YOGA AND DANCING FOR MENTAL HEALTH

INTERVIEW 

Lydia Petropoulou talks to Rebecca Scott, a dancer from Solihull who holds the title of Blackpool Latin Champion Under 21, about fitness and mental health during the past year – including some great actionable tips for those of you who have lost your mojo (whether physically or mentally). 

How did you get into dancing?

I did Latin and ballroom when I was younger. The partner that I’m still currently with now, we started dancing together when we were eleven. We’re still together now and that is how it all sort of kept going. We’ve competed loads – ballroom and Latin, and then moved just into Latin when we were about seventeen.

And what are your major achievements so far?

This is the worst question. I hate this. Achievement! I always find it weird. And everyone’s like, so what have you done? I’m like, this is the one thing that I don’t like to tell people. I’m proud of it. And I like it. But I’m not one to shout it from the rooftops.

But when we were younger, we were juvenile world champions. So, we were under twelve. We were world champions. And when we were under sixteen, there’s different categories under sixteen. We were world finalists in quite a few different major competitions. We won the under-nineteen World Championships, when we were seventeen or eighteen.

And then probably our two major ones at the moment: When we were eighteen and nineteen, we won the under-21 British owned championships. That’s held in Blackpool in the winter gardens in May. And that’s one of the most prestigious competitions of all.

I mean, even Strictly make a big fuss of Blackpool! So clearly, there’s some big things there. But that is one of our major ones. 

And then we also won the competition called the UK Open Championship, which is another big one in January, in Bournemouth. It is called the amateur rising star Latin championships. And so, for people who maybe don’t know, the rising star is basically, you have amateur professionals at the top of dancing. And just below that you have what they call the rising star competition. So, if you are in the top twenty-four of the amateurs, you can’t do this competition. So, it is basically for the people who are… not quite there yet. And then ever since that we’ve been in the amateur ranks. We are in the top twenty-four at the moment.

All that requires a lot of effort. I think you have to be very consistent, and you have to really be passionate about it because it’s a lot of effort and it requires so much stamina.

Yeah, you are right. I think with a lot of passions nowadays, they take a lot of hard work and commitment, but I find with dancing that it sometimes takes a lot more because we don’t have, let’s say, particular recognition and any massive federal agencies pushing you individually like a lot of these other elite athletes have. A lot of funding all from yourself really and the lovely parents which, yeah, that’s a pain.

Of course, dancing has a lot of benefits for the body as well for the soul. And could you tell me some of the benefits you have seen all these years?

I mean, if you’re talking competitively, it’s probably more… you have to keep yourself physically fit. But the funny thing is, you have to go into other things to keep yourself like that. But if you’re talking about dancing, not in the sense of competitiveness, from what I see, when I teach people, I think there’s always this massive argument for dancing, that it has a wonderful balance between physical health and mental health. Because when you’re dancing, especially to music, it stimulates both sides of your brain. So, it stimulates the creative side and stimulates the logical side. You basically have the music playing, which is your creative side, you’ve got to listen to that, try and be on time, but also coordinate all the steps and trying to remember which direction you’re going.

So mental stimulation, it’s a massive benefit, but fitness-wise, I think people just find that, yes, it burns lots of calories. And it’s going to do a great thing for just being physically active. But it’s really fun. And I think people get a lot of enjoyment out of that. Me personally, definitely when I was younger, it’s not so much about burning calories then, but physical exercise is obviously really important. But also, I just found it really fun. I mean, there’s a massive social aspect to dancing as well. With the different people in the classes, the teachers, you will have that fun even with competitions, you are socialising with everybody that’s there. I love to perform. So, the performing aspect is always fantastic for my mental health, for example, so the benefits are endless. In that sense. You get strength, you get flexibility.

You mentioned socialising and now suddenly, we’ve lost all this for a year now. So how do you think this has affected people who were involved in arts and specifically dance?

Υou can’t say it’s one of the worst ones to have been hit because that’s not true. Certainly, so many different industries have been hit hard or even demolished by this. Ιt’s really horrendous. Αrts in general, theatres, all these beautiful, wonderful theatres in London that they just can’t operate at half measures, because the place is so old it costs them to get 90% of tickets sold for every performance to even run the place and pay the wages. So, the government saying you can open with social distancing doesn’t do any good for them because they genuinely can’t.

