6 things a beginner’s lesson in tango can teach you about your yoga practice

Last night I took my first tango class in over ten years, at Capital Ballroom in Bethesda.  I love taking beginner’s classes because it reminds me of how other people feel when they take their first Mysore class.  I can feel that same sense of trepidation, of uncertainty when faced with learning the moves of tango, that students new to yoga feel on their first day in one of my classes.  It keeps me humble and focused on the basics, especially after I’ve stepped on my girlfriend’s toes two or three times.

I also love to take beginners’ classes in other art forms (martial arts, music, dance, painting) because I get the opportunity to see my main practice, Ashtanga Yoga, from a new angle.  Let’s face it: it can be frustrating practicing the same sequence, day in, day out, for years at a time, so it can be refreshing to move the body in a completely different way.  I’ve realized that, by almost exclusively doing yoga for the past ten years, my repertoire of movement has narrowed.  Yes, we focus on breathing and, if you’ve had some training in Iyengar yoga, on alignment, but our practice movements are contained on a yoga mat.  For the most part, the body is moving in a linear fashion, and postures are strung together while remaining roughly stationary (excluding Nakrasana and other dynamic postures).

Thus, we lose the freedom of movement expressed in dance, the joy of moving with someone else, the circular movements the body is capable of, the spontaneity of each moment.  We become imprisoned in thoughts on how we should move, rather than how we are moving right now.

Even the whole injunction to “take your practice off the mat” is more aimed at the notion of expressing compassion and awareness towards others, less about standing in Samastitih on the metro.  (Please don’t stand in Samastitih on the metro.)

And yet, I continue to believe that the practice of yoga postures should not only make sitting more comfortable and stable (posture practice’s chief aim according to the Yoga Sutras) but also more refined, elegant and graceful when moving through the world.

  1. The embrace: the energetic connection between you and your partner. This is something that is felt between two people when they move into each other’s personal space.  The embrace can vary in distance, from formal, where there is more space between the partners, to more intimate, where there is little space between the partners’ chests.  The embrace must be maintained while dancing so that the partners can communicate non-verbally with one another.  If you lose the embrace, then you lose the dance.  Application to yoga practice: whether you are teaching or being taught, or you are practicing in a room full of other students, see if you can keep a portion of your awareness on the feeling of the others in the room.  So often I see students’ move their mats around when other students come to close to them, or they feel like the other person’s Sun Salutations are eclipsing their own.  The lesson is that being closer to others will increase your body control and your sensitivity to others, and yoga cannot be practiced in isolation, only in relationship.
  2. Polarity: one partner must be masculine and the other must be feminine.  The masculine leads and imparts directionality to the dance, while the feminine follows and elaborates.This has less to do with gender than with the roles the dancers are playing.  Normally, a man assumes the masculine role in the dance, while the woman assumes the feminine role in the dance, but men can dance with men and women can dance with women.  It is important, though, that one of the partners leads while the other follows, in order to preserve the polarity.  If both try to lead, then conflict ensues.  If both try to follow, there is hesitation, uncertainty and aimless movement.  Application to yoga practice:  When you are teaching, teach from a place of confidence and surety.  You are leading your students through the sequence and giving them the opportunity to breathe, explore, and deepen their awareness.  When you are taking a class, assume a beginner’s mindset.  Even if you’ve practiced for twenty years, you can still learn something from someone else.
  3. Dance together but also be comfortable dancing on your own.  This means that you must learn to listen to what signals your partner is sending you so you can dance together comfortably.  At the same time,  you must be comfortable with your own ability to dance in order to feel comfortable dancing with other people.  Application to yoga practice: If you practice any system for any length of time, the mark of progress is actually in the deepening of sensitivity to the world around you and to other people.  I don’t mean being sensitive in any sort of weak, simpering manner.  Rather, being sensitive means being attuned to what is happening around you and how others are interacting with you.  If your practice is working, then it should actually make you more sensitive to your physical movements, more conscious of your emotional habits, more aware of your thought patterns.  This way, you can better communicate with others.  However, it is equally important to feel confident in and true to one’s self.  Learn to become self-reliant in your yoga practice.  Your progress in individual postures and in set sequences is limited when you take classes.  Group classes are fun, but you are at the mercy of the teacher’s whims or the time allotted to certain postures.  Self-practice is the way forward in establishing a more stable, strong yoga practice.   In fact, self-practice has much wider applications to other forms of practice, such as meditation, pranayama, philosophy, martial arts, writing, painting, dancing, and more.  It’s only once you have taken ownership of your practice that it will truly blossom.
  4. Dance as if you are walking.   When you are walking in everyday life, you have a natural gait, a rhythm that feels appropriate and efficient, almost effortless.  When dancing the tango, you also want to move through space with the same ease and grace you would feel when walking down the street.  Application to yoga practice:  this goes back to what I was saying about posture practice helping us become more graceful and elegant in how we hold ourselves, move through the world, and how we express ourselves physically.  In other words, how you hold yourself and how you express yourself physically communicate your inner world to those around you.  Your posture is your personality.  Your movement is your language.
  5. For the masculine, practice being sensitive yet assertive.  The masculine partner always initiates the movement with the marca, whether it is a glance of the eyes, a pressure of the arms, a movement of the chest, or a weight shift. This marca communicates to the feminine partner where he wants her to move.  In its most simple demonstration, the teacher showed us that you can merely press your partner on the shoulder to indicate which direction you want her to move.  Once the woman receives the marca, she moves, and then the man moves.  And the process starts all over again, step by step.  Application to yoga practice:  When receiving an adjustment from a teacher (or when you are giving an adjustment to a student!), learn to feel the student’s movements and breathing.  Be sensitive to how your adjustment changes them and how their response changes your application of the adjustment.  Hands-on adjustments are a form of communication.
  6. Breathe!  It surprised me how much I ended up holding my breath, especially when I was trying to focus on practicing the basic moves.  I would find that I had either not breathed much or had held my breath for several steps, only to realize that my body was feeling stiff or unresponsive.  I consciously kept reminding myself to breathe as I practiced walking with my partner. The less I held my breath, the more I was able to relax and practice the moves.  Application to yoga practice: Pretty obvious, right?  Every other word you hear in a yoga class is “Breathe.”  The more you liberate your breathing, the more fluid your movement will become.  Make your practice like elegant tai chi ch’uan.

Or better yet, make your yoga practice like a dance.  Dancing is fun, liberating, energizing.  We dance when we are happy, when we want to celebrate, when we want to drive away the demons of stress and isolation.

We can dance our yoga practice.  We can dance our walking.  All of our life can become a dance.

The next time you are feeling stuck in your yoga practice, move laterally and take a dance class.  You might just get back a bit of beginner’s mind.

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