Music in Modern Yoga Culture

-A Brief Explanation-

July 28, 2020 • Posted By Veronica

The following series of posts are a presentation of an academic research project I turned in on March 12, 2020. I hesitate to use the word “completed” partly because I’m not sure that this work will ever be fully done. It was a difficult project as the process of writing down my observations created a strong sense of cognitive dissonance, and ultimately took me down the path of unpacking and unlearning much of what I thought I knew about modern yoga. I originally felt that this project could be put to the side and perhaps become a dissertation when I had the time to dedicate to such an undertaking. The intention of my sharing is not to call anyone out or contribute to the “cancel” culture occurring. For this reason, I’ve removed names and identifying details of individuals and organizations involved in my research other than the published works that I reference. I’m not sharing my work because of those individuals or organizations. I’m sharing because I feel that through the story of my experiences there’s opportunity to create shared understanding. Let me also be clear that I’m sharing this primarily to fill in the knowledge gaps for white Western yoga teachers who don’t have the same cultural knowledge of India as yoga teachers of South Asian heritage, or in the Desi community (the community of people of South Asian heritage living inside and outside of South Asia). On that note, I’d like to make the disclaimer here that in my research I didn’t conduct interviews with any Desi musicians or yoga teachers because 1) this project, from conception to “completion,” was done in less than 10 weeks and in my desire to be quick I was not as thorough as I should have been in seeking out the perspectives of the Desi community, and 2) at the time I began this research I was unaware of where it would lead me and how critical it would be to look beyond my existing network of musicians and yoga teachers that are predominantly white. I have hesitated to share this work over the last couple of months is because as a white Western yoga teacher I understand how inappropriate it is for me to take airtime on this topic. The voices that need to be centered and amplified in this conversation are those most impacted by the acts of cultural appropriation and racism prevalent in the yoga community. In the months since I turned in this project I’ve begun following the Leela Dance Collective, Yoga is Dead Podcast, Prince Puja, Susanna Barkataki, Nadia Gilani (aka The Yoga Dissident), and more (please leave a comment if you have recommendations!). While I am not an expert on this topic, nor do I seek to be perceived as such, I’ve had unique experiences on my journey as a musician in modern yoga culture that perhaps allow me a unique perspective. The current shake up in the yoga industry that started with the Black Lives Matter movement in May and the movement for yoga teachers to form or join a labor union has led to me to some interactions with yoga teachers across the community that are simply unaware of how pervasive injustice is in modern yoga culture. When yoga teachers believe that understanding the history and philosophy of yoga as written by white men with PhD’s is the same as understanding the history and culture of India, from the perspective of Indian people—we have a problem. When yoga teachers in the West state that it’s impossible for White Supremacy to exist in yoga because yoga comes from India—we have a problem. When there is a lack of understanding why it’s important to distinguish what is different between yoga as a lifestyle, Hinduism as a religion, and India as a country with a richly diverse culture and heritage—we have a problem. I will also say here that I don’t have the answers to solve these problems. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last months unpacking my own disappointment, disillusion, anger, and resentment at being sold (and selling others) on something that ultimately didn’t align with my values, and it took the work of doing this project for me to come to that understanding. If Western yoga is to evolve and truly align with the tenets of yoga as a practice of non-violence, non-stealing, and truthfulness we need to lean in to discomfort and be willing to unlearn and relearn. As Brené Brown says about vulnerable conversations, it's time to rumble.


Music and yoga as individual topics seem to pervade many aspects of modern culture in America, especially when one looks at how music and yoga are used in tandem with one another. If one types the words “yoga music” into the search field on Spotify, the resulting varieties to choose from are overwhelming. Options range between albums for relaxation or spa music to workout music, playlists titled “Far East and Indian Relaxing Music” to “Reggae Yoga,” and artist names like Christian Yoga music and Buddhist Meditation music all fall into the same category. Similarly, there are likely as many opinions about music and yoga as there are different types of “yoga music.”

In 2008 during my undergraduate studies I was enrolled in a course about archaeology and gender. One day during class the professor shared a phrase she said was common among anthropologists: “No one arrives at the house of science without their own luggage.” With this statement in mind, I feel it would be remiss to not reference where I’ve already written about my own personal background and experiences with music and yoga.

