If you are reading this you are a human and you have a pelvis.
And if your name is Dave, you have your own hands, too!
But back to pelvises(pelvi?), Dave. When was the last time you thought about your pelvis? If you’re me, right now! It’s holding your organs, your legs are attached to it, your pelvis is pretty cool.
Today’s post is dedicated to your pelvis, it’s alignment, and getting it positioned proper to help you dance better with less pain and soreness.
Having good pelvic alignment is kind of important for dance. That ain’t no secret.
A good neutral pelvis position, or a centrated pelvis, ensures that the things attaching to it will be functioning optimally. Your hips and spine being the things most directly affected by pelvic alignmnt. Some people like to lump it into one fun word- The lumbo-pelvic-hip complex.
And a well-positioned pelvis keeps your organs happy, too.
When the pelvis is centrated, the muscles and other structures attaching to it will be able to rest somewhere in their middle range of motion. This is what you want. When a muscle is at mid-length it has the highest contractile strength. Neither a lengthened muscle nor a shortened muscle will contract as strongly as one at mid length as they are at a mechanical disadvantage.
Dancers will often do exciting compensatory things with their pelvises to get a little extra turnout, for example. As explained in THIS brilliant paper by Donna Kraswnow et. al.
Dancers may attempt to gain a few degrees of additional rotation by decreasing tension on the Y ligament with slight hip flexion, which lowers the anterior brim of the pelvis into anterior tilt and pulls the lumbar spine into hyperextension. By doing this they sacrifice the stability gained from the Y ligament and alter neutral pelvic and spinal alignment.
Another place anterior tilt creeps into dance is in tendu back-type movements.This can be the cause of or caused by tight hip flexors.
…when the dancer’s leg moves to the back (such as tendu battement to the back and in arabesque) and hip extension is restricted, the pelvis is pulled into anterior tilt and the spine hyperextends. The less hip extension a dancer has, the more contribution from the lumbar spine is required for all posterior movements of the femur.
Give your lumbar spine a break. Want better turn out? Center your pelvis.
Want to get on your leg? Get that pelvis centrated.
Want to manage your back pain? Yep, center that pelvis!
But before you can attempt to find center, you need to take an objective look at your pelvic point A. What’s your start position?
Is your pelvis sitting in an anterior tilt or a posterior tilt?
This is important stuff to know about yourself. A crucial piece of body-awareness that I am going to suggest today that you learn to cultivate.
Welcometo Sorting Your Pelvis 101- Anterior tilt edition.
To keep things super simple (stupid) we will only talk about the saggital plane in this post.
The saggital plane refers to forward and back movement. The pelvis is capable of moving in all sorts of whacky directions, but if you don’t have your forward and back sorted, then nothing else beyond that matters. Yet.
Pelvis Sorting Step 1: Know your habitual alignment.
Do you know if your pelvis tends to rest tilted anteriorally, posteriorally, or fairly level?
To simplify things, let’s think of your pelvis like a bowl of soup. The pelvis being the bowl, and I guess your organs are the soup. Mmm, organ soup.
If you tilt the bowl forward (anteriorally) the organ soup will spill out the front, onto the floor. This can make it look like your belly is bulging forward a little, and many dance teachers will tell you to “suck it in” to correct this look.
Sorry, but you can’t suck in your pelvic alignment.
This position is indicative of abdominals that aren’t stabilizing effectively, but “sucking it in” will do nothing useful. Finding neutral is what you need, and then the abdominals will do their thing reflexively.
If you tip the bowl backwards (posteriorally) the soup spills out the back, and all over your pants. This alignment can make it look like you have no butt, which is sometimes the look ballet dancers are going for. Also a result of constantly being told to tuck under- Not always a good cue, much like “suck it in”.
If it looks like you have no butt, chances are you aren’t using it either, and glutes that function are pretty important for creating force as well as stabilizing your hips and pelvis.
A level bowl of soup is ideal. No spills. No embarrassing pants stains. No prolapsing organs or “long-back” (a term a friend of mine uses to describe people with no butts).
I happen to be an excellent example of someone with a rockin’ anterior tilt.
The horizontal line represents a level pelvis. As you can see, I could do better. Workin’ on it guys. And no, I’m not wearing enough colours. Nearly.
