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Dancers center on yoga: breathing, alignment, and body awareness benefit many.

IN 1978 I PACKED UP MY FOOTLESS tights, moved to Greenwich Village, and entered the wildly vibrant New York modern dance scene. Laura Dean and Merce Cunningham were making dances about nothing but rhythm, space, energy, and heat, while Martha Graham was still presenting classic human dramas expressed through movement relationships. Yvonne Rainer and the Judson Dance Theater were part of an art revolution that focused on process rather than product. Vacuuming the floor became a dance performance.

My life has always been defined by movement: I learned to waltz standing on my dad's feet, hung upside down from our backyard tree, rolled down sand dunes. There was nothing better than moving.

It was a natural progression for me to become a professional dancer and choreographer. Somewhere along the way I found yoga. After fifteen years together my dance company's final performance was in 1994. "Dharma Dances" was influenced by meditation philosophy, and the choreography heavily referenced yoga poses. The rehearsal process had been inspiring--full of generosity and creativity from the dancers--and I felt good about the program we had created together. But as I flew through space, lifted, jumped, dipped, and spun, my attention drifted toward the audience. Who was out there? Were the funders present? Did the important producers show up? Were the reviewers sitting in the press seats? My mind was completely disconnected from what my body was doing. The mind-body union I felt in yoga completely dissolved as I succumbed to the pressures of the competitive New York dance world. I retired and began teaching yoga full-time.

It turns out many other dancers have experienced this mind-body divorce and have also found solace, inspiration, and reconnection through yoga. Before a recent shared performance at Judson Memorial Church, choreographer Christie Clark observed that most of the dancers did a personal warm-up that included elements of yoga: breathing techniques, sun salutations, and meditation, which all create heat in the body while quieting the mind and calming the nerves.

Dancers and choreographers whom I interviewed have all found yoga to be an excellent supportive practice for deepening their relationship to their bodies, exploring the nuances of personal physical expression, and cultivating compassion for themselves within a profession that can be a challenge to one's self-esteem.

A former dancer for Centre Choreographique du Havre/Cie Herve Robbe, Lyon Opera Ballet, and Nederlands Dans Theater II, Clark is now a certified yoga teacher at OM yoga center in New York City. She says, "Ultimately, a dancer and a yogi/yogini are walking the same path: striving to be present in all movement, trying to create a harmony in the body, being aware of internal and external space, and trying to create an honest and authentic experience through movement."

"Yoga" comes from a Sanskrit word meaning to yoke or bind. It is both a state of being and a set of codified exercises, grounded in a rich history that spans nearly 4,000 years. The physical poses are called asanas, a Sanskrit term meaning "seat." Technically, asana refers to the part of the body that is actually touching the ground; for example, in sirsasana, or headstand, the head (sirsa) is the seat of the pose.

But asana can also mean "to sit with." As we move in space, applying precise alignment and breathing rhythmically, the practice of yoga invites us to observe what is happening without changing the experience. It is an invitation to acknowledge the thoughts and emotions that arise when the body is a pretzel. It's an invitation to rest within the waves of mind, breath, and physical movement.

TERRY CREACH, ARTISTIC director of Creach/Company, says, "For me, yoga is a personal journey--an exploration of the inner landscape. It can certainly be as rich and meaningful as a dance in performance, but its focus is not as a shared experience."

Creach first discovered yoga at the Bates Dance Festival. He found it to be "a source of physical information, a practice that investigated basic human movement and challenged the body's potential. The first familiar relationship between yoga and dance was the dialogue between precision of the form and the freer qualitative expression of the moment, between the body's reality and the mind's image. I take yoga for the physical maintenance and physical discovery, but also for its non-art-making aspects, its focus on the immediate moment. It seems to be stylistically neutral, more about body awareness than pattern."

Clark agrees: "Yoga is a practice and not a style. The body is warm, stretched out, and supple, but at the same time [it's] a blank slate, so I do not have to undo a certain dancing style to accommodate it to another style that a choreographer might be asking for."

Eventually Creach learned that yoga had been developed and tested for centuries, which gave him the confidence to explore it as a pathway to reflection on challenges, fears, and basic life changes.

