TaraMarie Perri in tree pose at Storm King Art Center. Photo by Sophie Kuller, Courtesy Perri

5 Self-Soothing Exercises You Can Do to Calm Your Anxiety

Physical stillness can be one of the hardest things to master in dance. But stillness in the bigger sense—like when your career and life are on hold—goes against every dancers' natural instincts.

"Dancers are less comfortable with stillness and change than most," says TaraMarie Perri, founder and director of Perri Institute for Mind and Body and Mind Body Dancer. "Through daily discipline, we are trained to move through space and are attracted to forward momentum. Simply put, dancers are far more comfortable when they have a sense of control over the movements and when life is 'in action.' "

To regain that sense of control, and soothe some of the anxiety most of us are feeling right now, it helps to do what we know best: Get back into our bodies. Certain movements and shapes can help ground us, calm our nervous system and bring us into the present.

Vrksasana (tree pose)

"One of the key lessons I teach through yoga is that stillness is not the absence of movement but the movement of presence," says Perri.

She suggests dancers balance in tree pose on both sides for several breaths, staying longer than you think you can and calmly accepting any wobbles. Notice how your breath moves your rib cage, and how your ankles shift to bring you back to balance.

"If we practice balancing and breathing in tree pose," she says, "we will notice all the little movements and changes present in the strength of stillness."

Grounding the feet

Chicago dance/movement therapist Erica Hornthal advises dancers to home in on the present moment with this exercise:

Place your feet on the floor, paying attention to the shape of your feet and the texture of the floor, she says. "Be present to the sensations and movement of each toe. Move your foot in any way you need to and notice how that feels." Then breathe in, and as you exhale, push your weight into your feet.

"Grounding allows us to connect our bodies to the present moment," Hornthal explains. "When we are in the present we can't fear or worry about the past or future."

Virabhadrasana II (warrior II) sequence

Warrior II is a grounding pose, Perri says. Start with your right foot front and left foot back in a strong warrior II stance. "Root your feet down and expand the wings of your arms to reach as far beyond your fingertips as possible," says Perri. "Take a few breaths with the eyes calmly focused past your right fingers."

On an inhale, bring your feet through a wide parallel and use your exhale to flip to the other side, facing your left foot. Stay for a few breaths on each side, and flow between the two several times.

"Think of this posture sequence as if you are surfing on waves," Perri suggests.

Harnessing rhythm

Place your hand on your chest. Try tapping gently, then try rubbing gently. "Notice which rhythm feels more soothing," says Hornthal. Take that rhythm and move it around the rest of your body, from head to toe.

"These are rhythms identified early in life, often through infancy," she says. Even as adults, we can use them for positive self-soothing.

Extending your exhale

Perri points out that the fight-or-flight response is being triggered daily right now, heightening our anxiety. Regulating our breath can help balance out the nervous system with the "rest and repair" response. "When we exhale fully, our body has the chance to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system," she says. This induces calm, which is key to a number of physiological processes that help the body recover, she adds.

A simple technique she recommends for calming anxiety is extending the length of your exhale. "Aim for your exhale to be twice as long as your inhale," she says. "You can add a count to make it more focused. For example, inhale 2-3, exhale 2-3-4-5-6, and repeat. Eventually your breath will come to an equilibrium and you'll notice your heart and mind are calmer, too."

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Stark Photo Productions, Courtesy Harlequin

Why Your Barre Can Make or Break Your At-Home Dance Training

Throughout the pandemic, Shelby Williams, of Royal Ballet of Flanders (aka "Biscuit Ballerina"), has been sharing videos that capture the pitfalls of dancers working from home: slipping on linoleum, kicking over lamps and even taking windows apart at the "barre." "Dancers aren't known to be graceful all of the time," says Mandy Blackmon, PT, DPT, OSC, CMTPT, head physical therapist/medical director for Atlanta Ballet. "They tend to fall and trip."

Many dancers have tried to make their home spaces as safe as possible for class and rehearsal by setting up a piece of marley, like Harlequin's Dance Mat, to work on. But there's another element needed for taking thorough ballet classes at home: a portable barre.

"Using a barre is kinda Ballet 101," says 16-year-old Haley Dale, a student in her second year at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. She'd bought a portable barre from Harlequin to use at her parents' home in Northern Virginia even before the pandemic hit. "Before I got it, honestly I would stay away from doing barre work at home. Now I'm able to do it all the time."

Blackmon bought her 15-year-old stepdaughter a freestanding Professional Series Ballet Barre from Harlequin early on in quarantine. "I was worried about her injuring herself without one," she admits.

What exactly makes Harlequin's barres an at-home must-have, and hanging on to a chair or countertop so risky? Here are five major differences dancers will notice right away.

December 2020