The lights were dim and the dulcet, alto hum of a cello nearly lulled me to sleep. But this wasn’t the cooldown and savasana of a typical yoga class, its soft playlist emanating from Spotify on a Bluetooth-enabled phone. Tough Love Yoga in Atlanta was hosting one of its live music classes, featuring a cellist who improvised while an instructor took us through restorative poses.
Most of us already know that music can aid a workout, ever since Jane Fonda put on her legwarmers and told us to bend and stretch to the beat. Before we could just grab our phones, we lugged heavy Walkmans during a walk, or tried to keep CDs from skipping while running with a Discman. But some experts say the music-health connection began long before that, and goes all the way back to 300 BC, where on the Roman Galleys “a guy would sit, beating on his drum and driving the basic rhythm of the rowing,” says Dr. Carl Foster, of the University of Wisconsin’s Exercise and Health Program. “Part of that is coordination—you want the rowers to row together—but part of it is that people will naturally follow a tempo. It’s just something about the way our brains work.”
It’s said that music is linked to improved cognition. One 2011 Harvard University paper noted, “The researchers speculated that listening to music helps organize the firing of nerve cells in the right half of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher functions. According to this construct, music—or at least some forms of music—acts as an ‘exercise’ that warms up selected brain cells, allowing them to process information more efficiently.”
The study found that “the human brain and nervous system are hardwired to distinguish music from noise and to respond to rhythm and repetition, tones, and tunes. Is this a biologic accident, or does it serve a purpose? It’s not possible to say. Still, a varied group of studies suggests that music may enhance human health and performance.” And indeed, the study found that men and women aged 65 and older who were at risk of falling exhibited better gait and balance if they were trained to walk in time with music.
Music can also reduce the feeling of effort while increasing endurance by about 15 percent, given that a song can distract you from pain (a New York-based study found that music can reduce stress during illness and surgery), keep your cadence steady, speed up your output, increase blood flow, and inspire an emotion and motivation. (Just try to tell me that “Eye of the Tiger” doesn’t make you run just a little bit faster.)
So can listening to music actually affect your workout? Perhaps. An investigation from the United Kingdom “found that music increased treadmill-walking endurance,” according to the Harvard paper. “Israeli investigators reported that music boosted peak anaerobic power on a bike ergometer, but the benefit was very brief. American research found that music improved weightlifting.”
As a fitness coach and musician, I can personally and professionally attest to the power of music during a workout. I’ve seen how a high-RPM song can get a sweat going in cycling classes. I’ve learned to choose songs with cadences that keep the energy high but not frenetic. In my own workouts, I’ll find myself running faster when a powerful song comes through my headphones.
So what effect did the live cello music at Tough Love have on my yoga practice? I can report the unique auditory experience—which filled the room with beautiful music in a way a set of speakers could not—calmed me, kept my mind off of distracting thoughts, and allowed me to really connect to the movements and postures. Just as it did with the Roman rowers and the leotard-clad Jane Fonda devotees, music made the exercise better.