Late night in the Mission, the class begins with the sound of kirtans accompanied by slowly pumped chords on the harmonium. The class members respond hesitantly, repeating back the unfamiliar sounds chanted by the teacher. The call-and-response chanting subsides and the teacher announces the first asana as tinkling sounds from a kora replace the languid chords of the harmonium. For the next two hours, the class moves forward with the musical accompaniment of the kora and manipulations of its sounds through a small array of electronic devices. It's not the background music typically heard in an American yoga studio, but it's not quite foreground either. Solidly in the middle, it works sometimes, fitting perfectly with the slow movements; other times, it seems distracting, an extraneous element unconnected to the physical activity.
Every Friday night since October 2007, the Midnight Yoga class at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in San Francisco's Mission district has offered live music as accompaniment to yoga. Developed by the yoga center's parent studio in New York City, the class features various genres and musical configurations: kora and electronics; freestyle guitar, bass, and keys; cello, voice, loops, and percussion toys. Yael Kievsky, who has taught the class since December, says that live music to accompany yoga is simply an extension of the use of taped music as background that has been a part of yoga classes in the United States for decades.
But the addition of live music changes things: The class becomes an event — a "full-on experience" actively shaped by the music. The teacher follows the lead of the musician who provides music that follows the contour of a typical yoga session, starting quietly then slowly building in intensity, holding for a while, then coming back down to end on an extended period of meditation and relaxation. All the musicians Laughing Lotus uses are yoga savvy, and the teacher and musicians discuss the theme or goal of a class before it begins.
Tonight, Yael simply asked Daniel Berkman, the kora player, to emphasize rhythm. Yael says the crucial factor in creating a successful live music yoga class is the chemistry between the teacher and the musician as they attempt to create an event that has a liquid, dance-like structure, unlike the flow of a typical yoga class. On this particular night, that dynamic wasn't quite apparent. The music was neither the star of the show nor a satisfactory accompaniment.
Midnight Yoga at Laughing Lotus is not an aberration; the use of live music with yoga has been steadily growing for the last few years. Jeff Kranso of Velour Records in New York City says it's a natural development: "Music is a huge part of the yoga experience." Teachers spend hours putting together mix tapes for their classes, and adding live music makes a class special, particularly in New York where a plethora of yoga studios compete for business. The Bay Area isn't far behind as more and more yoga studios regularly feature classes with live music or DJs.
The move of music toward the foreground of the yoga experience came with the arrival of a new generation of practitioners, which Kranso calls the "mindful life generation." Unlike, the Baby Boomers, who took a spiritual view of yoga, this new generation, which "cares about fashion and check their BlackBerry every five minutes," sees yoga as a spiritual complement to an essentially secular life, according to Kranso. They are also more open to experimental approaches and what might be called yoga-tainment. "Yoga hipsters" are the target market for yoga/music events, inside and outside the yoga studio. The yoga retreat — a longstanding facet of yoga culture in the United States — is changing, booking musical acts alongside star yoga teachers and adopting the festival motif.
At the forefront of the change is the Wanderlust Festival of Music and Yoga, co-founded by Kranso, which will hold its second edition this year at Squaw Valley from July 29 to August 1. Last year, Wanderlust featured yoga classes during the day and music acts in the evening. Although most were indie-rock bands, the most successful music shows were by dance-oriented acts. "There is a natural crossover between dance music and yoga," Kranso noted, adding that he found last year "that after a long day of yoga, the one thing people wanted to do more than anything was have a dance party." Learning from that experience, this year's musical emphasis is on dance music (Moby is headlining).
There also will be more integration of music into the yoga classes: 60 to 70 percent of the classes will have either live musicians or a DJ who follows the lead of the teacher, reacting to the flow of postures and adding "appropriate sonic elements." And fitting for a high-profile and expensive festival (a four-day pass will run you $450), there are class descriptions for the musicians to review beforehand. The internal — some might say spiritual — benefit of yoga practice will be complemented by events aimed at creating a communal experience: dance parties and improvisatory mass yoga classes from the main stage accompanied by music.
If you want just a taste of the Wanderlust Festival, go to the Fillmore on Sunday, May 2, for a special event presented by Wanderlust and Yoga Tree SF. A daytime yoga session mixing yoga and music will feature a class with star teacher Shiva Rea, accompanied by DJ Dragonfly, that leads into a "Yogatrancedance." The evening musical entertainment, headlined by Rupa & the April Fishes, will be presumably yoga-free. The choice of Rupa & the April Fishes, who also will appear at Squaw Valley, prove that an indie sound still has some cachet with the Wanderlust crowd — especially, when they are a reliable draw in San Francisco and use performance art in their shows, which Kranso hopes will provide a tie-in to Burning Man culture in the Bay Area. He wants to integrate Burning Man elements — stilt walkers, fire, artisans — into the Squaw Valley festival to add a "darker, sexier" feel to the evening events.
Wanderlust's bringing together of inward-focused yoga practice and communal experience (dancing and mass yoga classes) is echoed in the Ecstatic Dance events held twice weekly at the venerable Sweet's Ballroom in Oakland's Uptown. Begun in 2008 by two yoga teachers, the event is designed to simultaneously build a sense of community and facilitate individuals' internal journeys through "conscious dance." There are only two rules: 1) no talking on the dance floor, 2) move however you want. The result is a seeming confluence of "hippie dancing," martial arts, yoga dancing, and toddler jerks and crawls to pounding dance music. Cofounder Tyler Blank works with the rotating lineup of DJs to create an emotional journey based on the lifecycle that roughly parallels the arc of a yoga session — starting slow, building, then ending slow and reflective. Safely in the foreground, the music works throughout the session. Not relegated to the background or stuck in a musical interzone, it is allowed to play a central role in the event without detracting from the "journey." It looks very different but Ecstatic Dance shares a central goal of yoga practice. As Tyler's partner Donna Carroll says, "It's all about being centered.