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I recently flew from New York to San Francisco to see my mother. As the plane was coming into San Francisco, the pilot came on the air to say we were going into a holding pattern. I had just been rubbing my neck, stiff from the long flight. A “Holding Pattern!”, I thought, “That’s what I have going on in my neck!” Since getting back I have been been noticing where else I hold my tension – in my jaw, between my shoulder blades, my upper back, in my feet, and in my hips. Excess tension doesn’t make dancing easier. It makes a dancer stiff and robotic – better to be like grass that is willowy and can move and sway than to have the stiffness of an oak tree that can break. Holding your body in a certain way for a long period of time can cause repetitive patterns of stiffness when dancing, and can cause pain or even injury.

Where do you have a pattern of holding on to tension you don’t need?

1. Pay attention to how you stand. Do you press your hips forward with your weight shoved forward into the fronts of your hips? When you dance do you find your hip flexors are painful and gripping? Or do you stand with a sway back letting your belly out and then notice pain in your lower back? Without judging it, just notice your posture and then become aware of how you can modify your stance – weight even between your feet, pelvis neutral – neither tucked under or arched, shoulders wide and relaxed.

2. How do you walk? Are you gripping with your feet? See what happens if you imagine your feet are wearing big clown shoes. You may find you engage your core more. See what you can let go of just by noticing.

3. On which side do you carry your purse or bag? Be sure to alternate the shoulder that does the heavy lifting. That extra weight on your arm affects your hips and pelvis as well as your shoulders neck and back. Of course your shoulder and other muscles must work when carrying the bag, but when you put your bag down, do some gentle shoulder movements to release the tension there.

4. Notice how you sit, particularly if you work at a desk job. Try this: sit up so you can feel your sit bones in the chair (might be easier to feel in a hard chair), relax your shoulders and ease your rib cage down–they are just riding along on top. Keeping your chin parallel to the ground and your collar bones wide, use your low-low abdominals to start lengthening your spine on the inside from your tailbone up through the top of your head. While you’re doing this, see if you can take ten deep breaths – expanding your ribs on all sides – front, sides and into your back. I try to do this at work though I’m usually interrupted, but the next time it quiets down I find my sit bones, lengthen my spine and breathe.

5. What about your ribcage? A lot of times the front ribs flare out in our efforts to sit or stand up straight. Try relaxing them. What do you notice? Maybe your upper back can lengthen, and you can expand your back ribs as you breathe.

6. I’ve also noticed how much I bite my lips when I’m thinking. I’m trying to become more aware of that so I can release the tension in my jaw. What is your face doing? Do you bite your lip when you do developés in ballet class or when the subway doesn’t come, or things get stressful at work? Don’t judge yourself, just notice your jaw, your tongue, and all the little muscles around your eyes. See if you can release that tension.

Of course getting a massage or rolling on a foam roller or rolling on balls can help release tension. But if you go right back to grinding your teeth or gripping your hips when you walk, it’s only a temporary solution. We all have holding patterns in our bodies. By being aware and noticing these patterns, and breathing into tight areas, we can release unnecessary tension, and leave the holding patterns to the airplanes.

~Sarah

Join me for ballet class on Saturdays 12-1:30 and Tuesdays 7-8pm at 380 Broadway, buzzer #5. Two blocks south of Canal Street at the corner of White street and Broadway. Classes are only a $10 donation.