What Dancer Pose Taught Me About My “Yoga Body”
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a dancer. So, just after my third birthday, my mother signed me up for my first ballet class. She figured ballet would be right up my alley since I was always walking around on tippy-toes (actually a fairly common toddler trait) and pushing the newspapers and magazines off the coffee table in order to make myself an impromptu "stage." Then I’d dance and sing along each time Star Search, Alvin and the Chipmunks, or a Madonna video came on television.
Her hunch was right. I adored my dance classes, and by the time I was in high school, I was taking more than ten of them a week. "Dancer" had become a major part of my identity. I even chose my college based upon its well-regarded ballet program.
However, as many young dancers do, I struggled with body image. I didn't always feel "like a dancer" because I didn't have a traditional "dancer's body" (or at least what the 20th-century American choreographer George Balanchine had decided was a "dancer's body")—thin frame, short torso, and long, lean limbs that the media would lead us to believe are a natural result of barre time as opposed to genetics. The truth is, my arms and legs are quite short and muscular, and all of the grande battements and arabesques in the world weren't going to make them grow any longer. In fact, because of my "non-traditional" body proportions, certain turns and "forward-bendy" movements and stretches were actually easier for me than they were for some of my classmates. Back-bendy things, though, not so much.
Occasionally during warm-up stretches, I'd watch fellow dancers effortlessly touch their feet to their heads. My body didn't seem to want to bend in that direction. I'm flexible, I'd say to myself—why can't I do that? Same thing at dance competitions, which typically allow for movements less traditional than those found in ballet class. I’d enviously watch others stand on one leg, reach overhead, and readily catch their foot behind them (a trick called a "scorpion" when the back knee is bent and a "needle" when the back leg is straight), and I'd wonder why bending in "that direction" was so hard for me.
I'm flexible, I'd say to myself—why can't I do that?
Eventually, I figured out how to force (yes, force) my back foot to touch my head in a front split (not something I would recommend). But it was perpetually unpleasant for my back knee and lower back, and I happily abandoned this "stretch" the moment I hung up my pointe shoes in favor of a yoga mat. Still, as with ballet, while I found that forward-bending poses came fairly easily to me in yoga class, backbending poses were a struggle. A big struggle.
It took me years to understand that this challenge had a lot to do with my body proportions rather than a lack of "yoga talent." This was particularly true when it came to asanas like dancer pose, which (at least in one popular form) involves that same "reach overhead and catch your back foot" action that I thought I would never again have to attempt once my dance days were behind me. You see, because my arms are short and my torso long, the distance between my hands and back foot is much greater than for someone with a shorter torso and longer limbs. Couple that with my tight hip flexors, and one can easily understand why this was my very least favorite pose for a very long time.
Even though I didn't like or feel "good at" backbends, the fact remains that there are a lot of backbending poses in yoga. Rather than spend a large chunk of each class wincing and grimacing, I really did want to learn to like backbends. I wanted to find a little bit of that sthira and sukha that my teachers were always talking about.
Anyone who dances and has a body has a "dancer's body," just as anyone who practices yoga has a "yoga body."
The first step was to acknowledge that, just like for everyone else, some poses naturally come more easily for me and others are naturally more challenging. And just because I couldn't lift my knees more than an inch off the floor in dhanurasana (bow pose) or touch my foot to my head in pigeon or dancer (at least not comfortably), it didn't mean that I couldn't find steadiness, ease, and maybe even enjoyment in my unique versions of those poses. Once I recognized this, I came to an even more significant realization, something that I wish I'd been told in ballet class: Anyone who dances and has a body has a "dancer's body," just as anyone who practices yoga has a "yoga body."
And now, each time I take the form of natarajasana (literally, "king dancer" or “lord of the dance" pose), I remind myself of that. No matter what my pose looks like on the outside, as I balance and breathe, engage and stretch and sweat, I feel graceful, poised, and strong. Like a dancer.
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!