Emily Hite, a former professional dancer, has performed with various dance companies – most notably, the Sacramento Ballet and the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. In 2012, Emily retired from performing and, soon after, immersed herself in the SmartFLOW® Yoga Teacher Training program. SmartFLOW Yoga was created by internationally renowned yoga teacher Annie Carpenter - a former dancer and teacher with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Under Annie’s direct guidance, Emily discovered how her years of dance could weave seamlessly into her daily yoga practice. At the start of this year, Emily completed her 500-hour Advanced Teacher Training in the SmartFLOW school.
A graduate of Stanford University, Emily is also a published writer. Her work has appeared in Dance Magazine, Mindy Aloff’s book “Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance,” and the George Balanchine Foundation Interpreters Archive. She currently teaches yoga in the San Francisco Bay area and is a social media producer and managing editor for Stanford School of Medicine. Emily kindly shared her journey from dancer to yogini with _PRACTICE.
INSIDE THE MUSIC
When I was in high school, I studied at the Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica. This school produced a lot of excellent professional dancers. It was run by two main teachers – one came from George Balanchine, and one from the Royal Ballet in London. Those two teachers communicated their love of dancing - and that was infectious!
Performing was the thing there. That’s what we were training for – to perform. Not to be robots but to be performing artists. All of us had great opportunities to dance in really rich, lush ballets. We also had opportunities to do solo roles and have a company experience while we were still students. It really built competence and confidence in our performances. That structure allowed me to have complete possession of my dancing.
What I loved about ballet was the discipline. I really liked the formality of ballet class and when I got older, I started to understand more and was able to do more advanced things. I loved jumping. I loved moving quickly. I loved being inside of music. When I understood musicality, ballet really became a big kinesthetic pleasure.
I later went on to dance professionally with the Sacramento Ballet. I found a very lucky home in that company, with two directors who saw what I could do well and gave me lots of opportunities and support to go as far as I was going to go as a ballet dancer. That was really good fortune. What they valued was work ethic and attitude and the ability to just go out and take risks on stage…
YOGA AS MEDICINE
Yoga crept in slowly without me noticing. At first, I only used it for stretching and relaxing but it became important later when I was dancing professionally in a different capacity with a different company in San Francisco.
I used yoga as a kind of palliative care as my dancing was winding down. Yoga was really a place I could go in secretly, and stand in the back and feel symmetrical again.
And it was so nice to be able to move without judgment. That was something that was hard for me as I was dancing in San Francisco.
I have to say that I loved not having a mirror in yoga class. Mirrors are useful for learning choreography. But you can just get sucked into that image of what you think you are because that’s what you see. It puts you in the mindset of imagining a picture of yourself moving instead of just moving.
In dance, when we’d move away from the mirrors, that is, moving from rehearsing in the studio to rehearsing on stage – it can be a hard transition. There’s no visual feedback, there’s no knowing where you are in space without the mirror to let you know.
But to me, the best thing about performing was to be in a space where you see just total darkness in front of you. It feels kind of infinite. Like you are dancing completely in the universe, directly. There’s great freedom in having no mirror because then you feel you are truly limitless without it.
And then, when I really started to get into yoga, practicing frequently, I just wanted it to be a pure experience. I didn’t want it to be competitive.
Only recently did (my teacher) Annie say, “Why do you always stand in the back?”
I just didn’t care to be in the front of the class. With ballet there was a job, there was casting, you want to be seen, you want to be in the front row.
But with yoga, every body gets to be in their parallel experience on their mat. Nobody’s experience takes way from your own experience. You’re part of this community but not dependent on somebody else for an experience.
Now that I don’t have dancing there isn’t a place where I try on new things and struggle and face what’s hard. I now use yoga as the tool to address other things in my life. Now I see it a medicine to calm down and also rev up – to energize – and sometimes to practice things that are uncomfortable.
Annie is so precise in her language and guidance. She’s giving you everything as far as the gross structure of the class. She’s asking where to place your focus. That means that your work begins at a very detailed level.
It’s similar to ballet class in a way. In ballet, you know what your body is working on – whether it’s unbalanced right or left or has limited turnout or you’re working on the shape of your feet. You have these things in mind all the time – and as you are doing the barre work, you are going through the list addressing each thing and staying alert and present to the steps along the way. It's like juggling multiple balls in the air. You’re trying to get your body in the right place – how you use your eyes – where you place your focus – how you look at your hand in relation to what your legs are doing – how you respond to a particular quality of music.
The joy is in finding the breath that lets you sail through all the hard details. It’s all within one gentle breath that you pay attention and pay attention and pay attention.
It’s all about paying attention.
The challenge is to have a ritual and still pay attention. When you get familiar with the ritual, you get skillful in these physical tasks – and it’s possible to let your body do the work without you staying present, mentally.
The true challenge, the real work, is paying attention while also staying mindfully inside…