When Kundalini Met Kanye

I’ve been a fan of yoga since my first class in the Covent Garden area of London. Spending a year abroad training at a theater school, I managed to fracture my ankle while running to get chocolate during intermission of a long play (another reason junk food is dangerous, if you ask me). Since I couldn’t participate in my daily dance and movement classes, a dance teacher suggested I try yoga for rehabilitation. It was the best advice I ever took – the class gave me peace of mind, restored my injured sense of balance, and kept me flexible for when I could go back to dance class.

I kept up with yoga sporadically for the next eight years, but the next time I committed to a rigorous, steady practice was when I became part of an infomercial test group for a “hip hop yoga” program sponsored by hip hop impresario Russell Simmons. I was skeptical; how could a thumping soundtrack benefit a meditative, focused form of exercise? And what exactly constituted a “hip hop yoga” class?

I was pleasantly surprised. Over the course of three months, I was honored to be part of a dedicated group of new and experienced yogis who met three times a week and performed a traditional Vinyasa routine. The only thing “hip hop” about the class was the music the instructor played while we moved through the asanas. “Let’s Get it Started In Here” by the Blackeyed Peas carried us through the standing poses; Kanye West guided us as we balanced in powerful tree poses. Yes, there were some “power yoga” influences – we did 50 crunches at the end of each yoga session – but while these exercises had little to do with yoga, the strength and endurance I gained from them certainly helped my practice.

In all honesty, my “hip hop yoga” experience offered more traditional yogic benefits than many of the classes I’d taken at gyms in Chicago and Los Angeles. We still meditated, even if Fergie’s vocals provided some makeshift mantras rather than us chanting our own. And my poses have never looked brighter or improved faster. I found that the music provided an extra oomph that pushed me a little harder; the hip hop beats were similar to my own heartbeat, and I was able to match my body’s rhythm with that of the music, making the entire practice one long meditation.

Reporter and fitness expert Pete Estabrooks of The Calgary Herald recently had a similar experience when he took a Hip Hop Yoga class. New to yoga, he found the music (played by a live DJ, which I can only imagine is twice as powerful as my own experience with a simple boom box) complemented the exercise in a unique way. He describes the scene in his article for The Herald:

“There is a real energy and vibe going on with people singing, snapping their fingers and making their yoga movements trance-like and dance-like. The juxtaposition of rhythm on a normally meditative practice has a surprising charge. Hip-Hop Yoga is exercise disguised as fun. Even as I grooved along, I was sweating like a madman.”

Some people may find this interpretation of yoga a travesty, but there’s no doubt music can be transformative and inspiring – two of the words yoga advocates often use to describe a good practice. And adding a modern soundtrack to an ancient art might open it up to a new, younger audience, perhaps one that is scared off by the silence and solemnity they perceive yoga to demand. I don’t think that Russell Simmons yoga program did very well commercially, but I for one would jump at the chance to try a yoga class accompanied by a skilled DJ.

If you’re interested, try a Google search using the terms “hip hop yoga” and your city. You’ll be surprised at what pops up – this hybrid of traditional yoga and music is becoming increasingly popular. Do yourself a favor and give it a try – it may not be for you, but you’ll at least get an appreciation for how your practice can open up in ways you never dreamed possible.

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