Yoga and Dance
Yoga and Dance
Moving in the Moment
By Suzanna del Vecchio
I was first introduced to Yoga in 1972 when I read Yoga, Youth and Reincarnation by Jess Stearn, and signed up for my first Yoga class. Although I put aside the study of Yoga for many years when I became hooked on learning Oriental Dance, I never forgot the postures I had learned in class and continued to use them to keep limber and to warm up before classes and performances. I also noticed in these early years that regular practice of the abdominal thrust made stomach rolls and flutters quite easy for me, and using information learned in Yoga class I was able to correct a misalignment in my pelvis that gave me back pain when I danced.
After I moved to Denver in 1980, I began taking classes again and was introduced to Iyengar Yoga, named after B.K.S. Iyengar, the man in India that my teachers study with. I was impressed with the quality of teaching and the dedication of these teachers, and this vigorous style of Hatha Yoga inspired me with its emphasis on the development of stamina, strength, flexibility, balance, and concentration.
Iyengar Yoga stresses precision in the execution of positions and meticulous anatomical alignment, and often relies on various props (benches, ropes, sandbags, pelvic swings, blocks, and chairs). It demands your awareness: you must think and feel the shape of the pose, and be aware of your movement through space, as well as being mindful of the body’s correct alignment.
“How could anyone remember all this?” I thought. “When will I get it right?” Then I realized that it did not matter when I got it right, at least not in the sense I was used to thinking. What mattered was the process. With this Yoga, I was learning to “be in the pose,” to be in the moment while doing the movement. If I could work with this intention, then perhaps I could learn to harness my mind, to have the quality of mindfulness, to bring the mind into the present moment.
That is exactly what I wanted in my dancing: to be one with the music and my audience. I was so aware of the stress of having to perform well under pressure, to look good and keep up with the new trends, to try and remember my choreography and make it look spontaneous. Could Yoga help me to find that magic moment of union in my performance?
I found that the goals of my dance and yoga practices were very similar. Many dancers have experienced this unity in the moment as the peak and ultimate goal of their performance. Union is also the goal of this other ancient art form, yoga, which literally means union, joining, yoking. Iyengar stresses the integration of Yoga, or union, into everyday living, family life, health, even dying. He sees yoga practice as a true union of mind, body and spirit, “the means by which the human soul may be completely united with the Supreme Spirit pervading the universe and thus attain liberation.” (Yoga Journal, May/June, 1993) Hatha Yoga works from the outside to the inside, creating a balance of strength and flexibility in the physical body, and infusing the same qualities to the inner, spiritual self. It is this emphasis on the body that makes it particularly beneficial for a dancer.
This Yoga is humbling. Many of the poses seem to have gotten easier, but others seem just as difficult after five years. However, the benefits to my dancing have been clear. I now know how to place my weight on my feet, and how to place my pelvis to make a figure eight look and feel better. I know how to do a Torso Undulation and a Backbend without it hurting my lower back. I feel stronger, and my dance technique is stronger as a result of studying Iyengar Yoga. It has provided me with a strong foundation upon which to build my dance technique.
Yoga postures are performed more slowly than dance movements. It is easier to keep your attention on a spinal elongation while in a Yoga posture, for example, than trying to keep your chest lifted while performing a hip articulation in time to the music. The postures are designed to promote the lengthening of the spine and the opening of the chest, so that over a period of time, one will notice a difference in their carriage. Although correct dance technique can also be helpful in promoting this, it has been my experience that Iyengar Yoga is easier and quicker. One can immediately apply what one learns in the Yoga postures to the dance. They work well together.
For example, let’s examine Tadasan, the Mountain Pose, the basic standing pose. We concentrate on the standing poses first because they help to build strength and balance, as well as flexibility, and teach us how to do the other poses correctly. In the Mountain Pose, we start with the attention on the feet. Standing, we bring the feet together, joining the big toes and separating the heels slightly. We then center our weight over the arches by placing the weight evenly front to back, and side to side, freeing the toes to elongate and extend.
The attention is then brought to the thighs, moving the femer bones over the shins, over the center of the arches. Our attention is now brought to the pelvis, drawing the tailbone down as you gently move the pubis towards the navel without shoving the hips forward. The spine now has a chance to lengthen from its base through the top of the head. With awarenes, the back ribs are brought into the body, as well as the shoulder blades, which supports the chest to open and expand. It has taken years for me to learn to open the chest without leading with the sternum or pushing the front ribs forward.
Old habits die hard. Teachers, how many times have you reminded students to keep their chest lifted, only to have them slouching two minutes later? How many of your students look like ducks walking when trying to learn a “Down Hip Walk” (dropping the hip of the weighted leg in a down position while walking forward)? How difficult is it for many students to come up to demi-toe and balance well and look graceful, too? How about that bent and lifted knee with the dangling foot where there is no awareness of firming the leg and pointing the toes. Pointing the toes is not natural for many people. Neither is an open chest or a well-placed pelvis. I know many students of this dance who have no awareness of how they move in their bodies, and they become discouraged because they think they do not have what it takes. Incorrect body alignment can be changed and strength can be developed, but not by trying to remember to stand up straight. A strong foundation has to be developed from which to move.
Iyengar Yoga is excellent for creating continued awareness of how we stand and walk, move and dance. It takes discipline to study and practice, but one does improve. Through formal classes and with patience and practice, an individual will learn the strength and flexibility to stand and move well. Learning the correct placement of the pelvis makes this dance much easier. Strength is exhibited in more than just being able to do floor work or deep backbends. It permeates the whole dance. As we improve in our practice, self esteem grows, which in turn leads to a desire for more knowledge.
Yoga is about looking directly at your weaknesses, and learning to see your strengths. It is non-competitive: it is not about being able to sit in the Lotus pose, or being able to bring your head to your knees, although you will learn this. When you are aware of how you stand and move, you become aware of other more subtle habitual behaviors. You become aware of how you react to fear and pain, love and pleasure. You begin to learn what it is to live in the moment.
The awareness of the breath is continuously observed; you are encouraged to know where it is at all times. The breathing techniques and the meditation which are eventually taught are most helpful in learning to be in the moment, reducing the stress of a performance, encouraging joyfulness.
There are many practical applications of yoga to dance. One can use poses to warm up and cool down while practicing or performing. It is invaluable for teachers to have the knowledge of Inyegar Yoga so that they can learn how to address the problems of their students, such as slumped shoulders and sway back, how to teach backbends properly, etc. When the body moves freely, we can then address the emotional content of the dance.
More than anything, Yoga can help us develop an awareness of the potentiality latent within us. The result is the development of responsibility and strong intention, and a longing for the experience of who we really are. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to share that experience with our audience!
The following verse was written by my Yoga teacher, Debra Ann Robinson, for her students:
Surrender in the discipline and cultivate the energy of focused action and attention.
Leave behind the lethargic and ego-centric self.
Through diligence, cultivate the proper attitude.
With faith and devotion overcome doubt and realize the joyousness of certainty.
Repeatedly soften the density of body, mind and emotions.
With unceasing effort relax the mind.
Overcome resistance and destroy negativity.
Apply the profound instructions and cultivate experience. and understanding!
Suzanna Del Vecchio is an international performer and instructor of Oriental Dance. She resides and teaches dance and yoga in Denver, Colorado.www.suzannadelvecchio.com