For decades I’ve practiced and taught self-awareness and self-acceptance through yoga. Last month, at 57, I decided get off the mat and try flying with what’s called acro yoga. This is yoga with a partner, so depending on where you are in a relational continuum of communication, ease, and trust, the partner aspect can make things easier for you—or more challenging.
My first class began in a circle with us all spelling our names in cursive with a body part of choice. Foolish, fun, and we learned each other’s names. We then moved into more fun, interactive warm-ups that moved us across the mats, before we were shown some of the simple counterbalances that we would be practicing as well as how to “spot” (to physically help others execute these aerials safely) and, perhaps most important, how to fall.
I learned that acro yoga requires nothing less than the complete attention and inner/outer awareness of traditional hatha yoga, but you have to extend these qualities to include another yogi. For me this meant explaining with each new partner that flying (being the person held aloft, usually by their partner’s feet) was easy for me, but basing (being the person who holds up their partner) was more challenging, as I have a titanium bearing in my right hip and am missing a couple of small muscles that make the needed dexterity and proprioception difficult. And that taught me something else: Having to repeatedly relay such personal information created a quick intimacy that rarely occurs in traditional yoga classes.
In a traditional hatha yoga class, we practice syncing our movements with our breath, mindfully connecting the breath and the body and, if we’re lucky, unlocking higher states of consciousness that ultimately move us toward a felt sense of oneness. In the practice of acro yoga, the aim is much the same. Only rather than simply unifying your breath and your movements, you add partnership and teamwork. Issues you can hide in the solitude of your asana practice will come bubbling to the surface, called forth by the presence
of a partner. For example, when balanced on top of your partner’s feet in flight, you
may feel like you’re about to fall. To enjoy the experience, you have to give up some control, and that can feel risky. However, if you are able to build enough trust to surrender to the strength and balance of your base, you can enjoy moments of unique and transcendent peace, as though it is actually possible to swim through the air. The world begins to feel like a safer place, and a magical realm of possibilities you hadn’t dreamed before opens up.
Ultimately, acro yoga is all about communication, verbal and nonverbal. Opportunities abound in all the roles (flyer, base, or spotter) for expressing yourself honestly about what you want or clarifying what you are being asked for. But there are even more opportunities for listening deeply, especially to the vast reserves of nonverbal information in your partner’s body as the two of you attempt to stack joints and move safely as one.
Keep in mind that the difference between acro yoga and circus acrobatics is the difference between yoga asana and gymnastics. It’s the difference between meditation and simply sitting and doing nothing. If you’re after a fulfilling, transcendent experience, your personal intention and inner approach create the portal for that transformation.
Acro allows me to work my own “edges.” I do not expect my teachers to know what I need. And I don’t throw myself into every difficult flow (or “washing machine,” as they are sometimes called). Instead, I actively watch and support or spot until I am ready to slowly and steadily get into a new flow. And I step away from visually appealing flows that hold too great a potential for injury.
The image I will leave you with can’t be captured in a still photograph. Paired off with my teacher, who is over 40 pounds heavier than me and holding both my hands, we take turns rhythmically rolling down onto the mat on our backs, negotiating our feet to each other’s hips in order to seamlessly “fly” each other in turn without breaking rhythm. I am basing and flying, flying and basing, basing
and flying, without any thought of the titanium bearing, or whether or not I will be able to hold his entire body weight...without any thought at all, in fact. With a single-pointed focus, laughter, and connection, I was joyously (and safely) exceeding anything I imagined my 57-year-old body and its bionic parts was capable of!