Tag Archives: yoga

How to Be Pain-Free in 2014

Pain Free?

I’m always looking for new ways to stay fit and pain free, which is often a tall order for dancers. Most of us are extremely fit, but pain free? Not so much. Chronic pain is a reality for dancers and non-dancers alike; many people suffer from back issues, beck and shoulder pain, and old injury flare-ups. In the past I’ve turned to chiropractors, massage, yoga and acupuncture but found none of them offered a permanent solution to these problems. An answer came to me while I was sitting in the toilet stall (of all places) at my yoga studio. I know that’s not the place most people expect find answers to some of life’s deeper questions, but inspiration has a funny way of appearing in serendipitous ways. Anyway… there was a flyer for something called the MELT Method hanging on the back of the stall door, promising techniques to eliminate chronic pain using passive yoga poses combined with props like balls and foam rollers.

A technique I could do at home to eliminate chronic pain? I was in.

I researched a bit before going to class and found Sue Hitzmann’s book, The MELT Method. Hitzmann is an internationally renowned fitness coach who found that even though she was eating a healthy diet, exercising and building muscular strength, she still had chronic pain. After years of studying anatomy she discovered the key: the body’s connective tissue–the system that supports, protects and stabilizes the entire body. Connective tissue dehydration was the underlying cause of daily aches and strain that leads to chronic pain. Even though you may drink plenty of fluids, the connective tissue can still be dehydrated–think of it as a dried-out sponge. Through personal exploration she developed the MELT Method to help people help themselves to eliminate pain.

Over the holidays I did some reading and practiced a few of the the techniques, which were simple to follow. One morning I woke up with blazing neck pain which normally would have sent me to the chiropractor but the neck exercises brought immediate relief.

I attended my first class last week. We lay in a number of passive poses and positioned the ball in various ways to essentially give the muscles a pressure-point massage lengthwise and across the muscles. Afterwards I felt a warmth and lightness in the areas we’d worked on, which meant increased circulation and healing.

I’m thrilled that a random bathroom stall provided a method I can use to finally work out some long-standing pain and tightness and I don’t have to spend huge amounts of time and money to do it.



Dance Injuries and What To Do About Them











Dancers are some of the most athletic people on the planet yet dance, especially ballet, takes a toll on dancers’ bodies over time. Let’s face it – some positions are completely unnatural and require us to tweak things, especially our spines, to create the desired effect. Many dancers deal with injuries throughout their careers; many more have ongoing issues after they stop performing. Although I was relatively injury-free throughout my career, I had (and continue to have) back issues. It’s all got me wondering: what’s a dancer to do?











There are a number of healing options to turn to, depending on the type and severity of your injury.

1. Physical therapists. Miami City Ballet, like many other companies, had a therapist on site to help dancers when they got hurt. Therapists offer a range of ideas, from simple (like icing or massage) to more in-depth (rehab exercises to strengthen injury-prone areas). Best thing I ever learned from a therapist: contrast baths. Alternate icing and hot water on the injured area to stimulate blood flow and healing.

2. Chiropractors. There is no one way to realign tweaked body parts. Some chiropractors use more active force, others opt for a more gentle method. I have had varying degrees of success with chiropractors and generally use them for things like not being able to turn my head all of a sudden.

3. Massage. Who doesn’t love a good massage? A gentle Swedish-style massage will help the body relax while a deeper, therapeutic massage can work out the tight kinks. I’m currently looking into Rolfing as an option for recurrent issues.

4. Acupuncture. I was lucky enough to study with Merrill Ashley, (awesome dancer and teacher) who swore by acupuncture for back issues… Since then I’ve used acupuncture for everything from colds/flu to post childbirth.

5. Yoga. If nothing else, yoga’s calming influence is a good counterpart to the stress dancers live with. As I get older, I’ve come to rely on yoga as a sanctuary and a way to maintain flexibility. A flexible body is less prone to injury.

6. Pilates. Core strength was always my achilles heel (thanks Mom) until a friend turned me on to Pilates. I also noticed a huge improvement in my overall strength. Sadly, I had to abandon the practice for decades because of time, expense, etc but recently bought a home reformer and love it.
7. Foam rollers, massage roller balls. Many dancers swear by these tools. Since we can’t go running off for a massage every other second, these tools help you iron out those hard-to-reach spots. Yoga Journal recently wrote up this how-to.
Of course nothing keeps the body injury-free better than thoroughly warming up and paying attention to internal cues (i.e. pain). We only get one body this lifetime (unless the cloning thing works out in the near future), so treat it right.



Strength Training For Dancers and Non-Dancers



Dancers are known for their strength and grace, but they don’t come without hard work. In addition to daily dance classes and rehearsals, dancers build strength through alternate methods such as yoga and Pilates. Both of these practices give dancers the extra boost they need to be better, stronger dancers and move ahead in their careers.


