Everyone remembers the childhood game of playing “Superman” on their parents’ feet. Since I saw a poster advertising an AcroYoga workshop at a San Diego studio in 2007, I’ve been playing this game every week–learning to balance upside down, backwards and sideways on the feet and hands of my friends, and to hold them up as well. This is AcroYoga, which draws from the traditions of yoga, acrobatics, massage and dance.
There is footage of Krishnamacharya from 1938 doing poses that are common to acroyogis today. Cirque du Soleil has created renewed interest in circus skills around the world since the 1990’s, though acrobatics in the Netherlands has long-been a sport taught in school and enjoyed by Dutch communities, much like running or swimming in America. But in the late ’90s and early 2000’s, the AcroYoga practice we recognize now began to coalesce in two different places.
Jessie Goldberg and Eugene Poku, dancers in Montreal, started referring to their experimental moves as AcroYoga. Jason Nemer, a sports acrobat and Jenny Sauer-Klein, a yoga teacher, both in San Francisco, also started using the term AcroYoga to describe how they were combining their disciplines. Both groups were unaware of each other at the time. Today, Poku and Goldberg share the practice from Acro Yoga Montreal. Nemer and Sauer-Klein’s AcroYoga organization continues to grow and evolve. Communities of acroyogis have flourished around the world, and teachers, many who have studied with both groups, are helping students build a foundation in the practice, as well as sharing their own innovations. Students often gather outside of classes to practice, or, as we call it, “play,” at informal jams. Don’t be surprised if you see feet up in the air taking advantage of this sunny spring at Gas Works, Golden Gardens or Green Lake!
So, do you have to be a gymnast or an experienced yoga practitioner to try AcroYoga?
Not at all. Familiarity with yoga positions and some body awareness doesn’t hurt, and flexible hamstrings make most things easier. Like any new skill, you start from where you’re at, and you learn from there at your own pace. Also, like any new physical activity, take into any account any injury or condition you might have that would affect your participation. Check with your doctor if you’re not sure.
Unlike many yoga styles, however, you will have to talk to and touch other people at an AcroYoga class, including other people’s feet. It’s best not to be surprised by this.
At most AcroYoga classes, you can expect a warm up, strength training and flying. Warming up might mean individual asana practice, partner yoga or basic tumbling and stretching. Acro-strength work could be push ups, core work and inversion training, often with partners. Classes might also include Thai massage, time for partner or group reflections or improvisational movement, depending on the teacher’s goals or background.
“Flying” is the centerpiece of AcroYoga. To practice this, students usually work in groups of three, taking turns performing the roles of flyer, base and spotter.
While a base in traditional acrobatics is usually standing, an acroyoga base is usually found laying on their back with their legs up in the air. If the base can comfortably hold their legs at a 90-degree angle, they can relax their muscles and let their bones line up and carry the weight. Creating a stable structure through “bone stacking” means massive leg strength is not a prerequisite for this practice. So many students have told me, “I’m not strong enough to be a base,” but a few minutes later they are flying a friend on their feet! Once a base can ease into the correct position, he or she can readily hold up a partner who weighs as much or more. The heaviest person I have flown weighed 100 pounds more than me.
If you find that your hamstrings are a little too tight to relax into a right angle, a teacher can help you use props to make the position more accessible. Also, holding a person on your feet can be a great stretch for the back of your legs, as long as you are careful to not exceed your limits.
As a flyer, you will find yourself up in the air, balanced on a base’s feet, hands or a combination of both, in any number of orientations. If the flyer’s position is very active, it is considered an acrobatic pose. Flyers can also be held in more relaxed therapeutic poses. Based on Thai massage, a base can create traction to elongate a flyer’s spine, or move a flyer carefully into luscious twists.
Flyers are often upside down, but yogis who have not mastered inversions should not worry—supported inversions are sometimes easier to hold than a headstand or handstand on your own. With the help of a base and a spotter, a flyer can develop a better sense of where they are in space, including being able to tell when the hips are over the shoulders, which is the baseline for the majority of inversions. An acrobatic flyer builds strength and confidence by holding still in a variety of positions while maintaining the breath. Stillness in the flyer also keeps the base safer by reducing sudden or jerky movements. “Tighter is lighter” is a common acrobatic reminder.
A spotter is critical for the safety and confidence of both the base and the flyer. Spotters can assist with balance and form, as well as help mitigate falls. Spotters learn to move fluidly in very close proximity to the base and flyer. They learn to imagine what a possible fall might look like from any position, and think how they can best protect a flyer’s head and neck. The best way to do this is often to help them get their feet to the ground more quickly, while slowing the descent of the upper body. Spotters learn to leverage position and weight distribution so they do not have to depend on brute strength.
Are some people scared when they first try AcroYoga?
Of course. As you practice, you may be challenged by having to relinquish control, or by being responsible for holding a partner safely in the air. AcroYoga, like rock climbing, football, flying trapeze, or any number of athletic endeavors, has inherent risks. So why do it? It’s fun and thrilling. You don’t need any expensive equipment, and you don’t have to wait for the right season or travel to the right place. With care, attention, and practice, you can learn how to manage these risks, extend your comfort zone knowledgeably and amaze your friends and yourself with your new abilities.
My first AcroYoga teacher, Mara Harris in San Diego, often reminds students, “We don’t practice because we are strong; we practice to get strong.” If you’re looking for a creative way to develop strength, mindfulness or even make new friends, check out one of the many Seattle-area classes.
[Photo by Kristin Wall – CC BY]
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