It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to post, and this blog topic in particular has been a long time coming. Now that the dance school year is starting to wind down, it feels good to be finding a bit more balance in my life. In spite of the fact that my dance students had (another) show today, I got to sleep in this morning, and woke up one of the first real spring days we’ve gotten this year. I got to go to yoga (always a treat), and had time to drink my coffee out of an actual ceramic mug in my kitchen instead of taking it to-go. And as I was driving home from my yoga class with the windows down, sunlight streaming through my car window, I thought about how freaking awesome yoga is, and how grateful I am for the positive influence my yoga practice has had on my life, especially my life as a dancer/choreographer/dance teacher. I am on a mission to get more dancers tuned in to this magical drug I call yoga, and after having an online presence since the beginning of the year, I figured I might as well take the time to explain a few of the the many reasons why I think that more dancers, dance teachers, choreographers, and while I’m at it, pretty much everyone else in the general population needs to incorporate some yoga into their life.
I have wanted to be a dance teacher for as long as I can remember, and teaching yoga is one of the most rewarding things I do on a daily basis. Teaching yoga for dancers, however, is something that I believe I was put here to do. A few years ago, I had what was, for me, the most disappointing and humiliating audition ever (I think that’s a pretty normal experience for professional dancers to have at least once or twice). Standing outside of my car, post-audition, on the verge of meltdown, a good friend asked “So what are you going to do?” To which I responded “I don’t know, but I’m going to yoga. Right. Now.” And I did. I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I was that girl trying to hold it together in child’s pose. But at some point in that class, there was a shift, my breath calmed those shallow chokes, and I started to feel ok. On my mat I was strong, I was at peace, and I felt like I was enough. During that class, something the instructor said triggered a memory of an inspirational story I had recently read about eggs, carrots, and coffee beans in boiling water. To sum it up, I realized that in this situation I could either become soft and fall apart, I could become hard on the inside, or I could use the experience to transform myself and the world around me into something wonderful. This is why I teach.
It might seem that dancers are the last people on earth who need yoga. After all, we are already super bendy, generally fit and active, and already get to do what we love every day instead of sitting at a desk. But I speak from experience when I say that dancers, former dancers, dance teachers, and choreographers are often quite abusive of their bodies. I am convinced that yoga is the reason that, as a 31 year old, I can still jump with the men’s group in ballet class, as well as manage to still have some semblance of turnout and extension in spite of the fact that I go to class far less often than I should these days. Yoga is what allows me to chase my students across the floor during grande allegro (TRAAVVEL!!!), and has given me an anatomical understanding for how to help those kids who struggle with their splits (YOGA BLOCKS FOR EVERYONE!). Many a dancer and dance mom have been spared from my wrath, because I now take the time to sit with conflicts before I respond, instead of immediately reacting to the dance crisis du jour (Did you think it was ok to just not show up to dress rehearsal???). You are lucky I went to yoga this morning, guys. You should come with me next time. I could get all scientific, and talk about how sun salutations are the best way to warm the body, or talk about all the studies on the stress reducing effects of yoga. But these days, yoga is such a trend that you can get that sort of information in pretty much any dance, yoga, or fitness related magazine or website. Instead I’m going to keep it real and tell it like I’ve lived it. From my experience, and from the heart, this is why all dancers NEED yoga.
FOR OUR BODIES
Really? Thanks, Captain Obvious. This one is a no brainer, but is one of the biggest reasons many dancers decide to venture into a yoga studio. From long days of class and rehearsal that lead into long nights of teaching, the work week can put a great deal of wear and tear on us. Yoga postures are like apps–where are you lacking physically? What is sore or tight? Cause there’s a pose for that! In fact, if you look at many of the contortionist shapes that (particularly young) dancers attempt to make, they are actually almost identical to advanced yoga poses. Just google hanumanasana, natarajasana, or vrschikasana and see what images come up. A good yoga teacher can teach students how to achieve these superhuman feats with a knowledge of how to properly warm up and prepare to attempt this stuff without the risk of pulled muscles and herniated disks. On the opposite end of the spectrum, yoga teaches dancers to slow down and listen to their bodies a little more. I promise you that a long, restorative forward fold is one of the greatest ways to undo the aftermath of an evening of using your body as a percussion instrument on the floor (a la tap dancing). Because when you take the care and time to just breathe and be in the moment, without a dance teacher or choreographer barking at you to get your leg up, you notice sensations that you didn’t realize were there before. You acknowledge the little imbalances in your body, what feels really good, and the areas in which you have room to grow. More importantly, over time, yoga helps you observe these things without harshly judging yourself. Which leads me to the next reason that more dancers need to come to their yoga mats.