Notice the booty poppin’ way my pelvis, if it was a bowl of soup, would be spilling soup out the front, hence “anterior tilt”. You also see how I try to compensate for this with some rib flare. Pobody’s nerfect.
Getting to neutral requires me to posteriorally tilt like crazy. Unfortunately, this is something my brain has a hard time understanding, nor should it have to try that hard.
If you are like me, then it might feel like you have zero connectivity to your lower abdominals, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t round your lower back or tuck your pelvis under without clenching every muscle in your body.
You need hamstrings, adductors and a TVA that function.
Pelvis sorting step 2: Do something about it.
So your’re ready to do something about it, eh?
Here are my top 3 drills (right now, probably will be different next month…) to help a little with the anterior tilt situation.
Note that to speed the process it might be beneficial to seek some kind of manual therpy like massage, acupuncture, or whatever gets you results. Work with someone you trust and who has experience helping dancers.
1) Foam roller diaphragm release.
Why? With anterior tilted pelvis also comes a compensatory rib flare indicative of diaphragm tightness. The diaphragm is the king of your body. If you want to change your alignment, strength, flexibility, whatever, you need to optimize your diaphragm function and get your ribs in a better position, deemed the “zone of apposition” by the Postural Restoration Institute. See this post for more info on that.
Use the inhalation to push into the roller, and as you exhale let yourself relax into it. It feels kind of like getting punched in the gut really slowly, so, not very nice.
2) 90/90 hip lift.
I seem to post a lot about this exercise, but that’s because I love it so much.
Why? Uber simple, and uber effective for getting more mobility into posterior tilt and lumbar flexion, continuing to work on breathing mechanics and rib positioning, as well as hamstring and core activation and downregulating the low back erectors a little bit. #winning all around.
With the roller between your knees (squeeze the roller, not your butt), curl your tailbone off the floor by pressing your knees up to the ceiling. Inhale for 4 counts, exhale all your air out (at least twice as long as the inhalation). Let your ribs come down towards your hip bones. Take 5 or 6 deep breaths.
3) Tall kneeling wall hump
I don’t know if I can take the credit for creating this exercise- It’s just tall kneeling up against a wall, but I do hope I can take the credit for calling it a “wall hump”.
Why? I like this because it grooves good core sequencing- moving into hip extension without slipping into anterior tiltage. It’s like a squat from the knees down. If it hurts your knees, don’t do it. Same goes for your lower back.
The goal is to get your hips, sternum, and between your eyeballs to smush into the wall at the same time, moving from the pelvis, and not leading from the ribcage or belly. It’s not a body roll. It’s much less sexy than that.
Try not to clench or squeeze your butt, or sink into your lower back.
As you lower from the wall, lead with the back of your neck. To aid this sequencing, put your hands on the wall and push your head away from it, keeping a slight double chin to maintain a neutral neck. Don’t revert back to anterior tilt locomotion.
Pelvic re-alignment is a journey, not a quick fix. You might never, in this lifetime, get there. It’s progress, not perfection. But if you believe in reincarnation, perhaps your work in this life will reward you with a level pelvis in your next.
And please bear in mind that these exercises are not for everyone. What helps one person achieve a neutral pelvis will not work for the next, and so it’s very important to find someone you trust to help you.
Those who get the best results will test the efficacy of their efforts daily, work on their corrective exercises consistently, and ask for help when they need it.
Next time I’ll talk about some of my favourite ways to centrate a posteriorally tilted pelvis. Stay tuned!
While I was in Chiang Mai just over a month ago the most valuable experience hands down was studying and receiving Chi Nei Tsang.
Studying Chi Nei Tsang at Blue Garden. Here is our teacher, Remco, getting all up in this lucky student’s left kidney.
If you don’t know what Chi Nei Tsang is, I for sure suggest you read more about it. If you really care to, you can read about my fun times learning CNT HERE (it’s a pretty long, rambling post though so save it for when you have a coffee and 10 minutes to kill).
In a nutshell, Chi Nei Tsang is an abdominal massage based in Chinese Medicine. As the story goes, negative emotions are stored in our organs. Our gut is our “second brain”, the small intestine in particular. And much like the food we eat, when we are unable to digest and deal with our emotions they are stored in the second brain. Apparently even in our bones.