The pathways Creach refers to include pranayama, or breath awareness and manipulation. Prana means "life" and ayama means "extension." The ancient yogis said that each person has a predetermined number of breaths per lifetime, so it is wise to learn how to extend the breath as it rolls out and in, ebbing and flowing like the ocean. Many dancers feel that yoga's emphasis on breathing has had a profound impact on their dancing.

Katherine Crockett, a principal dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company, says, "I feel this is the key--the breath. I don't think most dancers know how to breathe, and we are always trained to hold our stomachs in, so how can we ever breathe fully through our bodies?"

However, not all yoga practices focus on breathing in the same way. Some traditions, such as Iyengar yoga, have special pranayama classes, separate from asana classes. Most vinyasa, or flowing-style, yoga classes, such as Ashtanga, OM, or Jivamukti, include breathing as part of the instruction for every pose and every transition between the poses. Developing consciousness of your own breathing patterns--holding the breath, sighing, breathing unevenly or shallowly--will both enhance the ability to fully oxygenate your body and introduce you to your own mind, heart, and body.

Yoga helps with practical matters such as injury prevention, improved strength, flexibility, stamina, and overall balance--front and back, right and left, internal and external rotation. Asanas are designed to align the skin, muscles, and bones so that the internal rivers of energy and fluids can flow unobstructed, creating wholesome functionality.

Crockett says, "The yoga alignment principles have been incredible when I've applied them to my dancing. Dancers work so much in the `turned out' position that I never truly felt the internal rotation and how this deep folding of the groins [at the hip joint] affected my pelvic alignment and the freedom of movement there. [Yoga offers] an organic way to open the body [and support it] with balanced strength."

Creach also finds yoga technique important. "I mostly get into the particulars of alignment: ... balancing right and left sides [and] inner and outer leg supports, and exploring the upper back and shoulders more with weight-bearing movement, [such as] cobra and wheels."

For Clark, yoga alignment has been "a miracle for my knees. I used to wake up every morning with knee pain, and now it is completely gone," she says. "My upper body and back are much stronger, and I am able to do any kind of floor work in dance with greater ease." She says that the relationship of the pelvis to the spine and the limbs is fundamental to most contemporary dance techniques.

In December 2001, Clark was asked to guest teach at the Centre Choreographique National du Havre/Cie Herve Robbe. Although apprehensive about teaching yoga to a group of such highly trained contemporary dancers, she chose to offer classes that were slow, focusing on breath and basic alignment. "I was there for two weeks, and it was a wonderful exchange. Recently I talked to some of the dancers, and they said that they had incorporated yoga into their warm-up routines."

YOGA SCHOOLS VARY IN their emphasis on alignment. Iyengar classes are strong on alignment principles, as is Anusara, and both have been found to be physically therapeutic. Ashtanga, Bikram, and Sivananda classes generally do not focus on alignment and are not recommended for dancers who have injuries.

Well-known yoga teacher Richard Freeman has a dual background in both Iyengar yoga and Pattabhi Jois's Ashtanga, which allows him to masterfully combine the protection of precision with the heat, movement, and breathing of the flowing vinyasa form. This is also the basis for the OM yoga technique, popular among many dancers for its ability to warm up the body for dancing while protecting it from injury.

Crockett's favorite teachers have been dancers who practice yoga. She says they "understand the rhythm of warming the body up, creating an internal fire, yet allowing flow and ease. I am inspired by images, poems, [the teacher's] thoughts, and then silence and space to allow the practice of yoga itself to be the real teacher."

Although Creach feels that certain movement challenges are missing in yoga --moving through space, rhythmic shifts, momentum--one reason he took to yoga was the working-through aspect of the practice, the active moving, breathing, and observing. He says, "I've always worked through soreness, tiredness, and tension in an active way. Yoga does this, too."

Most of the dancers had shopped around for good yoga teachers. Creach finds that techniques that balance ease and precision are best. Schools such as Kripalu or Sivananda that emphasize too much ease make him feel "sluggish and unfocused. The muscle attachments get strained. I end up sore and sleepy."

Dancers I spoke with disliked Bikram classes, which they felt to be hard-edged or militant. One of them said, "The Bikram teacher knew the sequence but not her own body--or mine." Because of the heated room of Bikram technique, another overstretched her hamstring and had to recover for a week.

