Articles

Yoga and Dance

Author: Kristina Goodwin-Jones

In this essay I explore the ways in which yoga can be beneficial for dancers and whether dance can be beneficial to those who practice yoga, including an exploration of the idea of whether dance itself can be considered a Sadhana. 

An ever-increasing number of dance schools, institutions, and teachers of all styles of dance, from classical to contemporary, are now including aspects of yoga practice in their teachings. Likewise a large percentage of professional dancers practice yoga as part of their training. In the vast majority of cases the focus of this practice is solely on Asana, although sometimes on Pranayama, but much less often incorporating the inherently spiritual aspect of yogic teachings.  

Why is it that asana practice is so appealing not only to dancers from all over the world, but also to so many others looking for increased health, flexibility, and fitness?

It is now widely known that regular yoga asana practice can have a multitude of health benefits, provided a sensible attitude is applied and one takes care not to push themselves beyond their ability, or too far too quickly. A balanced approach to asana practice is required to obtain maximum benefits. A range of postures should be included in the regular practice, including back and forward bends, spinal twists, balances, and inversions, and these should be chosen according to an individual’s needs and limitations.

Some of the physical benefits of yoga particularly desired by dancers are improved posture, muscle flexibility, and balance.  A well chosen asana routine can stretch and strengthen muscles throughout the entire body, and

increased muscle flexibility reduces the risk of injury while dancing and improves the body’s range of movement.  Increased strength and flexibility of the core and spinal muscles in particular will improve posture, and improved posture and flexibility allow a greater level of comfort while dancing, introducing more ease and grace into the dancer’s movements. A dancer’s grace and fluidity of movement is often said to be what marks great dancers from amateurs. A combination of back and forward bending and spinal twists, such as Bhujangasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana and Paschimottanasana, will be most beneficial for anyone’s posture. 

Another great benefit of yoga asana practice for dancers is that when practiced correctly, asanas both relax the muscles of the body as well as strengthen them.  Proper relaxation of the muscles is both enjoyable and necessary for anyone whose regular routine involves a lot of physical work. The emphasis on relaxation whilst in the asana will greatly reduce the chance of injury during asana practice (as compared to conventional stretching techniques) and it is this relaxation of muscles that enables muscles to become flexible and long, thus helping to avoid injury while training and practicing. 

It is a commonly acknowledged problem that muscles without proper stretching and relaxation after exercise become shorter as they become stronger and this leads to stiffness of joints rather than the flexibility so important for dancers. The other benefit of the lengthening of muscles is that a dancer, who is required to be physically strong, is also in most dance forms encouraged to be slender (compare the much commented on “dancer’s physique,” to that of a body builder!)  Yoga asanas can help achieve this physical appearance, strong muscles but without bulkiness.

In order for asana practice to be relaxing, one should never push beyond the level of comfort and should focus on one’s breathing and maintaining steadiness in the asana position.  Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the oldest known text on the Science of Yoga, defines an Asana as being a steady, comfortable posture - “Sthir Sukham Asanam” - (Sutra 2:46).  If the position is not comfortable, one is not practicing yoga.  In addition to getting into and maintaining an asana, the movements to obtain and release from it should also be relaxed, slow, and controlled. The reason that a steady comfortable asana will be so relaxing is that asana involves only isometric movement of the muscles. During isometric movement the tone of the muscle is changing and whilst the length stays the same, the red muscle fibers are active rather than the white muscle fibers used during isotonic movement, and these red muscle fibers consume less oxygen, thereby allowing respiration rate, heart rate, and blood pressure to reduce. Slow and controlled movements between asanas are crucial in maintaining a relaxed state of the respiratory and circulatory systems, and have the added benefit of helping avoid injury or sprain during and of aiding in the development of the mind’s focus and concentration.

A relaxed body allows for a relaxed mind. It is well known that when excited, angry, stressed, or upset there are physical consequences such as quicker and shallower breathing, and an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. The reverse is also true - relaxing of the body’s functions will automatically relax the mind. Relaxation of the mind improves focus and concentration. Total relaxation during asana practice requires great focus, concentration on the breath, and relaxing the muscles, which allows an understanding of one’s own body and mind to increase, developing a greater connection between the two.  Indeed the first goal of yoga is often described as “a joining of body and mind,” the word yoga itself being derived from the Sanskrit word meaning “to join”. 

