Ballet & Yoga: How I finally learned to Love my Body. ~ Cassandra Smith

Via on Apr 30, 2012
Vision Photography

When I was two years old, I said to my mother, “I’m going to be a ballerina.”

What I have come to realize as I develop my yoga practice, mindful diet and spiritual awareness, is that there is a difference between pushing yourself and hurting yourself.

Being the amazing mother she is, she enrolled her toddler in a once a week ballet class at a nearby studio. She quickly found out that I was quite serious about my proclamation.

By the time I was seven, I was taking dance classes six days a week. At 12, I started going away to month long “summer intensive programs,” where elite dance teachers from around the world train selected students for professional careers. Boston Ballet offered me a spot to train with them year round at 17, so I graduated a semester early from high school and followed my dream.

Despite the dazzling tutus and tiaras, the life of a ballet dancer is anything but glamorous. The amount of training it takes to reach the top of the ballet world almost requires that you give up your childhood:

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It also requires that you are willing to do perhaps irreparable harm to your body on a daily basis. Ballet asks a curved body to make straight lines. Ballerinas are required to trick the audience into believing gravity does not apply to them. They must force their bruised and blistered feet into satin covered torture devices.

Because of the long hours and high level of difficulty, injuries are extremely common in ballet. I’ve sprained my ankles too many times to count, bruised my tailbone, stress fractured my toe and tore a tendon in my hip completely off of the bone.

But to be honest, I think the mental pain caused by ballet hurt just as bad.

When I was living in Boston, I was constantly beating myself up for not being good enough. I would compare my physical appearance and my dancing ability to everyone around me and always reach the same conclusion: I am inadequate.

Sensing that I was no longer happy living the life of a ballerina, I decided to leave Boston to go to Boulder for a college education. After spending two years on the east coast, I was initially thrown off by how nice and happy the majority of people seemed to be here. And that’s when I realized it.

These people are happy because they are being good to their bodies.

In a town where bike paths outnumber roads and yoga studios outnumber McDonalds, I started to understand the connection between physical wellness and mental health. I started doing yoga and experimenting with less demanding forms of dance. I also modified my diet; I am now more concerned about how certain foods will make my body feel, not how they will make my body look.

What I have come to realize as I develop my yoga practice, mindful diet and spiritual awareness, is that there is a difference between pushing yourself and hurting yourself.

Lindsey Slagle

In ballet, I was trying to get my body to do super human things at the expense of my mind. In yoga, I learned to bring mindfulness to my body and super human things happened naturally.

I can remember how when I left a particulary hard ballet rehearsal, all I wanted to do was take a pain pill and zone out in a hot bath. When I leave a particularly hard yoga class, I feel rejuvenated, centered and like I can take on the world.

Instead of thinking that I am inadequate, I know that I am of infinite worth.

The point is not that yoga is better than ballet, the point is that being mindful of what and how much your body can take is key to healthy living. Pushing yourself to reach your goals is good, but not if you are sacrificing your body or your sanity to do it.

When I dance now, I listen when my body says it is hurting. I don’t force my hips to turn out quite as far or lift my legs quite as high. I can enjoy it now that I am no longer preoccupied with trying to be the best.

By respecting my physical needs and limitations, both my body and mind are now in a better place. They have found the place of freedom that only comes from being good to yourself.

“It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.”  

~ BKS Iyengar

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Cassandra Smith is an editorial intern at elephant journal.  She is a fifth generation Colorado native who believes dance has the potential to liberate human consciousness from its cultural prison.  Cassandra formerly trained at Boston Ballet and is currently a senior at University of Colorado Boulder studying journalism, sociology and philosophy. Read her blog at cassandralanesmith.com.

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18 Responses to “Ballet & Yoga: How I finally learned to Love my Body. ~ Cassandra Smith”

  1. laura says:

    As a former dancer, I can really relate to this post! I used to equate my success in dancing to the way my body looked. Recently, I have found yoga and improvisational forms of dancing to be very therapeutic! Great article!

    • Cassandra Smith says:

      Thanks for reading! I've gotten really into improv lately too, it's such an amazing feeling!

