I will always cherish my friendships from boarding school. The girls that saw me through adolescence in our rigorous environment are now spread across the globe. Our infrequent reunions are filled with the familiarity of old companionship and appreciation for how much we've changed. Each time I reconnect with one of these ladies I feel gratified by their continued success and growing happiness.
Lena's energy is contagious. She totally embodies the light and warmth of her native Southern California. After graduating from Harid (the boarding school where we studied ballet together), Lena spent two more years dancing before deciding to move on from her ballet career. She began practicing and teaching yoga and she is currently studying to earn her doctor of physical therapy degree. I was eager to get her bird's eye perspective on ballet and to hear all about her life-enhancing yoga practice. Keep reading. You'll smile.
Mahallia: What aspects of your ballet training do you bring to your yoga practice?
Lena: Although ballet and yoga are significantly different, there are so many tools that ballet gave me that I apply to my practice. Consistency, discipline, and curiosity are needed in both forms of movement in order to progress. Yoga is obviously much less competitive but there is still and internal drive to be better than the day before by holding a posture for another breath or surrendering in a moment of fear.
M: What aspects of yoga do you think could help ballet dancers?
L: Everything about yoga can be incredibly beneficial to ballet dancers! Physically, working turned in releases a huge amount of tension in the low back and hips. I didn't even realize how tight my back was until I began a daily yoga practice. Connecting breath to movement and being mindful of the breath can make movement feel effortless. Spiritually and mentally, yoga can help calm the stresses of the heart and the mind. Dancers so easily continue to push past their limit in order to further their career. They begin to ignore their intuition which leads to extreme highs and lows. It has taken me a very long time to realize that you have to listen, respect, and acknowledge the thoughts passing through the mind in order to achieve true internal happiness that does not fluctuate frequently or rely on your circumstances. Believe it or not, ballet is not life. Life is life. Every moment is an opportunity to be mindful and happy. Yoga has taught me to surrender into chaotic moments and to not set expectations. I wish I had cross trained with yoga when I was dancing, and I highly, highly recommend it to all dancers.
M: Favorite food?
L: Mexican food. Living in Southern California, we are blessed with some killer Mexican food. Now I'm craving a burrito.
M: Favorite fuel?
L: Every morning I make an open faced sandwich with whole wheat toast, cheese, tomato, avocado, Canadian bacon, grilled onions, and a fried egg on top, seasoned with salt and pepper. I often run late to teach yoga because it's a process. Worth it!
M: How has your body image/awareness changed since transitioning out of ballet and practicing yoga?
L: I struggled a lot with my weight throughout my teenage years. Teachers, peers, and family were constantly pressuring me to lose weight, which was awful for my self image. I hated myself for a few years, and it is one of the big reasons why I had to quit dancing. As much as I love to dance ballet, all of the joy was being taken away due to this self hatred. When I turned to yoga, the pressure for me to stay in shape was gone. I was able to appreciate the fact that although I don't have the perfect body, at least I have a body to move in! Finding gratitude in what I have allowed me to learn to love myself. I've actually lost a significant amount of weight since teaching yoga just because I just let go of any expectation. I stopped fighting and I surrendered. I made peace with my body and with food. It has taken a long time to find acceptance but I am so happy with the progress I have made.
M: What is your favorite moment in the day?
L: The sunset. I'm at the beach most days of the week so I frequently see some insanely colorful sunsets over the Pacific. #blessed
M: If you feel unbalanced or stressed, how do you calm yourself and regain balance?
L: I turn to meditation when I need to find serenity and balance in my mind. Sitting still is much harder than we realize, especially for those that move for a living. There is a preconceived notion that meditation is about pushing your thoughts out of your head and thinking about nothing. That's impossible unless you're a monk who can levitate. The idea is more just noticing what the train of thought is, and using awareness to not "ride" the train of thought; rather, just watch the train pass by without reacting. All I do is notice the feelings, sensations, or thoughts that I feel as I sit in stillness. Then I observe, rather than control, any sensations I witness. Finally, I welcome any emotions or thoughts while not reacting at all. It's all about being here NOW! (Notice, observe, welcome).
M: What is your favorite environment in which to practice yoga?
L: At the beach, on the shore or in the water. Paddleboard yoga is magical!
M: Is there a quote or piece of advice that speaks to you right now?
L: You always have the choice to be happy, and happiness is infectious. Spread the love and good vibes!
M: What ballet memory makes you smile to think about?
L: Too many good ones to choose. The best moments were always right before curtain in a prayer circle. That feeling of camaraderie is rare and exciting. I'll always cherish those moments.
Photos 2 and 3 by Omeed Askari.