And likewise, when organs (or bones) are squished into awkward positions because of poor posture and movement mechanics, this can also cause negative emotions and stress to manifest, along with degeneration of the organs.
Chi Nei Tsang can be a pretty intense experience for some people. Especially if you’ve got a lot of pent up emotional shit or funky movement and postural patterns (dancers… Just sayin’!).
So anyway, learning this massage was a blast. Helped me with many things. And I miss having my belly rubbed everyday. Any takers? 😉
But now, over a month since my last belly-rub session, I’m learning how I can apply Chi Nei Tsang principles to movement related issues, particularly those rooted in poor breathing patterns.
And so, the topic of today’s post is on learning how to first breathe and then move from the tan tien.
What’s the tan tien?
The lower abdominal tan tien is an important place in the body in Chinese Medicine. This point is located roughly 2cm below the navel, deep in the abdomen, and correlates to your center of gravity.
In yoga, this point correlates roughly to the sacral chakra, and in Japan is referred to as hara.
Your tan tien is your energy center, where “life force is stored”.
Sorry, guys, if I’m not using science words. Just deal with it for now. Science isn’t always everything.
Tan tien is an important reference point in activities like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and many martial arts. In dance, I reckon that when teachers and choreographers want you to stay more “grounded” it would be helpful to be connected to your tan tien.
Unfortunately in dance, and other bendy-people-activities like gymnastics and yoga, we put so much emphasis on being able to bend backwards and doing crazy twists, it becomes easy to lose the connection to the center of our bodies. This can be a cause of lower back pain (much like they say about imbalance of the sacral chakra).
Many of us, and non-dancers too, lose connectivity to our tan tien. You can blame stress, poor spinal stabilization patterns, unresolved emotional issues, or poor organ function due to lifestyle. The result is the loss of ability to breathe into the lower abdomen favouring a paradoxical breathing pattern instead. We forget how to contract the tan tien, relax it, and move from it.
The image on the bottom represents a paradoxical breathing pattern, with the belly sucking in with inhalation, air going first into the chest, rather than both expanding together.
In Chi Nei Tsang, the practitioner will first “clear” the tan tien to allow chi (energy) to flow more freely to it, and open it, bringing more awareness to the area.
It is possible to achieve similar effects by yourself through moving and breathing mindfully.
Some people who know pretty well will remember that I used to refer to my lower abdominal and pelvic region as a “black hole”. Literally had no ability to connect my brain to the black hole (tan tien!).
After having received Chi Nei Tsang I was finally able make a connection to my lower abdominal area. After waking up tan tien, things starting feeling different. Much different.
I was able to breathe into my lower abdomen, whereas before I was a paradoxical chest breather (still mostly am…Workin’ on it,guys, ).
Because my breathing was coming more naturally, I felt my inner core activate more reflexively- I no longer had to brace so much to stabilize.
I felt my hips were able to extend fully, whereas before I could not, or had to actively contract my glutes to get to that range of motion.
I was finally able to maintain a neutral spine and pelvis without tucking under and reduced my normally uncontrollable pattern of resting in a heavy anterior pelvic tilt.
All former pain symptoms disappeared (knee, hip, hamstring, lower back, shoulder).
Amazing mental clarity and calm.
Finally could get full cervical spine (neck) flexion
Felt my weight shift more posteriorally onto my heels, whereas before I had a tendency to shift onto my toes and make every movement super quad dominant.
Felt grounded into the earth, lighter.
These improvements lasted for weeks, and now, about a month after returning to the cold north, not getting regular Chi Nei Tsang, and doing several dance classes (loading the dancer-dysfunction back into my system), I can feel these effects leaving me. Noooooo…
I just want to be able to move like her:
Oh my God that single leg landing in deep plie… One day.
There is, however, a technique I’ve been using to try to hold on, and this is to do tan tien focused breathing.
How to do tan tien breathing?
It’s super easy and effective. If you do it regularly.
I taught one of my dance clients how yesterday. After a few rounds her neck alignment improved (now getting full left cervical rotation! BAM). She noted similar things as I had: Felt more grounded, calm. Good things for a dancer to feel.
How to breathe into tan tien (a self Chi Nei Tsang technique):
1) Find your tan tien with your fingers and get comfy poking into it.
The easiest position to start in is lying on your back, knees bent or with pillows supporting under your knees.