Yoga teaches practitioners how to link breath and movement, which is a very powerful tool for dancers. Working with conscious breathing adds more power to certain moves such as turns and jumps. An in breath helps with expansive moves and buoyancy – helpful when it’s time to leap across stage, while an out breath adds power to bends or grounded moves. Yoga teaches us how to live more fully in our bodies, to inhabit each and every cell while building strength, balance and coordination.Yoga has another obvious benefit; a relaxed state of mind.What dancer couldn’t use a little of that? Let’s face it; dancing is a very stressful career.

Says dancer Jennifer Stahl: In yoga (especially vinyasa) I was finally able to find a feeling of fullness to my movement—something I had struggled to attain in modern class, but never quite “got.” Once I became used to finding length in every position during the slow flow through the poses, I could translate that sensation back to the studio, and became able to move bigger, with longer lines. Yoga taught me to really feel what was going on in my body, and to become aware of where I was placing it in space.



Core strength is a key element for dancers, especially during quick moves and turns. Joseph Pilates, a fitness pioneer in his time, developed the Pilates system, which uses specialized equipment and exercises to develop and strengthen what he called the “powerhouse”, the muscles of the abdominals, lower back and buttocks. Other benefits include improved posture, and fewer back problems. The Pilates method has long been an inside secret for many dancers, but is now recognized as important and necessary- Pacific Northwest Ballet has two Pilates studios available to its dancers. (Read more about Pilates at PNB here).

Says Alexandra Dickson, ex-PNB soloist and Pilates Conditioning Manager at PNB: “I didn’t realize the power I was getting from Pilates until I did it three times a week after my pregnancy,” recalled Dickson during a recent break from private and semi-private workouts with clients. “I got back to the ballet and we opened with ‘Swan Lake’ (a demanding performance). I couldn’t have a made it back without the Pilates work.”



However, yoga and Pilates aren’t just for dancers; anyone can benefit from either practice. Both are particularly helpful to prevent and correct back pain issues. The benefits include:



• greater strength and flexibility

• improved balance and coordination

• improved state of mind

• increased breathing capacity



• improved posture

• greater core strength

• improved overall strength, flexibility and coordination


Strength and grace don’t come naturally, but there are tried and true techniques available for anyone (dancer or not) who wants more of either.



“Bunheads” by Sophie Flack, Discussed by Another Ballerina


I just finished reading Sophie Flack’s “Bunheads”, a gritty, true-to-life story about Hannah Ward, a nineteen-year-old ballet dancer who has been happily devoting herself to the rigors of ballet life with the prestigious Manhattan Ballet: classes, rehearsals, performances and complicated backstage relationships. When she meets a handsome musician named Jacob, her life changes, and she is forced to decide what she really wants her future to look like.


I have to admit that I felt a little bit ill reading some of the descriptions of Hannah’s life. It all brought me back to my own experiences as a ballet dancer. What many people don’t realize is that the life of a ballet dancer isn’t always pretty; it requires an inhumane level of work and dedication without offering much in the way of fair compensation. Ballet is an all-or-nothing proposition – there’s really no time for much of anything else.


While the practice of ballet has much to offer an individual (like balance, coordination, musicality, spatial awareness and discipline) the lifestyle does not. The dream of becoming a professional ballerina is quite alluring to many who remain ignorant of the cold, hard realities of a dancer’s life. “Bunheads” puts it all in the spotlight.


For instance, many ballet companies require dancers to work six days a week, with Mondays off. That’s more work days than most typical jobs in the country. It’s a well-known fact that a dancer’s pay is not very high, but most people probably don’t know that dancers go on unemployment every year for part of the year since most contracts don’t offer a full year’s worth of work. This is true even for dancers with New York City Ballet, one of the most well-known (and well-financed) ballet companies in the US.


Just as Hannah Ward’s character demonstrates, a dancer’s day starts early (around 9am, when they get ready for the obligatory morning ballet class) and ends late (often after 11 pm, after an evening performance). For most, it isn’t enough to simply show up for classes, rehearsals and performances. The ongoing pursuit of perfection (through extra dance rehearsals, pilates, yoga, and strength training classes) is an integral part of a ballerina’s job description. There’s just enough time to fall into bed exhausted, only to wake up the next day and start all over again.


Let’s not forget the added pressure of maintaining an ultra-slim physique, which is no easy feat to begin with and often involves developing some unhealthy eating habits. Smoking and binge eating are some of the techniques that the characters in “Bunheads” employ to stay thin. One of the principal dancers only eats white foods (and it comes as no surprise when she collapses and ends up in the hospital).


Then, too, there are the people who are in charge of running the whole show. In “Bunheads”, the artistic director constantly pits dancers against on another by giving them the same role, which forces them to compete with one another, upping the ante. There is never a word of kindness or encouragement uttered during the entire length of the book, despite the brutal workload – even after stellar reviews in the newspaper. The environment of the ballet company is highly competitive and completely lacking in positive reinforcement.


Over the years I’ve had several parents ask about how to help their daughters start ballet careers and I’ve advised them to really educate themselves about the realities before making that decision. “Bunheads” might be the perfect required reading.