Sometimes only dancing isn’t enough and we need something else to develop more strength, flexibility, and even a different mindset. Could yoga benefit you on your dance journey?

Would you believe me if I told you that I don’t remember how I started yoga? (It sounds ridiculous, because we almost always remember ‘the first time’, right?). And yet, I don’t remember my first class…and I don’t recall what made me go in the first place.

Was it a space-filler in between contracts to keep me mobile? Was it because I felt I wasn’t flexible enough? I don’t remember, but it doesn’t matter. I’m just glad I started!

With all the changes in my body over the years (and all the general life changes too), yoga has been the one constant. It goes anywhere and everywhere with me and doesn’t require much space or props besides a mat. Talk to anyone who does yoga, and I’m willing to bet that 98% of them will rave about it. There are just so many benefits, and each person is positively affected in a unique way. And for us dancers, even though we already have a certain amount of strength, control and flexibility beyond the ‘normal’, there are still so many things to be gained from yoga. 

Before we dive into all the juicy things it offers, let’s quickly look at what it’s *not*. Because it’s right at this point that people stumble and don’t end up even trying yoga…because they think it’s a religion. Like dance, it’s a physical practice. And again, like dance, it can be something spiritual, or not. 

It’s your choice. 

Any kind of inner exploration through dance is at the free will of the dancer. And in yoga, it’s the same. There are many great teachers out there who weave an element of the metaphysical or immaterial. And there are many who don’t. Either way, in a yoga class, it’s your choice to pay attention to that or not. So if that kind of thing doesn’t grab you, don’t let it stop you from trying the physical practice itself. Because it’s not a religion, and no one will force you to explore something you don’t want! 

Another misconception is that it’s only for already-flexible ‘pretzel people’. But yoga is open to all kinds of bodies! All shapes, sizes, abilities and level of athletic experience. And as Rakul Preet Singh wisely said: “Yoga is not for the flexible, it’s for the willing”. Despite the structure and methodology of yoga, the beauty of it is that it can be adapted to whatever you want it to be. There’s always room for a flexible and creative approach to whatever you’re doing in class (because no one will scream that you’re not doing what the teacher says!). And if you’re wondering why that all that even matters, read on and discover my favourite 6 benefits from bringing ballet and yoga together. 

Increase your flexibility & range of motion

I used to think I was someone who wasn’t designed to dance. 

The complete absence of natural flexibility, ankles and feet as straight as a stick, and hips that complained with every tight 5th position were pretty strong influencers of this perception. But going regularly to a hot and sweaty yoga class changed that, bit by bit. We can’t deny our skeletons and structure (thanks, parents!), but we can still improve upon what we have. 

I started working with Bovim Ballet shortly after graduating from UCT Dance School, and if you know Sean Bovim’s work, you know it’s dynamic! Besides fast turns and energetic partner work, there was a lot of leg-kicking and splitting. For someone who wasn’t naturally flexible with deep, unco-operative hip sockets, it was a challenge.  

But from one contract to another, with regular yoga ticking me over, I felt a massive difference. But the true visual proof of this was when it was time to restage a show performed just a few months before. Movements I’d found uncomfortable and awkward (to put it politely) were smooth and fluid. Why? 

Because yoga had already started to work its magic of increasing joint mobility, while building strength to support all these weird and wonderful choreographic moments. An off-axis split on pointe?…pleasant. A fast double pirouette into an arabesque my partner could effortlessly catch?…fun. And that over-the-partners-head middle splits jump?…I didn’t need cranes to hoist my legs. 

My goal wasn’t to be a rubber-banded gymnast…it was just to have more facility to actually enjoy dancing (instead of grimacing as my body protested). Without a doubt, yoga gave me that. And it didn’t even take that long!

Discover the power of breathing

Breath is one thing that wasn’t highlighted in all my years of doing ballet. Did you have the same experience?