Remember your tan tien is about 2cm below the navel and deep in the abdominal cavity. Place your fingers there and on an exhale, press into your belly until you can’t poke in any deeper. This may feel weird. Good. Go with it.
Take note of how it feels in there. Do you notice if it feels cold or warm? Can you feel a pulse? How far down can you get before you meet resistance?
2) Breathe into your tan tien!
Breathe into this special place that stores your life force. Put some awareness into your center of gravity.
With your fingers still poking into your belly, inhale and try to push your fingers out. As you exhale, allow your fingers to sink deeper into your abdomen. See how deep you can go. Hold your breath at the bottom for a few seconds. Repeat for a few minutes.
Aim for your exhalation to be 3 times as long as your inhale. Get out all your air, and then some more. I like to work with an in 4 out 12 count. You can start with a 1:1 ratio and move up to 2:1 until you can handle 3:1 exhale to inhale.
An Ayurvedic doctor once told me to work on a 30 second inhale, 30 second exhale pattern. I managed to do this once. I almost passed out. On the bus.
Be aware of where your breath goes first. You will likely feel that as you inhale, it is difficult at first to guide the breathe into your fingers, but it will become easier each time.
You can also try humming, or making a “shhh” or “chooo” sound as you exhale. This will ensure you are truly getting a full exhalation. Auditory cues don’t lie. Often there’s more air left than you think. These are also healing sounds used in Chi Nei Tsang and Qi Gong.
3) Repeat a few time a day. Experiment with different positions. Try it while walking.
Much like any skill (chin-ups, push-ups, speed reading), the more you “grease the tan tien groove”, the easier it becomes. You don’t need to spend 30 minutes working on breathing all at once, because that sucks. Just break it up into mini sessions throughout the day (especially before dance class, dancers!).
I like to attempt tan tien breathing in positions that I know are challenging for me. Like in a supine hip bridge. God it really sucks. Just try it.
Another fun challenge is to breathe into your tan tien while walking, without your fingers for feedback. I attempt this quite often and find I have to slow my walking wayyyy down to do it properly.
When you are able to bring awareness into your tan tien, it’s almost like you’re not even breathing, but like the breath is moving you.
By having this energy channel open, the breath will flow there naturally. You don’t need to use any effort. Rather than forcing through muscular effort, the breathe simply moves you into the correct place. It’s magical.
It’s Wu Wei– Action through non-action. Allowing what feels spontaneous and natural to occur. What if your dancing could feel like this? It was rare for me, and probably the cause of my many injuries, always relying on excess muscular effort.
Try tan tien breathing while doing inversions- Head-stand, hand-stand or shoulder-stand. That takes some mad skillz.
Try doing this focused breathing in dance positions like an attitude line, or to initiate a turn.
The more you try to play with breath and gravity and allow yourself to be moved in new ways into new positions, the more fun you can have with movement.
The trouble with trying to teach movement and posture to people, I think, is that it isn’t easily possible to describe how to do it in terms of muscular execution. The person has to feel it for themselves by directing their breath into the right place, helping them to naturally move into the appropriate position.
This can’t truly be taught, but only offered to them through a learning experience. It is up to the student to be open to it and allow it to happen.
This can be frustrating.
I often want to resort to more obvious ways of cueing, like, “shoulders back”, or “squeeze your butt”.
What I try to do more often is direct the client on where to breathe. If they direct the breath into the right area, at the right time, the movement and the posture becomes natural. The breath dictates it so.
So I suggest you try building a tan tien awareness practice. Make it a regular part of your day. Just for fun. Poke your fingers into your belly and breathe. It just might change your life.
Have a listen to master Mantak Chia talk about tan tien and the second brain. Cool stuff!
“Never confuse movement for action” ~Ernest Hemingway.
Today I say, never confuse stillness for movement.
Stillness is powerful. In dance, and in life too, it’s rare that we ever come to a full stop. We are in constant motion. An important part of dance is the creation of motion, but the most powerful moments in dance are those of absolute stillness. These moments are often what captures an audience. Constant motion can get boring.
Much like a moment of silence in a song that seems to suspend time, stillness in dance makes us hold our breath. It keeps our attention, making us wonder what’s going to happen next.
But stillness doesn’t exist. Stillness is an illusion. Stillness is not just the absence of motion, but is a series of precise and powerful movements that creates the illusion of motionlessness. Only movement is constant. Stillness does not exist.
