One of my yoga teachers in New Mexico often mentions the importance of quieting the nervous system. He doesn’t use music in his classes. I teach in places where music is expected, so I use unobtrusive, meditative music, but it’s still background sound, another level of stimulus.
Readers of this blog may have noticed I like to contemplate the effects of power outages. Today there was a brief one at the fitness center at my college. Normally, there are a few fluorescent lights in the group exercise studio that never go off, though I turn off the ones I can. These perma-lights were finally gone. So was the steady blowing of the air conditioning. Its presence has been ceaseless, so I never knew how harsh and persistent it was until it stopped. With plenty of natural light through the windows of a room that had been chilled a little too cool for yoga, the outage was wonderful. The quality of my voice softened. The clarity of my thoughts sharpened. My teaching became more precise, more aware, and I felt a matching shift in the students’ energy. When I stopped talking, there was nothing to be heard at all. Except, perhaps, each student heard his or her own breath.
Overstimulation has a subtle yet pervasive effect. Sometimes I wonder if it’s addictive. There are people who say they have to sleep with a TV on or have one running at all times when they’re home—“for the noise.” That would drive me crazy. I write in as much silence as possible and do my personal yoga practice in silence, too, either outdoors with only the sounds of birds and insects and occasional neighbors’ voices, or indoors in a quiet room. I’ve praised perfect silence in nature before, but today was the first time I’ve experienced the benefits of deep silence in my teaching.
Yoga doesn’t require stimuli that keep our minds bouncing and nerves buzzing. Yes, we can learn to do it in the midst of a barrage of sounds, but when we can choose to be free of them, it’s even better. The yoga sutras begin with a definition of yoga that can be translated as “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”