Updated: Sep 2, 2020
An integral part of the yoga asana practice is attention to the breath or "prana / life force" as it is often referred to in yogic language. When we bring our awareness to the breath the control of breathing shifts from the brain stem / medulla oblongata to the cerebral cortex (the evolved part of the brain). This allows emotional stress and thoughts to recede, bringing us into a state of greater focus and calmness.
The first place that attention to breath usually shows up in the asana practice is when we take our first posture. In this moment we bring our attention inwards and begin to notice the state of our mind and body. As we connect with ourselves we might set an intention for the practice, and then slowly allow the breath to become our main focus, before we begin our moving meditation.
In tango we can practice a similar way of tuning into our mind and body before we begin to dance by taking a few breaths to settle into the embrace. Just taking a moment to notice things like where we are holding tension and what our partner's embrace feels like can make a world of difference in how our dance will feel and what gets communicated, expressed and received.
In a vinyasa practice in particular there is an emphasis on synchronizing the breath with the movement to allow for fluid motion. Usually we inhale when moving into a posture, arching the spine or creating any kind of upward movements, and exhale when we exit a posture, round the spine, and create downward movements.
This can be useful to think about in tango as we have both moments of expansion and contraction. A simple example is a movement that involves torsion and a pivot such as a front or back ocho. We can consider the step into the ocho as an expansive upward movement (a type of inhale) and the pivot as a releasing moment (a type of exhale), where we contract down into the floor and draw in towards our center. This pattern repeats throughout the dance as we move in and out of torsion. (To learn more about torsion in tango check out my free yoga class for tango torsion).
What other tango movements suggest an expansive inhale to you?
What types of movement suggest a releasing exhale?
We can also think of these moments of expansion and contraction musically, especially when dancing to the melody of a tango song. Within the melody is usually a sensation of rise and fall. When the music builds and builds one might feel inspired to create an upward feeling movement (inhaling) with a brief suspension and when the melody descends our movement might become more earthy (exhaling).
When we breathe, the length of our inhale and exhale can vary just as the rise and fall of the melody. If we began a movement that would be more associated with a release/descend during the ascend of the melody it would feel improperly timed. The trick is to anticipate in our body's movement how long the melody will continue to rise so that we do not arrive too soon (resulting in awkward unintentional pauses) or release too early (resulting in a mismatch with the music).
The next time you listen to a melodic tango song, try the following exercise. When the melody begins to rise take an inhale, prolonging the inhale for as long as the melody rises. When the melody descends, exhale for as long as you feel the melody fall. Notice if you had to hold your breath for a long time before exhaling. This would mean you didn't quite anticipate the length of the rise and got there too soon with no more room in your lungs to take in more air.
Try this exercise with the breath several times and once you feel like you've synchronized your breath to the melody, try dancing with movements that suggest an inhale and exhale. Notice if you had a long gap between the suspension and the release like in the breathing exercise. Try this as many times until you feel like you've synchronized your movement with the music.
Do you feel a deeper connection between the movement and the music of the dance?
How many variations of inhales and exhales can you find with different tango songs?
Throughout a yoga practice we are usually reminded several times to "come back to our breath." Even though we try to stay present, it actually takes a lot of training to not get distracted by our thoughts. The practice of remembering to come back to our breath allows us to stay in the present moment for longer periods of time, producing that "euphoric" feeling one might feel after a yoga practice. Essentially we give our whole system a nice break from the stresses of the past and future.
In tango if we practice the same concept of bringing our attention back to our breath throughout a dance, we can sustain longer periods of time where our sensations are heightened, anxiety is reduced, and there is less tension in our body, leading to a deeper communication / connection with our partner and of course better execution of the intended figure. This too creates a kind of "euphoric" feeling that keeps us coming back to the dance floor.
However, this also takes a lot of training. The next time you are at a milonga see if you can notice all the thoughts that come up in one song. In the second song, try to keep yourself focused on the breath. When you see a thought arise, come back to focusing on the breath. Notice if it is short or when you are holding your breath, and come back to a steady, slow breath. Observe if you felt a difference between how you danced the first song and the second.
This practice of slowing down the breath is also particularly useful for dancers who are performers. Being on stage with all eyes on you can produce a lot of nervousness, and that tenses the body A LOT. Just when you need your senses heightened, you might be creating blockages. Regular practice of attention to breath can change performance immensely.
In my case, I find that the more I practice calming my breath when I am trying to sustain a difficult posture in yoga, the easier it is for me to manage those anxiety provoking moments on the dance floor when executing an advanced, dynamic figure that could instantly take you and your partner down.
In essence, practicing awareness of breath can help make your tango dance more fluid, musical and free of tension all leading to a more connected, satisfying experience on the dance floor.
I hope this gives you some insight into how yoga can improve your dancing. Do you want to learn other ways that yoga can help your dance? Get started with this 3-class freebie pack. Each class is just 20 minutes and will get you well on your way towards improving your dancing: