by Mike Burke, Director of Operations
Sound and yoga share a rich and deep history. There’s a growing body of research which supports the idea that sound aids in concentration and meditation, decreases anxiety levels and improves blood pressure. We’re learning that the right use of sound and music can alter our brain’s electrical activity, influence moods, and contribute to positive mental states.
Now if you had asked me five years ago about the effect that sound and music have on my mental state while balancing on my head, I would have just blankly stared. But hundreds of hours of practice and three yoga certifications later, as well as over half a decade at Made Music — where I learned about concepts like sonic humanism and the research into sound, subconscious responses and emotional connections — these are the thoughts that regularly enter my head, regardless of its orientation. I now recognize that the power of sound is essential to my practice.
There’s a term used frequently in yoga, prana, which is roughly translated from Sanskrit to “life energy.” The belief is that this energy is carried through our breath. When we speak, sing, or vocalize sound, we’re using our prana to affect the energy of the area and people around us. If you’ve taken a yoga class, you’ve likely sung om at the beginning. In additional to the spiritual elements of this mantra, collectively singing this one word as a group establishes a new energy. It’s a reminder that whoever you are, whatever you’ve mentally brought with you to the class, it all dissolves into one group consciousness during practice. And that’s only the first five minutes of class.
Your attention has been focused, your mental state has been shifted, and your body is starting to subconsciously prepare for movement. All prompted by the power of sound.
Every yoga class is filled with sounds that, whether you recognize it or not, influence your mental state. Each practice begins the same way: you walk in, hear the tapping of your bare feet on the wooden floor, gently walking between other people’s mats, asking if anyone’s in this spot, and the mat unrolling on the floor.
Then you just sit. In silence. You hear the people coming in around you, retracing your recent steps and words, gentle music warming and welcoming. Maybe you check in mentally how you’re feeling, what you need out of this practice today. (If so, you’ve got a lot more mental peace than most, ‘cause I’m over in the corner wondering about that work email or what groceries I need to pick up for dinner.)
These mental distractions slowly fade away, as does the gentle music in the background. This is the quietest part of the entire class. Everyone waits for the teacher to sit down, take a breath, and then the first true sound of the practice is spoken: namaste. This introduction is more than a pleasant greeting. It’s a clear bell chime, a single mental ring that lets you know the second before they spoke is now different from the current one. It’s tangible, you can feel the impact of this new aural cue. The next words the teacher speaks share this same physical weight as they go through their dharma — interweaving relatable life experience with yogic principles and teachings. Your attention has been focused, your mental state has been shifted, and your body is starting to subconsciously prepare for movement. All prompted by the power of sound.
Either way you take it in.. we can use sound to bring positivity, calm and concentration to our daily practices, both yogic and not.
Outside of yoga classes, there are whole practices associated with channeling energy from sound, including a vast array of ancient sound healing practices across cultures. Sound Healing sessions, also called sound baths, are best described as group meditative concerts led by a sound therapist. These therapists make use of a wide variety of instruments in these sessions: Tibetan singing bowls, gongs, tuning forks, chanting, you name it. At one session I participated in, the therapist had seven singing bowls all individually tuned to frequencies of each chakra. As he rang the bowls, we all chanted different mantras to these notes with the intention of releasing any blockages through vibration. Each person experiences the sessions differently — you may have some profound epiphany, or you might have just spent $30 for a unique experience. I came out of the session feeling deeply relaxed, almost even spaced-out, then went home and slept for 10 hours straight because I was in such a peaceful state. Either way you take it in, it’s clear that sound influences your mental state, and we can use it to bring positivity, calm and concentration to our daily practices, both yogic and not.
Give it a try for yourself! I’ve curated a short playlist of songs and sounds that I feel can help you drop into a bit of a deeper state. You don’t need to sit and try to quiet your mind for an hour to meditate, 10-15 minutes is the perfect amount. Try 5 minutes without any music or sound at first. After that, put on the playlist and see what differences you notice.