You Spin Me Round
If you saw Anusara yogini Shakti Sunfire take the main stage at the 2010 Wanderlust Festival in Squaw Valley, California, you felt the yoga community's enthusiasm for hooping firsthand. As the DJ spun a downtempo tune, Sunfire danced in the embrace of her partner—a plastic hoop trimmed with flames. It rolled like a wave up and down her body, orbiting her thighs and waist, and whirling around her rib cage. She spun it overhead as she sank into Hanumanasana (Monkey God Pose) and then blossomed into a backbend. When she picked up a second hoop, the crowd whooped in wonderment. Sunfire—part whirling dervish, part pinup girl, and 100 percent yogini—beamed as she shimmied inside her rings of fire.
Today, Shakti Sunfire (whose given name is Laura Blakeman) and other hoop-yoginis with exotic stage names are teaching workshops in yoga studios across the country, from San Francisco to Cincinnati to Manhattan—and the trend is going global, picking up fans in cities such as Sydney and Barcelona. Devotees of the hybrid art form say it not only helps them tone and tune in to their bodies but also encourages better alignment while bringing a fresh infusion of fun and joy into yoga practice. For those reasons and more, regular folks (men and women, young and old) and skilled performers alike are hooping it up at yoga retreats, summer festivals, MC Yogi concerts, and Yoga Journal conferences. They spin and dance on the National Mall during DC Yoga Week.
A handful of trendsetting teachers have created hoop-yoga hybrids with names like HoopAsana, HoopYogi, and even Hoop Vinyasa. Some teach yoga for part of the class and hooping for the rest; others teach you how to hoop while you're holding yoga poses, and advanced classes teach you how to hoop through a yoga flow. Some weave in Tantric teachings; some blast techno music. No matter where you live, a groovy hoop-yoga class is probably coming to a studio near you—if it hasn't already.
"It's definitely growing, and it's come a long way since I started hooping six years ago," says Jivamukti and Hoop Vinyasa teacher Sandhi Ferreira, who has hooped onstage with Michael Franti and taught the hybrid art form to Sharon Gannon and David Life. Many yogis are drawn to hooping for the same reason kids are, she says: It's fun.
"It's about connecting to that childlike energy, that playful spirit inside you," says Liana Cameris, a Philadelphia yoga teacher and hoop dancer who developed Hoop Vinyasa with two hoop-yogi friends in New York City. "A lot of times when you're practicing yoga, you're so serene. It's a solemn type of practice." Hooping is a way to let loose. "You laugh and you smile," she says. "It's like that feeling of being little and getting lost in something and time just slipping away."
Sianna Sherman, a senior Anusara Yoga teacher and avid hooper who has teamed up with Sunfire to teach yoga and hooping at yoga festivals in the United States and abroad, agrees. "I feel like the appeal has something to do with people's longing to play, to feel beautiful, to dance, to not be so burdened by the pressures of everyday life. You get a hoop on and some music, and suddenly you get a little lighter, freer, happier. It energizes you and draws more light into your life."
Plus, the fun is contagious. To see for yourself, just take a handful of hoops to a local park, and you'll attract curious onlookers in no time. In 2010, when Sherman and her hoop-yogi friends descended on San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts to shoot a promotional video, they attracted a bevy of Japanese tourists who snapped pictures and then, upon invitation, stepped into the hoops themselves, giggling. A multiculti hoopfest ensued, and a connection was made.
Free Your Hips
Yogis who are hooked on hooping insist there's more to it than good times and good people. It can actually take your yoga practice to a new level. As Cameris, who switches from mat to hoop and back in the course of her home practice, explains: "As I'm hooping, I'll find certain areas that feel constricted. So I'll take off the hoop, get on the mat, and move into postures that target those areas."
Hooping can also release long-held tension and emotions in the hips. "That area gets so emotionally locked for people. It's where fears set in," Sherman says. Hooping gets people moving in a way that "frees their emotions and melts resistance. They feel more free to express themselves."
In class, some teachers use the hoop as a prop to refine alignment. For example, in Utkatasana (Chair Pose), Hoop Vinyasa teacher Julie "Jewels" Ziff Sint, of New York City, asks her students to hold the hoop in front of and above themselves, making sure that it's in line with their torso. The variation makes it easier to "talk about the way the rhomboids, lateral muscles, and trapezius muscles should behave in Utkatasana," she says.
Once yogis have acquired some spinning skills, the hoop can be used to make familiar poses more challenging. Picture Vrksasana (Tree Pose) with a halo-like hoop orbiting overhead around your namaste hands. Or three-legged Dog Pose with a hoop spinning around your raised foot. To pump up the volume, try a Hoop Vinyasa class, where you might flow through Triangle, Warrior, and Tree Pose with a hoop spinning around your wrists, then hips, then legs. The possibilities are practically endless.
Turn up the Joy
On a subtler level, hooping can help you find that balance between sthira (effort, steadiness) and sukha (ease, grace), which is the very definition of asana in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. "In asana we can be pushing our bodies to the point where it's unsafe, and we may not know that until we injure ourselves," Sunfire says. "But the hoop has its own physics associated with it. If you make too much effort, it will fall. You can't just push through and seek the outcome, which is what so many of us do in asana and in life. The goal is to tune in and become sensitive. To listen."
There's a deeper contemplative aspect to hooping, too. Like vinyasa flow yoga, Shiva Rea's popular Yoga Trance Dance, or the ancient tradition of Sufi whirling, hooping can be a form of moving meditation. As Sherman observes, "My yoga practice is always in a state of evolution. So bringing the hoop into it is even more fun. It just enhances the pure, radiant joy of being in my body. It's another portal into ananda, or bliss, just like meditation."
Ultimately, hooping can help you tap into what aficionados call the flow, "a state of movement without thoughts," says hoop dancer extraordinaire Vivian "Spiral"Hancock, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and performs around the world. "That's what you want to hit. That's the addictive power of hooping."
Hoop-loving yogis view their prop as not just a toy but a tool for transformation. Consider Sunfire's story: For years, she was a self-described "people pleaser"—a hooper who dazzled the crowd with her technical prowess, praying that they would like her. But as she delved deeper into her yoga practice, she says, she developed a more intimate relationship with her body—and herself. In time, that new relationship allowed her to bring her fully present embodied self to the stage and become a knockout performer. "What really moves people," she realized, "is when someone dances with the uninhibited joy that comes from the center of their being."
"Yoga brought my heart to center stage," she says. As her yoga practice deepened, so did her hooping. "Yoga is a kind of turning in. It's about connecting to the Source, to your divine essence. In that process, you see the strength of your own heart and your particular authenticity. Hooping is a turning out, an ecstatic, visceral celebration of that connection." Clearly, it's a potent combination.
Anna Dubrovsky learned to hoop around her waist, knees, and hands for this story.