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Coffee Shop Conversations: Jess Ray

By Larissa Weinstein

Context: Jess Ray is a yoga teacher in New York City with a particular interest in and talent for the use of music in her sequences. We talked about how she first started linking music to movement, her process of creating playlists for her yoga classes, and the overall role that music plays in her life.

Music Inspires Movement

Jess was a serious competitive gymnast growing up. When you reach the elite level of competition in gymnastics, you have the option to hire a choreographer and pick the music for your floor routine.

She always picked music that would inspire her to move and do her best. That was the first time she made the connection between a particular piece of music and the impetus toward movement.

After deciding to exit the gymnastics world, it took her a while to find yoga. After a couple years of practice she discovered Sweat and Soul Yoga in Boston, which would become her home studio.

There was a small group of stellar teachers there who all had a really good ear for music and playlists: Erica Bornstein, Caitlyn Graham Visconte, Goldie Graham, and Lynne Begier. They would become her teachers, friends, and colleagues as she became more deeply involved in yoga.

Practicing yoga with music was how she fell in love with yoga in the first place, so when she started teaching herself she knew she would use music in her classes without hesitation. Music supported her as a new teacher finding her voice, and it also amplified her students’ experience.

The Magic Behind the Playlists

While she’s always set her yoga sequences to music, she’s definitely evolved in her approach to selecting and organizing the playlists as she has evolved in her teaching career.

She’s spent a lot of time working with DJ Jonathan Oh. He taught her about the structure of music itself and how to understand the beats per minute (BPM) of a song. She taught him about the arc of a yoga class and how it starts off slower, builds to a peak, and then has a cooling down at the end.

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Lucie Wicker Photography

When she starts building a playlist for a new class, she first thinks about what she wants to offer energetically and emotionally with the sequence. Sometimes she wants to offer courage and determination, while other classes focus on love and kindness.

To evoke feelings of earthiness, stability, and foundation, she brings in sounds of drums and a deeper bass. For a softer tone and feelings of kindness, she emphasizes piano. Songs with a higher BPM count evoke determination and motivate her students to keep going.

She typically spends about three hours listening to music with a mental filter for the intention she chose at the start. As she listens she pulls songs out to start building the playlist, in no particular order.

Once she has a solid list of songs, she listens more closely to each one to determine BPM count and classify the tempo as upbeat/leading up or downbeat. From there she is able to order the songs according to the underlying arc of a yoga sequence. Sometimes she’ll go back and forth between two songs several times, counting and recounting the beats to decide which one should go before the other.

Once she has enough songs for an hour or hour and a half class, she does her own sequence with the playlist to make sure everything flows. At this stage, she often has to move a song that’s in the wrong place or remove a song entirely if it becomes apparent that it doesn’t fit with the playlist after giving it another listen.

People intuitively connect to music, similarly to how we connect to movement and breath in yoga. Combining the two enhances the experience.

“The human heart tries to match the beat of the music. It’s human nature, even a baby that has never been taught to dance will move to music.”​

Musical Influences

I was especially curious to discuss Jess’s favorite musicians and sources for new music. As an avid Spotify user, she’s really impressed with Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations. She listens to her customized Discover Weekly playlists, which are great at finding her new music that aligns with what she listens to.

A lot of the music she uses in classes is instrumental or electronic. If she sees an artist name that sounds familiar to her while browsing, she’ll click through to listen to more songs. Once she adds a song to a playlist, Spotify gives her additional suggestions.

Recently on vacation she was at a disco club and discovered a new artist. She found out his name and listened to all of his music on Spotify. She’s already getting similar suggestions of more new artists she might like.

“You have to go seek out inspiration and be curious. You have to have the desire to not keep using the same stuff over and over again.”​

She also finds inspiration from fellow yoga teachers. She’ll listen to other teachers’ playlists to see if they’re playing songs or artists she doesn’t know yet.

Her most surprising source of musical inspiration is actually from Victoria’s Secret commercials. She used to work in HR at Victoria’s Secret before teaching yoga full time, and their marketing department is very conscious about using music to evoke a particular feeling in their advertisements. She’ll browse the new ad spots and use Shazam to find the songs.

Finally, she’ll explore SoundCloud. People can upload their own remixes to SoundCloud and she’s found some great stuff on there. If she could combine music from SoundCloud and Spotify in the same playlist, she would.

I asked her how she first started bringing live DJs into her classes and she told me about going to Willkommen, a club in New York City that offered an experience called Deep House Yoga on Thursday nights. They had two DJs spinning sets with a yoga class.

She had seen some live DJ yoga events in Boston, but this was what spurred her to suggest having a DJ on a regular basis. She went to the SoundCloud accounts from those two DJs and sat and listened to their entire sets from the yoga classes, looking up songs she liked on Shazam.

“You have to want to do this type of work, the work of playlisting.”​

Her favorite artists to include on her yoga playlists are Sol Rising, a great artist and DJ who’s making a name for himself in the yoga world, Mount Wolf, whose slower beats are perfect at the end of playlists, Shallou, DJ Drez, and Joey Negro, the disco and house DJ she stumbled upon at the disco club on vacation.

She also loves to pull songs from Black Jukebox albums, which feature disco house jams from various artists. Some favorites are “Can’t Wait,” “Juicy Fruit,” and “Mind Games.”

“I love disco music because the essence of the music is happy. At the essence of it all, the root of what I am as a teacher is to give another human the feeling of joy.”​

If the BPMs worked out she would have all disco on every playlist, but she has to mix in some slower stuff for the beginning and ending parts of the sequences.

She also teaches Hip Hop Yoga, vinyasa set to pulsing hip hop beats. Her favorite artists to include for those classes are Rihanna, Snoop Dogg, and Beyoncé.

“Every single song on a playlist is a song that I personally enjoy listening to.”​

Since she has to listen to the playlists for her classes so many times over the course of teaching the sequence, she makes sure they only have songs she likes.

I also asked her about the role of music in her life outside of yoga. She’ll play disco music when she’s getting ready to go out or wants some background music when she has friends over. For weekend lounging, she’ll play some ambient EDM with few words.

Overall, though, she has so much music in her life between playlisting, sequencing, teaching, and going to other teachers’ classes that when she’s walking she doesn’t listen to music at all.

She prefers to take in the ambient noise of the city. At home, she turns off the music and the television and enjoys the silence.

In Service of Her Students

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Jane Louie Photography

Jess is a strong believer in teaching yoga from a place of authenticity, whatever that means for each individual teacher. For her, she believes that our bodies crave an auditory rhythm to go with our movement and our already existing, natural rhythm of our breath and our heartbeat.

As a teacher, she has the opportunity to create an experience that incorporates mind, body, and soul. Music can offer students a really profound, deeper experience on their mats.

It is her hope that in creating that deeper experience she inspires her students to want to seek out more yoga. She enjoys curating the music and the sequence to create an experience that provokes curiosity.

Creating thoughtful playlists is her personal way of investing more in what she’s offering to serve her students.