Heart and Soul: Why Your Playlist Matters (and how to make a good one)


I have taken a ton of yoga classes in my life and I have taught a ton, as well.  Being that Vinyasa style yoga is my main schtick, I almost always practice to music.  There are arguments for and against using music in class (I see you, Iyengarites, and I love you,) and I do think there is a time and place for silence during a practice, but I am here to tell you one thing and here it is:

If you use music in class, you had better use the good stuff and you had better use it correctly.

Your playlist matters!

As I said, I couldn’t count the number of classes I have taken over the years.  Thousands and thousands, I’m assuming.  I was discussing on Twitter yesterday whether or not I have ever walked out of a yoga class.  As of this writing, no, I have not.  I have thought about it, though, way more than once.  Sometimes I have been tempted to leave because the teacher was giving dangerous cues, sometimes because the teacher was giving dangerous adjustments, sometimes because the teacher gave NO adjustments, but more often than not, I have considered leaving because of a terrible playlist.  I’ll wait here while you judge me and call me snobbish.  Go ahead. Okay.  Ready to move on and hear my reasoning?

When I was a teenager, I converted to vegetarianism.  I was the only person in my family who was vegetarian (and to this day, I think I’m the only one in my entire extended family of origin who ever went meatless for more than a day or two,) and it wasn’t as though my family was learned in the art of vegetarian cooking or even in the full thought process behind it.  As a result, many a dinner conversation went like this:

Me: What’s for dinner, Mom?

Mom: Chili, it’s been simmering for hours.

Me: Oh cool!  Did you make a small bit in a separate pot without meat for me?

Mom: Nope, but I left the pieces of beef big enough that you can pick them out.

Me: *facepalm*

Now, of course, my mom didn’t mean to make eating such a challenge, she just didn’t realize that the meat had permeated every bit of that chili and not paying attention to it would not make the chili vegetarian.  She didn’t realize that I would be able to tell, that I would still taste it and know that it went against what I was trying to do, she didn’t know that it could make me sick, she didn’t know that, regardless of how much or how little, the meat was still there and it would affect me.

Yoga playlists are like meat in the chili – they flavor the whole practice.  People have strong emotional ties to music. Music is a trigger, a touchstone, an anchor for people.  A song can bring people to their feet or to their knees, it can lead to healing and it can lead to hope, and sometimes, it can lead a person to,  or through, their own personal Hell.  Of course, there is no way to know exactly who will show up to your class or what their stories might be.  No one can tell what energy will come up and what will happen.  You cannot make a playlist that 100% of your students will love 100% of the songs 100% of the time, but there are a few things you can do to increase your odds.  There have been a ton of articles and blog posts about yoga playlists (I swear, Google them,) so there might be better tips out there than these, but  I have been told that I make pretty awesome playlists and this is what I think about while making them.  What can I say?  I’ve eaten a lot of chili.

Recipe for a good playlist:  

1 good, strong theme, divided.  It doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering, life-changing theme, although it very well might be.  Decide if you are teaching a theme (heart openers, forgiveness, gratitude, sutras, strength, etc.,) and then keep that in mind when you’re making the playlist.  If you’re doing a class on quieting the mind, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find people appreciating MC Yogi rapping all the way through their Rajakapotasana. Alternatively, if you’re teaching a sweaty, high-flying, advanced class with inversions, arm balances, and power flows, you’re going to have a hard time building the mojo if you’re listening to Yanni.  The 2nd part of these theme involves the lyrics of the music you choose.  Go ahead and try to get people to move into forgiveness while  you play “Burn This Mutha Down.”   Good luck with that.

1 reasonably awesome sense of timing.  Now, of course, no one is perfect and sometimes teachers (read: me) get off on a tangent or is really feeling the groove and might just get away from the intended timing and flow of things for a minute or two, but if you have a 60 minute class, you know that you’re going to need some beginning meditation, warm up, active practice, cool down, and Savasana.  It’s unlikely that folks will get that good, centered feeling that puts them in the yoga mind if you start your beginning meditation to the sound stylings of AC/DC.  Expect at least 10 minutes at the beginning and at the end for slower, more quiet stuff, and make your playlist the length of your class.  Let the middle rock their socks off (if it fits the theme,) but you gotta give folks time to wind up and wind down.  It’s exactly the opposite of what a good artist will do while recording an album.  They start and end with a bang and put the ballads in the middle, but you have to do the reverse.  Remember: you’re on a yoga mat, not on tour.  This will also help you move through the class, especially if you’re nowhere near a clock.  Hear the music start winding down?  You better start wrapping it up.

A splash of sing-along, a dash of shut up.  As big as the debate is over the use of music or no music in class, there is an even bigger one raging out there about whether or not to use music with lyrics in class or solely instrumentals.  People are passionate about this! Personally, I like to mix it up.  I like to have a blend of songs that folks can / might / will sing along with (even if only in their heads,) and some that are either in a foreign language (Sanskrit, Spanish, French, and Portuguese are all good,) or have no language at all, within the same playlist.  There are times when people will want /need to connect with words, with memories, with the feelings associated with singing a song they know and love.  Sometimes singing along (or boogying a little) can help take the focus away from how much a person might struggle with a certain asana.  I know folks who hate Utkatasana.  I mean, they loathe that little chair.  Play a little Rolling Stones during it, however, and suddenly they don’t hate it so much.  There will also be times when each person will need all of their attention to hold asana or pranayama and lyrics can be distracting.  Instrumentals and foreign language own these moments, so shut the sing-along up and just let the body tell the story.

