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From Ballet to Yoga, Helena Crabtree talks about how it feels to move.

Yoga, in many different ways, gives you the tools to cope with daily life. That’s what it does for me. The way I teach Yoga is about moving intuitively with your body and not against it. It’s less about the external shape that you make and more about how it feels physically, something which most of us feel out of touch with. We have lost the instinctive understanding of what our bodies know naturally. Movement is a logical way to reconnect the link between our minds & bodies, however, for me this link hasn’t always been a healthy or balanced relationship. 

My dream was to be a Ballet dancer. I started Ballet aged 3 and stopped when I was 16 but still, 11 years later I feel its effect on the way I move my body as a Yoga teacher. Ballet gave me an understanding of what my body could do on a physical level but it didn’t teach me about the positive effects that movement could have on the bigger picture of life. 

Traditional Ballet is strict, it’s controlled. It’s not about being individual, unless you’re a principal dancer, because if you’re in the chorus then the idea is everybody must look the same.  When you’re practicing ballet as a teenager (before you’re in a company or settled) most of the time you walk into a room and you feel people are looking you up and down; it’s a constant competition and comparison against the next girl. This regular assessment breeds a toxic culture surrounding body image, self-esteem and self-worth.  You are encouraged to be skinnier and more flexible, to constantly push for perfection beyond any natural standards. 

I didn’t have a textbook childhood. I was encouraged to lose weight from the age of 8/9. I wanted to dance so badly that I would do anything, so I basically stopped eating. When I look back at pictures now it terrifies me. I really did lose a lot of weight. This effected my bodies development, I stopped growing after the age of 12 and then my periods stopped. I remember my mum saying ‘If you don’t start eating you won’t be able to have children’. That was the big red light for me. The thought of not being able to have children was the wakeup call I needed.  

Good food is one of my greatest pleasures in life and my family joke that I chose cake over Ballet! But another reason I stopped dancing was that I fell over on stage. It was very traumatic and acted as the final straw. I stopped dancing almost overnight. There is an amazing feeling of being on stage and performing but it was obviously never for me permanently. It wasn’t good for my mental health, it’s not nourishing or kind, its torturous. I personally don’t think I was a tough enough nut either, I never coped well with the bitching. I still don’t feel lots of people know about this part of my life and if I’m honest I don’t generally open up about it because it still feels a bit raw, it doesn’t sit comfortably.  I think most movement (if it’s varied) is good for your body but I just don’t know how I feel about Ballet anymore. 

After I gave up dance, I always felt like something was missing until I developed my Yoga practice, it was like finding the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s not about an external performance, it’s not about how you look, it’s about how it feels to move. 

I think about our bodies as the vehicle that gets us through life. If you don’t use it then it will stop working. Your body can get used to holding itself in a certain way, whether it’s due to injury or stress (physical or mental) and we can forget how to move our bodies which can make us feel tight, constricted or even heavy.  

When I first started practicing Yoga I was hooked in by the challenging, dynamic kind of class that was a strong workout. I have since moved away from pushing my body to its limit but I understand why it was my first port of call in Yoga because my hang up of needing to force myself into difficult positions came from my history of dancing. I find a lot of people constantly want to be going deeper, further, they want to push their bodies to the absolute maximum, rather than thinking ‘today I’m going to take a step back’. I believe you should always do your best but your best every day is different. Rest and relaxation is just as important as moving and stretching. 

Through moving in lots of different ways (not just forwards & backwards) we can give our bodies greater mobility, meaning we are less likely to get injured. Coming to the mat to move is about connecting with how you feel today, emotionally & physically. Yoga is a practice, it will always be different, constantly changing and that’s exciting.  

Over the last year I have come back to the kind of ethos that Yoga can (and should) be a supportive, gentle, calm space, instead of a boot camp that encourages you to perfect your external body shape. I think as women we’re encouraged to fight how we naturally are, to look a certain way from a really young age; to be skinnier, prettier and more polished. It’s hard to get away from the social conditioning of the western world about how we look, but I’m trying to bring my own thoughts back to creating a more balanced relationship with my body. We should be celebrating what we have and how different we all are. I hope in my teaching that I do encourage this ethos, that no matter what shape or size you are you can move and feel good.  #

Narrated by Helena Crabtree

Interview and artwork by Bethany Burgoyne

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