WLHQ: From Ballet Dancer to Yogi, the Hard Way
Here is a lesson I learned the hard way: A good dancer is not automatically a good yogi.
Let me set the scene. The year is 2009 and after four years with Ballet Chicago I am feeling burned out, ready to frolic in the greener pastures of modern dance (or, more accurately, to roll around on the floor). I move to New York and take up yoga, partly because all the cool modern dancers are doing it and, partly, because Yoga to the People is donation-based.
Here is why I thought I would be good at yoga:
“I will probably be good at yoga
because I am a dancer and dancers are good at everything because I am more flexible than 95% of the people I know and a dance teacher made me do some yoga poses once and they didn’t seem too hard. Also, if I can tap-dance blind as the back half of an elephant and dead lift a ballerina from a deep squat, surely I can learn a sun salutation and do chair pose with my eyes closed.”
And this is me after trying yoga for a month:
“Why can’t I hold my arms above my head for more than 10 seconds? Why have I never noticed that I can’t stand with parallel feet? Why is hanumanasana so much harder than the splits? How is it possible that there are entire regions of my body I have never stretched before?”
And this, I realized, is the fundamental disconnect:
Yoga and ballet are so far apart on the movement spectrum that they curve around and settle next to each other in our minds. Yes there are many similarities – an emphasis on precise body alignment, breath technique, mental focus – but at its core yoga is about your relationship with yourself, and ballet (and professional dance in general) is about how your body looks to other people. Yoga is inward: “What new limits can I explore within my body? Is this pose right for me right now?” Professional dance is outward: “Is this what my choreographer wants? Do I look great?”
That mentality, backed by 15 years of stage training, was ultimately the last aspect of my dancer-self to soften. Within a year of practicing yoga my shoulders had opened, my hips had realigned and my wrists were strong. But even then the yoga teacher was always my director, the sequence my choreography, and the yogi next to me my audience.
Only just now – four years in – do I feel like I am learning to arrive at my mat for myself. Only now do I actually make decisions based on internal goals as opposed to external ones, and understand that how I look to myself inside is more important than how I look outside.
A powerful side effect of this transformation is that I am finally coming to terms with my gradual retirement from professional dance. When I transitioned from ballet to modern dance I was hyper-aware of everything I was losing. As my average number of pirouettes spiraled down and my leg didn’t lift quite so high and my point was every day less pointy, I felt like each regression required a progression to replace it. “So I can’t double-beat my cabrioles anymore but what an awesome modern dance roll-thingy I mastered today!” When I judged my movement only in terms of performance value I couldn’t accept any valleys – only peaks.
Yoga has finally taught me to recognize alternative benchmarks of progress, and to appreciate more and worry less about my physical achievements. I will never be as good at ballet as I was four years ago, but that doesn’t mean I should love it less now. I may be better today at yoga than I was yesterday – or not. Who cares? As my dance career fades from muscle memory, I am finally asking the right question. Not, “How does it look?” but, “How does it feel?”
And it feels good.