I promised to share my final report for RYT200 Yoga Teacher Training with you. Especially my yoga teacher training colleagues have been asking to see it. It’s long, as reports sometimes can be, but the chapters are short and there are some photos I took especially for this (Thank you FlowMotionWear for the awesome clothes!) I wrote in English so this time no Finnish translation is available, sorry!
I was always fascinated by yoga, trying different poses and breathing exercises from my mom’s wellness book when I was a child. I first went to a yoga class in 1999 when they became available in my home town. I started pole dancing in 2010 and my desire to gain flexibility and to prevent injury in the demanding aerial acrobatics sport rekindled my love for yoga. I have practised various hatha yoga forms, including Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Bikram and other Hot Yogas, Aerial Yoga and also Yin Yoga.
I started studies to become a certified RYT200 yoga teacher in April 2014. Right away I also started giving yoga classes, soon also at the pole dance studio where I practise. My yoga teacher studies have included the following modules:
- Hatha I
- Vinyasa I
- Yin I + anatomy
- Air (aerial) Yoga I
- Yoga philosophy
This is my final thesis for the yoga teacher training at Yoga Nordic in Helsinki. The paper combines my acquired knowledge of yoga and pole dance with selected passes from yoga books and articles. My goal is to create a guide on the various ways how pole dancers can benefit from adding yoga to their practice.
Yoga is having a moment. I think it’s the third or fourth one in my lifetime and I expect to see a few more. Amusing as this cycle is, it has its upsides. One of them is that now that yoga is in the spotlight again, it gets praised in all media. Therefore, the benefits of yoga are probably well-known to all. Timothy McCall’s article on yogajournal.com (2007) lists no less than 38 health benefits of yoga, including for example these scientifically proven ones:
- Improves your flexibility
- Builds muscle strength
- Perfects your posture
- Prevents cartilage and joint breakdown
- Protects your spine (by keeping spinal disks supple)
- Betters your bone health (through weight-bearing asanas and also by lowering the stress hormone cortisol)
- Increases your blood flow
- Drains your lymphs (a viscous fluid rich in immune cells) and boosts immunity
- Ups your heart rate (which e.g. lowers your risk of heart attack and can relieve depression)
- Drops your blood pressure
- Regulates your adrenal glands (lowering cortisol levels)
- Makes you happier (through e.g. increasing serotonin levels)
- Helps you focus
- Improves your balance
- Maintains your nervous system
- Releases tension in your limbs
- Helps you sleep deeper
- Boosts your immune system functionality
- Gives your lungs room to breathe
- Prevents IBS and other digestive problems (through lowering stress and creating movement).
Pole dance is a form of acrobatics where athletes make various moves on or around a vertical metal pole. The pole can be either static or spin around its own axle. In addition to acrobatics, modern pole dance can be a circus act, a dance form or striptease. Similar to yoga, pole dance has many different disciplines. The Western version of pole dance is a relatively new sport that started gaining popularity less than a decade ago. Thus far the global pole dance community has remained united and this paper is aimed at all pole dancers, whether they are the Olympics-bound Pole Sport type or the exotic dancer type – Anyone who has done enough pole spins and tricks to know where it hurts.
In my five years emerged in the pole dance world I have seen that all pole athletes face the same challenges. In the beginning the friction needed between skin and metal to stay on the pole is painful, but that passes with time. Like in any aerial acrobatics sport, falling badly can result in serious injury, although luckily these cases have been rare. The most common threat to a pole dancer seems to be joint injury. Especially wrists and shoulders are in danger.
Many pole dancers have poles also at home, but they admit that training without the push of a teacher and support of friends just isn’t the same thing. Many complain that they cannot find proper grip when they practice at home and keep slipping and sliding. From personal experience I can say that this is most likely due to insufficient warming up; skin needs to be warm to stick to the pole.
Proper warming up is needed also to avoid injury. However, without group support, jumping up and down and doing pushups might feel stupid or boring. Few people have the determination to warm up for fifteen minutes at home, like they would in class. A yoga sequence can be a good way to warm up. For example, 5 rounds of Surya Namaskara A (Sun Salutation A), 5 rounds of Surya Namaskara B and a couple of rounds of Dancing Warrior sequence will warm up the entire body and bring benefits of yoga as an added bonus. 15 minutes will fly by. If a yoga class is out of the question, instructions for these sequences can be found even on Youtube.
Advanced pole dance poses can be quite straining. Powerful spins on static pole can be hard on wrists and shoulders. Many moves require splits or even oversplits. Some poses require extreme back flexibility and are famous for bringing pressure on the lower back. After straining pole moves it would be a good idea to take a moment and do a suitable yoga pose to act as a counter pose. For example, after practicing the Janeiro (back to the pole, holding the pole with the lower hand) a moment in Balasana (child’s pose; see Figure 1) might be in order.