But, I’ve got a lot of friends in different aspects of the creative industry. I’ve got a lot of friends who are actresses and doing adverts and performing on stage and they’re working in supermarkets. They haven’t really got a choice and a lot of these people like myself, for example, you’re self-employed, which means I’ve done a tax return for the last three years. But obviously, bearing in mind that I was really young, when I started to, it wasn’t great because I was still being supported by my parents, still working everything up. And so I got no grant, no money, no support from the government, because I supposedly wasn’t eligible. Now, my life moved on a lot in the last three years. Nowadays, I know what I can afford. But I couldn’t this year because I just physically didn’t have the money to, so, you’re talking dance studios and leisure centres and all these different places where these classes take place, either for me to take lessons as competitor… or for me to give them, we’ve been shot for months, then the tier system.

I mean, we’ve changed things. We’ve tried our hardest to bring in COVID measures, which again, costs money. And it’s just it has been back and forth, back and forth. So I think everything has massively, massively suffered. And there’s no demand for half of the creative industry at the moment, people can’t wait to get back to the theatres. The problem is, a lot of these people who had job opportunities before or who were actresses and doing all of this, there’s suddenly no opportunities whatsoever, because they’re not looking for anybody, because it’s all too much hassle to do with COVID measures.

If you’re talking competition-wise, as well, you’ve got hundreds of organisers who hold, let’s say, thirty competitions a year, or even maybe six very big ones, rather than small-scale events. And they can’t do it because you don’t just have British competitors coming to these competitions, you have international competitors, you’ve suddenly got quarantine, there’s these hotels now where you have to pay this this specific money to stay in them. These competitors who come over don’t have the money to come over for an extra two weeks and not spend that money on a hotel, then do the call, then go back home, probably have to quarantine again. So, you suddenly come into all these different problems, these organisers, all their money came from these competitions. Now, granted, they probably will have had some money from the government.

So, the government didn’t help art workers?

I mean, I don’t like politics. But if you look around the world, there’s barely anybody who handled it better. You can’t say they didn’t do what they thought was right. And when people from the arts did kick off, they were playing music outside of House of Parliament and all these different things. And they listened. And they said, okay we’re going to try and help you. The theatre industry has really tried to group together and help each other and push and keep each other happy in that sense. And I think in a way, the world can’t wait to get back to the theatres, because they’ve put so much out there on social media, then singing and dancing.

I can’t imagine the loss that these centres have had and, and these competition organisers. I put what I felt into perspective, it’s going to be horrendous on a large scale. It’s one of those industries that literally has been last on the list because we are COVID’s worst nightmare: we are big, big scale events with no social distancing and 20 couples at a time or 50 cast members.

How did all this situation with COVID affect people? Psychologically and mentally?

I mean, massively, not even dance people, I think the whole world in some way, shape or form, everybody’s come out of this with some kind of anxiety or worries, or depressive moments when they thought there was no end to it. I think the main problem with this whole thing is there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel, or at least for a long time. And it’s a question of always: Can I? When will I? When can I? When? If what? There’s so many questions that don’t have answers. And we understand why they can’t have answers. But I mean, me personally, I’m a planner. I’m organised. I like my “Hey, this is happening here, and this is happening, then.” I can’t do that. So, I think honestly, everybody’s coped with it in different ways. And I think some people who even went into it with a positive attitude, like, “Okay, this is really scary, but it’s going to be okay, because I’m going to do this and I’m going to be fine”. Even those kinds of people with a very, very strong mentality and mental attitude. We’ve all had moments where we’ve gone, is this ever going to end?

It’s honestly a terrible thing for everybody. Dance-wise, I think it’s been a hard, hard choice for careers for a lot of people. It’s, “when will we get back to it? Will I be young enough? Old enough, will I get my last year in this particular age category? Does my partner still want to come back and do it with me?” All these different things make people change their minds and make you have to make really, really hard decisions. And I think not knowing when you’re next going to be able to, from a dance point of view, step out on a dance floor. Now for some people that might be go and see your mate for a drink, or go out to the park with someone, or see your grandma in the care home. When is the next time? It just seems so out of reach. And it seems kind of hopeless., 

And I think a lot of people have fell into that kind of rut now, whether they get anxious about it, where they get really depressed about it. I mean it varies on the individual. But I, I would say that probably 99% of people will have had at least one week, one episode of this feeling of hopelessness, of “what now”?

What kind of behaviours have you seen developing in peoples’ homes?

No one’s going anywhere, which means a sense of personal space, a sense of individuality is suddenly gone. Now, everybody, majority probably, loves their family. Even when you live with someone, you’re married, and you have a tiny child. It’s not a thing that we are used to actually spending 24 hours a day with. Yeah, we love to come back home to them at the end of the workday. But we’re still not programmed to actually spend that long with each other, because there’s this whole thing of you each have your own hobbies or your passions or your interests. Sometimes you share that. And sometimes you have them completely different.

