(This article was originally written in May of 2016 and published in the Yoga Journal)
The sweat is choking me, literally. Locked into a triangle pose, my arm points to the sky causing small streams of sweat to rush down my shoulders, up my neck and then straight through my nostrils. It’s a Hot Yoga thing, there’s really no avoiding it if you’re doing the posture right and part of the practice is learning to breathe through difficult situations.
Despite the 107 degree heat, the massive humidifiers, and the feeling that death might be near, I continue to focus and breathe as we release and let go into Shavisana. Anxiety closes in the tiny room and claustrophobia compounds the compound.
We are 19 minutes in and my heart is beating through my chest. Much worse is the physical pain, my mind’s playing tricks on me. I’m starting to freak the fuck out and it’s not the heat, or the sweat or the fact that I cannot breathe. I am prepared and trained to deal with all of those things which are now the least of my concerns.
My biggest enemy? Barry Manilow - whose voice is booming through the newly installed sound system at my favorite Yoga studio which now features this newly created “Bikram Hot 60 with Music” class. “At the Copa….Copa Cabaaaaanaaaa! Music and passion were always in fashion….”.
The battle with heat and breath has now taken a seat behind the tug of war going on in my brain - trying my hardest to focus on the moment, mindfulness being the center of all yoga, the ability to stay in the moment and breathe through the most difficult circumstance. But I am finding it impossible to stay present when Barry is followed by (who else?) Barbara fucking Streisand.
Sensing the weird vibe in the room, our instructor informs us that it wasn’t she who actually picked these songs “It’s Pandora - I have it on Storytellers….I love how the stories of these songs just take you away and get your mind off of being here”.
Bikram Chodren (the much maligned founder of this practice) would have certainly called for this teacher’s head. It is simply so counterintuitive to the essence of why we gather in this room — to be IN the moment not be taken out of it by distracting our minds with music. But when the man was run out of this country for doing things much worse than playing shitty music the gates of Bikram purity were no longer guarded. Many studio owners looked for novel ways to attract new students. First came the shortened version of our pristine 90 minutes and 26 postures… then came the music.
I get why people love their music in their yoga class - it’s actually the subject of an ongoing debate in my house. My wife swears that it’s more enjoyable and enhances the experience. As a lifelong music industry guy and lover of every kind of music (even Barry and Barbara in the right circumstances) I totally get it! But as a long time practitioner of Yoga and mindful meditation it’s not what I want in my hot room and was one of the primary reasons I was attracted to Bikram 13 years ago when I started.
After the standing series we are rewarded with a 2 minute shavasina - laying down flat as a board in Dead Man's pose when Pandora chooses the haunting sounds of Tears for Fears singing “Woman in Chains”. I find my mind drifting despite my efforts to focus on my breath and begin considering the lyrics of this song, realizing I never understood the true meaning here, and... who is the female vocalist on this track again? (Oletta Adams). My mind drifts to the day I bought this album at Tower Records on South Street. Then I think of my homie Greg Castelli that lived next store and the time we watched the opening game of the 1992 Eagles season at his house ...how is Greg I start to wonder. At this point I am deep into an evolving flashback when the instructor (barely audible over the music) instructs us to flip over for Cobra pose .
Ironically - it was the yoga itself, and all of the lessons I've learned over the last 13 years that actually gets me through all of this. My first teacher Leo always said “This is the Yoga Dude.” You gotta focus through all of the bullshit — don’t get caught up in thoughts about it being too hot or not hot enough, breathe through it, push all thoughts out and be in the moment with your breath and your body. A former athlete, his analogy was sports — “how do you think Kobe can hit a game winning three with the crowd booing so loud that the roof rattles? “He blocks it all out and goes within — that's what you gotta do - block all those thoughts out and go within”
But how do I block out my thoughts and go within when (now) Christoper Cross is singing “Think of Laura” (Laugh don’t cry, I know she’d want it that way?) All I can think about is Laura - my first girlfriend who kissed me for the first time while this song was playing at our Jr. Prom!
Eventually I settled in — with about 15 minutes left in the class I found my zone and my mantra which became “don’t fight it dude, just GO with it”. Not an easy task. Unlike Kobe I was stuck in a tiny box on a tiny mat staring at the mirror. I couldn’t block it out when the sense of sound is really the predominant sense at our disposal.
I threw all the rules out and just got into the music which helped me get back into my practice but on a completely different level - completely physical which is, I suppose, why most folks in this room were here. But to me, my yoga is as much (more!) about a moving meditation, it was the mental aspect that had me hooked from day one more than the physical.
As we cruised into the final few postures Neal Diamond’s trademark voice began singing Sweet Caroline (for real) and I thought deeply about my father who loved this song. I bounced to it and hummed along. I was able to find my place, everything got super slow. My flow became my own. My body opening. Like a flower petal blooming.
When class was over I felt strong not because I got through the grueling heat and postures….but because I was able to find focus despite listening
to love stories, and songs of death, and pain, by music my parents played in their glory days. I was proud to have let the anger subside, to not let the distractions get the best of me.
Since that breakthrough class I adopted a new mantra: “If you can’t beat them, join them” as I noticed the number of pure 90 minute 26 posture “pure” Bikram classes fade. I completely appreciate other practices and other teachers and other styles of yoga that use music. And when I can’t find a pure 90 minute Bikram class I take what I can find.
While there is still no doubt in my mind that my practice is optimal when forced to go within, I've created several instrumental playlists for my studio - each song picked after painstaking consideration and then presented in a mix that flows perfectly with the timing of the class.
And I guess that’s all I really ask now — if you’re gonna play music - think it through, the sounds we hear in class are the primary sensory touch point to our entire practice. The music should compliment the teachers instructions not conflict with it. And just because you are a certified teacher with 1000 hours of training doesn’t mean you are a DJ. Finally, please - never go with Pandora or a randomly selected Spoitfy Playlist. Can you imagine your practice of poses being on Pandora - like randomly pulled and applied based on some algorithm?
Andy is a co-owner of Focus and teaches a 6am class every Thursday where he plays the Keith Jarrett Koln Concert in its entirety and set to a glorious Hot26+2. He’s also a local attorney and (fun fact) two-time Grammy Winner with the band Snarky Puppy.