When a pole dance class is learning new, extreme poses or spins, often someone laments “I wasn’t breathing the entire time I tried to hold that pose!” Those who practice yoga regularly often notice how yogic breathing follows them even in other exercises. Yogis are said to make good divers, as they are used to calm breathing even when doing physically straining things. They tend to take fewer breaths of greater volume, which is both calming and more efficient. Some pole dancers have a background in e.g. dance or gymnastics, where they have already learned how to use breathing to their advantage when moving. Starting a yoga practice is one way to bring attention to breathing in movement.
Pole classes are often intense sessions, where teachers are trying to cram in as much as possible. The clock ticks away and quite often students hear the familiar words: “Well we didn’t have time to stretch today, do it at home!” However, a sudden stop after an intense workout can cause blood pooling and even make you dizzy. Taking just 2-3 minutes to cool down kickstarts the muscle repair that equals recovery.
The age-old aerobics class favourite of standing (in Tadasana, if you like) and reaching your hands up on the (slow) inhale and down on the exhale works well after a pole class. It keeps blood from pooling in your arms which have been working hard. Folding forward (to Uttanasana) and shaking your shoulders and neck loose eases tension that might have been built up, and also relaxes the spine.
Body maintenance is mandatory to ensure that one recovers properly between workouts and stay injury-free. The proper mobility of joints should be examined, also making sure muscle strength is balanced and the coordination between joints and muscles works. Body maintenance is also required for rehabilitation if an injury happens anyway. Popular body maintenance practices include stretching, massage, physiotherapy, pilates and yoga.
Yoga offers many benefits even if done just as a form of body maintenance. Even one weekly yoga session will help maintain good posture, protect your spine etc. In order to get more of the mental benefits or gain flexibility, yoga should be done more often. However, any amount of yoga is better than no yoga at all!
Mark Stephens’ excellent book “Teaching Yoga” (2010) has a chapter on working with injuries. According to Stephens, flow-oriented Hatha yoga classes with repetitive movements and numerous asanas in which the entire weight of the body is supported on the hands, can put students’ wrists at risk of injury. For a pole dancer, whose wrists might already be strained, overly repeating these asanas might do more harm than help. Potential problems include overstretching or tearing wrist ligaments, wrist tendinitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Sufferers of severe wrist pain should undergo proper diagnostic tests. Naturally, no asanas where weight is on the wrists (including hand balances) shouldn’t be done if there is sharp pain. Students experiencing mild wrist pain should always warm up their fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders before beginning their practice – something that should be standard procedure in any pole class. Wrist and forearm massage can also help reduce pain.
Mark Stephens instructs a sequence for healthy wrists, which can be done if the wrist pain is mild.
- Tadasana wrist therapy: Gently rotate the wrists through their full range of circular motion, repeatedly changing direction, then gently shake out the wrists for around thirty seconds. This can be incorporated in brief form into every Sun Salutation.
- Uttanasana wrist pratikriyasana: Whenever folding into Uttanasana (forward fold) amid Sun Salutations, place the backs of the wrists toward or onto the floor and make an easy fist. This is less intense on the wrists than Pada Hastasana (hands under feet. Also, more students can do it and it can be easily done with the exhale into Uttanasana).
- Wrist pumps: Holding the fingers of one hand with the fingers of the other hand, move the wrist forward and back while resisting the movement with the opposing hand. Repeat for one to two minutes if pain-free.
- Anjali mudra: Press the palms and fingers (from the knuckles to the fingertips) firmly together at the chest in a prayer position for one to two minutes (see Figure 2). This is also known as reverse Phalen’s test; if there is a burning sensation inside the wrist joint within thirty seconds, this could indicate CTS. Reverse the position of the hands, placing the backs of the wrists and hands together, and press firmly for up to a minute (Phalen’s test).
- Hand dance: Kneeling comfortably, place the hands down on the floor with the fingers pointed forward, then turn the palms up, then down with the fingers out, up with the fingers in, down with the fingers back, up with the fingers back, continuing in this fashion with every permutation of palms up and down with the fingers forward, back, in, and out.
Persistent wrist tenderness or strain usually benefits from ice, splints worn during sleep, anti-inflammatory agents (including turmeric and ginger), acupuncture, and other alternative treatments. Encourage students to explore all possible measures and to consult a doctor for additional guidance.
