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Yoga and Dance for Recovery

Author: Penelope Richards/Tuesday, August 23, 2011/Categories: Health & Wellbeing

At 25 years sober, I can’t imagine a day without a little boogie in it. To send oxygen zinging through each and every cell as I stretch and wake up my muscles is a game-changer that has made my sober life full of joy. My goal is to share this experience and entice my fellow alcoholics to recover more vibrant physical health along with their sobriety.

The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is accessible to all because it expressly leaves spirituality open to the interpretation of the individual. The choice of a Higher Power, the practice and maintenance of our spiritual condition becomes a cornucopia of methods, as different and varied as the number of members who participate in Twelve Step meetings across the globe. And how many different types of physical exercise are available to us? It boggles the mind as fads come and go – from Zumba to kick-boxing to PiYo and salsa – pay your money and take your pick.

Having lived through the Great Depression, my mother wanted to give us kids all the advantages she had missed. My older sister was enrolled in ballet class and at four years old, I had to do everything she did. A lifetime passion was born and my progress was swift. I began teaching the younger kids at my studio (Ditzi Nagy Academy of Dance in Columbus, Ohio) from age 15, and at 17 danced the leading role in Coppelia for the Columbus Civic Ballet. I branched out to comprehensive performance in musical theater, making my debut as Liesl in The Sound of Music and landing lead roles at Ohio State University Summer Theater at age 16.

My professional career began right out of high school with the venerable Kenley Players, where I worked with show-biz legends Shirley Jones, Joel Grey, John Davidson, Ann Miller and Frankie Avalon. The Big Apple called and this young woman answered. I was soon mentored by notable dance legends Michael Shawn, Tony Stevens and Michael Bennett. The prestigious Long Wharf Theater, New York’s classic City Center, the elite Rainbow Grill at Rockefeller Center and Broadway stages were a few of my stomping grounds when I wasn’t touring nationally and internationally in such classics as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Jane Powell; The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Barbara Eden; and 42nd St. with Star Trek’s Nana Visitor. The most thrilling and beloved challenge of my stage career came in the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Chorus Line for the New York Shakespeare Festival in which I was critically acclaimed as Sheila Bryant, singing “At the Ballet” an estimated 4,000 times.

After a 1993 cancer diagnosis interrupted my performing career, dance instead became the prominent avocation in my day-to-day life. Fast forward to the present, my course classes and individual coaching are tremendously rewarding and allow me to maintain the skills for which I worked so hard. Dance continues to be a creative inspiration in my writing. The adoration of Fred Astaire is an integral part of my short film, Departure, currently in post-production. Also being developed as a mini-series is my original script set in a kid’s performing arts school.

So let’s first take a look at dance as support for those in recovery. Social situations are a challenge for the newly sober population. How can we possibly have fun without drinking? I was so grateful for the sober dances in my early sobriety. They provided a safe place to hang for what seemed like endless evenings without hiding in my substance abuse. My major dance background resulted in many requests for “Help!” from my fellow “survivors of a shipwreck.” These informal sessions were a gift to me, refining my technique for easing nervous beginners into a safe discovery of their physical body’s expression. Teaching movement is an intuitive art, requiring patience and a little bit of psychic ability. My methods are individual and unique, developed over many years of working with professional colleagues, non-dancing actors and musicians, along with engaged couples preparing for their wedding dance, as well as same-sex couples. The fun and freedom of social dancing should be available for everyone who is willing to work at mastering it.

It is my preferred logic to train the body for flexibility, coordination and control in concert with the footwork of each dance style. “Skills, not just steps” is what and how I teach, so that if the steps mysteriously evaporate from the dancer’s mind, they can remain confident in their easy sense of “rhythm and joy.” Even at the most elementary level, ballroom dance prepares us for social interaction and improves our communication skills for life.

Three concepts govern all the rules of etiquette for social dancing: respect for self, respect for others and responsibility for all of your actions. You show respect for yourself by holding your head up and shoulders back in dance position, not hanging on your partner, not looking at the floor or your feet. This stance, or “the frame” improves posture and breathing, which naturally looks good to you in the mirror, makes you feel more energized and can encourage you to take care of your body in other ways. You show respect for others by allowing for their personal space and accepting whatever physical limitations they may have. You take responsibility for your actions by graciously not assigning blame for mistakes, complimenting the successful execution of steps and embracing the process of fixing mistakes together with your partner.

There’s no down side to studying dance in whatever form. Those who can step out on the dance floor with experience and confidence can be assured of an easier and more enjoyable social life in sobriety.

