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Music and Mindfulness

This article explores the connection between music and mindfulness.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach at a “Music and Mindfulness Event” with YogaWorks, IVY, and musician Aaron Kaufman. The plan was to teach an hour-long class for participants with Aaron accompanying me on vocals and background music. The problem was that I had never met Aaron before, and he wasn’t arriving from Houston until a few hours before the big event. The crowd (thankfully) was chill, but the stakes were high – it was my first time “performing” with a live musician, it was my highest-paying yoga class to date, and I had promised “magic” in my Instagram caption that day. I like to believe that I'm easy to work with, but I was nonetheless taking a risk in assuming that I would vibe with a total stranger. Needless to say, I was a little nervous.

So how did we pull through? Harmonic resonance. If you’ve ever om’ed in class, you’ll understand that the human brain is hardwired for harmony. Sometimes, there will be one person in the class who vocalizes a different, off note from the rest of the room, causing the entire room to sound like cats’ nails on a chalk board. Other times, everyone will be perfectly in tune, and it will feel like a spray of cool water in a hot room. Better yet, sometimes a student will create harmony, and the collective voices will feel like the blissful rush of a waterfall. At least, that’s how I feel in yoga.

Admittedly, I’ve often been desperate to create harmony anytime I’ve ever chanted in yoga. I wait and wait and wait until the first person breaks into a complementary resonance, then finally, I can sing in a way that feels soothing. I have no musical training aside from a short year of choir in middle school, and so I’m often terrified to raise my voice. Yet something about it feels so refreshing.

Research tells me that I’m not alone in this phenomenon. We are naturally inclined to as humans to enjoy harmony – our brains are reliant on the ability to accurately distinguish the frequency between notes. When notes are too close in frequency, we hear a clash, and there is a visceral response. For example, this response may be fear in the context of clashing notes in classic horror films.

Beyond horror, music can evoke feelings that range from comfort to power to healing and beyond.

Personally, when I practice yoga to music that sounds tribal, woodsy, or rhythmic, I feel grounded, supported, held by the Earth, and stable in my feet. On the other hand, Latin music (think salsa dancing) or music with a jazzy, soulful feel can bring more sensation to the hips, and it often feels fluid and freeing for open flow. Music made by strings – acoustic guitar, piano, violin, and harp – especially when it’s accompanied by soft, soothing vocals makes me want to burst into backbends or melt into supported heart openers. Electronic, dreamy, outer spacey sounds feel ideal for flow that feels intuitive or for expanding feelings of consciousness as a practice comes to a close. Finally, silence during savasana or meditation can feel all at once terrifying, pacifying, and freeing.

In addition to the quality of the sounds, beats per minute (BPM) and volume of music can also toy with yogis emotions. Songs around 130 BPM are supposed to feel “optimistic”, but anything over 130 BPM often makes me feel anxious and annoyed. Songs with a BPM of zero (i.e., three long drawn out harmonious notes, as in Deborah Van Dyke's "Chords of the Cosmos") can feel soothing to the nervous system. Moreover, background music that is played at a low volume can make me feel distracted and aggravated. On the other hand, music loud enough to feel like the vibrations envelop my body can feel incredibly comforting. These sensations that music evokes are personal, but I use them as a guide for playlisting during my yoga classes in the hope that they will cause others to feel embodied, too.

Everyone may feel something differently when we hear music, especially as some sounds and songs may be tethered to memories. Yet research has shown clear evidence that even our most tone deaf of friends may feel something through music, thus leading to the efficacy of mindfulness and music-based interventions and events.

Why do mindfulness and music mesh so well together? A review of 27 scientific publications showed that combining mindfulness with music can improve concentration and attention on music and that music itself can lead to mindfulness or feelings of flow. Attention, alertness, and alteration in state off mind was what I witnessed in our “audience” of yogis the night that Aaron and I performed.

This embodied shift was gradual, and it took nearly the duration of our hour to attain. As new collaborators, the better part of our class was spent trying to harmonize in volume, cadence, and tone. When we finally did, the evening truly did feel like the magic that I had haphazardly promised my followers. My direction and Aaron’s lyrics eventually lulled our audience onto cloud nine for savasana. I had the pleasure of watching the sleepy, blissful faces as Aaron’s soft song tugged on the strings of our yogis hearts, easing them gradually into a deeper state of relaxation.

Music and mindfulness are some of the brightest beacons of hope to restore our faith in humanity. Our ability to harmonize with perfect strangers can be a metaphor for our ability to coexist with one another. Although we live on a planet full of different faces and tastes, we are all made of particles and vibrations at our core; although we may distract ourselves from feeling it, we yearn for beauty, for harmony, and for peaceful coexistence.

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