From the Mat to the Barre
When a hectic teaching schedule left Katie Teuchtler feeling drained, the assistant dance professor at Ohio Wesleyan University sought a way to recharge her batteries. “I was working nonstop and really needed something to restore my body and my energy, to quiet my mind for a little bit,” she says.
That is when Teuchtler discovered the power of yoga. Not only was it a practical way to decompress, but it also proved to be a great means of cross-training, as she noticed a vast improvement in her strength and form.
Realizing her students could benefit from her discovery, Teuchtler began incorporating yoga into her modern courses, and it was a hit. “They would tell me it helped so much with their dancing and with the everyday stresses of being college students,” she says.
Teuchtler even believes the two disciplines may actually have an extensive history together, noting the similarities in technique, which makes it easier for dancers to learn the exercises. “Take, for example, the motions involved when moving from third position to passé,” she notes. “When the toes touch the sides of the knee, it looks very much like the tree pose.”
Debbie Winchell, owner of Cricket’s Performing Arts in Manheim, Pennsylvania, slowly integrated yoga into her classes after success with an offering at last year’s summer camp. The 10-year-old campers participated in a daily 45-minute cool-down exercise that consisted of simple moves like the tree and eagle poses and the half-moon stretch. “The kids enjoyed the routine so much,” she says. “If I ever skipped it, they would specifically ask for it.”
The following fall, Winchell added her first full-length yoga class, and attendance has continued to grow. “I’ve watched my students, especially the really tiny ones, improve their balance, flexibility and endurance. It’s been so good for them that starting next year, my company dancers will be required to take yoga.”
While yoga enhances a dancer’s flexibility and muscle tone—elements necessary to keep lines straight and jumps strong—the cognitive effects of regular practice are also valuable. “I was working with a 10-year-old client who was extremely stressed from both school and social pressures,” says Lisa Orkin-Passloff, a Boston-based occupational therapist and yoga instructor. “I taught her the child’s pose and encouraged her to do it whenever she felt anxious. I can’t tell you how much it has helped her focus and relax.”
When it comes to learning yoga, is age an issue? Elizabeth Wivell, a New York City–based certified children’s yoga instructor, believes practicing the ancient art allows children as young as age 2 to learn kinesthetically while developing basic motor skills, coordination, spatial relation and depth perception. “It’s a great way to get kids comfortable with taking verbal and visual instructions,” she says. “Having them run through a series of poses helps sharpen their memory and sequencing abilities, which is important for dancers.”
According to Wivell, it’s not the age of the student that should be questioned, but rather the experience and knowledge of the teacher. “Children’s bodies are constantly changing and developing,” she says. “Anyone who works with them should know and understand the developmental sequences, and know which poses are appropriate and which are not.”
For example, Wivell wouldn’t recommend teaching a class of 2-year-olds inversion poses (any position where the heart is located below the hips, like shoulder stands and headstands), because these can cause serious injury if done incorrectly. She suggests handling students on a case-by-case basis, as their skill levels will differ, and that instructors working with small children receive a yoga certification. (For more information on certification, see page 160.)
If you lack the resources to become a licensed practitioner, strongly consider attending programs and workshops to both safeguard the well-being of your dancers and avoid liability issues. If you opt out of accreditation altogether, another (sometimes less expensive) alternative is hiring an experienced yoga instructor to teach classes at your studio. Wivell advises finding someone who has extensive training, especially with children and athletes, to ensure that all dancers gain lasting mental and physical advantages from yoga. DT
NYC–based freelance writer Tatiana Muñoz holds an MA in journalism from Syracuse University.