As a dancer it is important to be able to create this illusion of the complete absence of motion.
This concept of movement for stillness can help you excel artistically, but also with understanding a term you probably hear thrown around a lot… Neutral spine. Which leads me to what I want to explain in more detail today.
Maintaining the Elusive Neutral Spine
As it relates to neutral spine– movement is often necessary for stillness.
We know neutral spine is important for strength, aesthetics, technical execution, preventing injuries blah blah etc. and so I recommend you seek the guidance of someone qualified who can help you find what neutral feels like.
Assuming you’ve already done that, today’s post is going to give you an exercise to help drill this concept of movement for stillness as it relates to finding and maintaining neutral spine. It’s one thing to find it, and another entirely to hold on to while you’re moving around. For many people (dancers and non-dancers alike), to maintain neutral spine during the simplest of exercises, they must move to create stillness. The illusion of core stiffness.
Allow me to introduce you to…
The Bartenieff Thigh Lift
This exercise is your new best friend.
Bartenieff Fundamentals is a movement technique that expands on Laban Movement Analysis. Note that I haven’t been trained in this particular style of movement study, but I’m happy to say that my bastardized use of the thigh lift exercise has helped many of my clients to understand their alignment, improve their mind-muscle connectivity, and improve their strength.
This exercise separates the men from the boys, and as you’ll soon see, the psoas from the quads. I’m so funny!
Why do the thigh lift? The purpose of the thigh lift is to establish mind-muscle control: flex the hip in the most efficient way possible, using the psoas without superficial muscles, while maintaining neutral spine and pelvis.
In the video below you’ll get an introduction to the fundamentals of Bartenieff, including the thigh-lift.
Essentially in the thigh lift, you are lying on your back and lifting your foot off the floor, like this:
Looks easy right? It’s harder than you think!
Here’s what’s going on during the thigh lift (in the bastard way that I teach it):
Lie on your back, knees bent, and find neutral spine/pelvis (which should have a subtle amount of anterior pelvic tilt; have someone monitor your position if you need to).
Put your hands on your thighs, close to the hip, where the rectus femoris attaches to the pelvis.
Your hands are there to feel whether or not your rec. fem. is activating to lift your leg. If it is, you will feel a very distinct thigh-twitch as you lift your foot off the floor.
The goal is to lift the leg, while maintaining neutral alignment, without activating the quad. NO thigh twitch as the leg raises.
Breathing pattern up for discussion, but I like to cue an inhalation with the lift, and exhalation with the lowering. I think we can all agree though, that any breathing pattern is ok so long as there is no breath holding.
So a thigh-lift-win comprises two things:
1) You can lift your leg without leaving a neutral alignment.
2) No quad twitch.
And here’s all the good stuff you get out of a properly executed thigh lift, and why I like it so much:
Emphasis on maintaining neutral spine, pelvis and neck teaches abdominal bracing
Teaches proper pelvic-femoral rhythm
Emphasis on breathing; coordinating diaphragm and psoas together to lift leg with abdominals bracing.
Teaches neuromuscular control by training the body to coordinate the superficial and deep hip flexors
Teaches proper rib positioning (a shortened psoas can alter the position of the ribcage, flaring it up)
Thigh lift is the most important sequence for alleviating sacroiliac pain and restoring pelvic-femoral rhythm in the shortest possible time.
I like the sounds of that efficiency.
I treat a thigh-lift-win like a milestone moment- When you can do a full set of thigh lifts (8 or so on each side) that aren’t “quaddy”, you can graduate to other more fun exercises.
So maybe at this point you’re already on the floor attempting to thigh-lift. Maybe you’re feeling some quad-twitch action and need help troubleshooting. Here’s what typically will go wrong and make for a “quaddy” lift (quaddy is totally a verb…).
Loss of neutral alignment*
Straightening the knee to lift the leg
Pushing feet too hard into floor
Ribcage flare with leg lift
Loss of neutral neck position with leg lift
Notice the “*”? What I want to bring this article back to is the importance of being able to maintain neutral alignment, or a “quiet pelvis”. Most often, if you feel your quad twitch as you lift your foot, it’s because you’ve failed to maintain the necessary stillness in your body- You’ve changed your position, putting your quads in a position to easily do work. Remember the concept of movement for stillness? This will come in handy here…
Shall we get all geeky and such? Ok, you asked for it.
