Nothing about my teaching lately has drawn more controversy than my music choices. I mix up my class soundtracks, spinning (well, playing) everything from Queen, Sanskrit chanting, native rhythms, nature sounds, and classical guitar, to coffee shop soundtracks. Whatever seems to suit the mood, my mood the class, the day. Sometimes, I choose incorrectly, Sometimes I have to change it up during class. Sometimes I just have to turn it off.
For flow-based classes I like to have music that moves us through our postures. Most of my classes, even if they have flow, include quite a bit of narration so I have to keep the music at a level that I can talk over it, not compete with it. Sometimes it conflicts, I admit, and sometimes it really elevates the tone of the class - really jives. Sometimes I'll reference to the music to just help us get into the mood, get the breath flowing, open the heart, or build heat. You never know what will truly "work," but I'd like to think that regardless the music is just background and my instruction in the foreground.
I had an instructor that insisted on wordless music in her classes, and for any practice class you taught with or for her, on the principle that words (English in particular) were a distraction for the mind. I respect her enough to take the advice to heart and understand its intent, but I also feel the need to experiment with the idea of more "lyrical" yoga.
I've had other instructors that were really skillful in creating playlists that boosted energy levels with funk (think Gap band), or world beat (modern Sting), or classic rock (yes, even Journey) in such a joyous way that you would be hard pressed to not want to move and flow gloriously in Urdva Hastasana, swan dive elegantly into Uttanasana, float strongly back into Chaturanga, expose the heart through strengthened arms in Urdva Mukha Savansana and then open the hamstrings and find length in the spine in Adho Mukha Savanasaa. Leg and core engaging poses like plank, warrior II, side plank, and reverse warrior can made even more powerful when music lifts and lyrics surge. Forward folds can be even more releasing when musical phrases descend and lyrics become winsome and soft.
In one recent class, a student gave me a softly-toned "science" lecture on why I should not use music with lyrics. The reasoning was that the lyrics stimulated the brain, therefore preventing one from properly immersing themselves in the blissful flow of the yoga practice.
I've had some students say they don't notice the music as they are really focusing on their practice.Yesterday someone said they would prefer lyrics in any other language but English because if they recognize words they stop listening to me and start only listening to the music. Today someone said "I would just like to hear the East Indian bells and instruments it really takes me into the mood."
Other students have commented that they love some of playlists with familiar songs because it lightens the mood for them, it keeps them from getting too "in their own heads."
I define the difference between "going inward" and "being in your head" this way: as much in yoga you are working the 8 limbs to bring yourself to center, yoke together your mind and body, at any point there can be a tendency to over-think, over-analyze, and attempt to over-perform. The monkey mind can race out of the room as soon as it doesn't have a good reason to stay in. So for some, a vivid soundtrack, music with familiar lyrics included, can help them stay in tune with the class, in the moment, and in the mood. It can facilitate connecting with the breath flow back into their bodies rather than out the door or creating a downward spiraling of the the mind.
For me personally, lyrics or not, I find that familiar music keeps all of me integrated and flowing. I can tune in to the instructor or tune out - the choice is MINE and I cannot blame the music for any of those choices.
Funny - more often than not people do comment when they like the playlist - no matter if it's familiar tunes with words, acoustic covers, classical pieces, soundtracks, Sanskrit chanting - everyone likes something different. Sometimes I get a big thank you when a classic favorite comes on like the Beatles "Let It Be" because it really does bring out the heart. For me, the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah" draws forth tears almost every listen and really really helps me find depth in my practice because I feel that I'm connected with energy in the deepest recesses of my soul. What is yoga if not that?
So I have to think - when I teach am I playing the music for me, or for the class? I want to create a soundtrack for the class the moves them, that engages them, that feels right to me. And of course I want it to be music that I like (after all, I'm teaching). I suppose it can be a class without music. I've tried that too - and every single time at least one person nervously speaks up and says "We are going to have music aren't we" as if it the lack of music creates a a vacuum in which one simply could not practice!
So, it's impossible to say set a rule that works for everyone. Because we have different tastes. And moods. and situations, day to day, and hour to hour. Each needing a little bit different attention.
Truth be told this is a heated topic in the yoga world, with probably the most widely used reason is that hearing lyrics conflicts with the calming of the mind. One article went so far as to say that lyrics can counter-productively plant subliminal messages in the unconscious minds of the yogis - a sad song can create a very negative effect on that class, and song with angry or hurtful lyrics can be particular destructive. Yes music is a powerful tool, but my intent is never to use it maliciously.
One issue with which I can agree is that if the volume balance is off, the music can compete with teacher instruction. I don't like to use voice amplification, so proper volume is important. And being aware if the selected songs are just not working... still being responsible for observing your class, reading the class, teaching the class. Change the music if it's not working, or even turn it off. The music is a tool, YOU the instructor.
Just as an aside, in kids classes we use music as a key component to get their attention, to help them coordinate movement with breath, and help them learn movement pattern in the spirit of yoga-oriented play. Music with lyrics makes that task a lot easier as it also stimulates their little minds to remember words and synchronize poses. So, there's that.
In conclusion I have a couple of suggestions for other yoga teachers (and myself)
1) there is no hard and fast rule unless you make one yourself
2) you can't please everyone (but let's not get snarky - this is yoga after all)
3) know your audience in general (and yourself)
4) be mindful with your music choices (see #2 )
5) experiment a little anyway
6) keep the volume moderate - you are teaching, so you need to be heard