So, you can’t help but get under each other’s feet. Or get into silly arguments just because you both wanted a cup of tea at the same time. And you both got a meeting and now you’re in each other’s way. You know, setting up a home office, possibly if there’s two of you. My boyfriend [lives with] two of them in a house, his flatmate has different working hours to him because he works with a Canadian company.

He kind of does meetings in the lounge because they haven’t got another room and his flatmate’s trying to quietly make himself breakfast. But he’s trying to talk and his flatmate’s dropping cups, without meaning to get under each other’s feet. That’s what you suddenly start to do. And I think a massive thing about all of this is his personal space or pursuit of personal interests, without the other people in your household. And the other part of that is actually missing other people who are a massive part of your life.

I think it works in both ways. You can have too much of pretty much anything. Even if you don’t think you can have too much chocolate, there’s a point where you start to feel sick. So there’s always going to be that that barrier of like, I need to shut myself in my room now and not talk to anybody. But normally you’d go out for a walk or you go out with your friends, or you wouldn’t have seen that much of your flatmate, Mum, Dad, family, whoever’s in the house, anyway.

How did you take the decision to start doing yoga?

If I’m honest, I think anything like this always starts out as a passion. I just liked doing it. I did it for myself. I did it for my strength, my flexibility. I mean, it’s the first thing dancers look to: flexibility, how can I stretch? How can I get more flexible? And so, I was just looking to maintain it really another way. Like I say, as athletes it’s not just the dancing, that’s going to keep you the way you are, you have to properly train, go to the gym, do different kinds of stuff that’s going to support you in that way.

So yoga was one of those things that I just did. And I just enjoyed it. I really enjoyed the movement. It made me feel like I’d done some exercise as well. I think COVID made me do it more, because especially in those first couple of months, I was at home and I was like, “Okay, what do I do?”

I just used YouTube really, like with most things. But I think that sometimes gets annoying. If you want it free, there is a great tool to use. It’s fabulous. But sometimes it’s like, I’ve got to trawl through everything and find one that I fancy doing and I don’t know what I want to do today or how long or whatever. And I’ve done it many times where I’ve put one on, done ten minutes, I’m really bored and need a different one and have to change it. But I just kept doing a lot, basically.

I said, “Do you think I should do it and maybe try and set something up? I can maybe keep going even when the dancing kicks back off again.” And [my mum] was like, I mean, I’m a bit scared for you to spend all that money on that. But yeah, sure. I’d saved a load of money because obviously I wasn’t spending massive amounts. I bought this course. I was doing it for about five, six months really trying to make sure I’d done it properly, done all the different courses and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I completed it in the December of last year.

And then with the new year I went, right, what am I actually going to do with this? So my dancing is my life, is my main thing. It’s my main job. You know what it’s like – you try consistently, you’re never in the same place two weeks in a row, nothing is consistent, the lessons, the competitions, they’re all mega bucks, you’re traveling everywhere, etc. So, I was like, “Okay, how can I create something for myself, that’s going to bring me solid income every month, so that I know that’s coming. But that I really enjoy and that I’m going to be able to do no matter where I am in the world?” So, I came up with the idea, what about if I did an online platform, monthly memberships, and certain amounts of live classes, different benefits, different bonus materials, pre-recorded things, etc. And so, I set it up, I went for it, launched in February. And here we are nearly two months later. I guess we’ll see as time goes on, as we move out of COVID restrictions and everything, if it still continues to work, but it’s going well, so far. And who knows, but I’m really loving it. Teaching has always been a passion of mine. Bringing that into another element, doing another thing that I really, really enjoy, I think I’m possibly one of the luckiest people to actually be able to do something that I really, really, really love.

Can everyone do yoga? Is yoga for everyone?

Literally, yes, that is my favourite phrase: Yoga is for everyone. So, I think I think it’s funny actually, a lot of people have started to do it for many different reasons. And I think if I’m honest, everybody spent the first lockdown doing DIY and maybe chilling out and actually taking a little bit of a chill. And then they suddenly went “okay, I’m bored. Now give me something else to do”. Or people have eaten the whole way through the house or drunk more alcohol and they’ve suddenly gone “Okay, where did this belly come from?”

But also, I think the people that have looked for a mentality change have also looked for yoga. And the people who look for the physical side of yoga have found the mentality change as well.

