Sun Salutes & Snake Arms: How adding Yoga to your practice will improve your dance

Yoga changed my body. Throughout my first years of dancing in my late teens and early twenties, as a beginner belly dancer my body was hungry to learn this fascinating new way of movement – the hip shimmies, snake arms, undulations and body locks dominated my physical movement. In my youth I hadn’t really had any problems with injuries and it was always the older grownups who ‘had to stretch’ before and after exercise to avoid injury. Though my early training had an element of stretching & conditioning, the emphasis was definitely focussed on dancing and not really the aftercare of the body- which led me some years later to a lower back spinal disk injury which left me in chronic pain for many years thereafter.

My physiotherapist advised me against belly dancing, as she believed it was too hard on the lower back & hips, but I stubbornly refused the thought of giving it up and she recommended that I stretch certain muscles to gain my movement back and to reduce pain. I was also working a job in retail, standing up for long hours during the day, and working towards completing my degree in Digital Art which required long days in front of the computer. So all in all, not the best situation for my spine to say the least.

It was around this time I started moving away from classical style belly dance and began to explore the technique behind tribal fusion. As I moved further along in my journey I found that many of the dancers teaching this style talked a lot about yoga, and nearly all the tribal fusion DVDs I owned at the time had a yoga warmup sequence prior to any drills. The theory in tribal fusion technique that I feel differentiates from classical is the emphasis on posture. Using this theory I began to understand why my injury happened and how I could begin to rehabilitate myself safely, without giving up my dance. The reason why I mention tribal fusion is that the posture and carriage of this belly dance stylization is almost identical to many yoga postures and served as a fantastic foundation to when I would eventually begin a dedicated yoga practice. I attended yoga classes sporadically for around 2 years, and in conjunction with conditioning my body with tribal fusion technique, I started noticing that my back pain started to settle down. I went from living with a dull ache constantly, to moments of pain subsiding after practicing.

As my dedication to dance grew, I was able to begin attending workshops with visiting tribal fusion teachers. One of the teachers who really opened my eyes in terms of technique was training with Jill Parker in 2012. She was probably the first to introduce me to intense drilling and included yoga as part of her warmups and cooldowns. Practicing her drills and stretches at home started to really help my dance and I began to notice an improvement n my range of movement and flexibility. This sounds like a bit of a no-brainer but for me it was an approach to dance I’d never experienced, and it really opened doors for me in my personal development and teaching.

Kalikah Jade at Cirque de Serpentine
Kalikah Jade (side) planking at Cirque de Serpentine, Jul 2013. Image by Spiral Photography.

Late in 2012 I came across the youtube page of Kino Macgregor, a US Ashtanga yoga instructor with a cheeky smile and a straightforward approach to teaching. I started watching her videos online and really involved myself in learning the best types of stretches to help my back. So in my lounge room I began my own little  yoga practice, learning different stretches and doing my best to follow Kino’s technique. I also found Yoga Journal as an excellent online resource to research the kinds of stretches I should be doing to improve my dancing. For the next two years in conjunction with teaching, working and performance, I took beginners/intermediate yoga classes in my local area with astonishing results.

By increasing my hamstring, hip flexor and lower back flexibililty with strengthening yoga sequences, my chronic back pain all but disappeared. My dance began taking on a fluid quality due to an increase in range of movement as well as the increased flexibility. My hipwork improved and I found the strength to incorporate floorwork into my dancing when before my core was weaker than it should have been. Interestingly, I noticed that my spins became much more grounded and precise, and my armwork found more strength and consistency during performance.

Even after sustained periods where I took time off from dance, a regular yoga practice kept my muscles strong, supple and flexible. I was able to jump right into a 5 day intensive in Bali with Rachel Brice with no problems, after not dancing consistently for 6 months. As the intensive also featured yoga in the curriculum, I found that despite long hours dancing for that period I did not have any back complaints… just sore arms!

Downward Dog
Casually practicing my Downward Facing Dog in beautiful Bali, August 2014.

Just before the intensive, I found a brand new yoga home at Cosmic Yoga Studio following my move back to Adelaide in early 2014. After flirting with Bikram Yoga for about 6 months beforehand, I discovered yoga as a physical challenge rather than a passive stretching exercise which for me opened up my view on how I could improve my body & mind, while providing myself a strong foundation for safe and healthy dance practice. Since then I haven’t looked back, and with the amazingly gifted teachers at Cosmic Yoga Studio, I continue to make positive improvements in my strength and flexibility which has complimented my dance training.

Yoga Leggings
If you’ve caught the yoga bug you might also find yourself with a legging addiction… I mean collection. All pictured are Onzie yoga leggings.

The beauty about yoga is that it’s a lot like our belly dance – it is for every body no matter your age, gender, size, shape or experience level. You move at your own pace in a supportive environment that encourages mindfulness and presence.

It’s never too late, it’s never too bad, and you’re never too old or sick to start from scratch once again – Bikram Choudhury

Stay tuned for my upcoming blog post where I list my top 10 Yoga Poses for Bellydancers to compliment your own dance practice.

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