Crockett says that the "touch, voice, guidance, and inspiration of the teacher is crucial. I need to feel allowed to follow my own breath and body wisdom and not feel forced. The way a teacher touches the student should feel beautiful and encourage the deepening of the experience, or else the body will pull back and try to protect itself--and it should!"

For Clark, the inner teaching of yoga is just as powerful as technique. "The teachings of compassion and kindness in yoga have helped me understand that as a body grows older we cannot expect that it does not change" she says. "Age does not have to mean limitation but just doing things differently. This is often a hard lesson for dancers to learn. The fullness of yoga is about being OK with our limitations. It is not about getting better but about going beyond what we think `better' is."

Many dancers told me they feel a sense of freedom at not working with mirrors, because it encourages a deeper connection to their own personal process rather than having to perform for anyone. Yoga always lets you begin again, returning to that place of joyful movement that has no mason to exist except to remind us of our aliveness.

Crockett describes this as a cycle: "In dance there is a certain lust to achieve or to express your creativity with power and clarity. In yoga there is less striving, but I still believe there is a passion, love, and dedication. It is like giving and receiving a massage from the universe."

RELATED ARTICLE: The five gifts of yoga.

By Arielle Thomas Newman

Yoga is not a religion, but taught in the classic tradition, it encourages examination of a relationship to the universe and fosters spiritual awareness. For dancers, yoga provides a terrific way to develop cardiovascular fitness, strengthen the upper body, stretch overworked muscles, balance areas that are hypermobile, and learn how to calm the mind before performances. Five areas offer a glimpse of what yoga offers dancers in the twenty-first century.

FIRST GIFT * INCREASE YOUR CARDIOVASCULAR ENDURANCE

Preparing for a stamina-challenging performance? Ashtanga or Power Yoga classes taken three times per week for a month prior to performance will help you get in shape. The continuous flow of movement (called vinyasa) in these popular classes will condition your heart and provide that endorphin rush that comes from aerobic exercise.

In these styles of yoga, one often jumps from a standing position to a prone position and back up again, such as from a standing forward bend to a push-up. Your heart rate goes up and your arms are strengthened as well.

To avoid injuries, it's advisable to first familiarize yourself with yoga vocabulary and correct body placement. As with any new class, make sure the instructor is qualified, watches your form, and offers suggestions to make the poses work for you.

SECOND GIFT * STRENGTHEN YOUR ARMS

In dance lifts, both partners share the workload. This preparation for a handstand will help strengthen your arms and stabilize your shoulder joints.

To determine your hand placement on the floor, sit with your back against the wall, extending your legs in front of you.

Changing to tabletop position, place the palms of your hands--fingers spread, pointing away from the wall--where your heels were. Wrists should be parallel to the wall.

With knees bent, walk your feet up the wall. Push firmly into the wall with your feet, making a 90-degree angle from the top of your legs to your torso. Legs are straight and parallel. Let your head hang and look back at the wall, pushing into the floor with your arm strength. Don't let the shoulders slump. Keep a vertical line from the head up through the tailbone. Avoid arching the back by using your abdominal muscles. Hold for three or four steady breaths. Walk back down the wall and rest.

Note: Make sure the wall and floor surfaces are not slippery before you begin. (A yoga mat under your hands provides grip.) Ask a friend to check your body placement. Have fun walking up and down the wall until you gain confidence in the ability of your arms to support you.

THIRD GIFT * STRETCH OVERWORKED TURNOUT MUSCLES

Plies, passes, and developpes demand strong turnout muscles. These muscles, known as the six deep outward rotators, are located in the middle-lower gluteal area and tend to tighten with repetitive use. Try this yoga asana with a crazy name--Cow's Face Pose--not only to stretch this area but to lengthen the deltoid muscles of your upper arms.

Sit with the left knee stacked directly over the right. Move feet forward. Reach right arm up high, inwardly rotating arm so that the palm of the hand faces backward. The left arm reaches behind.

Bend the right elbow and intertwine fingers behind back. (Use a strap to connect hands if they don't meet.) Pull shoulder blades down and toward the spine. Keep ribs level. You should feel the deltoid stretch on the lower arm.

To deepen the stretch, slowly extend arms and round spine forward, letting the weight of the torso fall forward. Exhale fully to release tension in the hips. Stay for four long breaths. Repeat other side.

