Originally Published in Dance Magazine
Written by Cyndi Lee
Dance and Yoga
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 Church dancers were part of an art revolution that focused on process rather than product. Vacuuming the floor was a dance performance.
My life had been defined by movement. I learned the waltz by standing on my dad’s dancing feet. I hung upside down from the tree in our backyard. I rolled down sand dunes, ran back up to the top and did it again and again. There was nothing better than moving every possible way and seeing the world from a million different perspectives.
It was a natural progression for me to become a professional dancer and choreographer. Somewhere along the way I found yoga. After 15 years my dance company’s final performance was in 1994. Called “Dharma Dances”, the content 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 come up with together.
Opening night arrived. As I flew through space, lifted my partners, jumped into their arms, dipped and spun, my eyes were scanning the audience trying to find out who was there that night. Were the funders in attendance? Did the important producers show up? Were the reviewers sitting in the press seats? Throughout the performance my mind was completely disconnected from what my body was doing. The mind/body union that I’d gained from my yoga practice was overwhelmed by the pressures of the competitive New York dance world. I retired after Dharma Dances and began teaching yoga full-time.
It turns out that 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 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 quiet the mind and calm the nerves before stepping out in front of an audience.
The dancers and choreographers I interviewed have found yoga to be an excellent supportive practice for deepening their relationship to their bodies, for exploring the nuances of personal physical expression and cultivating compassion for themselves within a profession that can be a challenge to one’s self-confidence.
Former dancer for Centre choreographique du Havre/Cie Herve Robbe, Lyon Opera Ballet and Nederlands Dans 2, Christie 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 means union and comes from the Sanskrit word, yuj, which means to yoke or bind. It is both a state of being and a set of codified exercises which are approximately 5,000 years old. The physical poses are called asanas, which means seat or ground. Technically it refers to the part of the body which is actually touching the ground, i.e., in sirsasana or headstand, your head or sirsa is the seat of the pose.
But asana is also sometimes translated as “to sit with.” At the same time that we are moving in space, applying precise alignment, and rhythmically breathing, 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 one’s body is a pretzel, and when one’s body unfolds from the pretzel. Yoga is an invitation to rest in the middle of 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.”
Terry first discovered yoga at the Bates Summer Dance Festival. He found yoga 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 – it’s focus on the immediate moment. It seems to be stylistically neutral. More about body awareness than pattern.”
Christie agrees: “Yoga is a practice and not a style. The body is warm, stretched out and supple but at the same time a blank slate, so I do not have to undo a certain dancing style to accommodate it to another style a choreographer might be asking for.”
Eventually Terry learned “that yoga had been developed and tested for centuries” which led him to exploring it’s “pathways to reflection, self-challenge (fear), and basic life changes.”
These pathways include pranayama — 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 each breath which ebbs and flows like the ocean. Many dancers feel that yoga’s emphasis and practice of breathing has been quite profound for their dancing.
Katherine Crockett, principal dancer in the Martha Graham 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?”
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 yoga classes, such as astanga yoga or OM yoga include breathing as part of the instruction for every pose and every transition between the poses. Developing consciousness of your own breathing patterns – do I tend to hold my breath, sigh, breath unevenly or shallowly? – will both enhance your ability to fully oxygenate your body and introduce you to your own mind, heart and body.
Yoga is helpful with practical matters such as injury prevention, improved strength, flexibility, stamina, and overall balance of front and back, right and left, internal and external rotation. The asanas are designed to align the skin, muscles and bones so that our internal rivers of energy, blood, water, wind and other fluids can flow without obstruction, creating wholesome functionality.
Katherine 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 deepening of the groins affected my pelvic alignment and the freedom of movement there. (Yoga offers) an organic way to open the body as well as support the opening with a balanced strength.”
Terry also finds yoga technique important. “I mostly get into the particulars of alignment: the possibility of balancing right and left sides. Balancing inner and outer leg supports. Exploring the upper back and shoulders more – with weight-bearing movement, as with cobra and wheels (dance practices don’t get there regularly).”
For Christie, yoga alignment has been “a miracle of sorts for my knees. I used to wake up every morning with knee pain and now it is completely gone. My upper body and back are much stronger now and I am now able to do any kind of floorwork in dance with much greater ease.” She believes that the placement of the pelvis, the relationship of the pelvis to the spine and the limbs is fundamental to most contemporary dance techniques.
In December, 2001, Christie was asked to be a guest teacher at the Centre Choreographique National du Havre/Cie Havre Robbe. Although apprehensive about teaching yoga to a group of such highly trained contemporary dancers she chose to offer classes that were quite slow, focusing on breath work and basic yoga 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 some of the yoga into their warm-up routines.”
Various yoga schools emphasize alignment more or less. Iyengar yoga classes are strong on alignment principles, as are OM yoga and Anusara yoga, and these techniques have been found to be physically therapeutic. Astanga classes generally do not focus on alignment and are not recommended for those dancers who already have some injuries.
Richard Freeman, who recently taught a workshop in Paris, has a dual background in both Iyengar yoga and Pattabhi Jois’ Astanga which allows him to masterfully combine the protection of precision with the heat, movement, and breathing of the flowing vinyasa form. Other teachers are exploring this blend throughout the yoga world, such as Beate Cuson at Moveo in Berlin.
Katherine Crockett’s favorite teachers have been dancers who found yoga. She feels that that they “understand the rhythm of warming the body up, creating an internal fire, and yet allowing flow and ease within this process. Always 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 Terry feels that certain movement challenges are missing in yoga practice – moving through space, rhythmic shifts, momentum — one reason he took to yoga was the “working through” aspect of the practice – the active moving, breathing, observing. “I’ve always worked through soreness, tiredness, and tension in an active way. Certainly, yoga does this too.”
Most of the dancers have shopped around for good yoga teachers. Terry finds that techniques which 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.”
Because of the heated room of Bikram technique, one dancer overstretched her hamstring and had to recover for a week. None of the dancers I spoke with liked Bikram classes which they felt to be “hard-edged, militant.” One dancer felt “the Bikram teacher knew the sequence, but not her own body – or mine.”
Katherine finds 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 Christie, the inner teaching of yoga is just as powerful as technique. “The teachings of compassion and kindness in yoga have also helped me enormously to understand that as a body grows older we cannot continue to expect that it does not change. Age does not have to mean limitation but just doing things differently. This is often a very hard lesson for dancers to learn seeing that it is generally an art practiced by very young and healthy people. The fullness of yoga is about being okay with our limitations and weakness. It is not about getting “better” but about going beyond what we think “better” is.”
Most dancers feel a sense of freedom at not having mirrors, which encourages a deeper connection to their own personal process, rather than having to perform for anyone. The Judson Church dancers discovered back in the 60s, process means you are never finished. The practice of yoga reminds us that process also means you can always begin again. You can always return to that place of joyful movement that has no reason to exist except it reminds us of our aliveness.
Katherine expresses this as a circle: “In dance there is a desire or a certain lust to achieve or to express your creativity with power and clarity. In yoga there is less of a striving but I still believe there is a passion, love and dedication. It is like giving and receiving a massage from the universe.”