In the twelve years since taking my first heated yoga class I became an experienced- registered yoga teacher at the 200-hour level (E-RYT 200 with Yoga Alliance) participated in many advanced workshops and continuing education trainings, taught over 1,500 yoga classes, facilitated over ten different yoga teacher training programs, and managed two different studios in the Denver area. In combination with teaching yoga, for several years before and after my son was born in 2011, I also taught violin lessons, sometimes playing for yoga classes or the weddings of my yoga instructor colleagues.

In December of 2015, through one of my yoga mentors, I was introduced to a lineage of kriya yoga and an international Hindu religious group that celebrates and promotes devotion through yoga, music, and religious ceremonies. In the summer of 2016, I attended a bhakti (Hindu devotional) music and yoga festival in Germany. Later that summer, I took initiation as a jal brahmachari, a devotee that follows strict vows of sobriety and vegetarianism, meant in some cases to be a step towards full brahmachari which includes vows of celibacy. Though these vows and my status as a jal brahmachari were absolved two years later, due to a restructuring of the spiritual order, my experiences within that organization, with my Guru, and the many other people I met have been paramount to my understanding of this topic and the revelations that have come over the course of this research.

Rather than attempt to “leave my luggage at the door,” and be objective, a reflexive style is most effective to draw upon the experiences I’ve had over the last decade as a musician in modern yoga culture.

Why Music in Modern Yoga Culture?

The inspiration for this project came after reading Simone Krüger’s chapter “Undoing Authenticity as a Discursive Construct” as part of an assignment for an ethnomusicology course I was taking. Though this chapter is aimed at the problematic concept of authenticity in the pedagogy of ethnomusicology, I was struck by the similarities with the same issue of authenticity as a yoga teacher in modern American yoga culture.

In Krüger’s observation of the debate between calls for more attention and greater responsibility for authenticity in formal teaching practices compared to recognition of the need for some degree of musical adaptation and assimilation into Western educational culture, Krüger states that, “Such debates typically relate authenticity to tradition and are based on the premise that the transmission of non-Western musics in the Western institution necessitate a degree of Westernization, both of the music itself and the methods for transmission with varying degree of overlap between “original” and “new” musical reality, at times concluding that authenticity may in fact be incompatible with the reality of Western education (Krüger 2013, 93 & 94).” Krüger goes on to make the argument, “that within the context of ethnomusicology, Western concerns with authenticity are deeply ingrained within the politics of race and ethnicity and may by some critics even be construed as implicitly racist (95).”

In modern American yoga culture, there is much debate among practitioners and non- practitioners about “real,” “traditional,” or “authentic” yoga. The debate often implies that yoga as it is taught and practiced in the West, or by certain schools in the West, is without any respect or reverence for the Indian culture it comes from. The opposing view of this debate regards the individual experience, intention, and innovation. Though the subject of yoga has been studied by several philosophy and religious scholars, there are few academic studies that view the practice and culture of yoga through the lens of the arts. In this paper I wish to examine how music is used currently within three different facets of modern yoga culture: yoga fitness, yoga therapy, and yoga spirituality and then demonstrate how the lens of musical study can give a more holistic view of modern yoga culture to illuminate the problematic nature to both sides of the ‘authenticity’ debate.

Definitions of Music, Yoga and Modern Yoga Culture

“What is music?” is typically among the first questions to be asked in any study of music as there are many ways to understand and interpret what defines it. The first definition of music that I remember learning in high school was that music is organized sound. While this works as a quite simple definition, since this paper is about music in yoga, I feel it appropriate to expand and draw from definitions that come from studies of Indian culture and Indian music.

George Ruckert, an ethnomusicologist focused on the study of Hindustani or North Indian classical music, states that, “most acknowledge the music’s origin as a divine manifestation, a gift from God, which is a profound root of its affect. The Hindus will call this aspect of the music Nād-Brahmā, “sound as God,” or “the language of God” (Ruckert 2004, 18).”

Russill Paul, author of The Yoga of Sound writes, “Sound is the emanation of, any tone, frequency, or vibration. . .sound is always implicit in music. But when we think of sound as vibration, we can understand that the scope of all the vibrating frequencies in the universe goes far beyond the range of what our human ears can hear. Music is the perception and understanding of the underlying order and relationships among all these vibrations, expressed in melody, rhythm, and harmony (Paul 2004, xx).”