Venturing into the realm of contemporary dance during university cracked this door ajar. But it was yoga that flung it open. One aspect of yoga is the deeper breathing…past the upper chest, past the lower lungs, and right into the whole torso! The body switches on, the breath signals to it to expand, fill space and move with intention.

Hand in hand with this, is the idea of linking breath to movement itself. Nothing happens in yoga without the breath taking the first step…and the body follows. You’ll often hear teachers say an inhale or exhale is the impulse, for anything and everything. This works so well in dance of any kind. Not only does movement feel easier, but it just makes sense on an intuitive level. It’s like your body wants to move that way, because it’s the way of least resistance. Connecting movement to your breath is a natural thing, but we don’t do it very often. And when you can, it translates so clearly into dance. We can influence and create movement qualities through breath. Very often we think of dynamics as a superficial, energetic occurrence. 

If you need to move your legs faster, you simply think about moving them faster. But what if you used quality of breath to create the energy that translates into that physical dynamic? In the same way, what if you have to fill 4 slow counts of music with one, slow movement? How do you draw that out without it looking (and feeling) painful? How do you fill the music with something that’s still exciting to watch? 


Just breathe in the way you need to. 

When we see the marriage of dance and breath, it’s obvious. It’s a very visual experience for someone sitting in the audience. Yoga can teach you how to do that. And it taught me. Using breath makes dancing feel easier, more dynamic, more natural, and simply more satisfying (and I think the audience would agree!).

Get the upper hand on those pre-performance jitters

Some dancers are fearless on stage. Some thrive on the adrenaline. And the rest of us let those nerves get the better of us. That show, that eisteddfod, that exam…agony. The mind races, you second guess if you remember everything correctly, or you have a challenging section and you’re wondering if you’ll be able to pull it off this time. Before you know it, your nerves and all the physical sensations have completely taken over, and you just want to get changed and go home, dancing or no dancing! But one thing I discovered after doing yoga for some time, was that I had better control over my mental state when the body reacted like this. 

Here’s where we look at how yoga isn’t only about the physical benefits. 

In a yoga class, themes about approaching it are shared (as I mentioned before, you choose whether to take it or leave it). This translates into the bigger picture of moving through life, giving us tools to navigate daily living. Because those same approaches can be applied to anyone, physically and philosophically, on the mat and off. For example, you might learn about how to be more compassionate with your body and not get angry that you can’t balance on one leg as perfectly as your yoga neighbour. This could translate into being more compassionate with your colleagues as you accept that not everyone works as efficiently as you do.

Or, through yoga you learn not to be judgemental of others. And that reminds you to behave the same way with yourself on the yoga mat (or backstage!). Essentially, approaches learnt in yoga work in many directions, on macro and micro levels. Over time, you work towards mastering negative sensations in your body, and negative external happenings in your world – all with calm, strength and resilience. This is the perfect tool for those pre-performance jitters. You reel in the chatter that creates whirlwinds of doubt, worry and weakness, and instead focus on having faith in the positive things…

…like, you’ve trained enough, you rehearsed hard enough, you dedicated a lot of time and energy (and so the list goes on). Through yoga you have the tools to look at the bigger picture, instead of being overwhelmed by what you’re feeling in that moment.  Your mental strength cultivated through yoga can override your physical sensations. So all those uncomfortable sensations don’t need to bring you down anymore. 

I’m not saying you’ll be fearless (because that would be weird). But you can be confident! And if yoga can offer that, who wouldn’t want it?

Master using space & expansion (with your body, and inside it!) 

Starting contemporary at university was a shock to the body. Ballet was hard enough…now this?? I won’t bore you with the struggles, but it was tough and I was determined to be a better contemporary dancer!

In my second year, I requested to join the third and fourth year classes to really push myself. It helped, obviously. But it still felt so foreign. After graduating, I continued with contemporary dance projects, but when I started yoga something started to shift. I felt more grounded. We know ballet is very much about elevation, elongation, defying gravity and contemporary is often the opposite. But yoga encouraged me to explore more space around the body without worrying that I’ll fall on my face. Yoga helped me establish a stronger foundation through my feet and legs, even more so than what we learned in contemporary class. Having that physical base meant my torso was freer to move side to side, further down towards the floor, and twisting and bending in all directions. This gave my dancing more range of motion…with more confidence!

