There is no doubt that yoga and music can shift our mood. We love music that compels us to dance, sing, cry, create, workout, connect, relax or sleep. We’re hooked on downloads, playlists, concerts and customized radio services which will queue up tunes that meet our specific preferences. We are literally “touched” by music as sound enters our bodies and vibrates the eardrum, creating a unique personal, visceral and emotional experience.
Yoga also works on the physical, energetic and emotional layers of our being, and invites us to notice where we are being enlivened, opened, soothed and moved. It is an ancient science of the body, mind and spirit that aims to peel away layers of stress, illusion and egoic attachments so that we can experience our true expansive nature.
The Brain Game
So what is it that’s actually happening when we immerse ourselves in our favorite piece of music or find ourselves in sweet bliss during the relaxation at the end of a yoga class?
The answer lies in the magic and mystery of the nervous system and the brain, and the myriad of ways the brain can rewire itself through experience. It’s the brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to create new neuropathways—which helps humans to grow and change. As we change our thoughts and our “vibe” in positive ways, we entrain our brains to a new level of “normal”, thus subtly and consistently changing our lives for the better.
As energy beings that are actually vibrating atoms, we literally “resonate” in different ways with different music or movements. Mindful movement practices like yoga, tai chi and qigong can be effective at attuning us to the energy body, and our physical, emotional and psychological landscapes. By doing so, we can deepen our capacity to navigate life with more awareness and skill.
Although the focus in yoga is on postures, alignment and transitions, the true science of yoga is much more than a fitness practice. It’s one of the most time-tested tools for transformation, helping us find places of resistance, fear, pain, patterns, judgment or illusion.
“Research into the neurobiology of different types of exercise seems to demonstrate that yoga has an advantage over other types of aerobic activity, especially for emotional stability and well-being,” cites Rachel Grazioplene in her Psychology Today article, “This is Your Brain on Yoga.”
This may be because of physiological responses in our bodies when we do yoga that signal our brains to release calming chemicals. These natural chemicals include endorphins which have a positive effect on our mood and pleasure responses. Coupled with the reduction of cortisol levels, the positive effects of a yoga class can last for hours.
Busy World, Busy Mind
In an overwhelming, anxious and busy world, slow and mindful styles of yoga—such as gentle, yin, restorative and yoga nidra—are particularly helpful for shifting out of our sympathetic nervous systems and supporting the parasympathetic nervous system response. The latter is where our bodies naturally reduce pain, improve creativity and memory, and heal.
When we are in the fight-or-flight response, our bodies takes blood flow away from the brain and into the periphery of the body, flooding the bloodstream with sugar, increasing the heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate in order to prepare one for defense or flight. In this “on guard” state, our learning ability, as well as other mental functions like problem solving and reasoning, is completely blocked. Both music and meditative yoga have the power to support healthier sleep patterns by calming the nervous system, and slowing down the heartbeat and brainwave frequencies.
In his New York Times article, “Relax, You’ll Be More Productive”, Tony Schwartz suggests that our adrenaline and coffee-fueled, workaholic lifestyle is actually not the best way to be creative and productive. “More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less,” he states. Schwartz cites a growing body of multidisciplinary research showing that “strategic renewal”—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, daydreaming and meditation—boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.
Taking a yoga break, dancing in our office or spending a few minutes consciously breathing would constitute the “strategic renewal” he cites.
Energy, Emotion and Devotion
And what of the more energetic, upbeat and active implications of yoga and music?
The devotional repetition of sounds—such as with Kirtan yogic chanting or Kundalini Yoga—purposefully disarms our rational, intellectual brains, inviting us instead to surrender into the vast and mysterious ocean of emotion, feelings, vibrations and energy. In this way, sound creates the pathway to navigate through the layers of our physical, mental and emotional selves and leads us back to a sense of truth, bliss and oneness.
This is not only the realm of ancient and new age practices. The modern day versions of the “Kirtan effect” show up in experiences like the joyous uprising of a gospel choir or the resounding call-and response refrain at a rock concert. Our hearts swell. We connect. We sing with abandon. We sway, jump or praise with arms wide open.
Interestingly, Kirtan and uplifting sacred music has grown in popularity in the past few years. Just look at the blossoming attention for artists like Krishna Das, Deva Premal and Snatam Kaur and the thrill of large high-energy communal gatherings like the Omega Institute’s Ecstatic Chant Festival, Bhakti Fest and Sat Nam Fest. Kirtan also speaks to the fact that we are indeed social and tribal beings, and that creating sound together in community is healing and necessary for us on multiple levels.
Chris Coogan (CooganMusic.com), the director the Good News Gospel Choir based in Westport, sees himself as a catalyst that uses the medium of music to bring people together. “There is something basic and deeply human about coming together and singing. Harmonizing our voices becomes a metaphor for coming together as a community,” he explains.
“Chanting can transform emotions into devotion, putting aside the mind to open the heart and gain access to a profound and yet very natural state of inner bliss,” says Miriam Zernis, the yogic leader of the Connecticut-based Kirtan ensemble, Sita’s Light (SitasLight.com).
Certainly, it’s this promise of inner peace and bliss that compels many people to try yoga to begin with—along with the physical benefits of less tension and pain, and more agility and general relaxation. Some classical and traditional yoga practices are done without music to keep the focus on the body, breath and mind without distraction. Other styles, including those taught by many modern teachers, utilize music to set the tone and cadence of a class. There are also conscious dance practices like Kripalu YogaDance and Journey Dance that use music specifically to engage our energy and emotions in certain ways. The soundtrack in these types of mindful movement classes becomes a key element in evoking specific feelings, allowing us to process them through movement, rather than with the mind.
Tools like music and yoga, when used with compassionate awareness, can be vehicles to help us touch undiscovered territory within ourselves.
Rhythm, Resonance and Love
“There’s always been a link between music, spirituality, and healing for me,” says Connecticut-based conscious music singer-songwriter Frannie Faith (FrannieFaith.com), whose recent album “Peaceful Places,” is a combination of guided meditations, yoga nidra and chant.
“Singing is my way of healing myself and others by connecting people to their hearts. With open hearts, we are free to be in our natural state of oneness with one another, nature, and our planet, tapping into inner peace, beauty and joy,” Faith says. She notes that we don’t need to be a “singer” to receive the uplifting, prayerful and joyful energy that comes from singing.
Undoubtedly, transformational music comes in many forms. For some it might be jazz, for others classical, and for others soul, rap, blues or the trance-inducing beats of electronic dance music.
Employing rhythm and spoken word in his albums, videos and live events, world-class drummer and percussionist, John de Kadt (JohndeKadt.com) skillfully harnesses the power of sound to awaken the senses and expand consciousness through soundscapes, drum poetry and rhythmic scat.
Healing on a cellular level is often beyond description in experiences with Grammy-nominated recording artist, sound healer and teacher, Ashana (SoundofAshana.com). She weaves together angelic vocals and the celestial sound of crystal singing bowls. “Music and sound have the capacity to transport us, lift us to a place where you remember that you are loved so that you ultimately remember you are love,” she says.
Indeed, all of these clues point to what yogis call nada yoga, or the yoga of sound. Nada yoga is an extensive science of how sound affects the body and mind. It aims to harmonize the physical, energetic and spiritual channels as a path to self-realization. Neuroscientists are only just beginning to unravel the mystery of what yogis have known for centuries.