When Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancer James Gowan started meditating in early 2017, he was seeking a more mindful approach to his dancing. "I was trying to be more aware of what I was doing inside the studio, so that it could help me be more positive with myself and my work," he says. He found it so helpful that he now does breathing exercises and visualizations for 45 minutes a few mornings a week. On rehearsal breaks, he'll take five minutes to do a body scan or calm his mind.
But he finds the benefits go far beyond the studio. "Meditation has provided me a new perspective," he says. "It really does bring a heightened awareness of what's going on around you."
Science shows that meditation's myriad benefits range from physical health to emotional well-being. Meditation's popularity has risen to trend level, and savvy entrepreneurs have caught on, capitalizing on the wave of interest with subscription-based meditation apps, exotic retreats and $29-a-pop classes. But what are the benefits for dancers specifically?
It has healing effects.
The technique works by calming the brain's limbic system, explains physical therapist Brent Anderson, PhD. "The limbic system is where we get fight, flight, freeze," he says. Even brief meditation triggers the relaxation response, which boosts well-being, cognition, immunity and more. A 2013 study by the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center showed that the relaxation response actually changes how genes involved in immunity, metabolism and insulin are expressed.
Ballet West demi-soloist Chelsea Keefer credits her seven-year meditation practice with helping her avoid injury. Since she has better awareness of her body, she's able to take care of anything that hurts right away. "It doesn't progress to the point where I have to see the physical therapist all the time," she says.
"A lot of the meditations I listen to have this ball of light that travels through your body," adds Gowan. "I'll visualize it in places where I'm feeling a little hurt or achy, and let it break up the tension I'm holding."
It can help you learn rep.
In your mind, you can do mental rehearsals, practicing things in slow motion and fast motion, says Anderson. "There are studies that show this can significantly improve performance."
James Gowan. Photo taken by Michael O'Neal at the De Young Museum
It can calm pre-performance jitters.
Being in the present moment has helped calm Keefer's stage fright. She uses compassion meditation backstage. "Watch the people who are performing before you, and send them love and compassion for what they're doing out there, because you're about to do the same thing," she says.
Jim Lafferty for Pointe
It can change your relationship to dance.
Keefer feels meditation has transformed her dancing. "It gives me a balance when I go into rehearsals or classes. I'm not constantly critiquing myself," she says. "When you have meditation as your stability, you're able to go into roles more objectively. It allows you to know your worth."
Chelsea Keefer. Photo by Beau Pearson, courtesy Ballet West.