Have More Fun


By Diane Anderson  |  

You wanna fly? AcroYoga cocreator Jason Nemer asks me. What a question—who doesn’t dream of flying? But, truth be told, I’m a scaredy-cat.

I’m watching Nemer and his partner, Jenny Sauer-Klein, perform their acrobatic yoga feats. A small crowd of spectators oohs and ahhs over their breathtaking moves. This “flying” looks like fun, but I’m considerably larger than Sauer-Klein. I’m certain I’ll hurt Nemer or fall flat on my face. I hesitate. But Nemer smiles. “You’ll be fine, I promise,” he says. So I consent.

Nemer becomes my base: He’s on his back, feet up in the air, and I lean over and lay my torso on his feet, ready to play airplane like a kid. For a moment before liftoff, I question how I got here, why I would choose to trust a stranger this way. But I sense that Nemer, who studies with master yogi Dharma Mittra, is strong and stable, so I relax. Before I know it, I’m in the shape of Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), but upside down: Nemer’s feet are pressed into the top of my thighs, holding me up, while my head dangles. His hands move along my spine, treating me to a mini-Thai massage. Then he calls out another pose.

The transition is thrilling. I’m not sure how I flip over, but now his feet are on my low back, my head near his chest, my feet on the level of his knees. I’m grabbing my ankles in Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), but since I’m upside down, this backbend feels more like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)—but with more ease, more freedom. It’s a pose I’ve done a gazillion times, yet this circle is totally new, relaxing, liberating. Each time we move into a different pose, I experience a split second of worry and I fear I’ll plummet, but somehow I don’t. At one point, Nemer laughs, Sauer-Klein laughs, and I laugh, too.

I’ve just gotten a taste of one form of fun being had by yogis who are letting loose—combining their love of asana with a passion for off-the-mat physical activities like circus arts, theater, dance, and outdoor adventure. These new yogic art forms—AcroYoga, Yoga Trance Dance, and yoga slacking among them—cultivate risk taking, trust, connection, and playfulness. Dabbling in them, I find myself laughing, feeling exhilarated. They bring back the excitement I felt back when I first started practicing—when I fell in love with the way asana made me feel playful and free. Somewhere along the way, my practice has become more introspective and solemn, and I’ve lost some of the sheer joy I once felt. So here I am, checking out these new forms. And I have to say, they’re inspiring.

Circus Circus

AcroYoga founders Nemer and Sauer-Klein were both serious yoga practitioners who had been through teacher trainings when they met in 2003. But they were much more than that: He was a competitive acrobat; she was a musical theater major who taught circus arts to children. After meeting through a friend, they came together at San Francisco’s Circus Center, where a kind of alchemy took place as they found themselves combining yoga with acrobatics. It doubled their fun and opened them to new ways of expanding their practices. Over time, they also incorporated Thai massage into the AcroYoga practice, and the couple now sees their unique art form as an attempt to combine the spiritual wisdom of yoga, the loving kindness of Thai massage, and the dynamic strength of acrobatics into one powerful practice.

“There are purists and there are blenders. We’re blenders,” says Sauer-Klein. She learned to dance, then discovered Ashtanga and completed her first teacher training with leading Ashtanga teacher David Swenson. Later, she developed an affinity for vinyasa flow; putting together poses in a different order from the standard Ashtanga sequence was “totally freeing” for her. Now, she says, she’s fallen in love with Anusara Yoga.

Sauer-Klein isn’t just a dabbler. She’s a believer in the idea that a yoga practice should change and evolve, that a solid foundation is important but that it shouldn’t keep anyone from exploring new things.

Nemer agrees. After all, the great master of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya—teacher to such luminaries as T.K.V. Desikachar, B.K.S. Iyengar, and K. Pattabhi Jois—drew on many disciplines, including gymnastics and wrestling, as he developed asana practices that continue to influence most of the yoga taught today.

Nemer and Sauer-Klein aren’t the only ones whose love of yoga is matched by a love of high-flying circus acts. Some acrobatically inclined yogis have taken the practice to the sky. Michelle Dortignac, a certified OM Yoga instructor in New York, teaches Unnata Aerial Yoga using tissu, the silky fabric used in circus arts, which can be twisted to form a soft harness. She finds that it helps the body make better use of gravity, so that it can get into poses more deeply than it would on the ground. Dortignac opens class with Sun Salutations done in a circle, so everyone can make eye contact. “People lighten up, smile, and relate to one another,” she says.

Sauer-Klein and Nemer, too, emphasize communication and a community connection in their classes, which begin with a chance for everyone to introduce themselves and share how they’re feeling. And then the real fun begins.

In the first activity, everyone might stand in a circle, looking at the back of the person in front of them and sitting Utkatasana-style on the “chair” made by the lap of the person behind. It’s a small exercise in trust and being there for one another that leads naturally into the awareness of yourself and others that is necessary for practicing AcroYoga. Sauer-Klein and Nemer say that their goal is to cultivate connection, playfulness, and trust—and even a single class offers a chance to experience all three.