Combining the use of breath with this ability to move through various spatial planes allowed me to be more expansive…to really explore shapes, all the way through to the fingers and toes. And not feel self-conscious about ‘taking up space’. Instead of thinking of movement in terms of back, front, and side to side, my body could confidently touch on all points in space…simply because yoga itself moves through all those points. Stretches, extensions, twists, and folding with body parts touching other body parts that didn’t even come to mind before! All of this contributed to creating more of the dancer I hoped to be.

Meet your body where it’s at & work with what you have

As a dancer, and it doesn’t matter if we’re students, apprentices or full-time professionals, the expectation is often the same…

Pitch up each day with a body and mind that gives nothing less than 100%. Even if you’re sick, injured, ‘not in the mood’, or struggling with life things outside the studio. We know that having a proactive, ‘give-it-your-all’ attitude can get you far. But in the dance world, I’ve also seen how detrimental it can be. We get used to putting our human needs aside for the sake of the dance…it’s what we expect of ourselves, and what others expect too. This could easily be a whole discussion on its own. 

So, let’s see how yoga helped me transform this into something more positive (and beneficial!).

As I mentioned before, not having the ideal ballet body meant working harder. And it opened up long, winding avenues of comparison and doubt. But spending time in the yoga studio taught me a different approacch, one that involved pitching up to class with a ‘ready-to-work’ attitude, but coupled with compassion. In other words, you’re willing to meet your body where it’s at on that particular day. 

For example, if your ankle is niggling you, why do the 28 relevés choreographed into the barre exercises? Why not do the exercises with integrity, but save your body for the rehearsals where you don’t have a choice? I’m definitely not encouraging laziness or slacking off for the sake of it, but truly tuning in to what your body needs, and being smart about it! The truth is no one actually appreciates a martyr. No one will pat you on the back for that. 

This concept also translated into something bigger for me – accepting what my body was capable of and being okay with it. Sure, don’t give up on trying the stuff that feels almost impossible, but don’t beat yourself up about it. Because that doesn’t help either. Focus on your strengths, maximise those, and with time and patience, build on the hard stuff.

I reached a point where I realised it was more beneficial for me to release the idea of being like other dancers and being able to do everything amazingly. Yoga taught me that and it completely changed my relationship to dance..for the better! 

Get even better alignment 

I wish I could say I’m one of those keen pilates fans, but I can’t. Nothing against it, but it never grabbed my attention (until now, it’s on my list!). So I relied on yoga to help consolidate alignment outside the dance studio. This wasn’t my prime intention, but rather a natural by-product. In ballet class, we think about alignment from a young age. But how often do we feel truly in control of it? And how often are we aware of the smallest details in our body that create better alignment? I’d guess not very often. 

It was certainly like that for me. Getting so caught up in the movement and needing to get it right as soon as possible, didn’t leave room for feeling it in the body properly. But yoga gave me that space and time. I had the chance to feel and think about how the body stacks, how one part affects another, how just ‘a few degrees this way created a big effect in another way’…

Bringing such a high level of awareness to the body, I could be present in class or rehearsal in a completely different way. Because I had a tangible alignment framework from yoga, I could focus on the movement and reverse engineer getting it right instead of being held back by wondering what needs to work, and when. Yoga helped create a laser focus on certain areas of the body. With better control over my pelvis, my shoulder girdle and placement of my head, all of a sudden I wasn’t fighting myself anymore. And this meant I could make faster progress in dancing, without sacrificing the technique or my body!

Yoga added much-needed layers to how I approached dance. It gave me a healthier mindset, and literally created more space and expansion in my body. 

With improved flexibility, and more strength, I can confidently say that a marriage between ballet and yoga is one for life. 


Ché Maria