Development of focus, concentration, and communication between body and mind are crucial for dancers.  In order to dance with maximum expression and feeling a dancer must have total focus on the music.  This is often described as “becoming one” with the music. In dance, one’s mind is the artist and one’s body, the medium for artistic expression.  Therefore, a joining of one’s body and mind will allow for total mastery of expression through dance.  This is the key to why yoga is so beneficial to dancers. Although less often practiced, both Pranayama and meditation can also be highly beneficial to dancers for these same reasons.

Pranayama is probably the quickest and most effective way of calming the mind and gaining control of the body.  Pranayama practice allows us to control the breath using inhalation, exhalation, and breath retention. In yogic science the vital energy that flows through the bodies of all living things is called Prana.  Breathing supplies our bodies with oxygen, which keeps us alive.  By controlling the supply and distribution of oxygen to the body through Prananyama we are effectively controlling the flow of Prana throughout the body. This is the meaning of the name Pranayama. Gaining control of this flow of Prana not only puts us in control of our body’s physical functions but also allows us to control the mind.  Different Pranayama exercises have different physical benefits, but all have the effect of developing focus and concentration and leading to the union of body and mind. The results of asana practice will be experienced much quicker if practicing Pranayama as well.

Another benefit of Pranayama for dancers is that regular practice will increase the efficiency of the respiratory system, which will improve metabolism due to the great amount of oxygen flowing through the blood.  This too will increase the stamina and energy of the dancer.  Correct and controlled breathing during dance enables dancers to be more relaxed; bringing greater grace to one’s dancing.

As well as Asana and Pranayama to aid the dancer in achieving control and union of body and mind, including meditation, Yoga Nidra or chanting as part of a dancer’s regular routine can also be highly beneficial. The practice of meditation involves completely clearing one’s mind of all thoughts.  Many dancers describe occasions when they’re able to “go completely within” the music.  This feels like moving meditation, and that this is when their dancing is at its best. By practicing regular meditation and training the mind to be able to reach this point, one will be able to achieve the similar state while dancing. 

Despite all of it’s benefits as a tool for improving health, improving concentration, or helping one reach a specific goal like becoming a better dancer, yoga was never intended for these purposes.  Yoga is not a therapy, treatment or a type of physical exercise as it is sometimes misunderstood to be.  Yoga is a lifestyle and a spiritual path.  In order to receive the maximum benefits from yoga, one most adopt it as their lifestyle, not just pick and choose the practices that they think will bring the desired results for a specific goal. 

As a spiritual path, Yoga was developed over thousands of years as a Sadhana, Sadhana being a path of learning that ultimately leads the Sadhaka (student or follower of this path) to enlightenment or Samadhi.  The various traditions of yoga, Tantra, and Indian religious and philosophical thought have different ways of describing what it is to become enlightened and how one reaches this state, but a simple explanation would be the union of one’s individual soul or consciousness with universal consciousness, the supreme soul, or God. Yoga asanas were simply taught as a way to make the body flexible enough so that it would be able to meet the demands of sitting still for long periods of meditation, and to keep the body healthy so that a person could stay focused on their spiritual development.  Yoga’s physical and spiritual benefits are clear, and how they apply to the dancer’s craft is clear.   

So as to this essay’s second question, whether dance can be beneficial to those practicing yoga, it is necessary to pay attention to how yoga leads the practitioner to enlightenment. Although different traditions and schools of thought have differing answers to these questions, a unifying theme is the belief that control of body and of mind - “the joining of body and mind” - must be achieved, before spiritual awakening is possible. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras teach that the two stages preceding Samadhi, after the body and mind have been prepared, are Dharana and Dhyana; concentration of the mind and then meditation.

