Feel Me Flow: Programming the Perfect Yoga Playlist

Scorpion DJ? Or just a scorpion pose with DJ gear. Programming music for yoga is more than just picking out random downtempo beats. 

NOTE: For a sample yoga playlist, scroll to the end of this article

As a special event DJ, I find myself gigging at all types of events. There’s the usual wedding, birthday party, graduation party, pool party … okay, basically anything that ends with the word party. But it was not until 2015 that I found myself playing tunes in situations many would not consider a party at all … fitness events. And more specifically yoga events.

Yoga, as an activity, was something I engaged with more in 2015 to supplement all the running and other physical activity I do each week. Yoga has benefits both mentally, physically and spiritually. But yoga as an event, where hundreds gather outside of the traditional studio and into unconventional spaces and waterfront places, found me.

In fact yoga events have really taken off during the past few years. Check out this list of seven massive yoga events. Events such as Wanderlust, Seawheeze and the summer solstice in Times Square attract thousands of yogis. Why are people stepping out of the warm confines of a yoga studio to tree pose in the outdoors? There’s just something about 500 people all simultaneously saluting that sun, while actually under the sun, that seems so much fun.

I had the opportunity to “live DJ” a yoga flow for the first time last March. I was excited as it was an opportunity to do something completely different. But it was also done with a bit of hesitation, because like anything that you are giving a go for the first time, there is the wonder on how to do it. I asked the yoga instructor, Helen Cloots, for any of her preferences and she simply said “I can teach yoga to anything, so just do your thing.”

Since that first event, I’ve DJ’d a handful of other yoga events and feel I have a good recipe for creating the perfect yoga playlist. Just like building the energy on a dance floor, there is an energy you can build on a yoga mat.

For those old enough to remember making mix tapes, preparing music for a yoga flow is similar to creating one of those. When you handed someone a mix tape, they took it to heart and truly listened to it. Unlike creating 45 minutes of background music, the students in a yoga class are tuning in to what is playing. The music becomes one with all of the other senses that are at play during their yoga practice.

Here are few tips for programming a yoga playlist, both for DJs that might find themselves playing one of these events, and for yoga instructors who program their own music.

DJ Justin Kanoya plays music for a yoga event sponsored by Fitbit. 

Do Yoga
Obviously aimed at DJs who have never taken a yoga class before, I want to stress how important it is to actually experience yoga before creating music for yoga. As with any type of new gig, it’s always better to have previously been engaged in or attended the event that you are playing music for. In the same way that it’s not wise to DJ a wedding if you’ve never been to one, it’s not a good idea to blindly put a yoga playlist together if you’ve never flowed from cobra to chaturanga to downward dog.

Yoga studios are everywhere and offer classes everyday at all hours. Go check one out, and of course, pay close attention to the music.

Take it Slow
Yoga, at least at the beginning to intermediate level is taught at a soothing, slow pace. Naturally the music that goes along with it should have similar characteristics. But that doesn’t mean playing tracks that average 80 BPM. It means listening to your music and recalling certain tracks that have harmonic breakdowns. When listening, imagine doing yoga poses to the beat. Are the sounds, beats and vocals soothing or annoying? If it’s the latter, then it’s probably not right for your playlist.

What Genre Works Best
The practice of yoga prides itself on being open to all and so, naturally, the genre of music one might hear during a flow should be open too. It’s easy to get caught up in the cliche sounds of Enigma, Enya or downtempo lounge. But realize, if you fall into these cliches, you’re not setting yourself apart from the other yoga playlists people have heard.

Since super downtempo music is not exactly on the list of club bangers and dance floor fillers, this is a good opportunity to explore genres that you typically do not listen to or play.

When researching music I start with previewing dozens of downtempo tunes. Genres such as “Downtempo,” “Chill” and “Lounge"; and there are probably dozens of other sub-genres. I’ve also found the “Trap” genre to have many sound characteristics suitable for yoga

House music also has tracks that work. Artists like, Kygo, Purity Ring and Roger Shah have all found their way into my yoga DJ sessions.

San Diego based yoga teacher, Helen Cloots.

To Sing Or Not to Sing
You may think 45 minutes of instrumental tracks is the way to go. And it makes sense, especially realizing there is a yoga instructor who is, well, instructing. This means if you’re playing vocal tracks and the instructor is giving commands over that, things could get a bit messy. While this can be true, there is a way to mix in vocal tracks appropriately.

I generally start the first 7-10 minutes of a yoga set with non-vocal tracks. I then like to insert a vocal track, usually something Indie or unfamiliar to most. Remember the music, in this case, is supposed to create an atmosphere of calm. I don’t want someone to hear a song and think about the last party they were at and how they were jamming to it.

The reason for mixing in a vocal track is to change things up a bit. If the entire 45 minute yoga session was ambient, non-vocal music, it would just sound like white noise after a while.

Following up an “unfamiliar” vocal track, I like to put in another instrumental or play a more familiar vocal track. Recently I’ve been playing Adele’s “Hello” and Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams,” however not the mainstream radio versions that EVERYONE has had enough of by now. The “Dustin Que” trap mix of “Hello” is pretty amazing. This is where research and finding remixes really benefits in setting yourself apart from the others.

I do like to play at least one recognizable track, generally at the peak of the flow when things are moving a bit faster. This could be anything, but I tend to play hip-hop or R&B, reggae would probably also work well. In this instance, I want those ears to perk up but I want people to also feel that they’ve come to the space to practice yoga and have some fun too.

Sweet Savasana
The final pose in every yoga flow is savasana, also called corpse pose. It’s when the entire class lays flat on their mats, like a corpse, taking their bodies to complete relaxation. Ironically, it’s been billed as the most difficult pose in yoga because many find it difficult to relax their body and free their mind of all thoughts.

As a music programmer, you can help by selecting the right piece of music. In this case, a vocal track is not recommended. The track should also not have a distinctive beat. This is when you need to find something that is ambient and non-descript. Beats, vocals and instruments can cause someone to focus on those sounds and they will have a difficult time relaxing.

Finding the perfect savasana track, is just like finding that perfect dance floor filling song. The best way to discover these tracks is to find a quiet space and listen to different pieces. Close your eyes and see if you can get lost in the sounds and venture into relaxation.

In summary, my recipe and sample playlist for a musically appealing, 45-minute yoga flow is this:

  • 0-10 minutes: Non-vocal, non descript ambient sounds; no dominating instruments or beats
  • 11-20: Start to introduce light beats, less familiar vocal songs
  • 21-35: A mix of familiar vocals, but not often heard remixes (think Trap or downtempo house versions of popular songs); introduce one or two, straight from the radio tracks; mellow hip-hop like a Tribe Called Quest or Tupac, even reggae sounds work well here.
  • 36-45: Begin to bring the tempo down, reverting back to the mix of sounds and non-vocals in the first 10 minutes of the flow, preparing the students for savasana
  • Savasana: Mellow sounds without any vocals, slowly fading the music to complete silence after about five minutes or at the discretion of the instructor.

Have you DJ’d a yoga session before? And for the instructors out there, who are some of your favorite artists or genres to teach to?