Exercise is a vital tool to maintaining good health, and in this period of social distancing, why not explore a new way of staying fit? With gyms and fitness studios temporarily shut, more and more people are turning to home workouts and YouTube channels to keep active. My go-to method, however, is a little different.
Enter Bharatanatyam, one of the eight classical dances of India.
To read more about the history of Bharatanatyam, follow this link.
I spent 14 years training and teaching Bharatanatyam in the Thanjavur bani under the guidance of my guru Smt. Nandini Mandal of Nandanik Dance Academy. The training in this art form includes mastering adavus (steps), jathis (dance sequences), abhinaya (expressions), mudras (hand gestures), padabhedas (foot postures), shirobhedas (head movements), dhristibhedas (eye movements), among others, culminating in an arangetram (ascending the stage), where the artist is deemed capable of performing solo and passing on knowledge to other students.
Dance as a Fitness Regime:
Bharatanatyam is truly a full-body workout. The basic posture in the art form is called aramandi/ardhamandali (half-sitting), where the dancer points her toes in a deep V and bends her legs as much as possible, keeping her knees turned out.
The pure nritta pieces in a typical Bharatanatyam margam are Pushpanjali, Todayam, Mallari, Alarippu, Kauthuvam, Jathiswaram, and Thillana. These pieces are great warmups – I personally enjoy going through a few of these thrice a week minimum as a warmup to stretch my arms and legs. All of these dances work on the basic adavus and posture, with no acting or emoting involved. These are excellent pieces for a beginner dancer, although knowledge of the adavus is important before learning these items.
So let’s get you started on some simple Bharatanatyam adavus to strengthen those muscles and get you staying active during lockdown.
Before starting to dance, it is important to respect the tradition in which it evolved. It is a good idea to wear leggings/tights or loose pants and a loose tunic that comes to your mid-thighs or knees. A dupatta or scarf should be tied around the waist to keep your back straight, and your feet should be bare.
It is also a good idea to warmup with some simple stretches and jumping jacks to limber up your muscles before starting. Here is a short video with some great conditioning warmups pre-dance session! Some of my go-to warmups are: lunges (side, front), squats (3 sets of 10), stretching and touching my toes, going up and down on my toes, and the butterfly posture to loosen my thighs.
The invocation or namaskara:
Any Bharatanatyam practice or performance session begins with the namaskar, which salutes the earth goddess, the gods, the guru (teacher), and the audience. The namaskar involves a series of postures and arm movements as seen in the below video.
Tattadavu (stamping the feet):
Tattadavu involves the dancer standing in the basic aramandi position and stamping the feet, while taking care to not shift weight from leg to leg. The below video provides an introduction to the adavu. It is particularly helpful in providing a quick cardio fix and ensuring that you do not pull your muscles in further adavus.
Nattadavu (spreading of the arms and legs):
Next, we add our arm workout into the mix by practicing Nattadavu. In nattadavu, the legs remain in aramandi while the arms are spread out in tripataka hasta (see image above). The arms remain straight, with elbows taut. Nattadavu is a great way to tone your arms while maintaining good back posture and keeping your shoulder muscles active as well.
Kudichu Mettu Adavu (jumping and stamping):
This adavu involves jumping up onto both toes while your legs remain in aramandi and then dropping the heels. This is an excellent thigh and calf workout, and one way of getting those slender, toned legs that we all crave! Like the other adavus, this one can be practiced at three speeds – slow, medium, and fast.
Sutral and Mandi Adavus (whirling and sitting on the knees):
Sutral adavu is a full body workout, as it involves jumping to a full sitting position (muzhumandi or muzhumandali) and then getting up while stretching your legs. When you stretch your leg out, your heel is on the ground with the toes pointing up, which works out the calf and foot muscles as well as the ankle joint. Mandi (knees) adavu involves sitting with your knees as far out as possible and the pelvic joint as open as physically able. In both adavus, the back is straight. Note: if you have knee trouble, you might want to avoid these two adavus as they are intensive on the knees.
Other Health Benefits of Bharatanatyam
The intricate mudras or hand gestures of Bharatanatyam allow one to build flexibility in the wrists, an important tool in warding off arthritis and muscle degeneration. One of the mudras, Hamsasya, where the first finger and the thumb are joined at the tips and other three fingers are opened up, facilitates blood circulation from the fingers to other parts of the body and also calms the mind (there is a reason people use this mudra while meditating). The dance form, with its emphasis on facial expressions, also gives a great eye workout. Dr. Amar Agarwal, ophthalmologist, agrees that the drishtibhedas (eye movements) work the eye muscles and improve long-term vision. Some dancers, such as Dr A V Satyanarayana, director, Shristi Center of Performing Arts and Institute of Dance Therapy, Bangalore, recommend Bharatanatyam
as a great overall exercise for pregnant women as it stretches the pelvic floor, making childbirth less painful, and strengthens the back muscles and respiratory system while improving overall flexibility. According to leading spine surgeons in Mumbai, the gliding neck movement of Bharatanatyam (attami) is a commonly-used physiotherapy exercise. Dance also improves mental health and exercises your creative facilities as you learn to emote and enact scenes. Overall, Bharatanatyam provides an excellent workout for the mind and body, and boosts the soul and creative spirit during these trying times.
For more fun Bharatanatyam exercises, check out the following links!
- click here for some body conditioning exercises that are used in Bharatanatyam
- here are some leg exercises to strengthen your leg muscles and improve aramandi
- Yet more warmups pre-dance session if you click this link!
- Flexibility exercises to avoid pulling muscles that are less-used can be found here
And here is another article in the Times of India that discusses health benefits of this dance form!