So for me, it is for everybody, because the moves aren’t based on flexibility, or how much you can touch your toes or whatever, that comes with time. But you also have to think about the strength, it is going to make you stronger. But the best thing about yoga is it’s genuinely about listening to your body. So, it’s about if that hurts, don’t do it. And then massive thing as well is it’s all about alignment. So, what it’s doing is actually correcting your body. It’s trying to put your spine back in line, get your hips where they should be, your shoulders, your chest. It’s really trying to correct your posture, the way you stand. The way your body just generally functions. 

So, for people who are sat down consistently at a laptop, I have a lot of those people who are my students. I had some pictures actually off a client about a week ago. She only did it for a week. You couldn’t have got her head further forward, her shoulders further up. Even when she was trying to stand up straight. She just couldn’t and after a week of doing this, she sent me a picture. She went, I feel like a giraffe. So, the way it promotes alignment is fantastic.

But because of that, you then get your mental benefits. And the great thing about yoga is there’s loads of different styles. And I personally teach three, because they’re the ones I’m most comfortable with. And vinyasa is very, very alignment based, a lot more active, kind of the one people would go for if they wanted to feel like they’ve done some activity and exercise as well Then there’s one which is called restorative. And this is all about relaxation, it’s about letting the body’s natural responses get activated, so that your body can function properly from the inside. And it’s about using all these different props and different things to hold up your body rate and position. So you promote alignment. But you’re also promoting this clearing of the mind solely for totally focusing just on your breathing on how your body feels tuning inwards. Because I think at the moment, I mean, who’s watched the news? More than ever at the moment, everyone, because we all want to know what’s going on. It gives us anxiety. If you do it half an hour a day, in your own way, there’s a million different ways to do it. Mindfulness meditation, this kind of yoga. You can use crystals, you can just sit there with your essential oils. There’s a million different ways to do it, but if you do, your mental clarity is so much better.

You find a way that even if you’ve wound yourself up, you have better skills and a way to calm. 

The majority of people enter into it with a physical goal. I want to be able to do that pose, I want to be able to do this. The thing is, what I find is, even if people are entering with that, it’s not wrong. Yoga can give you that, so it’s not wrong. It’s a lifestyle. The people who follow it massively are the people who actually know yoga philosophy and follow their principles of life and do all this kind of stuff. You don’t need to pass on those messages, because some people aren’t open to that. And they don’t want to know about that. They just want to use it physically.

But what they will always gain even if they don’t know all of the background of yoga, what they will always gain is it makes [them] feel mentally fabulous. Physically fabulous. I think everybody reacts to it and come into yoga searching for something different. But I think they come out with both.

What’s your advice for people who, due to the current situation, have abandoned physical exercise? Should they find a way to come back and incorporate some physical activity for their mental health?

There’s the phrase: physical activity releases endorphins. That isn’t something we say. That’s a fact. That is a biological fact. I think yes, I think every single person has got demotivated in some way, shape, or form.

Whether that’s pottering around the house, whether it’s going out for a walk, whether it’s an intense home gym routine, or yoga, or Pilates, or one of these crazy dance fit video, it’s going to be some physical activity for someone. And whether you do it for your physical health, or your mental health, you’re going to get benefits both ways. And it’s absolutely essential. It doesn’t have to be a lot. But trust me when I say you will find some kind of benefit out of it. And especially if I think especially if people are feeling low in themselves and feeling anxious, depressed, lonely, anything like this, it’s going to really lift you up. 

Find something new, try something new. It just takes five minutes. Try something you’ve never tried before. You might hate it. But you might find your new passion. And along the way you’re going to improve physical and mental health. Even if you feel rubbish, this is your message: do it now.

Do you recommend specifically yoga for this kind of mental improvement?

I think you always need a balance. And that’s one thing actually yoga promotes is: you shouldn’t just be doing this, you should be doing something else as well, you should be finding different ways to get your body and your mind healthy. I think you can find it in a lot of different ways. And I think every person is going to respond to a different exercise in their own way. But for example, I find that a gym exercise makes me feel great. And I’ll do a proper gym workout. But also I don’t think that gives me focus.

I think yoga, when you do that, it’s going to give you the physical benefits, all these things that you’re looking for – eliminate pain, stronger, more flexible. But it also gives you so much more inner strength, time to reflect on you, time to switch off. It teaches you breathing techniques of how to cope when you’re feeling stressed. So, if you’re talking about what’s one of the best things to gain both physical and mental health, definitely yoga promotes that.

What’s your wish for now on?

I think my wish is that people get their freedom back. However long it takes, that is going to be on the horizon in the end. My wish is that people can get positive again and keep that positivity and have a faith that will happen and that it will all be okay again and you’ll see everyone enjoy life like they did before.

And so, to end, how, where can people find you to join your classes?

My website is btm-slowhyperyoga.com. 

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