Using the connection with music to enhance yoga practice sequence
I remember the first time I stepped into Whitney Allen’s class in Los Angeles 14 years ago. I was a relatively new yoga teacher from NY, an actor and a journalist; little did I know that Whitney was also a new teacher, as well as an actor and a singer. She had the air of a master with years of teaching under her mat. Perhaps it’s the fact that she had a performance background with the ability to command a packed room, or the warmth of her welcoming smile. Maybe it was the ease in which she communicated the flow of postures with a killer soundtrack that effortlessly matched the flow of her words and pacing of her class.
Today, I scroll through myriad Instagram photos of beautiful, bikini-wearing women doing postures I still can’t do after 20 years of practice, and I almost always settle on the photos of yogis I identify with, like Whitney – smiling broadly, doubled over in laughter, hair whipping around her face or streaks of sun enveloping her as she smooches her pup, Bowie, or hugs a friend. Her photos, like her teaching, are always in flow. They’re real, accessible, authentic, and… musical.
It makes sense that Whitney would take on the new title of Music Supervisor at Wanderlust Hollywood, the yoga studio inspired by the festival of the same name and steeped in a mission that fosters creativity, community, connection, and most of all, music. Music taking center stage is a way to deepen the yoga experience, which is what Whitney Allen is committed to in the yoga room.
“It makes a difference when the music is supporting what’s happening on the mat. Besides safe alignment and postures, it’s part of the spirit of what’s coming through you while practicing,” Whitney says.
She says, “One of the most exciting things I can do as a teacher is put together a playlist followed by postures. When I hear it all come together, I think, ‘Ooooh they are going to be moving to this song and they are transitioning to this pose when that song comes on.’ It’s inspiring to take staple yoga poses and make them a new discovery for a seasoned practitioner or exciting for a new student who thinks yoga is only about touching their toes. Even the pauses between songs are conscious – creating a feeling when we balance or hold. That is yoga.”
Yoga wasn’t something that Allen necessarily chose but rather, it chose her.
She was born and raised in Chicago, the older of two kids who caught the acting and singing bug at the age of seven.
“I was never the girl who could do cartwheels. I was a voluptuous early bloomer at 10 and it was hard for me to accept. I never felt comfortable in my body but I could embody a character.”
Whitney majored in musical theatre at the University of Michigan before moving to NYC to pursue big Broadway dreams. She achieved them swiftly in Manhattan, performing eight shows a week and joining the cast of major productions like Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway and The Full Monty—in which she was an original cast member on the first national tour.
Her eventual draw to yoga was much like how many people came to yoga. “I got into some abusive behaviors of not eating and taking diet pills. The acting world is fierce and life always felt like an audition of who looks the best, who IS the best. I’d audition during the day or go to the gym before a show and one day I just happened to take a yoga class and liked it.”
“Yoga got me out of my head and into my body. It’s the only body we have; when you are on the mat, you can’t escape it.”
Allen started practicing daily as both a means of stress relief and as a workout. When on tour, she would practice in her hotel room or sign up for a yoga studio package. “I would practice with these amazing teachers who were experts in their home towns and take it with me where ever I went.”
In 1998 she found Bhava Yoga in NYC, one of her teacher Schuyler Grant’s first studios in the city. That’s where she truly fell in love with yoga.
“I never felt graceful, not in yoga or life. But when I took Schuyler’s class, I thought – now THIS is what I love about yoga. The way she used music and flow together felt so innovative. She woke up my brain and that was it; I was hooked.”
After a tour that brought her to LA and a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, she knew teaching yoga was the next step in her life. She signed up for the teacher training at Center for Yoga in Larchmont in 2002 and continued to teach there when YogaWorks took over the Center in 2004.
“I felt open to any possibility. I couldn’t believe there was something in my life I could love other than theatre. It was a scary decision to move in that direction and it took me about seven years to step fully into teaching and let go of any other pursuits.”
And the moment came. In 2009 she had a single performance as an understudy of the role Gertrude in God Save Gertrude in Pasadena where she performed in front of all of her friends, singing punk rock and playing a bass guitar as her character lost her mind. “That final bow and performance was one of my favorite moments, and I made the decision.”
That decision allowed Allen to shift into a place where she couldn’t hide behind insecurities or another persona. Her experience gave her something to say and she wasn’t afraid to share it. “It gave me so much peace. Teaching is my best practice. As a teacher you have to be your highest self every time. It’s in your own self-acceptance that you can be compassionate with everyone in the room. I feel good when I practice but healed when I teach.”
“Yoga has given me access to my emotions and a purity of music I never felt with performing. Instead of being technical and result-oriented with hitting a high note, music became more about freedom and letting go.”
Whether singing in class or kirtan, or playing the harmonium that her yogi brother gave her, music became a form of creative expression and feeling. Her current musical resources are KCRW, Spotify, and a variety of blogs. Her musical influences include David Bowie, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Bon Iver, Stephen Sondheim, Patti Smith, R.E.M., and Queen.
Soundscaping yoga practice
In September 2015, she joined Schuyler Grant at Grant’s latest studio, Wanderlust Hollywood, to oversee the quality of music in classes at the studio, and to mentor the teachers and teacher trainees that want to develop the skill of using music to enhance their sequencing. She teaches a module in the teacher training program focused on how to use music effectively in class. “There is a hole in teacher training when it comes to using music. It’s the soundscape to an unfolding practice.”
Allen also collaborates with her boyfriend, Josh Andrews, who produces remixes and mashups, to put together the set playlists for The Fixx classes at Wanderlust. “It’s a 45 minute full body, mind, and spirit class. We breathe together and build energy together. The playlists are set to BPM (beats per minute). It’s challenging and meditative. The teacher creates the sequence based on the soundtrack we provide.”
The discipline of putting together a creative and innovative program with such a thoughtful process behind the intention of what is being created definitely can be drawn from her years on the road and on the stage.
“In a class I am trying to set a tone, a meditative mood with temperature and lighting, so in a way the yoga room becomes like a set for the experience of the practice. Primarily, music is used to support the energies of my sequences, and I like playing with music to create an emotional tone. Sometimes in the flow the tracks I choose will be more reflective, or I’ll specifically choose a song with certain lyrics to bring the mood up. In a sense it does remind me of theatre, in that the students are soaking up the music the way audiences do during the performance of a song– a poignant connection to what they’re hearing. There’s a similar emotional resonance that I’m trying to bring in with the music I choose to play, so that the physical experience of practicing yoga taps directly into the feelings in the heart when the right track drops in. The walls come down.”
Perhaps that’s why someone with such a strong performance background was led to yoga and why someone like me, also a performer and creator, was led to Whitney’s teachings.
Like a bright theater filled with an excited audience, the studio fills with harried students settling into their spaces and letting go of the day. We all sit united in anticipation and wonder, open hearts and minds ready for the lights to dim and our souls and bodies to be moved.
For more information on Whitney Allen visit: whitneyallenyoga.com.
Laurie Searle is in international yoga teacher leading workshops and trainings with Yoga and Fitness to Go and the Sphota Yoga school. She’s the creator of Lady Yoga, Superhero and F.E.D. Fight Eating Disorders, a 501(c)(3) in Los Angeles: YogaAndFitnessToGo.com.
Jeff Skeirik: rawtographer.com
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