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Lessons From Yoga for Dancers: Lesson 3

Lessons From Yoga – Lesson 3

Lesson 3: Letting Go Does NOT Equal Laziness.

I still remember dancing days when I could turn like a top, and then days when nothing I did could make those pirohuettes happen. I also remember my response to those dark days: total frustration. I actually remember the sensation that would rise through my body and into my head: hot, red, angry and confused. Then, I would pull myself together and apply my well-engrained dancer’s work ethic: I would practice over and over again, pushing through the problem in the hopes of arriving at a solution.

Unfortunately, it didn’t always work. In fact, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure it didn’t do me much good, most of the time. So why did I stick to that plan? I think it’s because dancers have a hard time letting go; it feels totally foreign, and often we confuse it with being lazy or giving up. I was never good at letting to go, particularly when it came to my technique.

And this is where Lesson 3 from Yoga comes in…

…much of yoga requires relaxation and deep breathing (which cannot be done when tense and straining). Success is achieved when the breath initiates the movement, and when we accept our bodies and abilities in that moment. And sometimes, things don’t work, just like in dance.

But unlike dance, yoga instructors have a different approach: they recognize that one day is not always like the next: there are variations in what our bodies can tackle and that is okay. It’s not a sign of devolving ability, or lack of dedication or discipline. Just, some days, you can do a head stand or a triple pirohuette, and some days you can’t. *

So yoga instructors say things like, “Go into lotus, if it is available to you today.” If you can’t make lotus that day, you can sit cross-legged, and no one seems to mind.

It has taken me a long time to stop minding and to just let go when I can’t achieve something I did yesterday. In that moment, when I let go and surrender to breathing, I grow in a different way. I accept that I am human, that my body is slightly different every day, and that my real challenge is in letting go, not in pushing hard.

This is an important lesson for dancers who are taught to be perfect every day and to really beat themselves up for variations in the abilities. Sometimes relaxing can help. Give it a try.

 

* This reminds me of a performance of Don Quixote I saw last spring at ABT where Gillian Murphy danced Kitri. Murphy is an exceptional turner who regularly wows audiences with her multiples, but that night, she was off. Rather than feeling disappointed, I was actually excited to see her dance on an off-night (which was still incredible) because it gave me the opportunity to see her work through her body’s issues. Of course, she was fantastic and if you didn’t know she was a turner, you never would have guessed she wasn’t on.

Lessons from Yoga – Lesson 2.

This is a continued post. Part 1 is here.

Lesson 2: There are no corrections in yoga.

Lots of Corrections

Getting corrected by the teacher is hugely important in ballet: dancers look to the instructor constantly for feedback. Students rarely complain about getting too many corrections, and in fact, they usually correlate being corrected with being a good dancer- isn’t that strange?

One of my students put it perfectly: she said, if you get corrected, then there’s hope that you’re worth correcting!

No Corrections

Well, imagine my surprise when I started taking yoga classes 3 years ago and the yoga teacher didn’t correct me; she didn’t correct anyone really. I was shocked.

Over the next few months, I experienced varying emotions:

  • surprise (How was I supposed to fix things without corrections?)
  • anger (It’s your JOB to help me!)
  • curiosity (Wait, she isn’t correcting anyone, and no one seems to mind…)

I started to notice that the other yoga students were not looking around at each other, or waiting for corrections. Everyone was focused inwards and negotiating the poses mostly on their own. The instructor would intervene if someone was in danger of hurting themselves, but otherwise, she would let us figure it out.

She kept describing the ideal position to be in and how it should feel, and then she gave us all the time and space we needed to negotiate it.

A-Ha!

After getting over my initial shock, I had an A-Ha moment one day. I realized that if I had a good or bad practice, the only one affected was me. The motivation to practice, the quality of the experience, and its outcome were all up to me.

The best way to describe this realization is Liberating and Terrifying. Liberating because no one was judging me, which made me feel light and free. Terrifying because I had never worked purely for myself before.

I realized that as a dancer, I always had one eye on the teacher or artistic director, ready to gauge their reaction to my every move. With no one watching, where would the impetus to work hard and improve come from?

Adjusting

It has taken some time to get used to this new arrangement, but I have found motivation to have a good practice every time I go to the yoga studio. Having to work without cheating, even though no one is watching or correcting me, has changed my relationship to my practice and to myself.

The biggest lesson I have learned is to work honestly. Gone are the days of seeing what I want to see in the mirror, and consequently being happy with my work. Now it is all about how it feels: am I doing the pose correctly? Is it coming from an honest place? Am I making my best effort or just going through the motions?

Having only myself to answer to, rather than a teacher or director, has made my yoga practice a lesson in truth. And that is a lesson I could have used many years ago.

