Why Yoga is Important to Me as a Dancer, as a Person

Yoga is the coming together of body, breath and mind, but it is also a very personal practice, not an exhibitionist one

Navtej YogaBoth yoga and dance must mean different things to different people. At the very outset, I would like to say that yoga and dance are not naturally complimentary to each other as they might seem. Yes, they both deal with the body but their initial focus is very conflicting: while yoga feels self-enhancing from day-one and its introversion is very stilling, the perfection of form wreaks tyranny on the body in dance and is fraught with the anxieties of extrovert projections from the very start. All through my training years I found this conflict almost unbridgeable; and for that reason could totally understand why Krishnamacharya never accepted dancers as his students. But now, after many more years of both practice and experience I can see that the gap is bridged and yoga makes a monumental difference to my dancing. Likewise, dance too informs my yoga with fluidity and more so, imagery.

While talking of yoga, I can only speak of the tradition of yoga that I follow and experiment with, that of the school of Sri T Krishnamacharya and TKV Desikachar, according to which if the practice does not involve the simultaneous engagement of the body, breath and mind, it is not yoga. Thus, the body, mind and breath are one cohesive unit, without any hierarchy pertaining between them, and are to be “practiced” together.

I have come to believe that if I focus upon refining my spine, it will also automatically refine my breath and mind, or if I refine my breath it will have a direct and proportionate affect on both my body and mind, as they are continuous and exactly the same stuff. What I find miraculous about the practice is that how mindful manipulation of the bones, joints and muscles of the body can actually drastically alter the way I feel, i.e. I move my body in a prescribed manner, orchestrate the breath into a specific measure, and lo and behold my mind, my mood, and my spirit are altered, and all this without the intervention of any auto-suggestive ideas, visualisation or benediction. It is yoga that has taught me that body movement is mood altering! It feels as though the movement actually changes the chemistry of the body, as I am left feeling juicy, pleasured and filled with deep and sensual satisfaction, plus repose. Thus, for me the sringhara rasa, the amorous mood, or the state of sensuous languor, that is so central to bharatanatyam, is not a matter of the heart, but it actually emanates out of the material of my body, my bones literally.

I am firmly of the belief, that suggestion through imagery, poetry, music, are all secondary, what is integral is the clearance that my bones and joints open within the body and freely allow it to submit to a new experience. Abhinaya is then neither an idea nor a projection, as it is often considered, it is actually a real emanation that comes forth out of my body, a revelation of the body. It is precisely here that yoga has not only helped me but I would say made me a dancer. By letting me realise that emotion, heart, soul, spirit, inspiration, all of these are not foreign elements that are introduced into my body from above, a chance gift of another dimension or a muse, but are all contiguous extensions of the material body. Actually this idea is neither novel nor original, though it seems radical in our times, but a direct import of the Samkhya philosophy which is purely “materialist” and does not entertain the idea of God, and upon which the yoga of Patanjali is based. And interestingly this same idea gets further elaborated in the tantra of Abhinavagupta (10th century CE), who further adds into it the magical dimension of poetry and resonance.

Breath control is vital

To be precise, what helps me most as a dancer is the technique of ujjayi breath that is so widely used in our tradition. Ujjayi is a method of chest breathing that a) directly awakens the spine, and b) makes the breath subtly audible and thus immediately makes the practice auto-engaging, because the practitioner is not only modulating but also simultaneously being able to hear the breath, and accordingly gauge the condition of the body/mind: is it smooth, is it agitated, is it jerky, is it satisfying or straining? And thus through this dual process of both doing and gauging we learn to calibrate our practice from the inside, and that is critical, because it is most important to make my practice my own. What I have learnt is that I, the practitioner, must remain the primary recipient of the effects of what has been generated, to be embalmed by the very energy that I have generated and dispersed; the repose and sensual satisfaction that is so central to my existence comes through the passive, and always sweet, reabsorption of this energy into the body (which often happens in the shavasan). And this I feel has a direct impact on my dance, where the possibility of simultaneously absorbing the energy of the gesture that I make opens up to me, or my body can receive the echo of its own movement. This internalised process of auto-engagement and then the passivity of reabsorption instils a sense of itminan in the body, and this itminan or equipoise is palpable, visible to the eye and a great asset in performance.

The conflict that I felt between dance and yoga in my initial years was due to the fact that I felt that I could only enter dance from the outside, as an outsider, who had to be beaten down to conform to not only the “form” but also the “norm” of the dance. But now with age, practice, and also a lot of reading I have been able to redefine and even demolish many an oppressive norm. We have been tyrannised by many a notion about the divide between body and mind, body and soul, matter and spirit, morality and profanity, body being maya and thus inferior, and the soul being superior. I find this whole rhetoric of atma-paramatma quite mind-numbing. These are ideas that (are perhaps designed to!) undermine autonomy. And to me there is no poetry, no spirit, no bodily practice, and no spirituality without autonomy. In that, I am a hardcore believer of Abhinavagupta’s svatantravada!

To conclude, I would like to remind everyone that yoga is a delicately potent practice, it is for everyone, but it is a deeply personal and private practice. Its potency lies in its rigour, sensitivity, autonomy, but more than anything else in its privacy. The Hathayoga Pradipika (1.11) categorically states that the potency of yoga practice lies in keeping it private, actually gupta or secretive (bhavedvīryavatī guptā nirvīryā tu prakāśitā); for it loses its power and the magic of its “after-effects” by being publicised. I would like to share this note of caution with the publicists and bandwagoners of yoga today.

Navtej Johar is a dancer and a yoga practitioner in the tradition of Sri T Krishnamacharya and Sri TKV Desikachar. He is the founder and director of Studio Abhyas, New Delhi, a space dedicated to yoga, dance, urban activism and the care of stray animals.