How I Teach Yoga for Dancers

In a small studio four floors above Manhattan’s rush-hour commute, 20 or so students sit on their heels at the center of their yoga mats. “We’re going to do a hips class today,” says TaraMarie Perri, adjunct professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The dancers look nervous to approach deep stretching and strengthening at 9 am, but Perri assures them that this is about much more than that. “Do you have a sense of how your hips actually function? You’re thinking joint rotation, but I want you to look at the whole pelvis,” she says. As the class later works through a series of lunging poses, she continues. “Turnout isn’t about how far you can push your hip to the floor. Lifting up through the top of your head and imagining the hips narrowing can actually make room in the joint—something you can think of as you stand at the barre, too.”

What’s immediately clear is that Perri doesn’t teach your average yoga class. Sure, the poses and sequencing aren’t wildly different from Vinyasa flow, but her curriculum was built with dancers in mind. In 90 minutes, she has addressed breathing to make movement easier, finding strength in hypermobility and relieving post-performance stress. “We don’t teach bliss and rainbows,” says Perri, whose Mind Body Dancer method has taken over New York studios Steps on Broadway, Mark Morris Dance Center and Dance New Amsterdam, as well as other programs here and abroad. “It’s about learning that ‘When I’m really angry, I grip my hips, but when I breathe through it, the tension goes away.’”

Perri took her first yoga class while earning her dance MFA at Tisch. “Yoga really piqued my intellectual interests. After just one or two classes, I noticed it had completely changed the way I was taking dance. I had a deep sense of alignment and anatomical awareness,” she says. That fueled her to get certified and transition into teaching yoga full-time, eventually returning to her alma matter as an adjunct professor.

But it wasn’t until a few years later when Perri realized she might be able to better bridge the professional worlds of yoga and dance. “A former student was leaving to teach at the Boston Ballet School and wanted advice, and while we were talking, she suggested I make my own curriculum,” she says. Perri began to explore what was most important to her as a dancer and yogi—alignment, breath, meditation—and started to outline Mind Body Dancer.

MBD is designed to address dancers’ strengths and weaknesses both physically and mentally: Dancers often approach yoga with none other than the “work harder” dancer mindset, pushing their flexibility and muscling through poses. “Regular yoga is too fast and sometimes heated,” says Perri. “That doesn’t complement a dancer’s training, because it’s what they do all day in the studio.” The method encourages prop use; adding a blanket under the sitting bone in half-pigeon pose or putting hands on a yoga block can completely change a stretch.

The biggest takeaway is how dancers—part artists, part athletes—can discover the best way to work through a relentless routine of class, rehearsals and performances. “Dancers learn to imitate and just find the muscle memory of a step, but they’re rarely making choices,” she says. “Am I ready to take that leg high or should I keep it low today? Yoga is about learning the differences between discomfort, challenge and injury. It’s awakening patience and learning to let go. And it’s about being present. And that awareness is what makes a dancer an artist.” DT

The language of Mind Body Dancer is dynamic. “Action words stimulate change in your students,” says TaraMarie Perri. “Try ‘pour,’ ‘push’ and ‘experience’—not ‘feel’ or ‘do or don’t.’ Those words don’t mean anything.” Here, Perri and dancer Maggie Ronan use the active MBD language to demonstrate yoga poses used as a warm-up in many dance classes. While practicing, be sure to inhale and exhale in steady cycles:

TaraMarie Perri began studying classical ballet in Pennsylvania. After college, she was a trainee with the Joffrey Ballet. She received her MFA in dance from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and continued to teach dance and perform in several regional ballet and modern companies. Perri started taking yoga during her studies in the city and was certified through OM Yoga. In 2006, she began teaching yoga at Tisch and three years later, she founded the Mind Body Dancer curriculum and teacher training program. Since then, more than 50 teachers have been certified to teach MBD at several studios, schools and universities across the country and throughout Europe and Asia.

Maggie Ronan, a Tisch graduate and New York dancer, has been studying and working with Perri for six years. She teaches MBD yoga at Steps on Broadway and the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance in Connecticut.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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