By Danielle Pierce-Master, MA Dance / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance (Performing Arts)
Yoga has a number of benefits for dancers seeking to cross-train for general wellness. The way Yoga trains the mind and encourages non-judgment and a shedding of things that don’t serve us is incredibly important in the preservation of a dancer’s mental health.
The benefits of yoga for dancers include learning breathwork, improving alignment and awareness of the body, developing strength and flexibility, developing mental skills and non judgement of the body.
I am certified Pilates instructor. But at a time in my life when I was teaching dance all day and performing most weekends, a group yoga class was part of my weekly schedule, because of all the benefits you will read about in this article.
What is Yoga
In 1001 Pearls of Yoga Wisdom, Liz Lark explains that “Yoga is all about relationships,” and “a regular spiritual, mental and physical yoga practice can empower and ground you.” Within the practice, there are eight limbs, five pillars, and a myriad of styles.
The eight limbs of Yoga come from the text of Patanjali, The Yoga Sutras. They refer to practices of restraint, observance, movement, breath, senses, concentration, consciousness, and balance of thought. Asana refers to the physical practice, the components that are most frequently taught in Yoga Classes that you might find at a gym or studio. It is entirely possible that after trying a few Yoga classes you notice that while it is a great workout, there is a lot more to it than just the fitness component.
Different Styles of Yoga Practice
Hatha, Vinyasa, Yin, Anusara, Ashtanga, Kundalini, and Restorative are but a few of the different styles of Yoga Asana.
Each of these styles includes a different approach to the movement, but the coordination of breath and movement is a constant. Many dancers gravitate towards Vinyasa Yoga, which offers a flowing experience from one pose to the next and often has a “dancey” quality.
Yin and Restorative are other common favorites for dancers seeking a recovery/ rest experience.
The Benefits of Yoga for Dancers
New York City based dancer, dance educator, and Instructor of Yoga and Functional Awareness, Allegra Romita explained, “In concert dance, we train for performance, expression. In Yoga we train for function.”
1. The Intentional Practice, Control, and Application of Breath
A key component of all styles of Yoga is the intentional practice, control, and application of breath. “Any practice of purposeful breath changes a person’s expressivity and core support,” Romita says. Proficient dancing requires an intentional use of one’s breath, but it is often not explicitly taught throughout dance training.
Yoga practice helps a dancer to find the connection between their breath and movement. Many of my friends who work in Musical Theater reported a positive difference in their ability to sing and dance simultaneously when they added Yoga practice to their training regimens.
Beyond a dance-specific application, practicing breath-work like one does in Yoga generally relaxes the nervous system and reduces stress. These general benefits lead to both improved overall wellness and more easeful performance in dance.
2. Practicing Optimal Alignment
Optimal breath is available when the spine is in optimal alignment. Practicing Yoga helps dancers to refine their awareness of the placement of their skeleton, allowing their muscles to work more efficiently. This is true of the spinal column as well as the joints of the arms and legs.
Many poses require the practitioner to be keenly aware of the relationship between hips and knees, observing which muscles need to work more and which less in order to maintain the pose.
This work leads to greater command of one’s posture, which may complement or counteract one’s dance practice. A ballet dancer might appreciate the verticality of the spine found in Yoga to support the upright posture that ballet requires, while a dancer in
Afro-Caribbean or Hip Hop styles might appreciate the verticality of the spine in Yoga as a counter balance to the more fluid use of the spine in those forms.
3. Increasing Strength and Flexibility
Yoga is typically thought of as a training modality for people who are seeking to become more flexible, or increase their range of motion at specific joints. The frequent practice of forward bends helps develop mobility in the spine and hamstrings, while other poses offer opportunities to create more space in the shoulder and hip joints.
Maintaining Yoga poses for a series of three or more breaths definitely helps to cultivate muscular strength. Vinyasa Yoga series typically include planks and Chaturanga Dandasana, which require tremendous strength in the upper body and core.
Dancers who perform breaking or contemporary floor work or any type of partnering find their strength training augmented by this work; weight bearing ring training for the upper body also benefits dancers who study ballet or tap who don’t have that as a part of their regular training.
4. Practice of Mental Skills
In dance class or rehearsal, as we strive towards unattainable perfection, it can be very hard to practice movement without judgment and (a sometimes unhealthy level of) perfectionism. Yoga offers an opportunity to move and strengthen the body without judgment.
In Yoga, “we practice mental permission to be inside your own body, letting go of expectations, ‘coulds,’ and ‘shoulds,’” Romita said. This can help a dancer develop stronger body awareness and sense of self, both which can lead to improved performance.
In Yoga classes that involve holding poses for extended periods of time, “We learn that we are able to breathe and move through challenge,” Romita said. This is a multi-layered benefit; the body builds strength, while holding a pose requires intense focus, and breathing through hard things is a skill that transfers to dance class and everyday life.
For Further Reading
If I haven’t completely confused you and you’d like to give yoga a try, check out these instructors:
Illumina Yoga is one of my favorite teachers! Johanna explores yogic philosophy with movement and music and meditation and I love her class!
Allegra Romita (featured above) teaches at Brooklyn Yoga Project
Laughing Lotus is a popular studio with locations in NYC and San Francisco, also offering online classes.
Be Bhakti Yoga Center is a studio based in Beacon, NY with a full range of in person and online offerings.