Whilst considering whether dance can bring about similar states of being as those described in yogic philosophy; heightened awareness, meditation, altered consciousness, and ultimately realization of self and of the divine, I was inclined to say yes it can, partly based on personal experience and partly due to the shared experiences of others. It was my desire to better articulate these thoughts that led me to the book “Tantra, Mantra, Yantra in Dance: An Exposition of Kathaka,” by Ranjana Srivastava, head of the Kathak Dance Department, Faculty of Performing Arts, B.H.U.  In this book, Ranjana Srivastava describes how Kathak and the Indian arts of music and dance in “are an extension of the Vedic, Tantric and Yogic practices and thus powerful and potent instruments for the religious, social, and spiritual uplifting of man and mankind.”  Srivastava explains how Kathak and other Indian arts were developed and practiced, and are themselves inherently sacred. Srivastava believes that it’s only recently in history, with the commercialization of art, that we are losing out on centuries of experience of “the spiritual base of the art form.” 

In her book Srivastava explains the interrelatedness of all classic Indian art forms, both with themselves and within Indian religious and philosophical thought.  “The streams of Indian culture, religion, and philosophy are so reciprocally entwined that it is almost impossible to separate one from the other,” she writes, and are intertwined with “the quest for the Absolute so predominant in Indian culture.”  So much so, Srivastava believes, that “The Indian arts of music and dance, Sangita, work simultaneously on two levels: the material or the worldly and the spiritual or the metaphysical.  Self-realization (Siddhi), emancipation (Mukti), enlightenment (Jnana), liberation (Moksha/Nirvana) and bliss (Ananda) are the final stages, so that 

“the absolute integration of the human personality, freed from the limitations of attachment or fear” is the end stage.

Srivastava also describes the rich symbolism and esoteric dimensions of the dance form, how the very first stance the dancer takes is a yogic posture; arms held out and slightly below the chest, hands held in Dhyana mudra, back perfectly straight and feet parted, in anticipation of “controlled rhythmic breathing (pranayama) to the sound of accompanying music.”  She also explains the use of mantras in the form of the ‘bols’ spoken in time with the dancers movements. The three primary bols are “Tha”, “Thei” and “Tat,” seemingly meaningless syllables that “to the Sadhaka become vibrant and potent and in the process do not merely remain sounds but translate/transform into visual images.”  Srivastava also describes the extensive use of mudra, gestures, which are able to change states of consciousness, and yantra, which are instruments used in creating mandalas and meaningful geometric patterns created by the dancer. 

There seems little doubt that the Indian art of Sangita (music and dance) is capable of leading the Sadhaka to higher states of consciousness.  Sangita, Srivastava says, “very clearly falls into three stages of learning: Grahana (learning), Dharana (assimilation), Jnana (meditation). This third stage leads to creation and ends up in liberation, a stage where there are no bindings or fetters. The entire knowledge acquired over the years becomes internalized, thus becoming one with the inner consciousness.” Not only do Sangita and Kathak share the same purpose and final goal as Yoga, Srivastava on numerous occasions states that these art forms are Yoga. 

Does the capacity of Indian dance as yoga and as a path to Samadhi described by Ranjana Srivastava bear any significance for other dance forms?  Could other dance forms from around the world also be practiced as, or considered as, Sadhana?  As we’ve seen, in order to perform dance well, a great control of both mind and body is demanded of the dancer. To express ideas, emotions, or thoughts in physical form requires a great level of connectedness between body and mind.  For those dancers who have never practiced yoga but still achieved this union of body and mind, one can only assume that they have done so through long periods of committed practice of dance.  Further, as to joining body and mind, many dancers of many styles describe spiritual experiences achieved through dance.

The use of dance in worship, ritual, and celebration, in various cultures and societies throughout history are vast.  It is widely acknowledged that dance has the power to alter states of consciousness.  Cultures from around the world have used dance to induce trance like or meditative states during rituals, from societies and cultures as far apart in space and time as the Sufis of the Indian subcontinent and Arab worlds to the ancient Native American tribes.  Even those who are not spiritually or religiously inclined are aware of the capacity of dance to lift the emotions. In the modern world dance is increasingly used as a recognized therapy, to heal both conditions of the body and the mind. 

I hope I have still succeeded in portraying some of the similarities between the paths of Yoga and of Dance and how, far beyond the physiological level, the two practices can be mutually beneficial and how dance can be used for the same purposes as yogic practices. 

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