All You Have To Do Is Play
Updated: Mar 12, 2019
The title sounds like a metaphor for not taking practice too seriously, but this article is hoping to give you some new ideas about what music you should practice to and why.
When I first attended a yoga class almost forty years ago there were no mirrors in studios and certainly no music. There is new and exciting scientific reasons behind why. As I became interested in this I dove into a whole world of sound and the relationship to it and our brains. What I also learned was that I was in way over my head. Although I had played an instrument in high school, I was never taught about the connection of mind, body, and spirit as it relates to sound.
I first looked into binaural beats. The effect of binaural beats and brainwave entrainment brings about one of the states associated with meditation — usually alpha or theta, or sometimes the gamma state. Why isn’t anyone playing this in yoga classes, I thought? Perhaps even complimenting a specific mind altering sequence (as I was taught that was why Ashtanga has a set sequence). But traditional #Ashtanga still does not include music. Here in the U.S., though, it’s rare to find a class outside of Ashtanga that does not include music. Why not gamma state mind and/or mood enhancing music if people are so used to sounds in class?
Could there really be more “life enhancing - spiritually enhancing" sound in a yoga class that is not chanting, sacred devotional music, #Kirtan, #healingbowls or anything we’ve heard in a class before? Not even mantra. Mantras originated in the Vedic religion of India, and was around a long time before we were all moving to a teacher’s favorite playlist. Yes, sound is integral in the history of yoga but I predict its influence will continue to change and grow. I had to know more.
There is a growing pool of sources and information with people playing around with brain states to create specific architecture in the brain. There’s even been a recent discovery of a brain state called Gamma.
Gamma brain waves are a frequency pattern of normal brain activity that measures between 25 and 100 Hz, with around 40 Hz being typical in humans. Gamma waves were essentially unknown before the development of digital EEG (electroencephalography) recorders, since analog electroencephalography could not measure brain waves at that high. Neuroscientists are beginning to discover the marvelous properties of the brain when it produces the gamma frequency.
Gamma brain waves are the fastest brainwave frequency with the smallest amplitude. They are associated with the “feeling of blessings” reported by experienced meditators, and with peak concentration, sensory perception and extremely high levels of cognitive functioning.
Neuroscientists believe that gamma waves are able to link information from all parts of the brain – the gamma wave originates in the thalamus and moves from the back of the brain to the front and back again forty times per second – not only that, but the entire brain is influenced by the gamma wave. This rapid “full sweep” action makes the gamma state one of peak mental and physical performance. Gamma is the brainwave state of being “in the Zone,” that feeling that you can do anything. We all want that, so I began searching for the fastest route to bliss.
Hamid Jabbar took my hand and led me through this new world I was learning. Hamid teaches meditation, yoga, sound, and bodywork. He has spent the better part of his adult life investigating Eastern philosophical and practical systems of Yoga, Ayurveda, Buddhism, Thai bodywork, Japanese energy work, and other traditional healing methods. He went to NYC on a music scholarship, so I felt confident I was on the right track. He plays various types of gongs, flutes, chimes, percussion, and is also exploring human voice as a method for transcending consciousness. Following is a quick Q&A with him:
SS: How is sound integral to our wellbeing?
#HamidJabbar: “As humans, we are anatomically wired and evolved to rely upon sound, both in our environment and in communication. We evolved to use sound to identify both threats and non-threats. For example, the sounds of birds chirping tells us subconsciously that everything is alright and our body naturally calms down. When it gets quiet suddenly and the birds are no longer chirping, our body becomes on edge. Similarly, the sound of our mother’s voice when we are young is hard wired to soothe us. These examples help us to see that on a physical level, our nervous system responds to sound in ways that we are not fully aware of, but that are significant. In the sound therapy world, sounds that calm the nervous system can be used to intentionally bring about physical calm and the proper functioning of our nervous system. On a mental level, we know that the mind can be entrained to certain sounds—both beneficial and non-beneficial sounds (consider the effects of construction noise, which are unsettling). And on a spiritual level, sound can be used to take us into ecstatic states, something that all spiritual traditions recognize. It is helpful for some people to ask the following question: What is my diet of sound? Just like our diet of food, are we consuming sounds that are beneficial or sounds that ultimately cause us problems. It’s about being aware of ones diet, eliminating the junk, and then bringing in the healthy sounds.”
SS: Kirtan, Mantra and most of the meditative playlists we're accustomed to are soothing. We instinctively know this. but why?
HJ: “There are so many reasons! Just as background, much of what we find soothing is hard wired as part of our nervous system. Mammals have evolved to have floating inner ear bones. That is, we have tiny bones inside our ears that are detached from our jaws. This allows us to hear a wide range of frequencies. Less evolved creatures like reptiles have connected inner ear bones and use bone conduction for hearing, which limits the range of frequencies. When the first mammals evolved, they were small and their biggest threats were large reptile predators. Their inner ear structure allowed them to hear the low rumbles of approaching danger while also the higher pitches of their family members. Humans do the same thing today, subcionsly. We can sense danger in certain frequencies and safety in others. Frequencies in the range of our mother’s voice are calming simply because we are hardwired for this—Kirtan and folk music tend to have this quality. Also, more recent studies are showing that natural harmonic overtones, which are present in nature are soothing to our mind and body. Most meditation music uses harmonic overtones, whether or not the musician is conscious about why they are doing that. Instruments like gongs, bowls, bells, and the instruments of Kirtan like harmonium are all overtone producing instruments, so these help in creating spontaneous meditative states in listeners.”
