“Yoga keeps you young”. That is what my favourite yoga teacher once said in the middle of the class. I immediately thought of Madonna. She is close to 50 years old and does not look a day over 35, claiming that yoga has changed her life. She can still keep up with twenty-something year old dancers she hires to be in her music videos and live shows. Most people, myself included, probably did not expect Madonna to still be performing at the level she does by her current age. I am a ballet and contemporary dancer, so I started to imagine myself dancing into my fifties. In the past six years that I have been practicing yoga, I have given a serious thought to how it can affect the longevity of my career, as well as my life after I leave the stage for good. For me, yoga has become insurance for my body.
I attended my first yoga class around six years ago at my gym on a Friday morning at 7 am. I did not know much about it, but yoga was getting more popular by the day so I decided to jump on the bandwagon. I heard it was a good way to get centred and relieve stress. My job can be very stressful, so it sounded perfect. I walked into a room full of lit candles and a clear view through the window of dawn on the verge of breaking. The teacher instructed us to sit cross-legged and breathe deeply together. I remember feeling relaxed, and a connection to the people around me. We proceeded to perform sun salutations and poses that warmed me up, stretched me out, and engaged my muscles in a way that challenged me and felt very natural. When the class was over I went on with my day: an hour and a half ballet class and 6 hours of rehearsals. Usually on a Friday, after a whole week of working like this, my body would be extremely exhausted and sore. On this particular Friday I felt energized and got through the work day much easier. I knew I would be back in that yoga class the following week!
I started attending evening classes as well as in the mornings. The morning practice was a great preparation for my day and the evening practice was the perfect wind down after dancing hard for several hours. I was getting stronger in the muscles that were weak and improving flexibility in the ones that were tight. The more yoga I did the more I found my dancing improved. My approach to the art changed. I became much calmer and controlled, which resulted in a freer movement quality. My discomfort in the off hours also decreased. Less sore muscles and joints meant I slept better. It appeared that I had found a perfect cross training for dance.
The typical dance career ends between age 35 and 40, without a serious injury that is, and many dancers experience uncomfortable and painful retirements. Three of my most important male ballet teachers from my youth all have one thing in common: injury. The first, when I was 14 years old, was quite young. Had just turned 35 and was forced to retire from dance due to foot injury. He could demonstrate almost all the steps to the class but it was obvious that minus the pain he was in, he was still in his prime as a dancer and his career ended far too soon. The next year I had a teacher who was in his fifties and although he was very energetic and had the entire class hanging on his every word, he walked with a limp because of a bad knee from years of jumping. For my senior year in the ballet school I was taught by a white haired tyrant who could scream at young dancers for hours to get amazing results out of sheer terror. He often had to sit down because he had so much pain in his back. All three were principal dancers, leading men at the height of their careers, but experience a great deal of discomfort in their retired lives. Two serious demands put on male dancers are to jump continuously and to partner women. The latter entails a lot of lifting their partners over their heads. Jumping puts a lot of stress on the knee and foot joints, while partnering strains the back. Looking at these role models I had, I can’t help but imagine myself with one of these serious injuries one day, either mid career or after retirement due to overuse. The idea of not maintaining an active lifestyle as I get older, or to not be able to chase my grandchildren around some day is terrifying.
I once worked with a choreographer who had an assistant. Her purpose was to warm him up every morning with yoga practice and to help the dancers with our approach to the material. She had a very serene and peaceful energy about her. Also, the way she moved and the things her body could do were unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was intrigued by her so I picked her brain every chance I got. She was close to 40 years old. She told me that she started doing yoga 13 years ago, and if she hadn’t learned yoga and made it part of her life, she would have already retired. Instead she was still dancing beautifully, powerfully and youthfully.
A good friend of mine in Toronto, whom I dance with all the time, has recently opened a fitness studio. The mandate of the studio is for all of the fitness instructors to have a dance background, and for them to impart some of their dance training and fitness level as a result of dance onto non-dancers. The classes include ballet-based aerobics, pilates, personal training and yoga. All of us who work there are either retired dancers or still \dancing and have been trained in one or more of these aspects of fitness. Many of the clients in the studio are athletes or people who danced in their youth but didn’t take it to a professional level, so they understand the importance of maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. I already teach the aerobics (Ballet Boot Camp), which was developed by my friend, and I look forward to teaching yoga when I am fully certified. It has been a dream of mine for years to help others improve their health and quality of life through fitness. Exercise in all forms is great. Yoga however also has the meditation aspect. This makes a huge difference for active people by balancing and restoring the body and mind in a positive way.
Prolonging an intense career that relies on physical strength and endurance is reason enough for elite athletes to practice yoga. I highly recommend it to all my colleagues. To live an overall happy and healthy life and with the ability to remain active and fit into old age.