Sauer-Klein adds that the internal experience is key to AcroYoga. “You need to know your center, figure out what you need, express it,” she says. “You have to be true to yourself.” Overcoming fear is crucial, too. Working on these things in AcroYoga can teach people to develop the same abilities in other areas of their lives. “We are all so mind-centered. We tell ourselves that we can’t do certain things,” says Nemer. “AcroYoga is a chance for adults to explore and see what’s possible.”

Clearly, people are into it. In the year since Nemer and Sauer-Klein began training other acroyogis, they have certified more than 25 teachers. Earlier this year, the pair made an AcroYoga world tour (the clothing company Prana purchased wind power credits to offset the carbon emissions created by their trip), which took them to China, Japan, Thailand, India, Spain, Holland, and Germany to spread their unique form of playfulness.

“We’re meant to play,” says Nemer. “And we’re convinced self-discovery is possible through play.” (To find a class near you, check out acroyoga.org.)

Bathe in Ritual Waters

I’m entering a huge hotel ballroom with my six-year-old daughter, Story Frances. She’s excited to be staying up late for “the dance party,” and her eyes widen as we take in the scene: A few hundred people are sitting cross-legged on the floor singing mantras; kirtan leader Jai Uttal is onstage, pumping the harmonium; a life-size statue of Nataraj (the dancing form of Lord Shiva) sits in the center of the room; and all around us the walls are alive with ever-changing slides of Indian children, saints, sacred cows. It’s the prelude to an evening Yoga Trance Dance session led by vinyasa flow teacher Shiva Rea.

Story is wiggly and giggly, and it’s way past her bedtime. I briefly consider taking her home. But when I hear Rea’s inviting voice, something softens inside me, and I realize this is the perfect outlet for Story’s expressive energy. “Momma, dance with me!” she calls.

Trance Dancers don’t face the teacher. Instead, everyone forms a circle. Rea often begins by demonstrating a few moves, encouraging folks to feel their center of gravity and move from the hips. Tonight, she asks those of us gathered to close our eyes and bathe ourselves with imaginary water to prepare for the shared ritual. I pretend we’re in a shallow pond and lift the water, splashing my own face and rinsing myself, then helping Story pour some over herself, too.

Dance Like No One Is Watching

As the music builds an energetic arc, it feels as if anything can happen. And that’s the wonder of it. First-timers and devotees alike report feeling alive for days afterward. “In that alive state, you’re in a more creative place to deal with life and the world,” Rea says. “It’s a joyous way to be.”

I watch my daughter’s lithe little body twirling with delight and remember how I once loved to dance. In her exuberance, I see myself. Inside all of us is the seed of expression; this event is an opportunity to let it out. And I can sense that everyone here feels simultaneously self-conscious and eager to move.

The words of my friend and yoga teacher Janet Stone come to me: “If you close your eyes, nobody can see you. It’s magic.” So I close my eyes, and my self-consciousness melts. I am aware that others can see me and are likely to think I look ridiculous, but I stop caring. I’m starting to let loose.

“High school asana!” Rea calls out, doing a funky disco move. It’s as if she’s asking us to celebrate our own absurdity, our embarrassing moments, the inherent pain that accompanies the joy of making our way through this life. Now everyone looks a little ridiculous, and we’re having fun with it. Woo-hoo!

My daughter and I dance, swing, sway, and laugh together, as the crowd slowly moves out of the circular formation and into a free-for-all of dancing, yoga moves, whatever inspires them. I see friends laughing, making funny faces, having real fun. Story skips away from me. When I fear I’ve lost her, I see that she’s rocking out with a friend, and they both boogie back toward me. Finally, we wear ourselves out and leave the scene elated.

Dancing in the Dark

For Rea, mixing yoga, ritual, and dance feels natural. She explored yoga on her own at an early age, inspired by the name her father gave her. Later, she took courses in dance anthropology at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, then studied dance in Africa and Asia. The seeds of Yoga Trance Dance were planted during Rea’s first visit to Africa, when she heard drums beating. “It was like hearing the soundtrack to the next chapter of my life,” she says. “Every important occasion there was accompanied by dance.”

Some have likened Yoga Trance Dance to a rave, but without the drugs. “I’m fine with that,” Rea says, “but it’s really about so much more. The intention is what makes the difference.”

Yoga can be a great physical workout; when done with intention, it becomes a catalyst for personal development and spiritual awakening. Same goes for Yoga Trance Dance. Rea wants people to experience movement as a healing art and to connect with the earth and each other. That’s why proceeds from YogaTrance Dance events go to the nonprofit Trees for the Future. (Find out more at shivarea.com.)

“Dance has helped me expand my living experience of yoga,” says Rea. “It isn’t an either-or proposition. The two are very complementary.”

