Yoga for Circus Performers

Phare Circus performers stretching and training on the big top stage

Yoga for Circus Performers

If you’ve ever seen a Phare, The Cambodian Circus performer in action, you’ve probably noticed their incredible flexibility and strength, and the ease with which they perform seemingly impossible acrobatics tricks. Artists train for years before they begin to perform. And, while there are several Phare shows, artists are usually assigned to one specific show and perform it for several years, so they know the choreography, timing, and tricks like the backs of their hands.

While this repetition results in performances looking effortless, it can also lead to strain and imbalance in the performers’ bodies.

To avoid injury and ensure that the high demands they place on their bodies don’t catch up with them as they get older, Phare performers have several resources. There is a physiotherapist backstage and a pharmacy with cold packs, cold sprays and many other products to reduce inflammation and irritation. They have access to equipment specifically designed to train muscles and reduce the chance of injury. There is also a full-time circus coach who guides them through exercises before and after the show.

According to Xavier Gobin, Phare’s Operations Manager, “The circus coach, Bonthoeun, guides them through warm ups and cool downs designed to minimize injuries and does muscle training to ensure that they are using the correct muscles and not overworking tendons or their spines. For example, men often have weak ankles, so we focus on that area to prevent sprains.”

The resources available to artists depends on the volunteers and staff that pass through Phare. Last year, a movement coach worked with artists for six months, teaching dance classes, providing massages and teaching artists self-care techniques. And another initiative was a yoga class taught by Piseth Lun.

He taught his first class under the big top last year and has taught several classes since. “The idea of yoga classes with the Phare artists was very interesting to me,” says Piseth. “When people talk about Phare, The Cambodian Circus, they always say, ‘Wow, they are amazing!’ So I was eager to meet the group and to see if there was any way yoga could benefit them.”

As a teacher, it was a new experience for Piseth.  After discovering yoga in 2008, completing teacher training in 2011, and in between additional training sessions with Hart Lazer of United Yoga and traditional Ashtanga yoga training in Thailand, Piseth taught two types of classes: studio classes for a mostly expat student base and free classes in poor communities for a diverse group of yoga newbies like, “garbage pickers, people with physical and mental disabilities, villagers and young students.”

Teaching circus performers was a much different endeavour. “Each time I visited Siem Reap I always came to see the show to get more information on their amazing skills, their body movements and their concentration, (and, of course, to support Cambodian art!). And after I started the classes with them I found there were several things I could teach them, like connecting with their breath, body alignment, the sequence of recovering, balancing and restoring, and the philosophy of yoga. I focused on that a lot for the first few classes as I wanted to prevent them from thinking that yoga is just a workout.”

He had a receptive audience. “The artists were quick to understand the theme of each classes. Even if some of them had chronic pain, they were always willing to try the new recovery poses and methods in each class. The challenge was in following up on their progress. Because their schedules rotate, I didn’t see them all on a regular basis and some of them only attended one class.”

Says artist Kakada Ung, “Even though I only attended one class, I liked it because it taught me how to breathe well. Sometimes before a show I like to relax and focus, like a meditation, but I had never done the kinds of breathing methods we learned in the yoga class.”

Piseth has now moved to Vietnam to continue his work a yoga teacher there, but he hope the artists will continue their practice. “At last, I would say that they really need yoga for their career. It is really important for their body health, improving their concentration and balancing their energy. I hope they continue to explore yoga throughout their lives.”

Read more about Houn Bonthoeun, Phare’s circus coach here.

Read about how Cirque du Soleil’s performers incorporate yoga into their daily routines while on tour here.

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