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WTH is Hip Hop Yoga?

WTH is Hip Hop Yoga? In this article, I describe my first powerful impression of a music-based practice and lessons learned from a Hip Hop Yoga Teacher Training with YogaWorks.

Photo credit: © Lionel Piovesan, Directeur de Publication of Yoga Journal France

Photo credit: © Lionel Piovesan, Directeur de Publication of Yoga Journal France

Uninterrupted sunlight from the brick building streets of East Village flooded the wooden floors that peeked out between our wall-to-wall yoga mats and the handful of Hindu deity figurines. Between the bear hug of body heat, sweat, tears, and fresh wind of incense that saturated the studio’s air to capacity, I inhaled my liberation deeply.

A tribal beat and our collective breath moved our limbs rhythmically into shapes that I had only before thought to hold in gripping stillness. When Major Lazer and Amber of the Dirty Projectors commanded us to “Get Free” on the loudspeaker, I did so with bombastic laughter and embodied joy. The teacher boomed on her mic with equal volume, telling us to listen carefully as she threw alignment out the seventh-story window. My heart skipped a beat at the sensation of our unrestricted pulse. Is this even yoga? My right brain dared to interject. I didn’t know, but I loved every beat of it.

Of course, at the age of 22, I had been moved by music many times. I had fallen in love to Milky Chance’s “Stolen Dance”. I had cried my eyes over each reminder of a broken heart to Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane. In high school, my best friend and I danced like maniacs, psychotically deconstructing my family’s furniture and flipping tables to Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats”. In first grade, I stood on my mother's dining room table each Saturday, passionately screeching off-key renditions of “Baby One More Time”, utterly convinced I would be the next pop sensation. As a five-year-old, my mother had played John Denver’s “Sunshine” so many times, that I was convinced he was my older brother. I wailed hopelessly to the song with all the emotion that my tiny body could contain after the radio announced his fatal plane crash.

Yet feeling the magic of music on my yoga mat was somehow different. I had arrived to New York City for the first time ever on a mission to interview for medical school. At the time, I lived in my hometown of Southern Illinois. Although I had traveled well for my age, I was still shaking off the rigidity of my eating disorder and my attitude of perfectionism that constricted my approach to life like a too-tight corset. I had already accepted my change in heart for the medical profession, but on a whim, I booked my ticked anyways if for nothing else to take a taste of the city. Needless to say, I bombed the interview, unable to warm up to the stone-cold approach of the professors while flirtatiously raving with one of the current medical students about all of my newfound interests outside of medicine.

Despite the rocky road of events, I was not disappointed. Rather, I showed up to the packed doors of Yoga To The People pensive, and through the process of the yoga practice, something sparked inside of me. I was supremely anonymous yet completely connected to the room of strangers. I felt an electric pulse of fear run through my veins, yet I was altogether overjoyed with the possibilities of life.

This combination of breath and music that moves us is the exact idea behind Hip Hop Yoga. No, you will not be dancing wildly if you attend a class (unless you want to). Yes, you will hear loud music with explicit lyrics. No, the teachers will not turn the volume down even if you say pretty please.

The beauty of the Hip Hop Yoga practice is the arc of the class. As teachers, we either recruit a live DJ or curate a playlist that matches the movement of energy from low to high and back to low. Throughout the practice we as students may feel everything from grounded to creative to powerful to emotional to expressive to intuitive to spiritual to extremely blissed out. Our practice of playlisting and sequencing is an art, yet there is also a science to doing it safely and effectively, as I learned last weekend at my Hip Hop Yoga Teacher Training at YogaWorks Back Bay with Erica Bornstein and Jess Ray.

The ultimate goal of Hip Hop Yoga is to create an embodied experience for a crowd of students, rather than to teach a very specific set of guidelines in alignment. There is simply not time to tell where each body’s right big toe mound should reach in relation to their left frontal hip point when we want to create a concert-like effect. This lack of alignment is the greatest criticism that I’ve heard for the practice, along with the burning question: Is it really even yoga? I’ll dare to answer: Yes.

Just as there is no predestined road we should feel forced to follow in life, there is no one truth to yoga. If we crave an alignment-based practice, then that is exactly what we should seek. If we desire to luxuriate in stillness, then let us do a radically restorative practice. If nude yoga is our thing, then there are plenty of studios for that. And if we want to flow to the booming beat of Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Nicky Jam, then by all means, let us do what our bodies crave without worrying what the world around us will say.

During my first music-based yoga class in NYC, I sensed with each cell in my body that sometimes it’s okay to break the rules. Sometimes it’s okay to change our hearts, our minds, and even our career paths. Sometimes it’s okay to admit that we love practicing yoga to Drake. And that’s exactly where Hip Hop Yoga can help.

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