Mark Stephens (2010) also discusses instability and impingement in the shoulder joint, both unfortunately common problems for pole dancers. They both arise from problems in the rotator cuff, the four muscles covering the head of the humerus that work together to lift and rotate the arm. The humerus is at risk of subluxation when one or more of these muscles is weak, or when the supporting ligaments are overstretched. The condition is commonly called a dislocated shoulder. When one or more of the rotator cuff muscles is tight or otherwise out of healthy balance, the deltoid is unopposed in abduction, jamming the humeral head up against the scapula when lifting the arm. There are also other causes of impingement or pain in the shoulders, but if it is imbalance that is creating instability or impingement, first avoid painful activities and refrain from unstable movements in which the elbow is lifted above the shoulder. Stephens recommends ice and anti-inflammatory agents for treating persistent pain.
The key to healthy shoulders is balanced strength and flexibility. To develop healthy range of motion and strength, Stephens recommends the following asanas and exercises:
- Lying prone on a table with the arm dangling down, simply swing it forward and back in Codman’s pendulum swings and around in circles.
- Stretch the rhomboids with Garudasana arms (see Figure 3); use one arm to pull the other gently across the chest in horizontal adduction if unable to get into the Garudasana position.
- Use Gomukhasana arms (see Figure 4) to stretch the triceps, latissimus dorsi, infraspinatus, teres minor, and pectoralis major of the upper arm and the pectoralis major, biceps, serratus anterior, and trapezius of the lower arm.
- Use Parsvottanasana (see Figure 5) arms to stretch the infraspinatus, teres minor, serratus anterior, anterior deltoids, and pectorals.
- Use Prasarita Padottanasana C (see Figure 6) arms to stretch the pectorals and anterior deltoids.
- Stabilize the scapula by strengthening and stretching the serratus anterior and rhomboid muscles: on all fours and keeping the arms straight, slowly alternate between lowering the chest toward and away from the floor; when easy, do this in Phalakasana (see Figure 7) and progress to moving slowly back and forth between Phalakasana and Chaturanga (see Figure 8).
- To strengthen the rotator cuff muscles: supraspinatus through abduction of the arms into Virabhadrasana II (see Figure 9); infraspinatus and teres minor through external rotation of the arms in Adho Mukha Svanasana (see Figure 10); subscapularis through isometric contraction in Parsvottanasana.
- If free of pain, explore further strengthening of the shoulders by keeping the arms overhead in flexion in Salabhasana C (see Figure 11) and Virabhadrasana III (see Figure 12). If still pain-free after these asanas, explore holding Adho Mukha Svanasana for up to one minute, eventually working up to five minutes. If still pain-free, explore Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand), eventually holding for up to two minutes.
Flexibility is a requirement if one wishes to advance in their pole dancing. Legs are in a split (even oversplit) or straddle in many poses, and some tricks require back flexibility that can be helped with flexible hip flexors and mobile shoulders. Yoga is sometimes mistakenly considered to be just a form of stretching. Even though we know this perception isn’t accurate, yoga is really an excellent way to safely gain more flexibility.
Fernando Pagés Ruiz (2007) explains in his Yoga Journal article “What Science Can Teach Us About Flexibility” about reciprocal inhibition. Along with stretching connective tissue, many asanas aim to enlist the neurological mechanisms that allow our muscles to release and extend. Whenever one set of muscles (the agonists) contracts, reciprocal inhibition (a built-in feature of the autonomic nervous system) causes the opposing muscles (the antagonists) to release. This mechanism allows safe and effective stretching of muscles and connective tissue in many hatha yoga moves. For example, in Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) the same mechanism is at play. Your hamstrings are released when you engage their opposing muscle group, the quadriceps.
Bernie Clark explains in his The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga (2012) that the joints always have a certain range of motion, which is limited by tension or by compression. Compression is e.g. bone against bone or muscle against muscle, so that the only way to move further is to go around the point of compression. Eventually, after you have worked through all the tensile resistance of your tissues, compression will stop you.
The resistance to movement, when caused by tension, is distributed relatively in four areas:
- Joint capsule and ligaments 47%
- Muscle (and its fascia) 43%
- Tendon 10%
- Skin 2%
The biggest limit to flexibility is thus the joints’ rigidity, followed by the muscle and its fascia. Various hatha yoga styles help gain flexibility to the limits of muscle tissue, its fascia, and skin. Yin Yoga can also safely open the joints and ligaments to their healthy limits.
Esther Ekhart (2014), the founder of Ekhart Yoga, explains the basic principle of Yin Yoga in brief: In the body, the relatively stiff connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, fascia) are yin, while the more mobile and pliable muscles and blood are yang.
Yin Yoga consists of a series of long-held, passive floor poses that mainly work the lower part of the body—the hips, pelvis, inner thighs, lower spine – the areas that have the most connective tissues. Connective tissue responds best to a slow, steady stretch. The poses are held for up to five minutes, sometimes longer. The body responds by making the connective tissues a little longer and stronger. The principle of exercise – to stress the tissue so the body will respond by strengthening it – applies to Yin Yoga as well.
