  3. Well perhaps the music helps, but it also allows you to avoid doing a particular kind of practice. — Sitting there with the fact that you are unable to, resistant do, or don’t want to practice. Breathing into that feeling, deconstructing your relationship with your body, your expectations of your body versus your expectations of a practice, and so forth. I was badly injured some years ago. Couldn’t walk for 6 months. My practice consisted of a half-assed kneeling approach to suryanamskara A walking my hands up and down the wall because I couldn’t do it without support. The rest of the practice was a lot of crying and finally an acceptance of where I was and an analysis of expectations. Now — I’m solidly over 60 yrs old, doing a daily practice — all of first plus 3/4 of second — and no more pain. So why the story — The music I used initially was a distraction and an impediment. It allowed me to avoid the core issues that were blatantly in front of me. It wasn’t until I was forced to sit and confront what was all too obvious that some real “progress” was made.

  4. My very first ashtanga teacher (at a gym) always played music. That was obviously a very different setting than a yoga studio. But my first *Mysore* teacher also played music – once a week on Thursdays. She called it “Rock and Roll Thursdays.” It definitely made me look forward to Thursdays and helped me get closer to the finish line of a full week of practices.

  5. I love practicing to music for the energy hit, too. Before starting ashtanga last spring, I was a “hip hop yoga” junkie. I love losing myself in the music and the flow, together. I recently watched a great video interview with Doug Keller ( in which he talks about how much easier it is to practice in a class setting because there’s so much energy already flowing, it’s like stepping into a moving stream, whereas if you practice on your own, you have to generate all of that energy on your own. I think it’s similar with music: it can really help you get to that place where you lose yourself in something larger (IF you like the music, that is). Thanks for the play list. I see some some i-tunes research in my near future…

  6. Shayna was my first Ashtanga teacher too. Even though I have taken a break from the practice, I still pull out the CDs she burned for her students as a holiday gift and love to replay them and remember how enjoyable the practice was and how the music really enhanced it.

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