Others who have blended dance with yoga agree. “Yoga postures can be quite linear and boxlike,” says musician and yoga teacher Wade Imre Morissette. Morissette, the twin brother of pop star Alanis, travels the country promoting Bliss Dances (his version of Yoga Trance Dance). He finds that “the dance element allows for a greater inner rhythm to be expressed and more authenticity. Every body moves differently; there’s no right or wrong way to dance.”

Rea conducts her Yoga Trance Dance rituals in darkened rooms. And at New York’s Jivamukti Yoga School, a yogi named Parashakti blindfolds participants in monthly “Liberation Lounge” experiences, so they can move without having to think about how they look.

“We don’t dance enough, you know? What—maybe, like, once a year? At a wedding? So we tell ourselves we can’t,” Rea says. “But when the lights are dimmed, you can connect with your spirit.” She loves how that experience is universal; she’s seen people of all ages, sizes, and shapes throw off inhibitions and become part of the free-flowing movement.

Walk the Line

I watch Sam Salwei and Jason Magness, the YogaSlackers, doing poses while balancing on a slackline—a length of flat nylon webbing about an inch wide. It looks like a tightrope but with more bounce, and it’s strung only a foot or so off the ground. With their curls and dreadlocks and well-worn threads, Magness and Salwei look like Burning Man attendees. But these nomads are contemplative athletes.

Balancing on the slackline, Magness says, demands core strength and attention to breath. It forces you to draw on inner sources of calm. Salwei calls it “meditation for ADD people” because you have to go inside yourself to find stillness. “You can’t be thinking about anything else,” he says.

“The slackline is humbling—it totally destroys your ego,” Magness says. “We don’t like to try new things, as adults, unless we’re already good at them. You have to approach the slackline with a child’s mind and be willing to risk and play.”

And yoga slacking is fun and participatory, with spectators commenting and offering tips. “On the line, we’re discovering and inventing all the time,” says Salwei. “You do your own thing, but we’re like kids encouraging each other, offering pointers, laughing, trying things out. It’s social and it’s playful.”

Magness, an athlete, credits Pranayama for his improved rock climbing, triathlon, and adventure-racing performances. In 2000, a friend introduced him to traditional slacklining, a kind of moving meditation that can be done as an art in itself or as preparation for activities such as climbing and gymnastics. But he didn’t immediately take to it.

Magness and Salwei met in 2002, when Magness opened a rock-climbing gym in North Dakota. Salwei showed up the first day and, as the pair tell it, never left. Magness hired Salwei and eventually introduced him to yoga.

The beginning of their slackline partnership happened at the Yoga Journal Colorado Conference in 2005. “We were studying with &#123B.K.S.&#125 Iyengar and these incredible masters for over six hours a day,” says Magness. “So we’d go outside and play on the slackline as a means of release.”

Fall, and Get Back Up

Since the two friends camp often, they usually set up the line between a couple of trees. Standing up is the first pose to master and is a lot more difficult than it looks. But these two have gotten to the point where they can take shapes on the line, moving into poses like Tree, Eagle, Lotus, and Warrior—45 poses in all. And they’ve taught yoga slacklining in India, New Zealand, and Thailand. There’s even a YogaSlackers instructional DVD. (Order it from yogaslackers.com.)

Magness and Salwei want their passion to benefit the planet too. In January, they hooked up “kites,” or sails, to snowboards and used nothing but the wind to move them across the state of North Dakota. Their hope was that this expedition (learn more at 2xtm.com) would raise awareness of the unharnessed power of the wind as an alternative energy source.

Watching them on the line, I think, “I can do that!” But when I try standing up, I immediately fall. I get back up and try again. I can see that yoga on a slackline is not so different from other forms of yoga: It’s about stilling the mind so the body follows suit. To do that, it really helps to let go of any need for control. Yet you have to be mindful of how you hold yourself. You also are forced to come to terms with how distractible your mind is.

As the boys say, it’s really challenging, but it can be a lot of fun. Once again, my daughter, Story, is a natural. She’s all gung ho to try it. The beautiful thing about watching her? Her pride isn’t so tied up in her performance. When she falls, she laughs and climbs right back up.

While I’m most comfortable with a practice that combines asana and meditation, I love experimenting with these wildly diverse new forms. These styles of yoga coax you out of solitary introspection and invite you to celebrate sangha, community. AcroYoga tests your ability to trust and communicate; Yoga Trance Dance helps you connect to yourself and your community; the slackline forces you to let go. All of them can be exhilarating and fun, perhaps attracting newcomers to yoga through a different door.

The best thing about these new forms is that they allow us to respect yoga’s traditions while still branching out. I’m with the folks who think that, for yoga to stay alive as a discipline and practice, it needs to evolve along with the people who are doing it. “Who’s to say that a certain way of practicing isn’t meaningful?” says veteran teacher Judith Hanson Lasater. “I think it’d be sad if the tradition became rigid. If the people doing it find spiritual connection to themselves and don’t do harm to self, planet, or others, great. It isn’t classic, but so what?”

Diane Anderson is senior editor at Yoga Journal.