SS: Teachers are using music to enhance classes, but why does some music take us "out" of an internal experience?
HJ: “Some music, particularly western pop styles are now being used in yoga because they give an up-beat feel. One reason they can take us away from our internal practice is that we hear lyrics and our left brain starts to think about the lyrics or, worse, sing along in our head. When we get into that left brain mode, we lose touch with all the subtle physical sensations in the body. The words themselves if spoken in our native language can light up the language centers of the brain and simply prevent a meditation from occurring. This is one reason mantra calms the mind is because after a while of repetition the mantra simply becomes an internalized sound that doesn’t distract us. Kirtan and music in our non-native language like Sanskrit also acts more like sound than language on our mind, which can keep us from becoming occupied with words and meaning. Other reasons pop can take us out of our practice is that it almost universally uses equal temperament tuning. This is a complex topic but it’s one reason western pop music does not take us to the same place as eastern styles. Most non-western music is based on scales that use the natural harmonic series (discussed in response to question 1) and those scales are naturally more meditative to us because they follow the sounds that are found in nature. In the west we use a scale that is not natural—it was invented solely because the piano required a single tuning for all keys—but these scales are actually out of tune and both our body and mind know it when we hear it."
But what of other ideas like cardiac coherence to design a music playlist for a yoga class? Coherence is a measure of the pattern in the heart's rhythm, and reflects an orderly and harmonious synchronization among various systems in the body such as the heart, respiratory system and blood-pressure rhythms. I found out, though, that you need headphones for your brain to experience certain sounds, so I went back to digging and found Handpan and Hang Drum music by Ravid Goldschmidt.
The unique heritage of the Handpan in Bern Switzerland. The founders constructed a complex musical instrument called The Hang®, meaning “hand” in Bernese German. No surprise the Hang is played by hand. Drawing inspiration from the steel drum family, it has a distinct ethereal sound. Once the Hang had become hard to find it ceased to be produced.
Following the disappearance of the Hang from the market, musicians began to discover the use of the acoustically transcendental, distinctively refined handpan. While similarities exist in the physical appearance of the handpan and the Hang, dedicated loyalists who play the handpan or the Hang would argue that the two instruments are fundamentally distinct from the other, specifically in physical structure and tuning methods.
The Hang Drum also has a new cousin; the Gubal. Just search on YouTube for Hang Drum music for Yoga and Meditation. I can’t wait to hear what you think.
While looking for more music that could help me access gamma state, I stumbled on another source I just couldn’t ignore, Nacho Arimany, who is sharing sounds revolving around the harmonic pattern of growth and evolution.
What’s the future of music in a yoga class look like? Hard to say, but perhaps people like #NachoArimany and his work will be part of the evolving landscape of the yoga world:
“By synchronizing the brain with the harmonic pattern of growth and evolution, we create and renew internal balance with a specific space in the body where the true resonant voice of the individual flow, creating free energy in the whole system with deep transformation.”
– Nacho Arimany
In the future will there will be fusion classes of yoga that uses something like the The Arimany Method? It’s a movement and voice technique that helps to create specific architecture in the brain based on the properties of the Golden Ratio. By listening to resonant sounds, moving in specific patterns and harmonizing with our voice, we experience body and brain alignment. The result is a calmer, more productive body and brain; like what we experience in yoga.
Yoga is self-soothing, but we want to make sure the music we share in a class isn’t self-numbing. Yin teachers I spoke with are even using more meditative music, including percussion. Percussion (without language) is also an important contributor to enhancing our life experience. It allows us to remain in the experience, instead of taking us out of our experience. That’s a central focus of yoga, to teach people how to access their wise, internal world. I’m on a mission to convince people that the whole reason they’re at yoga is to get to Shavasana. It’s where all the magic happens. It’s where I can meditate. And that’s where I learned I could find gamma.
Want to access gamma state? Many studies have been performed on experienced meditators, most notably Tibetan Buddhist monks and Celestine nuns. Both groups demonstrated the ability to produce gamma waves during meditation.
Something remarkable happened when the monks in the study were asked to focus on feelings of compassion: their brain almost immediately went into the gamma frequency in a very rhythmic and coherent pattern. Food for thought… perhaps compassion meditation makes one’s brain “fire” at the rhythm of universal consciousness?
The studies showed a significant increase in brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex (associated with self-control, happiness and compassion) and greatly reduced activity in the amygdala – the brain’s fight or flight center. This suggests that meditation can increase your states of happiness and you become a more compassionate person.
As you meditate with the help of yoga, meditation music, or the sources listed above, and begin feeling that wonderful warmth of one-ness where you lose the sense of self and “melt” into universal consciousness, hang on to that feeling. Focus on it. Expand on it. Embody it. Feel love emanating from you and permeating you. Focus on love…and you will soon feel the ecstasy and bliss of gamma.