The Body I was Born With

Name: Sarah Bretton
Location: Portsmouth, United Kingdom
Occupation: College Lecturer

I have danced all of my life. It was rewarding for a while, but my body suffered greatly: I pushed it beyond my limits and forced it into shapes that were in-organic and painful. I was ok at dancing: I managed to get a scholarship to Laban, a contemporary dance school based in London and then won a competition to study at the Martha Graham School in New York, which was an enriching experience. I am ever grateful for the experiences I had at these schools and respect all those who passed on their knowledge to me. However, once I embarked on the professional dance path after my training, I learned that there is a world of anxieties that come with this otherwise beautiful art form.

I found that there is an unspoken law in the dance world, a law that relies on the performer possessing a variety of certain character traits with which I just couldn’t personally connect: a degree of narcissism and arrogance, to be competitively motivated, and there is an ever present jealousy and ego as well as the obvious critical judgment, both internal and external. The emptiness came quite early on for me. I attended an audition where the choreographer wanted to take a Polaroid of our bodies and faces before learning any movement. A decision was made early on about which body types should go and which should stay. Lots of auditions are like this. They don’t tell you this at dance school.

At dance school I was surrounded by a rich variety in body shape: petite ones, curvy ones, short legs, long torsos, willowy bodies and so on…. But in the real dance world? You must look a certain way to even get through the door. My body wasn’t long enough, lean enough, strong enough, thin enough, pretty enough for this or that choreographer, and I started to feel that my body had let me down. I worked hard and tried to get the right kinds of jobs, but rejection is a difficult thing and I punished myself. The negativity that I had experienced was so toxic that my mind and my body fell out of sync and eventually I began to feel a pull away from dance as my mind told my body that it wasn’t good enough.

My sister moved to Nashville, Tennessee ten years ago and I have been visiting since. Through a friend from dance school, I’d heard of a successful yoga teacher, Carly Mountain, who is based here in Sheffield. Carly suggested that when visiting Nashville, I should visit a studio called Steadfast and True Yoga and to look out for the owner, Gillian St. Clair. Walking into the studio, I felt Gillian’s energy as soon as I entered the room, and I knew from that moment that I wanted to dedicate myself to the practice. I didn’t know what the moves were, the language or the etiquette, but I knew that I felt an overwhelming urge to give, to yield to the mat, and to flow with the energy in the room.

At first, I felt a familiar anxiety, which came from my previous dance training; my body is in space and is waiting to be judged on its performance. However, after stepping onto the mat I realized that the anxiety was fading away as Gillian spoke to the group and said, “Today you are going to work with the body you were born with” …and my whole self just relaxed with peaceful relief. After being told for most of my life that my body wasn’t good enough, someone had finally said that my body was ok! And what’s more, we were going to embrace that individuality. During class she reminded us to be honest with our bodies and if it hurts- to rest, to get to know our bodies and learn to listen to what it needs. She encouraged us to let go of yesterday, to not think about next week, and instead to live in the person we are now and focus our bodies and minds into the present moment, in the harmony of the room.

Gillian taught me to let go of past anxieties and heavy unpleasant experiences. I cried that day. When I left the class I was lighter, happier, and clearer than any other day I have had on this planet. Gillian calls herself a renegade in yoga. Most of her body is adorned in edgy, striking tattoos, she plays an eclectic blend of the music she wants to play, she says sometimes you need to cuss, and other times you should sit and discuss. I found that she had a talent to listen carefully to the energy within the room and to read the metaphysical and physical responses from us and adjust her class accordingly. Gillian was there, she was present and at a time of emptiness within me, it meant the whole world.

Sarah Bretton leapingOver the years I have holidayed to Nashville and every time I bring a friend, or more recently my husband, and take them to a class of Gillian’s. Every one of my friends cried their first time! I don’t think Gillian’s desire is to make you cry! But the guidance that she shares is so intimate and personal that afterwards you feel so much clearer, kinder, and the feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself, a higher plane of existence….. bodies and minds become released of their tension. Gillian definitely has a gift and I feel completely blessed to have been guided by her.

When I returned to the UK I was a little disappointed with the lack of yoga classes available to me in my area. Most of the classes are taught in gyms with no real guidance or spiritual offerings. I would read the yoga verses alone, but my body urged for something more so I purchased Short Forms by David Swenson and committed to practicing every day in my lounge. Kind yogis have uploaded various video demonstrations of Richard Freeman on YouTube and I have enjoyed practicing his style, but I really missed the energy of other people in the room during my practice. Maybe it’s my disciplined background in dance but I felt that I also missed the guidance of a teacher encouraging me and leading me through.

During one class, Gillian came over to my mat to assist my alignment in tripod position and she said “your body wants to go into headstand” and I thought to myself…“ok! Well I shouldn’t let my mind talk my body out of it.” It’s still a bit shaky but when I did it I felt so happy! My mind and my body united and I was totally blissed out.

I think a lot of people might think that dance lends itself well to yoga as there are similarities in terms of body positions. But as all yogis know, it’s not all about the acrobatics. Yoga definitely made me more symmetrical after years of anatomical abuse but what I gained from yoga, which I never got from dance, was the inner balance. I’m not talking about core strength, I’m talking about inner kindness and positivity; telling yourself that you deserve a healthy energetic body and that it is beautiful in every shape you do, whether it’s in savasana or something complex like scorpion. I don’t feel competitive as I did with dance. I don’t feel I need to compare myself. Obviously I would like to be able to hold my headstand for longer but yoga has taught me breath and patience and for the first time, I’m working with the body I was born with and enjoying its evolution every day.

