If you find yourself with extra downtime this Nutcracker season, but counterintuitively higher stress levels, you're likely not alone. "COVID-19 has been this underlying baseline stress in the back of everybody's lives. Whether you realize it or not, it's affecting everybody," says Dr. Kathleen Bower, director of dance medicine for Miami City Ballet.
You may not need the post-matinee ice baths or power naps that come with a typical holiday performance run, but that doesn't mean you don't deserve—and need—a little extra TLC. Read on for relaxation tips to rejuvenate your mind and body after a long, hard year.
Consider this the gold standard to incorporate into every activity on this list. Whether it's during yoga or in the bath, Bower says, find 10 minutes each day to "get into that nice, deep diaphragm breathing." This actually has a measurable effect on your nervous system, bringing it into its parasympathetic "rest-and-digest" state, rather than its sympathetic "fight-or-flight" state that's so often engaged during a fast-paced performance season.
Josh Spell, a licensed social worker, therapist and former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer warns that dancers' overachieving tendencies often creep into what's supposed to be a restorative activity. He loves mindfulness walks where, he says, "the intention is not for exercise. It's more for connecting with nature and mental clarity."
Epsom Salt Baths
"A big part of why we think they work so well is because Epsom salts are high in magnesium, which athletes tend to be deficient in," says Bower. As an extra relaxation hack, she suggests tapping into all of your senses while soaking. Light a scented candle, put on some relaxing music and even eat your favorite treat, like a square of chocolate, in the tub. "Then you're really touching on all of those senses and getting that feeling of warmth within the body," say Bower.
A lighter workload is the perfect time to address any chronically tight areas or imbalances. Bower particularly likes using a foam roller for self-massage. Rather than quickly rolling over major muscle groups, she says, pinpoint a specific area by rolling slowly to the point of restriction (where the muscle feels tight and is giving more resistance on the roller), then relaxing and breathing into it for 30 seconds to a minute. This helps open up the fasciae surrounding the muscle fibers.
Sleep and Nutrition Best Practices
During a typical Nutcracker run, Miami City Ballet dancers travel a lot between theaters, so Bower is always prioritizing their recovery. This year, it's just as critical. Your body is likely exhausted from the challenges of cramped class space at home and inconsistent schedules, making foundational health as important as ever. Bower recommends that you make time for well-balanced meals and get eight to 10 hours of sleep per night for optimal musculoskeletal recovery.
Whether it's trying an entirely new dance style or even just a different warm-up before your regular Zoom ballet class, disconnecting your autopilot tendencies will stimulate new neural pathways, which is important for your long-term happiness. "That's what habits are, grooves in your brain," says Spell. "Every December, if the only groove that's really being carved out or traversed is The Nutcracker, that can sort of narrow who you are as a person." The very act of switching up your routine, even in something as simple as eating dessert before dinner, trains your brain to forge new paths in the future.
Get in the Holiday Spirit
Don't let holiday activities fall by the wayside just because you aren't performing. Instead, view this as an opportunity to make space for new ways to celebrate safely. For example, Spell suggests making a pilgrimage to see your neighborhood's best holiday light displays.
Bower notes that connection with family and friends is particularly important. Even if you can't see each other in person due to the pandemic, try something creative, like a Zoom cookie-decorating party.
If you're having difficulty dealing with downtime, you're not alone. Spell encourages dancers to question their relentless quest for self-improvement, using journaling as a way to slow down and find some self-forgiveness: "There are a lot of questions to explore around the discomfort in taking a day off," says Spell. "For example, 'Where did I get the idea that I'm lazy if I do choose to relax?' It's about challenging that perspective that you need to be doing something productive all the time."
Essentially, a less busy Nutcracker season does not negate the need for downtime. In these challenging times, it's as important as ever to prioritize yourself—and to rest and reset.