FOR OUR MINDS
The self-study (svadhyaya) that comes along with practicing yoga is the most valuable yogi tool that I have been able to apply to my dancing. As a more naive dancer, I used to take everything that any teacher ever said to me as the gospel truth. Which is kind of scary, because though I have been fortunate enough to have many great teachers, there are also a lot of bad ones out there. And dance, much like yoga, is not one-size-fits-all. My yoga has taught me to question the things about dance that aren’t working for me, and to look outside the norm to find a solution. Recently I got to teach a yoga class to a group of college dancers, and one of my highly-educated dance teacher friends/colleagues took the class too. She was surprised to find that she didn’t actually hate half pigeon pose, and that her hips could really feel amazing with the help of strategically placed block. I also helped some of the guys in the class to use props like blocks and straps to help them with hamstring flexibility. I know dancers are masochists by nature, but really, you needn’t suffer so!! And if you think that gripping your leg to heel stretch is the hardest thing ever (Why does it look so easy for that waif-like girl over there?!), don’t let it kill your self-esteem or worth as a dancer. You are not deficient as a person, you might just have really short (t-rex) arms. Yoga helps us to be smarter about the how, what, and why of what we do every day.
FOR OUR SPIRITS
Ahhh that sweet crunchy yoga granola. Even though most dancers might not initially come to yoga for the spiritual aspects, it certainly comes as an unexpected bonus of a regular yoga practice. I have a sneaking suspicion that I was not the only dancer who was glaring at herself in the mirror with judging eyes in modern class this Wednesday. I was having one of those days where nothing felt right, and I’m pretty sure that it all started with my choice of shorts for the day. How could you not get super critical of your physical appearance and technical abilities when you have to stare at yourself in a mirror all day, doing an art form that demands perfection? In dance it’s expected that each day, you will be a little better than you were the last. But in reality, sometimes you just want to lay low and take a few breaths in child’s pose, because your body just isn’t having it. Our yoga mats are a place of refuge from those demands, where it’s ok if your heels don’t touch the floor in down dog or you only feel warm enough to do half-splits. For me it’s a place where my (rather mannish) shoulders that never seem to look relaxed doing port de bras, are acceptable, and maybe even awesome, because they have carried me through about a billion chaturangas. It’s a place where dancers can come to feel alive and connect with our bodies without judgement (ahimsa) for wherever they may be on any given day. For my younger yogi-dancers, it is my hope that they will be able to take this sense of being at peace with themselves that they learn through yoga and apply it to their lives as dancers. It’s truly the best remedy for bad dance days, stressful tech weeks, and dealing with the inevitable rejection that comes with the art form. And for more mature dancers, once we decide to scale back on our own performing, yoga can be a profound tool to help navigate the difficult identity crisis that career transition can bring.
Yoga is an amazing way for anyone to enhance their life, but we dancers are a rare breed. It takes one to know one, and let me tell you, yoga is the best way I have found to balance out the crazy. This post is the longest I have written so far, and I feel like I could ramble on for pages more. But instead of reading about it, why not just experience it? Or if you’ve tried it before, why not make it a part of your regular weekly routine? Wander into that yoga studio in your neighborhood. Do a yoga class at your gym instead of your usual elliptical-and-abs routine. Or better yet, contact me! I’d love to come work with your studio, students, or dance company this summer and show you what you never knew you always needed! The achy, tight, self-critical, perfectionist, stressed out, creative, hardworking, well-intentioned dancer, teacher, perpetual student, and choreographer in me, sees and honors the achy, tight, self-critical, perfectionist, stressed out, creative, hardworking, well-intentioned dancer, teacher, perpetual student, and choreographer in you–which is basically what I mean when I say. . .Namaste. 🙂