Sarah Bretton headshot

Sarah Bretton is a 33-year old college lecturer who lives in Portsmouth, South East England. Sarah lives with her husband Paul, pet cat Ripley, and beagle Harper. Sarah will be embarking on the FRYOG foundation course in Yoga this September under the guidance of Victoria Bedford.

 

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The Dance of Breath

Name: Paulina Julián
Location: San Francisco, CA
Occupation: Yoga and Spanish Instructor, Writer, Life-long Student

paulina dancing warriorAt 17 my life was pretty full. I was a high school student, editor in chief of a literary magazine, a professional ballet dancer, a college applicant, a seeker of romance, a perfectionist, a daydreamer, and an anorexic.

My life felt like a fast freight train, going at full speed with a ticket to a destination of which I was unaware. I woke up in the mornings with a highly altered pulse, ready to jump up and take on the world in a rush.

It seemed my mantra at that time was “do everything, say yes to everything, and do it quickly, for you might run out of time.”

On one of my high school summer breaks, I decided to advance my ballet career by attending an intensive ballet camp, with rigorous teachers and other professional dancers. I felt a deep passion as I set out to class each day, and I relished the rush of adrenaline every time my body moved in unison with the piano music. And yet, along with this passion, there was also the accompanying urge to achieve a perfect ballerina’s body, a compelling drive to attain more in life in order to feel satisfied with who I was. I constantly looked at myself through the eyes of one for whom nothing is enough, and for whom there were plenty of reasons to be unsatisfied. I compensated by taking more dance classes outside of my regular schedule, practicing extra hours, and making more plans for advancing my dance career.

My body finally gave in. It was during a rehearsal for an important performance. My dance partner lifted me, and as I landed, my foot twisted and my Achilles tendon tweaked. I cringed for a moment, looking worriedly at my foot, and impatiently at my body for not keeping up with the beat.

Art by Gibran Julian (www.gibravo.com)

Art by Gibran Julian (www.gibravo.com)

“Just keep going,” said the teacher. “This is not the time to stop.” And so, I did. I kept going on my fast train, as my pained body and self-disappointed mind danced along.

Finally the time came when my foot could no longer hold me up on pointe shoes. I reluctantly went to the doctor and after a thorough checkup and x-rays he said the words I had been dreading all this time: “You need to give yourself time to rest and slow down.”

In panic I asked, “But, will I ever dance again?” I felt my entire life and self-image crumbling down to pieces.

“Maybe, maybe not.” said the doctor. “But for now, it’s time to stop.”

I cried endlessly for the next month, as my sore foot and leg lay immobile in a cast, and the life I had planned for myself started to turn in front of my eyes. For years I had taught my body the art of dance. It taught me, in generous return, the art of surrender.

When enough time had gone by that I could walk again, something had shifted inside. I had given myself (or life had pushed me to give myself) the time to look at my life from a quiet -and physically still- standpoint. There was an unexpected sense of serenity in letting go of my expectations. Beyond the fear and nervousness, a deep longing for “something else” was slowly arising.

A good friend of mine saw the sudden change in my passionate drive, and out of compassion (and a bit of worry for my suddenly quiet state), invited me to a meditation and yoga retreat. I figured I that I had nothing to lose. So I packed up my bags and headed for the weekend retreat.

As I sat down to meditate for the first time in my life, I felt myself “arriving” in my body. I felt my healing foot, the sore muscles on my back, even my worked- up brain. Although I had been a dancer for many years, it was like meeting my body for the first time. It was my own body, not the body I had been urgently trying to fix and improve. And then I came upon a long-time companion, so present and yet just now meeting for the first time: my breath. A turning point.

Now, looking back at myself as a teenager, I realize I am not that much different. I treasure art, dance, writing, seeking new vistas, growing, overcoming limits, and seeing things from new perspectives. I am still passionate, and I am definitely still a perfectionist! And yet, yoga has allowed me to let go of the extra baggage that shrouded this passion.

Paulina yoga pose As I move through asana, my ballerina self is present, however she now follows not only an outer music beat, but also the inner, quiet rhythm of breath. Although I never achieved the ultimate perfect body of a ballerina, yoga inspired a new respect and gratitude for my body. Although I didn’t get into the Ivy League college that I wanted, I met the love of my life at my second choice college. And, although things usually don’t turn out exactly the way I plan them to, yoga teaches me every day there is a sacred flow in life: filled with surprise, with wonder, with love.

And during those moments of rush and stress, I now catch myself in the old freight train. Yoga reminds me that I can ask for it to stop; I can step off, pause, and reconnect with my heart: where I can be, where I am enough, and where all is perfect, in its own perfectly unexpected way.

Paulina bio with Dan and kittyPaulina Chandani Julián, originally from Guadalajara Mexico, recently moved to San Francisco with her dear husband and lovely kitten. She is a dedicated yoga and meditation practitioner and loves to write and learn. Above all, she cherishes family, friends and Nature with all her heart, and is a firm believer that life is a cool, rare, and sacred gift.

Paulina shares her inspiration at Now is the Time for Yoga, and she teaches Yoga in Spanish at Yoga Garden, San Francisco.


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