If you are a dancer, you are probably stuck in a predictably patterned position which I will call “dancer extension”- stuck in an extended posture accomplished through all sorts of cheats. The picture below is a dancer I assessed who is a good example of this posture.
Typical dancer cheats used to attain the illusion of a desirable alignment: leaning forward on toes, sitting passively at end range of knee extension (or hyperextension, if any), anteriorally tilted pelvis, lumbar spine hyperextension, and an upflared ribcage.
Do you think that this dancer, if asked to perform a thigh lift, would be able to do so while still stuck in her current posture? Absolutely not. Just getting into neutral to start the thigh-lift would be a challenge for her.
Why? Her start position (an anterior pelvic tilt with lumbar extension and ribcage flare) puts her quads in an advantageous position to fire automatically.
Try to follow along with me here… The rectus femoris can flex the hip above 90 degrees, but if your pelvis is already tilted, such as is the dancer’s above, then the hip is already partially flexed at rest. If the hip is already flexed, then to flex the hip more like in the thigh-lift, the rec fem. is in the ideal position to activate, bypassing the psoas, which is already stuck in a short and weak position due to the perpetually flexed position of the hip.
If your start position is anterior tilt, then you might already be at 45 degrees of hip flexion. No wonder your hips feel "tight"
If that explanation didn’t jive with you, just know this: If your alignment isn’t optimal, your muscle firing patterns won’t be optimal. Wrong muscles will work and become overused. This is why you probably have a ballet teacher who harps on you for having over-developped quads. Dance makes it kind of impossible not to overuse your quads.
So, back to the thigh-lift. If the dancer above, with her current extended resting posture, wanted to get a solid, non-quaddy thigh-lift rep, she would have to first move to get out of her extended posture. And then each time she lifts her leg, she will have to exaggerate this movement to maintain the illusion of stillness. The reason many people claim they “don’t get” the thigh lift, is often because they don’t understand just how much work (movement) it takes just to get into the correct start position. It’s. Freakin’. Hard.
It’s not simply a matter of trying to keep the rest of the body still while lifting your leg. It’s moving out of extension, and on each leg raise, intensifying this movement to create the desired stillness, and maintain neutral, not slip back into a familiar, comfortable position.
An analogy I like to use is that trying to change your resting alignment is like wearing braces- To try to correctly align your teeth in one day would be bad. So very bad. But overtime, your teeth are able to move into a new, more pleasing position. Same goes with your body’s bones: Overtime, small changes, like use of the thigh-lift, amount to dramatic results. And with daily practice, it really doesn’t take long.
I encourage you to give this one a try today, and if you can, seek out a Bartenieff pro who can teach you more. I’d love to hear from anyone out there who is already familiar with Bartenieff Fundamentals, and how it’s helped them or their clients.
I have a moderately German background. Hence my intense last name, Volkmar. I say “moderately German” because whenever I ask about my heritage I get vague answers like, “Well, your grandmother was a German Mennonite who lived in Russia (or vice versa?) and was also probably of Belgian ancestry, and your other grandmother was Swedish, but your Grandfather was born in Canada……..”, and so now I just say I’m Canadian. Very, very, Canadian.
The German in me likes efficiency. My definition of efficiency borders on synonymous to sheer laziness- Doing as little as absolutely necessary to get the best possible result.
I think when it comes to breathing, efficiency means breathing as much as you possibly can. Oxygen is the ultimate performance enhancing, mood enhancing drug. Take in as much as you can, baby. It’s legal! And free (for now…).
Deep, mindful breathing is scientifically proven (yay science!) to have so many health benefits and practical uses. If keeping your body alive isn’t a good enough incentive for you, here’s some more reasons to breathe better:
Dampens the body’s production of stress hormones (2)
Improved posture (the diaphragm is an important postural stabilizer, but more on that later) (1)
Eases various musculoskeletal aches and pains (more on that later, too) (3)
You get stronger (through activation of the deep trunk muscles, and use of the Valsalva maneuvre- which dancers don’t really need to do that often).
Individuals who suffer from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart issues can see benefits from breathing exercises (2)
Changes in gene expression (through the alteration of the body’s stress response) (2)
Is it any wonder that according to traditional yogic philosophy, proper breathing (pranayama) is one of the 5 important points (along with proper exercise, diet, relaxation and positive thinking).
