Yoga and Dance in Montreal

Today, we’re visiting the busy intersection of Yoga Road and Dance Street, to talk to some of the people who hang out there. Some of them have travelled down Dance, turned onto Yoga, and never looked back. Others keep using both streets regularly. However, one of the people we meet there tells us that the intersection is an illusion: that this is all one street.

You’d certainly expect to find Jesse Goldberg at this corner. She and her husband and dance partner Eugene Poku worked as professional dancers for many years before shifting together into Ashtanga yoga to become teachers. They are directors of Ashtanga Yoga Montreal, a downtown studio understandably popular with dancers.

“We were touring as Special Blend, hundreds of shows a year, and as we moved into more ‘soft seat’ shows (theatre) where you dance longer, or in two sessions, endurance became a problem. We recognized that breathing and concentration were the key… So practicing yoga enhanced our dancing, up to age 40, time to settle down and have a family. Dance with yoga on the side then became yoga with some dance on the side.”

Jesse finds that many dancers are practicing yoga as a valuable complement to their dancing: “In my class I will typically see three or four dancers and a few choreographers, as well as masseuses, circus people, martial artists, furniture movers… people who work with their bodies, and have problems because of repetitive movement.”

While dance is largely behind her, Jesse is excited these days by Acro Yoga. “Acro yoga is where we get our fun, where we are growing now. In Acro yoga I can get my jiggy on, push buttons, allow some ego in… But when practicing and teaching yoga it is back to clean, tidy and simple. I don’t feel burnt out, I love teaching yoga, doing acro, love my home life… living the dream!”

“Dance is a tool in the service of physical theatre that I practice,” says Mylène Roy, the founder of Danga, a yoga-dance fusion. As she grew up, she sought the grammar of the body from mime and dance, “because I wanted to express what I feel inside, which cannot be expressed in words, which is betrayed by words.” From an early age, however, she also had a sense of disconnection: “Dancing and doing sports, I could not feel the connection with my spirit.” Iyengar Yoga was a great discovery. “It pleased me immensely, satisfying my appetite for esthetic alignment. It satisfied my need to be calm, because the mind was so occupied with the little toe, the hips, the angle of the occipital… but the great revelation, the aha! moment came when I understood movement and breath together. This came close to the soul.”

The practice of yoga now informs her dance and theatre. ““Yoga is at the base. In yoga, there is a practice of non-judgment, while in dance it is a body work that is judged constantly. When I came to a yoga studio, where there were no mirrors, it was the first time I did work that went inside, without judgment on the body… Now when I dance or act, it is not just a pirouette to perform, it is this space of spirituality that must be integrated.”

Danga is the system she developed for her own training and now offers to others. “There are so many connections with yoga — martial arts, dance, meditation… knitting, to bring such different people into places suitable for them. For me, that space must resemble dance, so that dance is nourished by yoga, yoga is nourished by dance. If I am in a negative space with my yoga (for example. the training in alignment can become a template for rigidity), I need training to break this up: so I do a rhythmic bombardment of music to break it up.”

“Every danga session has a theme that guides the improvisation. There will be a great variety of rhythms to dance to, complemented by the practice of yoga that allows us to embrace a basic interior rhythm. So yoga and pranayama keep punctuating the rhythmic plurality of the dance.

“I admire the yogis who have received a tradition and pass it on untouched, but I also love the experimental spirit,” says Mylène Roy. Her path is to experiment, to experience new things.

For Maggie Collins, dance and yoga are deeply complementary: “Both yoga and dance have a connection to the soul. Both yoga and dance make body/mind connection. A dance background provides an ‘organic connection to movement,’ while yoga moves from inside out, less concerned with external form, more of an intuitive movement.”

“Dance also has a different mindset. Dancers are notorious for pushing themselves beyond limits; while in yoga, we are encouraged to recognize and not push beyond limits of this particular moment. It’s not that you don’t try to improve in yoga, but with respect for limits”

Maggie sees that dancers can benefit from doing yoga, to find internal origins of movement, and to work more with breath; dance can help yogis by giving them a visualization of the flow of their movement, and can with help body and spatial awareness. “Yoga emphasizes kinesthetic awareness of body in space: proprioception, where your sense organs are telling you about where your body is located (e.g. with your eyes closed). Slower, more controlled yoga gives you more time to process that feedback. Dance is much faster, and relies on visual mastery of space around you.”

Her dance background has nourished Maggie’s yoga practice and teaching. She likes to use movement in postures. Still taking dance classes regularly, her main passion has shifted from dance to yoga, however. “I’ve left behind the real pressure to have external form, because dance is about what the audience sees, while yoga is about coming into the river of consciousness. You can modify yoga postures to suit the individual, but a dance choreographer’s vision must be followed and presented to audience.”

Yoga and dance are the same path for Amrita Choudhury: “Jyog (yoga) and sacred dance are one in India: technically, spiritually, philosophically.” She has developed and teaches Nritya Yoga (a combination of yoga dance postures and trance dance meditation in movement using mudras), to students in Montreal and in many parts of the world

Amrita takes inspiration from her grandfather, a Shavaite priest from the tantric tradition. “When I looked at his life from morning to night, it was a continual flow of sacred movement, mudras, postures, chanting, bathing… every action was a part of his deeply spiritual life, was his yoga, and a form of dance.”

Her studies in anthropology looked deeply at these traditions, in particular the tradition of temple yoginis. Her interview with the last temple yogini alive in the east of India was a profound experience for her. She studied Indian classical dance and many other forms of dance, and today transmits her knowledge with a sense of mission in both its dance roots and its and yoga roots.

“Yoga involves not only the whole being, but also the whole world. The ancient yogis used to do various meditations and positions not just for themselves but as an offering to the world.” She also has a vision of a wider mission for dance: “The dream is to create a bond between different cultures through the power of music and dance, where through these gifts, we realize the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence of all living beings in this world. Dance is much more than technique or performance, it is not culture or religion bound, it is a powerful tool of dialogue and communication…”