As a result of the demands of such a vigorous dance form, many dancers experience knee strain, backache, or problems with other parts of the body dance exerts pressure on, such as the shoulders, hips, and ankles. This is the ‘occupational hazard’ of pursuing a dance career! Such problems could be linked to incorrect alignment or bad posture. Other causes could be linked to the innumerable stresses faced by dancers today, including inappropriate flooring, long rehearsals and frequent performances, extended travel, and other factors of modern day stress, including living in a polluted environment, insufficient sleep, improper diet, etc.
Due to these factors, there is an increasing focus on dancers’ health and well-being in India today and more emphasis is being made by dance teachers and health practitioners on the importance of warming up before practice or a performance. Many dancers and teachers are increasingly incorporating a yoga or stretching regimen as part of their dance practice and teaching.
Chennai-based Bharata Natyam dancer Urmila Sathyanarayanan, known for her impeccable technique and deep araimandi, learned the hard way… While practicing one day she experienced a sharp pain in her left knee. The pain disappeared soon after but not completely, as it would come back from time to time, often enough to have her decide to consult specialists. (Image right: Urmila in araimandi)
An MRI Scan revealed a lateral meniscal tear in her left knee. (The meniscus is the piece of cartilage found between the femur and the tibia, which acts as a ‘shock absorber’ for the knee). When an Orthopaedic specialist recommended surgery to repair the damage to her knee, Urmila consulted an Ayurvedic doctor for an alternative opinion, who recommended a prolonged period of rest and yoga practice. After considering her options, Urmila decided not to take the drastic (and irreversible) step of undergoing surgery. She took the difficult but necessary decision to stop dancing for a period of six months in order to allow her knee to completely heal and recover.
During this period of rehabilitation, Urmila started an intensive practice of Iyengar yoga as part of the healing process. She sought guidance from Dr. Krishna Raman, a Chennai-based doctor and Iyengar yoga specialist popularly known as the ‘dancer’s doctor’, who is well-known for his integration of western medicine with yoga. With Dr. Raman’s guidance, Urmila was able to use yoga asanas to help heal her injured knee. After this six-month hiatus, Urmila returned to the stage and re-staked her place as one of India’s most sought after dancers today. (Image left: Dr Krishna Raman with Urmila)
As a result of this experience, Urmila has made yoga an integral part of her daily dance regimen and practice. Before a performance she can be found in her dressing room standing on one leg in vrkasana or sitting cross-legged in padmasana! Before each rehearsal or performance she spends at least an hour going through a meticulous series of yoga postures to limber up and prepare her body to dance.
Urmila has integrated yoga not only into her own dance practice, but also into her teaching. She believes that yoga, or some form of an exercise or stretching programme, should be inculcated and made part of the learning process. She has successfully integrated yoga as part of the curriculum at her dance school, Natya Sankalpaa in Chennai. “I include this right from the beginning in my dance classes,” she explains. “Classes start with a few warm-ups which include yoga asanas and only then do we start the main class. Also, separate yoga classes are also offered at my school by a yoga master twice a week.”
Urmila also teaches her students proper alignment and instructs them how to “stamp” their feet correctly so as not to put unnecessary strain on the hips and knees. She has also made changes to her dance studio, lining the floor with yoga mats to reduce shock on the knees. She encourages her students to practice yoga daily at home and has noticed a marked difference in those who do: “I encourage them to spend a little time every day on yoga because the difference it makes to their dance is very obvious, there’s a marked difference. I ask my students to spend at least half an hour a day on yoga, and an hour or an hour and a half on dance. Even if they could manage this three times a week, that would be excellent. As for my own practice, I spend an hour on stretching or yoga asanas, and two and a half hours on dance practice per day.”
Looking back, Urmila is grateful that despite the misfortune of her knee injury, it has led her to discover the benefits of a regular yoga practice. Her only regret is that she wasn’t able to integrate yoga into her daily dance practice earlier, before her injury, as a long-term preventive goal.
This article was published in the Autumn 2005 issue of Pulse magazine.