On the Mat
Addressing safe yoga practices
TaraMarie Perri discovered yoga early in her dance career, and her instructors were eager to teach a flexible body already suited for the practice. “I had some teachers who were excited about my ability to do anything, but they didn’t make sure I wasn’t setting myself up for a potential injury,” says Perri, who founded Mind Body Dancer, a dancer-friendly yoga method that has been implemented at Steps on Broadway, Dance New Amsterdam and Mark Morris Dance Center, all in New York.
As the practice of yoga becomes increasingly widespread, dancers flock to classes to improve upper-body strength, enhance overall fitness, calm the mind and rebalance the nervous system. But like any physical practice, yoga can be dangerous if not pursued correctly.
Susie Smith, physical therapist at the Colorado Ballet, says joint mobility injuries such as strains, sprains, tendonitis and pelvic misalignment are most common among dancers because of their hypermobile joints. To prevent these injuries from occurring during yoga, look for experienced instructors who have worked with dancers or athletes; these teachers tend to emphasize proper alignment without pushing the body.
Kathleen Hunt, yoga instructor and co-owner of Samadhi Yoga in Seattle, recommends coming to class with a “beginner’s mind,” regardless of age, strength or ability. Dancers must be responsible for their own safety, tuning in to their bodies to know when it’s appropriate to push a position or hold back. Smith adds that keeping muscles around joints slightly activated will maintain stability (instead of sinking or sitting into a pose).
An open mindset is the best way to ensure safety during practice. In dance, competition can be a healthy motivational tool, but it won’t be of benefit in yoga, where overexerting the body can result in injury. “For dancers especially, ego and physical achievement can be very intertwined,” says Hunt. Don’t be embarrassed to use props (straps, blocks and blankets) to achieve modified poses, which will provide the benefits of a stance without forcing joints, muscles and tendons to extremes they cannot manage.
Dancers who pursue yoga to help strengthen and rebuild after injury should get approved by their care provider. For acute injuries, seek out private lessons with a yoga instructor or therapist trained with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (iayt.org). Inform the yoga teacher so she can modify poses. “It’s important that the student trust the teacher enough to say, ‘Look, I have this injury or illness,’” says Perri, “because then they can really work with the student in a way that’s supportive.”
When practiced safely, yoga can strengthen, calm, inspire and even educate, helping dancers understand how their muscles and joints function. “What’s really exciting,” says Perri, “is when you work with somebody who’s overly mobile in their hips, back or knees, and they begin to understand how their muscular support works.” These revolutionary insights can be “mind-blowing for somebody who considers themselves a master of their instrument. It feels like they have a whole new territory to explore.” DT
Tess Jones is a freelance writer and yoga instructor in Seattle.
Overwhelmed by the Options?
The type and frequency of class dancers should choose will depend on their training regimen. Evaluate an overall routine to determine what is missing and seek classes that complement, not duplicate, strengths.
Alignment-Based Yoga (Iyengar, Anusara, Hatha)
Great for most dancers and best for those hoping to improve alignment
Most modern yoga tracks to B.K.S. Iyengar, whose classes are known for attention to detail, down to the placement of each muscle and bone. Like Iyengar, Anusara features alignment, but it has an upbeat, heart-opening attitude. Hatha can describe all types of yoga but often means a gentle, alignment-based class. All three styles are safe for dancers to practice.
Flow Yoga (Power Yoga, Vinyasa, Ashtanga)
For someone looking to improve overall body strength, such as a ballet dancer
Flow yoga is beneficial for those interested in a vigorous, strength-building practice. Power yoga offers a full-body workout and moves quickly between poses, challenging stamina and strength. Vinyasa, meaning “flow with the breath,” can be gentle or strong, depending on the teacher. Ashtanga classes feature repeated sequences to build strength over time.
Restorative Yoga (Gentle Practice, Yoga Nidra)
A stress reliever for highly active dancers, like those in a conservatory program
Restorative classes are an excellent complement to a vigorous training regimen, allowing dancers to rest their nervous systems and recover and regenerate their bodies. They may be labeled as “gentle” classes. Meditation during Yoga Nidra brings students to a state of aware sleep. Calling a studio may reveal prescheduled restorative postures.
Heated Yoga (Bikram, Hot Yoga)
Generally not recommended for dancers
Susie Smith warns against hot yoga, though many yogis swear by its benefits—the body’s management of heat and its cleansing of toxins. Smith says this is where dancers may find the greatest risk in overstretching. Those who choose this method should pay extra attention to alignment and pull back from highly flexible poses, focusing on strength and stability.
Photo by Sophie Kuller, courtesy of Mind Body Dancer