Sunday, November 3, 2013

Healing with Belly Dance and Yoga

The Belly Dance and Yoga Connection

This was originally an article I wrote that was published in The Guilded Serpent.

I started my Yoga practice not long after beginning to Belly Dance. I was drawn to it and stayed with it as I enjoyed the benefits of the complementary practices. The promises of relaxation, strength, flexibility and spirituality intrigued me and fit right into my Belly Dancing lifestyle. I am not alone! Many Belly Dancers also practice Yoga and those who do Yoga are often intrigued by Belly Dance.  We will explore what the draw is and why. 

Sterling Painton, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was already a yoga instructor with her own studio when she started Belly Dance classes with Kari Merlina. Painton’s business partner was interested in adding “something different” to the class schedule and Merlina’s Belly Dance class fit the bill. Since Sterling had loved dancing since she was a little girl, she was excited to be able to start formal classes. She did not think it possible to start dance training in her 30’s, so she happily embarked on this new journey!

On a purely physical level, Yoga conditions the body and allows Belly Dancers to execute movements with fluidity and strength and access muscles with body awareness. Painton reports that she now has an incredible lengthening through her torso in her Yoga postures due to the strengthening and opening that Belly Dance provides. Painton found when she was learning Belly Dance that the isolations were remotely understandable because she had years of practicing isolations on the body in Yoga (such as lifting the quadriceps off the knees or lifting the rib cage while grounding the feet). She also noticed she could also yoga to counter stretch an area she just worked in Belly Dance. Additionally, she notes that Yoga will help protect the body from injuries and if you do get injured the recovery time is faster if you are a practicing yogi.  I personally start my classes with a Yoga warm up for this reason. Painton points out that both Yoga and Belly Dance require a great deal of discipline.

Both Belly Dance and Yoga can release trauma, both physical and emotional.  At my Yoga for the Special Child ™ ( training, Sonia Sumar pointed out that after Yoga class, some students felt negative emotions without knowing why because no thoughts were attached to them.  This was the body releasing trapped emotions.  I am sure to point this out especially when working on ribcage pops and body waves because the heart space tends to hold so much emotion and it is worked so continuously in these movements.  Letting go of those feelings that no longer serve you allows you to move forward physically and emotionally.

Mentally, Yoga allows the Belly Dancer to let go of the mental clutter that prevents us from “getting it” [a movement, combination, emotional expression, timing, etc.].  Instead of constantly wondering how you are doing or judging or criticizing yourself, Yoga allows for “letting go and letting it flow”.  
“Most of us who practice Yoga have slipped into flow on the mat- probably many times.  We know those wonderful moments when postures feel effortless.  The body seems to move on its own without force or strain.  We “know” the posture in an entirely new way and come out of these experiences somehow changed.  At ease.  Knowing ourselves more fully. “ (Cope, Yoga Journal October 2007)

Belly Dancers may recognize flow when you feel at one with the music and everything else slips away; you may notice your audience, but they are quiet witnesses.  Or, the audience and your dance partner(s) are part of your flow experience- everyone feeling the music completely and communicating with total ease.

Stephen Cope, working with Kripalu (, conducted yoga studies with musicians and athletes.  Cope himself noticed that the more consistent he was in his yoga practice, the more skillful he was on the piano.  This integration of mind, body and spirit seems to be the biggest factor in creating not only fully satisfying experiences, but also improvement in performance.
The studies indicate that a yoga practice including three hatha yoga (the physical practice) classes a week (gentle to moderate classes with a strongly meditative flavor and an emphasis on breathwork), a simple 30 minute mindfulness meditation practice each day and participating in certain aspects of a yogic lifestyle, including conscious eating, can help a performer “flow” by creating relaxed concentration.  The changes in the musicians who did yoga were quite dramatic.  One group had significantly less performance anxiety than the control group.  The second group confirmed that finding and also uncovered in the yoga group’s capacity to enter into flow states- and especially autotelic experience.   