Now to yoga, that mysterious Eastern philosophy. Do you have to be a pretzel? Do you have to shave your head? What about sitting in silence with your legs crossed for hours at a time? Your call. The wonderful thing about the practice of yoga is that you can design your own program; discover what works for you and use it the way you like. Yoga came into my life when, as a young single mother, still in denial of my disease and years away from my first meeting, I began to feel the effects of stress. I was also motivated by a desire to earn a college degree. So my first yoga class was at Santa Monica College, immediately creating another lifelong passion – one which perfectly complemented my dance experience.
Much the same as Hinduism, the traditional backdrop for yoga’s psycho-physiological meditation techniques calls upon personal experience to develop a meaningful toolbox for fixing what’s broken and to reinforce the effective parts of one’s life. The nurturing and self-love that have been missing are essential ingredients to living happy, joyous and free.

Yoga can be translated as “union” in the context of uniting the body and spirit. Some differences of opinion exist among scholars when classifying and grouping the eight systems of yoga, mostly because they overlap and have validity within each other. The most widely known and practiced branch is called Hatha Yoga and encompasses most variations and styles found in gyms and yoga studios in the West. The word hatha derives from two roots: ha means sun and tha means moon. So it is that Hatha Yoga exercises, called asanas, are done extensively in the West for their practical benefits to the health of the nervous system, glands and vital organs. In more advanced studies, there are purification processes of breathing and diet that further discipline the body to approach Raja Yoga, translated as Royal Yoga, in which the practitioner becomes ruler over the mind. Alcoholics Anonymous has started us thinking along those lines by describing our disease as one part “obsession of the mind.” The techniques of meditation can strengthen our mental muscle, allowing the changes in perception for which we strive.

The French writer C. Kerneiz, writing under the pseudonym Felix Gyot, opens his book, Yoga: the Science of Health as follows: “Keep well, remain young a long time, and live to a good old age, such is the threefold wish that the men of every race and country have, at all times, formulated at the bottom of their hearts. This threefold wish is a very natural one, for it is simply the expression of the most powerful and the most tenacious of instincts: self-preservation. Live! We want to live with the greatest amplitude possible.
To fight against disease, when it comes, and to avert, as far as is possible, the threat of death which is in its train; to defer old age, and by doing so, put off death itself, we have hygiene, which is only, it is true, an autonomous but not independent province of the medical kingdom.

But there exists a science, practiced in India and Tibet, and more or less throughout the whole of China, which is somewhat mysterious, for it is not taught to all comers. This science is traditional and its origin is lost in the night of time. It has precisely the same object as hygiene in Western countries: to keep its adepts in health and strength and to ward off old age and death for the longest time possible. This science of Life, which is only a branch of the secret of the Yogis, is called the Hatha Yoga.”

Yoga practice consists of breathing exercises, or pranayama; asanas, or postures; meditation and relaxation. Prana is translated as the life force of the breath, or just simply the breath, and yama as restraint or control. Few adults breathe with full efficiency for maximum healthful effect. Young children breathe more effectively, but once they are subjected to social pressures and tensions, they develop the shallow high-chested breathing of their parents. Adequate elasticity of the respiratory muscles and lungs is necessary to fully purify and oxygenate the bloodstream and to burn food in the body for energy. In a more advanced yoga practice, kumbhaka, or breath retention, is practiced, allowing for a better mix of fresh air with the residual air in the lungs, as our exhalation never fully empties the lungs. A physiological benefit of these pauses is achieved by the diffusion of unexpired air, containing more carbon dioxide, with the more oxygenated air of inhalation. The aeration of the bloodstream is then improved, a big deal when you consider that the entire blood supply of the body flows through the lungs in about three minutes. A cumulative psychological benefit of respiratory pauses is to calm and soothe the nervous system while carrying the tranquility of yoga practice into everyday living.

Asana means seat, its original purpose being to provide a rock-like steadiness in sitting for meditation. Easy Posture, sukhasana, is the most practical cross-legged posture for beginners. We sit this way to provide the center of gravity low in the abdomen, allowing a straight spine and easy breathing. Vital energies are gathered and conserved when sitting quietly in this pose. From here, with a teacher’s guidance, a yoga practice continues and includes forward bending poses, backward bends, twisting postures and inversion, ending finally in savasana, deep relaxation. With regular practice, the spine gradually sbecomes more supple, the joints move freely, the hamstrings lengthen and loosen, the legs fold and the knees spread without discomfort. With the healthier and more responsive body that yoga can produce, our sobriety is further encouraged and enhanced.

“Know thyself” has been a command of every religious leader. Buddha and Jesus both said that before we look to know anything else, we must first look within. Yoga’s end goal of intuitive enlightenment, samadi, may not be for you, but yoga’s health benefits cannot be denied; having been proved and documented by renowned physicians such as Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Deepak Chopra and countless others. If we accept that as alcoholics, we have an allergy of the body coupled with an obsession of the mind, wouldn’t we then agree that any practice that can help us to manage and overcome these elements of our existence is worth investigating?

Both dance and yoga have kept me from doing untold damage to my physical health when my disease was running wild, and I’m convinced wholeheartedly that movement is a key component to my continued wellbeing now in sobriety.

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