A strong fusion of flavors.  Have you ever had chili from Cincinnati?  They put chocolate in their chili.  Yep, chocolate.  I thought that was completely insane and total food blasphemy … until I tried it.  It’s incredible! I add chocolate to my chili every time I make it now.  It adds depth, character, and unexpected flavor.  You have to add the chocolate to your playlist.  Don’t stick with only one genre and era in your playlist.  Mix it up!  As Kid Rock says, “I love country, soul, rock and roll, and I love me some hip hop!”  Blend a little New Age with Outlaw Country, some 70’s Soul with Boston Pops, Folk with Funk, and don’t forget the covers and remixes. You have to remember that you will have a myriad of students in your class and they are all going to relate to something.  Don’t alienate anyone, but also don’t be afraid to be outrageous.  You’d be surprised at how often the quiet grandmother in the back row absolutely loves Santana and Sublime.

An entire bushel of Fresh.  I remember when I was teaching just one or two classes a week, I used to make a new playlist for each and every single class. Now, I teach upwards of 6 classes a week and just don’t have the time or the energy to do 312 playlists a year.  Probably a good thing, because I have realized that folks will remember a playlist and wish to hear it again.  That said, no one wants to hear the same playlist each time they get on the mat. Trust me, no matter how much you love your own music, not everyone is going to love everything all the time.  Make several playlists and rotate them.  If you know that you’ve played the same playlist enough time that your students know what song is coming next, it’s time for a change.  Look for new (or new to you) music.  Keep your ears open and you’ll find new yoga music in the most unlikely places.  I cannot tell you how many songs I found by watching NBC’s Parenthood.  If you have an iPhone, the app “Shazam” will save your life.  If you don’t, just google “song at the end of Big Bang Theory” and you’ll find something.  If a song impressed you, I promise it will have impressed someone else and that someone else is faster and posting than you.  Regardless of how you find them, where you get them, you will benefit from new songs, so get going, get searching, and get FRESH.

A slice of editing. You know how sometimes you’re listening to the radio and you get about 5 seconds of dead air?  Yeah, we all hate that.  Here’s the thing: some songs just have about 5 seconds of nothingness at the end of the track.  I don’t know why (yes, I’m sure you do and would love to tell me, but I don’t care to know,) but I do know that it sucks and has no business in a playlist unless you use the space for a reading or a moment of silence and you’d better time it so folks are standing in tadasana with eyes closed when it happens. Who needs that pressure?  So, take it easy on yourself and listen to the songs, trimming them as you need to. You can do this in iTunes by right-clicking the song, selecting Get Info -> Options -> Stop Time.

A jumbo sized sense of humor.  Let’s face it, it’s going to go wrong sometimes.  Sometimes you’ll have dead air, sometimes a song will fall flat, sometimes a person will freak when you play Akon or cry when you play Johnny Cash, and sometimes, just sometimes, there will be an unexpected shock.  I will never forget the class I taught at the gym all those years ago that was packed wall to wall with conservative bodies and I was playing The Fugees and, well, you know that Wycleff can use all kinds of colorful, inappropriate language in the last few seconds of a song!  Suddenly there it was, the “N” word blaring over the speakers to 40 or so of the high muckety-muck society and there I was standing in front of all these people trying to not pee my pants.  I nearly lost my gig, but managed to cover it up by saying something along the lines of, “Well, now, that is the last time I let Sister Mary Mercy make my yoga playlist!”  They all cracked up and we moved on.  Thank Elvis.  So, be sure to use that slash of editing and then learn to laugh at yourself.  After all, it’s a playlist, not the presidency. Lighten up!

What matters to you in a playlist?  What do you like?  When do you like it?  How do you plan yours?  Share recipe here – our ears are hungry!



3 responses »

  1. Wonderful blog. In my teacher training we were divided into groups of 4 and instructed to create a gift for our fellow yogis in training. My group chose to create playlist CD – we will give everyone a copy in May. I am forwarding your blog to my group – I know they will appreciate validation of our gift. I attended a JohnFriend workshop in December (before all _ _ _ _ broke loose), and there was no music. I really missed it – for me, music creates a mood that enriches my practice.

    • Oh very cool, Karen, thanks! I thought of you when Anusaragate errupted. What a mess! Anyway, I have posted several of my playlists on this blog (search for the tag “yogi tunes”) as well as an admittedly outdated list of some of my favorite artists. Have fun, good luck, and I’d LOVE to see what you come up with!


  2. Here is the playlist that people ask me for all the time. A number of them I got from mamakohl. Thanks!
    1) Gentle Dissolve-Thievery Corporation
    2)Across the Universe-Beatles
    3) Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth-Primitive radio gods
    4) SHine on- Kooks
    5) Shake our Tree-Rosebuds
    6)Deeper Well-Wailin Jennys
    7)The Warrior-Patty Smyth
    8) Halie Selassie-Bright Eyes
    9) Here Comes the Sun-M. Ward
    10) Be Here Now-Mason Jennings
    11) All the Best-My Morning Jacket
    12) Make Your Heart-Azure Ray
    13) Last Dance-Sarah Mc Laughlin
    14) Lullaby for Grown Ups-Liquid MInd

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