Yin Yoga requires the muscles to relax around the connective tissue in order to get a stretch. Therefore, Yin asanas are relaxed into, not held in form with muscle power like in other yoga styles. Yin asanas also have different names. For example, a forward fold sitting on the floor with one leg straight is Janu Sirsasana (Head to Knee Pose) in Hatha yoga. It involves lengthening the spine, stretching the muscles of the back and engaging the muscles of the legs and abdomen to fold the torso towards the legs. In Yin a similar pose is called Half Butterfly: The muscles are relaxed and the spine naturally rounds.
According to Ekhart, the key benefits of Yin Yoga are:
- Stillness: calms and balances the mind and body
- Stress and anxiety reduction
- Increased circulation
- Improved flexibility
- Fascial release
- Greater joint mobility
- Balance to the internal organs and improved flow of chi or prana (energy) through meridian stimulation
Yin Yoga is a relatively safe yoga form to be studied even independently. It’s available as online classes or YouTube videos and there are also many good books where Yin Yoga poses are carefully instructed, such as aforementioned Bernie Clark’s The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga. However, I always recommend starting any new yoga practice with going to class. A skilled teacher will be able to show you variations of different poses to get the most benefit of them.
As aerial acrobats, pole dancers are known to fall in love with aerial yoga. Many pole dance studios around the world have yoga hammocks. Some studios offer real aerial yoga classes, some focus more on the acrobatics or aerial dance side.
Including aerial yoga in their practice offers many benefits for a pole dancer. In addition to the usual benefits of any yoga style, aerial yoga has additional perks. Aerial yoga allows inverting even for absolute beginners, bringing the many benefits of inversions. Inversions energize and improve circulation. These benefits can be achieved even in the short inversions in pole dance, but to get the benefit on increased immunity through lymph drainage one needs to stay inverted for a longer time.
For a beginner pole dancer aerial yoga makes inverts more familiar. As aerial yoga allows hanging in inverts for several minutes at a time, the newbie pole dancer gets used to the new sensation of being upside down more quickly and will not be so confused when it’s time to invert on the pole, let alone continue to other moves.
Many aerial moves have similarities regardless of the apparatus. You can find similar moves on lyra, silks, pole and even aerial yoga. Raja kapottanasana (a.k.a. Dove) in aerial yoga resembles closely outside leg hang on the pole (see Figure).
Aerial yoga hammock also allows bringing more force into stretching the legs. For example, the dancing Shiva pose (see Figure), a very strong leg stretch, is much more easily achieved when first practising it with a yoga hammock. Splits and oversplits can be stretched seamlessly on an aerial hammock, moving from a split into an oversplit without having to add blocks or move like on the floor.
In addition to many recognized physical benefits, yoga famously has a variety of psychological benefits. Even if a pole dancer comes to yoga for body maintenance, perhaps to avoid injury or to gain flexibility, they might start to notice psychological benefits as well.
Pole dance is a demanding hobby. Pole dancers are constantly pushing themselves out of their comfort zones. If one wants to learn new stuff on the pole, risk-taking is mandatory. Sooner or later every pole dancer will fall. It’s not an aerobics class. Moreover, any pole dancer who competes or performs, has to deal with nerves. Yoga reduces cortisol levels, thus easing stress and anxiety. Yoga also improves sleep and reduces sleep disturbance, which in turns helps coping with pressure and speeds up recovery after intense training.
Last but not least, pole dancers are exercising in skimpy clothes to get the required friction between skin and pole. If you’ve have ever had body issues, pole dancing will make you face them. Yoga famously improves body image: Partly due to changing the physical body, partly due to the atmosphere of acceptance that usually surrounds yoga and yogis. Yoga is known to bring increased feelings of well-being and acceptance.
Personally, I’ve gained a lot more than I expected from the pole dance and yoga combination. I expected yoga to help me avoid injury and make me more flexible, which it has, but I’ve also learned to accept my strengths and weaknesses – both on the pole and on the yoga mat.
Clark, Bernie 2012. The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga. The Philosophy and Practice of Yin Yoga. Kindle Edition. White Cloud Press.
Ekhart, Esther 2014. Ekhart Yoga 5 August 2014. The benefits of Yin Yoga. http://www.ekhartyoga.com/blog/the-benefits-of-yin-yoga
McCall, Timothy 2007. Yoga Journal 28 August 2007. 38 Health Benefits of Yoga. http://www.yogajournal.com/article/health/count-yoga-38-ways-yoga-keeps-fit/
Ruiz, Fernando Pagés 2007. Yoga Journal 28 August 2007. Yoga Journal What Science Can Teach Us about Flexibility. http://www.yogajournal.com/article/practice-section/what-science-can-teach-us-about-flexibility/
Stephens, Mark 2010. Teaching Yoga. Kindle edition. North Atlantic Books.