While Vimala Musalagaonkar, author of the article Music and Sound in Yoga published in the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, offers translation of Śārṅgadeva’s Sangita- Ratnakara, the classical Sanskrit text on music and drama—in which the first and second verses state that, “gita (song) and vadya (musical instrument) are of the nature of nada, meaning “musical sound,” and that, “a letter owes its expression to nada, a word is composed of letters, speech is made up of words, all dealings in the world are carried on by speech; hence the entire world depends on nada (Musalagaonkar 1980, 45).” Musalagaonkar does argue that while it makes sense for the entire world to depend on nada in the sense of divine power which causes all movements, the entire world cannot depend on nada in the sense of musical sound. This is in line with Paul’s definition above and it’s based on the distinction between ahata nada (sound that is due to an impact, manifest, i.e. “sound produced by humans”) and anahata nada (sound that is due to no impact or cause, unmanifest, i.e. “sound from God”) (Musalagaonkar 1980, 45; Beck 2014, 359). For this paper, I prefer Śārṅgadeva’s first verse and the definition of svara, “what is smooth and pleasant, what is of the nature of continuous tinkling echo, what in and by itself gives aesthetic joy to the mind of the listener is svara or a musical note (47),” with the agreed understanding from Paul and Musalagaonkar that all music is sound, but not all sound is necessarily music and I will add that the intention of whomever is creating the sound should be taken into consideration.

Similarly, in every yoga training I’ve facilitated or participated in one of the first conversations is the topic of, “what is yoga?” As individuals often have their own interpretations of what the practice means to them in addition to any “textbook” definition available. In fact, the first part of B.K.S Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga is titled with the same question, to which he answers, “The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply. It also means union or communion (Iyengar 1966, 19).”

Mulasagaonkar defines yoga as:

“A union of two separate objects. . . in the sense of becoming ‘One’. The fulfillment of a want would also be in a way yoga e.g. the acquisition of wealth also does imply combination. Thus, in both technical and general usage yoga primarily means Union. In mathematics also this word has been used in the sense of addition. Yoga has conventionally come to be associated with that school of Darsana (Philosophy) which concerns itself [with] a union of the individual and the universal consciousness. The scriptures have called it a power which joins the ‘Jivatman’ (individual soul) with the ‘Paramatman’ (Universal soul).” (Musalagaonkar 1980, 48).

Sarah Strauss’s book Positioning Yoga refers to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “dated tentatively to the period 200 BC to AD 200 and is considered to be the master text for “classical” yoga. The yoga sutras are somewhat cryptic verse forms, easy for the disciples of the yoga masters to learn, but difficult to analyze (Strauss 2005, 3).” David Gordon White, in his thoroughly researched book The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography, White explores the multitude of ways the yoga sutras have been interpreted and misinterpreted over time and concludes, “we can be certain of a number of things: that the book you have been reading is the reception history of a work that may or may not have been titled the Yoga Sutra; that the author of that work may or may not have been named Patanjali; and that that work may or may not have been the subject of an original and separate commentary by a person probably not named Vyasa (White 2014, 234)”. Nonetheless, I think it worth mentioning that many people in modern yoga culture define yoga by the second verse of book one of the Yoga Sutras: “Yogaḥ citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ - The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga (Satchidananda 1978, 3).” Or, also commonly translated among yogis (yoga practitioners) as “Yoga is the cessation of the mental chatter.”

Additionally, for this paper, I think the following summary from Strauss applies best for the definition of modern yoga culture:

Yoga appeals to different national audiences for different reasons. While nearly all the print presentations I evaluated, whether from Indian, German, or American sources, promote yoga as an antidote to the stress of modern living, other “selling points” describe yoga as a technique for strengthening national identity; authenticating (and modernizing) traditional knowledge through scientifically validated health research and practice; creating community; enhancing personal development through control of the body and mind; or recovering mythical romanticized origins, thereby undoing the damages done to person and planet by centuries of “following the wrong path,” that is, the path of urban civilization.” (Strauss 2005, 117).

By highlighting the different audiences and different reasons people in modern culture find yoga appealing, Strauss allows for multiple definitions of yoga and modernity to exist simultaneously. Acknowledging multiple versions of modernity paints the reality of multiple sub-cultures within modern yoga culture and is the reason I have chosen three different facets of this culture for the focus of this paper. Additionally, for the definition of modernity, this paper will focus primarily on current practices of yoga in America over roughly the last 100 years, with historical references for the sake of clarification on how certain practices became popular.