Dance and yoga seem like similar activities, but they are really the polar opposite. Especially as it relates to breathing. Chief reason being that while yoga is alllll about breathing, dancers don’t breathe at all, and aren’t really taught how.
I remember being in The Nutcracker back in the day, and performing The Waltz of the Flowers. It was a long piece with multiple exits and entrances, and each time I would exit the stage I’d have to gasp for breath and cough up a lung because I had essentially performed high intensity exercise for 2+ minutes straight without breathing.
As a quick side note, I think it’s worth noting that high level dance perfomance is NOT aerobic activity. Telling a dancer to jog or bike at a steady state is not sufficient cross-training to prepare them for the rigours of a performance. Go read this, by Joel Minden (dancer, CSCS, Ph. D). He says smart things.
But anyway, the reasons dancers don’t breathe efficiently are numerous:
High anxiety levels (being a dancer is stressful, and performing is acutely so)
Being told to “hold in your stomach!“, and “shoulders back!“, “kind of makes breathing… challenging.
The high technical complexity of the art makes it easy to forget to breathe
Not being taught/lack of awareness. And no, “remember to breathe!” is not a sufficient cue for a teacher to give.
Tight accessory muscles, like the abdominals, chest, and neck restricting the diaphragm from doing it’s work (what’s a diaphragm?)
High stability demand (aka being on one leg and spinning) compromises diaphragmatic breathing (more on that in a bit).
In dance you actually need to breathe a lot. It affects every aspect of your performance. In most cases you need to be in an extended position through your trunk, while bracing (or hollowing or whatever you wanna call it) the abdominals. Think arabesque. And then you need to breathe. And remember the choreography. And not fall on your face. And not look weird, awkward or scared. What’s a diaphragm??
There’s your diaphragm!
Enter, breathing and bracing. A concept that very few dancers (and people in general) understand. I myself haven’t mastered it (yet), but I theorize that learning this technique could improve nearly every element of your dance technique from balance, weight transfers, jumps, leaps, and just looking more aesthetically pleasing in general.
What is breathing and bracing? In a nut-shell, using your diaphragm and abdominals independently. Holding the core strong while still taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
As I alluded to, your diaphragm isn’t just for breathing– it plays huge role in postural stability. If you’re not using your diaphragm properly, you’re missing out on a whole world of fun stability challenges and choreographic possibilites! (and it makes sense that dancers who have good balance look more calm- Remember the anti-anxiety benefit associated with breathing?)
Dr. Jeff Cubos (who knows more about this whole “breathing and bracing” thing than I do) says:
It has been shown that in the presence of increased stability demand, the diaphragm contracts concentrically while specific abdominal musculature contract eccentrically during inhalation. During expiration, the roles of these muscles are reversed…As a result, faulty breathing patterns and inefficient core stability may lead to clinical conditions such as low back and pelvic dysfunction”. (3)
Sound familiar? Diaphragm doesn’t work properly, so the diaphragm’s buddies (ze spinal stabilizers) start working harder- the ilioposas, QL, spine erectors, and abdominals. So you get things like hip and low back dysfunction, and you get winded after petit allegro because you can’t get enough oxygen.
Maximal postural and respiratory efficiency is achieved (efficiency = minimal accessory muscle activity, or E = MA squared). (3)
Good ol’ efficiency. That’s a way better definition than mine.
THIS HERE is an excellent article by the Postural Restoration Institute, if you want to learn more about breathing and how, when dysfunctional and non-diaphragmatic, it can literally affect e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. that becomes the bane of your dancer existence. Like,
increases use of accessory muscles of inspiration
poor neuromuscular control of core muscles
increased lumbar lordosis
low back pain
increased lumbar-pelvic instability
thoracic outlet syndrome
MORE (seriously, read the article)
And this here is an exercise from Dr. Cubos that I am currently trying to master. It’s way harder than it looks, but I’ll be breathing like a champ in no time flat.
You’re basically trying not to asphyxiate yourself- Makes the learning curve pretty quick I’d say.
Alright, that’s all I have to say about that for now. More about breathing another time. For now, just try to be aware of it (and whether or not you actually breathe while you dance).