An autotelic experience is one in which the experience of performance is perceived as intrinsically rewarding and fulfilling, apart from any external rewards.  The performer lets go of all self-consciousness about the performance-and any grasping for outcome or extrinsic reward.  She feels compelled by the sheer joy of the activity itself.  Studies show that the more often performers have this kind of experience, the more motivated they become to push the boundaries of their mastery.  (Cope, Yoga Journal October 2007)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, tells us that “Training attention to come back over and over again to a complex task allows awareness to become increasingly absorbed in the task at hand.”  Yoga does this both in Asanas (physical poses), breath work and meditation (returning to attending to breath, thoughts, sensations, etc.).
Belly Dancers are experienced with bringing attention back to a task over and over when they drill.  For example after 50 hip ups you may wonder what you are having for lunch, but you have 50 more to go, so you bring your attention back to the task at hand.  Practicing a choreography also requires attending mentally.  Improv Choreography asks that you stay totally present and not only attend to what you are doing, but also what your partner is doing. It is a very Zen process in that respect.

Spiritually, Yoga centers the Belly Dancer.  By revisiting Yoga’s non-competitive principals, one can acknowledge the bigger picture instead of any perceived slights or longings of the heart induced by the ins and outs of the community.  Online communities such as “Too Much Drama to Dance” on show us examples of the struggles many Belly Dancers experience.  Through practicing yoga, Cope tells us that
“the performer, like the yogi, has a transient but profound experience of feeling more at ease with life, of trusting the ineffable ‘inner self’, and of living free from self-concept in a kind of river of energy and intelligence.  This is perhaps the spiritual experience par excellence.  Yoga transforms performance in powerful ways, reframing most conventional notions of the very meaning and purpose of performance itself.”
Belly Dancers report stress and negative energy burning away after class or a great performance.  It also often provides a supportive social atmosphere which may be difficult to find with today's busy schedules.

Both practices balance the Chakras, starting with posture that aligns the spine.  Chakras are energy centers in the body.  Heat, light, electricity and nerve impulses are all energy, and the Chakras correspond to nerve ganglia in the body.  By intentionally moving the body parts associated with each Chakra, you release blocks, and energize and balance the energy centers.  By working the chakras through two practices, one can experience greater balance and health.  Something to note is that while Belly Dance uses the whole body, there is a particular focus on the belly that one does not find in other movement systems.  We not only intentionally move the belly on its own, it is constantly engaged during posture and parts are accessed more during ribcage and hip movements, as well as body waves or undulations.  The solar plexus, or naval chakra, (manipura, the third chakra) is associated with personal power, confidence and the element fire.  With a stronger, more activated third chakra, one exudes more confidence than someone with a less energized naval chakra.  Perhaps this is the pull yogis feel, being already awakened to the energy and drawn to a dance that will further energize their inner fire. There is an innate need for humans to create and to express themselves creatively.  The second Chakra (or first, depending on the reference), located in the pelvis, is our creativity center.  With a strong emphasis on hip and pelvic movements, Belly Dance activates our creativity, a need often over-looked in Western society.  While also energized in Yoga, Yoginis may seek out Belly Dance as a way to further strengthen this Chakra.  On the other hand, if you are experiencing a creative block in Belly Dance, then Yogic meditation, especially creating and meditating on yantras (geometric designs conceived of as containers for spiritual energy [Tomlinson, Yoga Journal, August 2008]) can remove creative blocks.

Other movements and processes in the Belly Dance experience also balance and organize the Chakra system.  Floor work and foot work organize the first Chakra; ribcage and arm movements balance the fourth Chakra. Head slides, circles, swings and tosses, as well as zahgareeting and shouts of encouragement or excitement energize the fifth Chakra; visualizing [a new choreography or costume, a movement, etc.] and eye movements and moving meditations activate the sixth Chakra; and connecting with the Divine and/or your fellow dancers (including, but not limited to the Zen feeling created during Improvisational Choreography) and moving meditation invigorate the seventh Chakra.  To see my friends, family and me Belly Dancing through the Chakras, go to the video gallery at ( ) and click on “Pregnancy Honoring Performance”.

Another reason people may be attracted to both Belly Dance and Yoga is the release from typical Western thinking.  Both Belly Dance and Yoga originated in ancient times and on different continents/subcontinent.  These practices both offer a tolerance and acceptance of for the self not readily evident in our mainstream society.  Yoga teaches us to slow down, relax and process at a gentle, conscious pace.  Belly Dance shows us body acceptance outside of what bombards us in the mainstream media.     

Rodney Yee, a nationally known Yoga instructor and author of Moving Towards Balance: 8 Weeks of Yoga with Rodney Yee, says that Yoga puts everything into place.  It allows us to enjoy and experience Belly Dance more fully.  Belly Dance is artistically expressed wellness that offers strong confidence and Yoga offers a deep, balancing practice, especially for the times when we must look within.     

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