FOURTH GIFT * STABILIZE YOUR BACK

In the quest for that perfect arabesque, many dancers become hypermobile in the lower back. An increase in flexibility can result in the loss of stability, which eventually can lead to back pain. This yoga sequence will help balance and strengthen the lumbosacral area. This simple-looking exercise can be deceptively difficult.

Start in a tabletop position, with your hands placed below your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips. Draw the abdominal muscles in to minimize the arch of the lower back.

Keeping your weight steady on your right knee and left hand, slowly lift your right arm at the same time you lift your left leg, making sure the leg is parallel to the floor. Do not collapse the lower back. Shoulders and hips should remain even without shifting your weight sideways into the supporting hip. Head is in a neutral position throughout. Repeat four times on each leg and rest. Repeat set three times.

FIFTH GIFT * INNER WELL-BEING

Yoga is as much an inner journey as a means to develop strength, flexibility, and balance. A well-rounded yoga class contains meditation and breathing exercises and provides an ample relaxation period at the end of each session. Savasana, also known as "corpse pose," allows the active work of the class to be integrated through total relaxation of body and mind.

Yogis use the term prana to describe the abiding energy of the universe (life force) that animates all matter. In yoga, it is thought to enter the body by riding on the wave of the breath. The following pranayama/breathing exercise is wonderful if you're tired, and it will help center you before a performance.

Imagine that you are filling your body with white light as you breathe in through the nose. Visualize letting go of any fatigue or anxiety as you breathe out through the nose.

Sit in a cross-legged position with your spine straight but not rigid. Place your hands in prayer pose at the heart.

As you breathe in, stretch your arms forward then out to the side, arching the back to look up. As you breathe out, return to the starting position.

Most important to this series is coordinating your breath and movement. Arrive at the outstretched arm position at the fullest point of the inhalation and join the hands back together right at the moment you complete the exhalation.

Your breathing rhythm is as unique as your dance expression. It fluctuates with the time of day, your emotions, and the weather. Tuning in to your breath throughout the day will give you a good barometer of your tension level. As you consciously lengthen your breath, especially the exhale, you begin to relax.

Being mindful of your breath also places your attention on the present moment, which is one of the greatest gifts of yoga. You will never be in this moment, breathing this precise breath again. Turn off the music, tune in to your breath, and be here now.

STYLES OF YOGA

There are many highly regarded schools of Hatha yoga, and each technique offers a different emphasis, but all feature yoga postures for health and well-being. Some styles you might encounter:

ASHTANGA AND POWER YOGA These classes emphasize strength-building. Push-ups, jumps between poses, and a continuous flow of postures develop stamina. Breathing is emphasized to fuel the movement.

BIKRAM YOGA Named after Indian founder Bikram Choudhury, self-proclaimed yogi to the stars. Known through media attention as hot yoga because the room temperature is kept at about 100 degrees, which guarantees a good sweat. A specific set of yoga postures is repeated from class to class. It is a workout, though not as vigorous as Power yoga.

IYENGAR YOGA Arguably the most influential force on yoga in the United States has been B.K.S. Iyengar. The Iyengar method is known for teaching poses in a precise manner with the use of yoga props such as blankets, blocks, and belts, Iyengar trained teachers are detail oriented, often stopping to demonstrate or explain how to do a pose correctly.

VINIYOGA A more therapeutic approach to yoga, in which poses are adjusted to fit the needs of the student. Valuable for injury rehabilitation and deepening your individual practice in a nonforceful fashion.

KRIPALU YOGA The teachers who have come out of this school in Lenox, Massachusetts, tend to encourage an internal sensing of the poses. Warm-ups are often used to prepare students for yoga postures.--Arielle Thomas Newman

Cyndi Lee founded OM Yoga Center in 1998. She teaches workshops worldwide and is the author of OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice, the OM Yoga in a Box series, and the upcoming Yoga Body, Buddha Mind. A version of the preceding story previously appeared in the German magazine ballettanz.

Choreographer and former dancer, Arielle Thomas Newman is a dance writer for the Kansas City Star and conducts Yoga by the Sea vacations in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

Many thanks to Linda Sparrowe for consulting on these articles and photos.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Dance Magazine, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Lee, Cyndi
Publication:Dance Magazine
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Date:Nov 1, 2002
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