Why Dancers Practice Yoga

NYC professional dancer and choreographer Erin Cella needed a “palate cleanser”. Erin found, that after hours, days, and years of training, rehearsing, and performing in a variety of genres and performances, “yoga provided me with a sense of evenness.”

Similarly, Ashleigh Penrod, a professional dancer and choreographer in Minneapolis, MN, turned to yoga to help ground her dancing and deepen her somatic understanding as a dance performer and educator. Through her yoga training, Ashleigh reflects that she better understood “mood management, reactivity (rather, non-reactivity) and how to better tune into my own systems,” – essential tools for dancers who are constantly on the go.

Erin and Ashleigh are both certified yoga instructors. We became connected through movement during our time together in Temple University’s MFA program in Dance. Erin and Ashleigh have graciously shared their yoga experiences with me for this series on cross-training for dancers.

What is Yoga?

Yoga, in its most traditional sense, is a branch of Hinduism. The asanas, or postures that are popular as a Western form of exercise, are just one of the many limbs of Yoga. Elements of meditation and breath awareness are also part of the Yoga practice, in the traditional and Western experiences.

Yoga and the Dancer’s Body

Ashleigh suggests that yoga, as it has been integrated into Western culture, is a wonderful cross-training method for dancers because we often have imbalances in our bodies due to performance-specific training.

Eagle arms yoga pose

“People tend to fall somewhere between a spectrum of stability and mobility. The incredibly stable people tend to have strong, tight muscles, so while their joints may be protected from injury, they can experience quite a bit of pain – their tight muscles restrict range of motion and put pressure on the skeleton. On the other end of the spectrum are the “Gumby” people – they have the flexibility to bend, twist and contort their bodies, but they’re extra injury-prone, because they don’t have the muscle tone to support their motion. Yoga postures can bring everyone towards the center of this spectrum – encouraging the strong people to become more mobile and the flexible people to support themselves.”

Our bodies and the way we train them are unique and personal. Ashleigh recommends dancers take time to get to know how their bodies respond to yoga before jumping into an advanced practice. Beginner asanas and elements of yoga practice are also powerful tools for aligning and strengthening the advanced dancer.

Erin and Ashleigh have both found that yoga has helped them “untrain” some bad dance habits. Although not a substitute for regular dance classes to prepare for rehearsals and performance, having a regular yoga practice is a method dancers can use for cross-training.

“Yoga provides me with a movement practice without strings attached, which has proven to be essential as a professional performer,” says Erin. “I can practice movement linked with breath and presence, but without the added layer of a choreographer, peer, and/or audience watching.”

Training the body and the mind

Dance is a holistic experience – engaging the body, the mind, and the spirit. Erin observes that yoga is a complement to dance in this way as a cross-training method for not only the body, but for the dancer’s mental and emotional sides. “Because of yoga’s effect on my mind and overall feeling-state (it’s given me confidence and contentment with my dancing body), it’s transformed into a method of finding presence while moving, as opposed to just a training routine.”

Dancers also need physical and mental rest. The attention to mindfulness in the yoga practice can assist in achieving this. Erin practices yoga everyday, but does not necessarily engage in the physical postures. “Breathing and mindfulness are a HUGE part of the yoga practice, and I take time every day to simply notice presence in myself…. Over time (and in the present time) this insight has helped me to create a pre-performance movement practice for myself, which has led to more grounding.”

Read “5 Reasons Dancers Should Study Yoga” to further understand the benefits of yoga for dancers.

What do I need to practice yoga?

You only need your body! Props such as blocks and resistance bands, could aid the practice and be helpful in properly aligning the body within the postures. Additionally, some people use sticky mats, socks, and gloves to prevent slipping during the practice. There are many studios, personal instructors, videos, and online resources for finding the right yoga practice for you.

Dancers of any age can experience the benefits of yoga. Like any cross-training practice, Ashleigh recommends exploring some of the different types of yoga to see what works best for you. Two of the more popular practices are Hatha Yoga and Vinyasa Yoga. Ashleigh notes, “I think dancers connect with Vinyasa yoga in particular because of the specific attention paid to the movements flowing into and out of each posture, in addition to the postures themselves. The meaning of “Vinyasa” is “to place in a special way,” and that’s always resonated with me. It reminds me to notice connections and to be specific, not just with my breath and big movements but with each finger, toe, eye, – every part of the body.”

Special Moments

Ashleigh has had many special moments during her years of partnering dance with her yoga practice, and shares this particular moment: “I’m fairly long and gangly, and I find inversions to be particularly challenging. We were asked to move into headstand (in class). I inverted, floated my legs up, and tentatively held them angled forward case I started to topple backwards. The teacher stood next to me and cued to press down and up at the same time in order to shift my legs over my torso and align my body. I remember a very pleasing sensation of feeling stacked – like I was just as stable upside down as right side up. The reassurance that the teacher was near me but not physically assisting me gave me the confidence to move into the posture as it was meant to be experienced – rooted and elevated at the same time.”

Erin reflects that one particularly striking moment for her occurred during yoga practice when, “I realized I was balancing because I was focusing on my exhale, not because I was trying to lock myself into a position.” She continues…

 

Has yoga helped your dance practice? Tell us how in the comments!

Jessica Warchal-King
Jessica C. Warchal-King is a Philly-based performer, choreographer, educator, and arts advocate. She is a member of Kun-Yang Lin/ Dancers and Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet and has toured nationally and internationally. Jessica is co-founder and curator of the InHale Performance Series and she teaches at universities, studios, and arts centers. Jessica earned her MFA in Dance from Temple and her BA in Dance and Anthropology from Muhlenberg College. She is a trained instructor in Dance for PD, a program developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group to bring dance to people with Parkinson’s Disease, and a Power Pilates Mat I & II Certified Instructor. The Embodiment Project is Jessica’s ongoing research project combining education, physical dance practice, and performance. Using dance as its medium, The Embodiment Project investigates the relationships between kinesthetic, somatic, and anatomical understanding, self-awareness, art-making, joy-creation, and social justice. www.jcwarchalking.blogspot.com

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