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How Sound Impacts Our Yoga Practice + State of Being

Joanne Moules
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One of the greatest teachings that I received during my yoga teacher training was the reminder to always continue to learn – to remember that as yoga teachers, we are the student and our students are the teachers.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when a student of mine was experiencing a negative reaction during a yoga class and her brain was getting ‘busy.’ I put on some ‘soothing sounds’ but she only became more distressed. Yet once I switched everything off, she was much calmer.
The physical response to the sound got me thinking . . . How does sound impact our yoga practice? And beyond that, how does sound impact our lives?
I write this sitting in the garden listening to birds tweeting, traffic driving past, human voices continuing with their daily life, planes high in the sky, and I am drawn to thinking how these familiar calming sounds create a relaxed feeling in my belly and chest.

The physical response to the sound got me thinking . . . How does sound impact our yoga practice? And beyond that, how does sound impact our lives?

Think about how you feel sitting next to the ocean, or listening to any running water – that peaceful whooshing of the waves or surge of the waterfall. Take a deep breath and notice how you feel, and then contrast this to the sound of horns, a dog barking – and notice the chemical effect this has on our mind and body.

So why does sound have such a strong impact on us?

Let’s begin by considering our brain and its incredible construction. The brain (like the rest of our body) is made up of millions of cells called neurons. These neurons communicate with each other using tiny electrical charges, creating electrical brain waves.
Sound travels through air with vibrating sound waves. These vibrate at different frequencies, depending on the depth and pitch of the sound. Sound waves travel up the auditory canal and into the auditory cortex, transferred from sound wave into an electrical signal, which the brain then recognizes and reacts to accordingly.
Continuing with this amazing process, the vibrations of sound waves mingle with our electrical brain waves to create the chemical reaction in the brain.

There are 4 categories of brain wave patterns:

  • Beta: This is the usual waking state of alertness. The brain is in concentration and activity mode, focused on problem solving, making decisions and runs at a low level of stress.
  • Alpha: This pattern is when the brain is running at a slightly lower frequency. The brain is in a meditative, trance-like state. This daydreaming, or pre-sleep and pre-waking state is Alpha.
  • Theta: During REM sleep, the brain is running on a Theta pattern. This is the time when cognitive learning is integrated, when the computer of the brain ‘backs up’ (to put it in 21st century techno-lingo).
  • Delta: This is the lowest frequency of brain activity. The brain is powered down, allowing physical healing and human body growth to take place.

It’s important to note that there is also the Gamma brain pattern, which is enlightenment. The physical body is shed away and higher consciousness is reached, but for the sake of this article, we will focus on the brain patterns which we all experience on a daily basis.
During our yoga practice, we desire the brain to be somewhere perfectly balanced between Beta and Alpha and, of course, ending in a sublimely blissful Alpha state. Having a meditative, relaxed brain feels so good because it is here that the brain increases its production of dopamine – the ultimate, feel good, happy chemical.
Sound helps regulate the brain waves to encourage an Alpha state wave pattern. Sound can unconsciously remind us of a memory, a place, a person, or a different time, and brings about feelings of joy and comfort stimulating that dopamine production. Likewise, the rhythm of a piece of music, or a particular frequency of sound will affect brain waves.

So how does sound create a physical and mental response?

First, consider that all things vibrate – our body cells, the air around us, the universe. Sound waves travel through these vibrating cells. Knowing this helps explain how sound can create such a physical response like goosebumps, chills, warmth, tingling, as well as a mental and emotional response.
Our mental, emotional and physical state and our taste in music or soundscape are interchangeable with any given day – depending on everything else that is happening in our full and exciting lives.
“Vibration is at the heart of nature. Music allows us to feel it.” – Glenn Kurtz

So for yoga teachers, choosing a soundtrack for class can be challenging yet is such an important aspect of your teaching! As with my student, who prompted this thinking, the mind journeys from moment to moment, as does the physical body.

“Vibration is at the heart of nature. Music allows us to feel it.” – Glenn Kurtz

Next time you experience an emotional and physical response, be aware of and sit with those feelings. It all adds to living life to its fullest – the human body, and its interaction with sound, is nothing short of astounding.

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Joanne Moules

Inspired by her love of life and community, Jo specializes in teaching yoga to children with special needs and teens under 18. Also an online business coach, she mentors and supports other like-minded goddesses to achieve their goals. She will gladly admit that she is a Kundalini yoga chick but also enjoys and teaches a 'fusion' of different traditions - it's all yoga! When not teaching, coaching or writing, you'll find Jo at home in rural Lincolnshire, UK with her son playing at amateur dramatics and eating Indian food.

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