Texan Brene Brown has been researching human emotions for 12 years, and has written three books on the topic. She’s found that everyone experiences shame, the feeling of not being good enough, but that some people are more well equipped to thrive even in the face of shameful thoughts. People who can put shame aside and still have faith that they will get through challenges, she calls “whole-hearted.” Whole-hearted people share characteristics of courage, compassion and connection. And, thankfully, anyone can learn these life skills of whole-hearted types. The ability to trust in yourself to weather whatever life throws at you is a powerful tool, and it can be practiced and developed.
I’ve found that Acro Yoga speaks to all of these characteristics. For some, it is the physical challenge that provides a concrete example, but for most, the mental aspects open up quickly and powerfully.
First, just showing up to a class where you are trying something unfamiliar with other people watching is a vulnerable act of bravery. Like quitting your job with Microsoft to follow your dream of running a juice bar, or asking out that cute engineer who lives down the street, taking risks could mean failure, or they could lead to more joy than you can imagine.
Before you take any of those big leaps, why not practice taking a series of small leaps in a controlled environment? For many people, it’s hard to imagine balancing upside down on another person’s feet. Or, holding the feet of a flyer who is standing in your hands. But, with a spotter, after a few tries, a few classes and the proper technique, almost anyone can learn to do this.
You probably will fall or drop someone more than a few times, but acro yogis plan for this and learn ways to make falling safer and easier. Taking risks doesn’t mean you have to dive in head first without looking. You assess yourself, assess the situation and you move forward in a direction that makes at least a little sense.
Learning new Acro Yoga poses can be stressful. They’re often new and you might be in a position where, for example, your feet are in the air and your head is a foot off the ground and someone else who’s never done this before is holding you up. You might remember that there is supposed to be a spotter who will stop your head from crashing into the base’s head, but you can’t see them. What if they’re not looking? What if they’re not doing it right? Is that you shaking, or your base? What if I’m not doing it right? Is someone looking at me?
I remember being new to the practice, and barking orders at partners. ‘Are you spotting me? Hold my shoulders! It doesn’t feel like you’re holding me!’
When we’re nervous and uncertain, it’s so easy to lash out at others in a weak effort to get control over the situation. If I approach myself with compassion, I can breathe, and try to relax, being aware of my fear, but not letting it consume me. Then I am in a better place to make sure my partners are engaged safely — this is a baseline behavior for Acro Yoga, after all. If I recognize my own uncertainty, I can respond to my partners with compassion as well.
Maybe we do need to come out of a pose right now, not because the base is doing it wrong, but because she is just as confused as I am and it would be better if we sat down and had a conversation where one of us it not perched precariously on the other. Maybe we even need to ask for help.
Acro Yoga is supposed to be fun. No one will want to practice with you if you are yelling at them. But there are important things to communicate about. If it really hurts, that is probably not the right place for your partner’s foot. If the flyer or the base doesn’t feel safe or ready or is too tired, it’s not a good time to move on. A good teacher will support students in practicing “I” statements and listening with an open heart.
Whether I’m addressing an issue at home or work, or am stuck in traffic with strangers, it helps to think that my stresses and goals are often more similar to other’s than not. Compassion reminds us that kindness and caring are more important and are probably a better strategy for getting where you want to be in the long run, anyway.
The word “yoga” is often translated as “union” or “coming together.” It has gained the meaning over the years of uniting body and mind. Acro Yoga, a partner-based practice, ups the ante by bringing together more than one body and mind to create postures. In Acro Yoga, you have to get off your own mat to take a risk with friends or strangers in close physical proximity.
Connecting with people can be a strange and mysterious subject. Most of us could use some practice. Acro Yoga includes a close physical connection which is often unusual in our culture — outside of intimate relationships. That needs to be navigated mindfully, of course. But it also offers tools to practice. If you are uncomfortable, you say, “down,” and it is everyone’s job to respect and support that immediately. To start a position called folded leaf, you make eye contact, inhale together and move. In therapeutic flying, you are either a “giver” or a “receiver,” and then you take turns.
As anyone who has participated in counseling knows, whether you are interacting with coworkers, friends or lovers, sometimes you need strategies to approach stressful situations. Acro Yoga practice also is an opportunity to explore your reactions.
A common warm up is a standing counterbalance where you face a partner, clasp each others’ wrists, and then lean back until your arms are straight. Keeping your shoulders back and your hips forward, you have to negotiate how much each person pulls so you feel even tension between the two of you. Instead of keeping your weight solidly planted in your own feet, you are now sharing weight to create balance, sharing control. If one of you lets go, you will both fall. “This is just like our relationship!” I once had a student exclaim to her boyfriend, as they struggled to hold this posture, not five minutes into their first class.
By providing space, challenges and tools to enhance your capacity for courage, connection and compassion, an Acro Yoga practice can help you develop deeper trust in yourself as you move through life. Whether it’s believing I won’t have a heart attack if I jump in the cold pool at Banya 5, or believing I really could be happier if I left a comfortable but unfulfilling job or relationship, I’m happy to have Acro as a fun way to practice jumping into the unknown before the stakes are really high.[photo by Eric Ward – CC BY]
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