  2. HJCOTTON says:

    That is a very well balanced article. I have also transitioned from Ballet to Yoga. I am naturally thin, flat chested and flexible. What turned me off Ballet was the culture of Starvation. I remember I was eating before a ballet class, and all the girls looked askance at me as if I was committing a crime. Very few girls are endowed with a natural ballet body, and professional ballet is not for everyone. Ballerinas don't realize that they need good nutrition to stave off stress fractures and premature osteoporosis. One postive aspect about ballet is that it teaches you self discipline. I am afraid that the culture of ballet is spreading to the yoga world in the forms of detoxing and cleansing diets that is in my opinion, a form of Annorexia. A moderate diet is the key as both yoga and ballet can be taxing on your muscles and bones.

    • Cassandra Smith says:

      Thanks for reading; I definitely agree with your comment. I saw a lot of girls develop crazy eating habits to get their bodies to look a certain way, myself included at times. Unfortunately, ballet has a very specific aesthetic, and many dancers are willing hurt themselves while trying to force their bodies into it. While I think studying ballet has many positive effects, I'm glad that I am no longer trying to fit the ballet body mold.

  3. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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  4. Elize says:

    Really lovely article, and like several of the above posts, I, too, am a former ballerina. I wonder how many of us there are who have found solace & health in the yoga world? Thank you again- it's really refreshing to realize that I am not the only one.

  5. Cassandra Smith says:

    Thanks for reading, Elize! I'm so glad to see other dancers are able to relate to my story, and I'm sure there are many more like us. I like to think of yoga as a sustainable form of ballet, it gives me the same physical high without doing irreparable damage to my body.

  6. AbbyHoffmann says:

    Great article! so relevant right now, particularly in UK as eating disorders and ballet in the news following a recent conference on disordered eating.. with my experience of dancers and yoga, I am now training yoga teachers to work sensitively with dancers – ensuring that yoga doesn't also become another way to berate, beat up and starve in order to get the perfect 'yoga body… Thanks Cassandra!

  7. [...] Ballet & Yoga: How I finally learned to Love my Body. ~ Cassandra Smith [...]

  8. [...] limitations; however, we need to do so with acute awareness, kindness and compassion. Learning to recognize the difference between kindly challenging ourselves and violently forcing ourselves. In fact, the outcome will be vastly different: when we challenge ourselves with awareness, [...]

  9. [...] One—we want to be perfect or act perfectly (whatever that means), and usually, it relates to a bogus set of criteria determined by society and culture. [...]

  10. [...] At some point we have to be able to stand back and witness the mind. [...]

  11. [...] This short interaction forced me to consider my own body-centered conversations and direct experiences, growing up as ballerina. [...]

  12. [...] stepping and bending. The dances are choreographed to terrific music. Best of all, to my mind, “no pain no gain” has no place in [...]

  13. [...] some knee-jerk swerves that could have sent me into cars a couple of times. Needless to say, the training took a physical and mental toll on both me and my husband, who was helping me [...]

  14. [...] my relationship to dance, my lifestyle was reflecting the belief that I’m not good enough. And in pummeling that belief with my decision to dance every day, I knew the way that belief [...]

  15. David Goud says:

    I enjoyed your article and thought it was well written. I have to point out though, that the need for a professional female ballet dancer to be thin is not only an aesthetic, but is essential to be able to be partnered. As you know, a great deal of professional soloist and principal roles require partnering, and being thin and strong as a female dancer does make dancing with another artist safer. America is the land of opportunity, and schools and companies often give people who do not have genetically ideal ballet bodies a chance to become artists, and with that can come struggles and heartache. I found classical ballet as a haven for my athletic but thin body type after being cut from numerous football tryouts. I think that better truthful conversations about knowing when to stop a pursuit due to physical or emotional struggles is needed in professional training and companies. It is not sad that ballet has a thin, lithe, turned out aesthetic. That is part of the art form. In yoga, some students who start practice in their middle or advanced age have to be told that it may be dangerous to do certain asanas. The same loving interventions can be done in ballet.

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