Monica Anderson hunches over her CD collection, closes her eyes and puts extra breath into her words for dramatic emphasis, as if imparting a guarded secret: “Some of the yoga CDs are sucky,” she says. “They drive me nuts. It almost gets to be canned. Yoga’s not about not having character. There is personality involved.”
While the prevailing perception of “yoga music” is of droning synthesizers, Andean flutes and repetitive chanting in some sort of made-up language, Anderson, a striking, slender woman who just celebrated the 10th anniversary of her Tone Fitness Studio in Santa Rosa, plays Big Mama Thornton in her classes. She plays Bob Marley. She plays Ani DiFranco, Leela James or Ben Harper. And her students love it.
The only rule in programming yoga music, Anderson says, is to gauge the activity on the studio floor and, just like a DJ at a nightclub, provide the best music to help that activity along. Sometimes that means playing yoga favorites Jai Uttal or Anjani, but oftentimes it involves playing obscure music Anderson finds on trips to South America, or even CDs she buys from people on the street.
“I go to iTunes sometimes, and I go to ‘yoga mixes’ to see what they’ll put on,” Anderson says, “and a lot of their songs are the same.” She stopped using Deva Premal, the reigning queen of yoga music, about five years ago, because it simply struck too familiar a chord. “I really don’t like muzak, I don’t like elevator music,” she says.
Yes, some yoga music is boring, and it needs to be; if Anderson’s leading a restorative session, she’ll focus on calming, nondistracting music designed to fade into the background. But Anderson credits the Jivamukti Yoga School in New York with pioneering musical exploration in modern yoga, and for most of her students, there’s room for flutes and pianos to coexist with old blues singers and soul songs.
Laura Noss, a Jivamukti yoga instructor who splits her time between San Francisco and Cleveland, takes it even further. Nine years ago, Noss relied on music classic to the yoga tradition: a lot of Sanskrit chanting, mantras and Krishna Das. But since 2005, she’s slowly ventured into playing everything from the Grateful Dead to Public Enemy. “Oh, it gets even crazier,” she laughs. “I recently put on Ozzy Osbourne.”
Most yoga music isn’t boring to Noss; she’s thrilled about having booked an upcoming live-music class with Girish, a famous kirtan singer, although she’s a little nervous about how well he’ll be received. “For my students, it’ll be a total departure,” she says, “because for the last four years, they’ve been listening to Marvin Gaye and Melissa Etheridge and Stevie Ray Vaughan in class.”
In her classes at Bernal Yoga, recently voted the Best Unpretentious Yoga Studio in San Francisco, Noss defies the popular notion that getting in touch with oneself means pushing the outside world away. Rather, to stay truly conscious, Noss says, she invites the outside world in through theme classes based around current events and newspaper coverage. Popular music is part of that philosophy.
“I think that our yoga is not just limited to our 72 inches of eco-friendly recycled rubber,” she says. “Yoga is a great place to begin to be good people, and if we can find that in 90 minutes on our mat, my goal as a teacher is to give people practical ways to take it off their mat.”
So for a lesson on ahimsa (nonviolence), she’ll play “Bomb the World” by Michael Franti. For a lesson on following one’s inner compass, she’ll use “Don’t Believe the Hype” by Public Enemy. En Vogue, Alicia Keys and Kanye West have all been played in her classes, and Noss has built such a reputation that excited students have signed up just to hear something besides conch shells and chanting while in a downward dog.
Then there was that one guy. The one who complained. “He came in and he wouldn’t take his socks off,” Noss laughs, “and he wore his aviators, in class!” On that day, she’d played a select ’80s mix of Duran Duran, the Fixx and George Michael, “and he actually Yelped about me! He wrote that he liked the class but hated the music, and wouldn’t come back.”
To which Noss can only shrug. “Open your mind and have some fun,” she says. “If yoga’s not fun, why do it? Yeah, we’re here for spiritual enlightenment, but there are many ways to get there.”
Growing up, Nicholas Giacomini was a shy kid from Petaluma who buried his head in comic books and video games, listened to Run DMC and the Beastie Boys and spent time in reform school, at the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. At 18, he discovered yoga, and “all of a sudden,” he says, “the messaging of hip-hop was out of alignment with what felt right in my heart—the misogynistic messages, the materialism, the violence and destructive energy. So I brushed all my hip-hop off the table.”
Immersed in yoga culture, Giacomini started listening to kirtan albums by Krishna Das and Jai Uttal. But he also discovered that a lot of marketed “yoga music” was soulless. “There’s a lot out there that’s like elevator music,” he says. “It’s sorta New Age, sorta techno, sorta spiritual music that after a while, it just doesn’t have the juice.”
Inspiration struck at Giacomini’s wedding to his wife, Amanda, where a friend sang the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” to a statue of Hanuman. Something clicked. Giacomini missed hip-hop, and why not slap a beat over ancient chants and rap about Shiva?
“Ghandi’s got that famous quote, you see it on bumper stickers all the time: ‘Be the change you want to see.’ That was the realization that I had. I was looking for this music, but I’m not a real New Age guy,” he says. “I just realized that I would have to be the one to create this, because I didn’t see it anywhere.”
Giacomini thusly became MC Yogi, whose incredibly successful debut album Elephant Power contains tracks like “Ganesh Is Fresh,” “Rock on Hanuman” and “Bhakti Boombox” that retell ancient stories in hip-hop lingo and bang tablas alongside turntables. He called up his yoga homeys Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das and Jai Uttal, who loved the idea and who guest-star on the album. His ever-growing audiences coast-to-coast bring their mats to his performances and shake their asanas, from major nightclubs to yoga studios like his own, Yoga Toes in Point Reyes, to yes, the Jivamukti Yoga School in New York.
Elephant Power could seem at first like a novelty to amuse the converted, but Giacomini is serious about spreading yoga’s positive messages. He comes from a lineage of getting involved with the world, he says—with the environment, with politics—and the philosophy of MC Yogi means also getting the world involved with you.
“Some of the initial reaction to my music in the yoga world was like, ‘This is too worldly. It’s too much like a party. It’s too energetic,'” he explains. “My response to that is that, well, that’s what yoga is about! It’s about the affirmation of life, about seeing God in everything, about the celebration of spirit. There is an aspect of yoga that pulls you away from the world—it’s more meditative, it’s withdrawing your senses back into yourself—but there’s also the full spectrum. For me, yoga has been a grand reunion. It’s like a huge party of your body, mind and spirit coming back together. You feel so amazing, you just wanna celebrate.”