There is a power and beauty in silence. In the classical yoga tradition, the Sanskrit word Mauna means silence, and it’s said silence helps a yogi purify her mind; it clears the detritus floating on its surface.
This is why many yogis take mauna-vrata, a vow of silence. A dedicated time of silence can offer powerful insights into our mental habits and help us let go of them.
Mauna is related to one of the branches of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Pratyahara, which is about withdrawing energy from the senses and instead focusing our attention inwards. This withdrawing from the constant stimulation of the senses allows us to unplug and recharge.
At our Zen Yoga by Dynamic Mindfulness studio, you’ll notice all public yoga classes are held without music.
Why do we value silence so much?
Let me give some background.
The first time I encountered music during the class was when I lived New York City in 2008. Until then, I always practiced in a calm environment, without music.
I was curious to visit different yoga schools and try out new styles, and a friend recommended a yoga studio in the neighborhood. I joined her for a vigorous vinyasa class with some pretty loud music playing.
Throughout the whole class, I wasn’t sure where my attention supposed to be – with the music or with my body and the breath? I remember leaving the class feeling completely confused and overwhelmed.
There had been no sense of pratyahara or unplugging from the hearing sense. Instead, the music had disconnected me from being “inside of myself”, mindful of breath and movement, unable to listen to my inner fluctuations. This fundamental aspect of yoga practice was overridden by sound stimulus.
When I shared my experience with my friend afterwards, she suggested I should just disconnect from the music. Being a musician, it’s probably harder for me to “disconnect” from the music during a class. But if you’re supposed to disconnect from it, why should there be any music in a first place?
Not to mention that all of us have different musical tastes – there is no way to make every student happy with particular playlist. Someone will inevitably be subjected to something she doesn’t like! Then it’s not surprising if we get caught up in internal dialogue about it; “oh no, this song is soooo cheesy!”
This means our discriminatory minds will continue to work, instead of taking a break from all the liking and disliking. Yoga provides an opportunity for us to mindful witness our physical and mental fluctuations, without judgment, but this faculty is blocked when our senses are overstimulated.
Being comfortable with silence and what it represents.
The beauty of yoga is that it doesn’t require anything additional, contrary to what the yoga industry would like us to believe.
Facing the mind’s chatter may not be always flattering or fun, but it’s necessary in order to let go of it altogether. Recognizing, accepting and letting go… into the silence of our original nature.
Could it be that the “yoga music industry” is tapping into our fear of silence, providing an attractive distraction so we don’t have to listen to what is going on inside? So we can skip those moments of boredom, absent-mindedness, or fear that are not so flattering or pleasant to notice?
A time for silence
“Silence creates space for an awareness, and for you to hear,”
environmental activist John Francis who took a vow of silence for 17 years
In our daily lives we are constantly bombarded by sensory stimuli: advertising billboards, construction work outside, the smell of fresh coffee, the sight of a person we find attractive – as soon as we wake up to the moment we crash, our senses are working nonstop.
That’s why taking time to unplug from our senses and bring our kindly awareness to our inner state is essential to recover and to give the necessary clarity to touch our true nature.
Most yoga classes run for an hour or an hour and a half. In the context of our lives, this is no time at all to withdraw the senses and go without music!
What does science say about the value of silence in mindful practice?
A three day study on mindfulness done by Dr. Creswell at Carnegie Mellon University provides some valuable insights.
Researches split thirty-five men and women into two groups. The first group was guided through gentle movements while coached to mindfully pay attention to sensations within the body. The second group were brought through similar movements, but in a distracted setting where participants were instructed to think relaxing thoughts and were entertained by the teacher. At the end of the three days Dr. Creswell found that the first group group that participated in the mindfulness practice showed improved brain scans. The second group, called the “relaxation group”, did not show any improvements in their brain scans.
The environment and atmosphere of our practice determines the results!
A silent atmosphere doesn’t mean that we don’t have fun at the classes. Friendly camaraderie happens in partner yoga practices, as well before and after the class.
When drink tea, drink tea
There’s a time for everything, and in the Zen tradition learning to do one thing at a time is central to the training. When walking, just walk, when washing the dishes, be fully present while washing the dishes. When drinking tea, become the drinking of tea. When practicing yoga, give all of one’s senses and faculties to doing yoga. Occupy the here and now fully so there is nothing left behind.
The late and great colourful Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki compared this powerful concentration to a bonfire.
“When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do.”