Lessons from Yoga – Lesson 1

Three years ago, I started to practice yoga. It was something I had always meant to do, but somehow never got around to it. After I was diagnosed with arthritis in my feet and it became too painful to do ballet classes for fun, it seemed like a good time to give yoga a try.

Now I cannot imagine NOT practicing yoga. It has changed my body, my strength, and the inner workings of my mind in ways that I could not have imagined. I’m going to share some of the lessons I have learned from practicing yoga that you might find applicable to your ballet training. Let me also say that if I had practiced yoga as a dancer, I think it would have helped me enormously. If only I had known…! *

First Lesson: Yoga is a Practice.

You might have noticed that I used that word a lot above: I practice yoga; I have a yoga practice. It took me a while to stop saying “I do yoga” or even “I take yoga.” “Practice” just sounded weird to me, but now I get it. Doing and taking aren’t the right words for yoga: we come to the studio and we practice. Which suggests a few things that are worth considering as a dancer:

  • We don’t expect perfection. The word practice gives us permission to work for something other than perfection. We don’t expect someone who is practicing piano to be perfect. Same thing here. In some ways, we almost expect mistakes, right? After all, we’re just practicing! What a relief both mentally and physically.
  • It’s a process. Practice implies a process: we are where we are, but we’re working to get better. It’s not about being able to do the poses, it’s about the daily process of getting there. I find this relieves pressure; if I don’t get it today, maybe tomorrow will be better.
  • Progress is ongoing. I have yet to hear a yoga teacher compare one day’s success with another day’s failure. In fact, they never say the word “can’t”- instead, they say things like, “Move into full lotus, if you can access it today.” Or “Just do headstand prep if your headstand isn’t available today…” Isn’t that a great concept? That some days, certain things just aren’t available? They’re not gone forever, you didn’t lose them, they’re just not always available on demand. It’s a much more gentle approach to progress than perhaps we allow ourselves in dance. I remember the frustration of feeling like I had lost my pirohuettes to the left- the agony! It was truly devastating.

I think this approach could have some major benefits for dancers. I also think the idea of having access to different areas of technique at different times is much more realistic than what we’re used to. Why not demand a little less in terms of outcomes and focus a little more on the process of our training? It might relieve some of that internal pressure we put on ourselves to be the perfect dancer every day.

 

* Or if only I had listened to my mother who suggested yoga on many occasions to me, but for some reason, I never listened. Argh!

 

 

Healthy Body Workshop at STEPS

On April 9, 2011, the School at Steps (SAS) in New York City held a  “Healthy Body Workshop” for their students and the public. A number of professionals in the wellness world in NYC spoke on topics ranging from “occupational hazards” (Dr. Linda Hamilton) to yoga and meditation for dancers (TaraMarie Perri).

New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer was also there to speak to her own experiences with staying healthy both physically and mentally. It was a wonderful event and one that all dancers, students and professionals would have benefitted from attending.

Take-Aways

Here are some of the take-aways for those of you who couldn’t be there.

  • Alternative/Supplementary Training: Yoga and Meditation

TaraMarie Perri, dancer, yoga instructor, and founder of Mind Body Dancer, spoke about taking the things we already do well as dancers one step further, like body awareness. She engaged us in a breathing and body scan exercise to allow the mind and body to check in with each other and take stock of emotions as well as tensions. Once you are comfortable with the practice, it only takes a few minutes and is a great way to start your day, getting your mind and body in harmony.

Taking up a meditative practice like yoga can bring important things to your dancing that aren’t usually focused on in dance training. Mindful breathing, a sense of calm, and a mind-body awareness will enhance your connection to your artistry as well as your technique.

It can take time to become comfortable with a new form of movement, so don’t give up if it feels strange at first. Let your body and mind get used to thinking and working in a new way.

  • Occupational Stress Management in Dance

Dr. Linda Hamilton, clinical psychologist, spoke about a number of physical and emotional stresses common to dancers and how to manage them. The main idea was that dance training can be stressful and no one expects young dancers to just “deal with it.”

From the quest for perfection to the physical strain on your bodies, there are therapies, coping strategies, and techniques to put your health and well-being at the center of your experience. One good one I like is reframing any negative talk you have in your head in a positive way. You’d be surprised how much it changes the outcomes in the studio, not to mention your quality of life.

Another good take-away here was that 70% of injuries occur after 5 hours of dancing. As dancers, we are often trained to think that more is better, but this not true when it comes to physical activity. Repetition causes fatigue and fatigue causes injury.

Try not to get stuck in this negative cycle. Instead, try alternative forms of exercise that work other parts of your body and mind (like yoga!). This statistic is also good to keep in mind as we move into summer intensive season. We want to work smarter, not more.

Tune in to the next post to hear the take-aways from Dr. Price, an orthopedic surgeon who works with dancers, and NYCB principal ballerina, Jenifer Ringer.

Photo credit: OzRock79