Woman yoga acro yoga health

Practise yoga off the beaten mat

Yoga is a practice that began more than 5000 years ago in the East, but it has only become mainstream in Western society in the past 20 years. Now there are so many different styles of yoga; some have been passed down from great yogic masters with millions of students, others have evolved from yoga teachers who decided to set out in their own direction, challenging what’s familiar to yogis and yoginis and stirring discussions on what yoga really is.

At every stage in its unfolding, yoga has had its non-conformists. Some people strongly prefer the traditional approach and feel protective over the word “yoga” being used for new yogic trends which they feel don’t fully honour the true essence of yoga. Others are excited by fresh ideas that break from the norm. Whatever your stance, it’s fascinating to see this evolution in progress.

So what’s happening in today’s world of yoga trends? Here are five to explore.

Flying forms of yoga

Flying forms of yoga, or aerial yoga, are gaining momentum. AntiGravity Aerial Yoga and Unnata Aerial Yoga are some of the more recognised brands that combine yoga and a sense of flying, yet aerial yoga classes of all types keep appearing at yoga festivals and on studio schedules.

While the flying forms of yoga differ from each other, they all include the use of a suspension system, typically a special kind of hammock, which supports up to 300kg of weight. The hammock (which could be made from non-stretch or low-stretch nylon, Lycra or silk,) has two support chains hanging down from the ceiling to less than one metre from the floor, and is adjusted to your preferred height, normally between your waist and shoulder.

The hammock acts like a swing, supporting your hips when you do forward and backward bends and enabling you to hang upside-down without putting pressure on your head or spine in the way you would in a classic inversion, “which can lead to back and neck pain and injury over time”, explains Joe Miller, a New York–based yoga teacher who leads anatomy and physiology trainings.

AntiGravity

Started in 2007 by New Yorker Christopher Harrison, AntiGravity Yoga is currently received with most enthusiasm in the USA, but is gaining more momentum in other parts of the world such as Europe, South America and Australia.

AntiGravity is a fitness system that was created by gymnasts for the sake of exploring the air and has since been modified to aid the yoga practitioner in their practice and to cater to the everyday athlete. It is a combination of yoga, Pilates, calisthenics, dance and gymnastics.

Evangeline Yeun, director of House of Yoga in Sydney, loves the way her spine feels when she practises this “flying yoga”. “It has great therapeutic benefits and a lot of our regulars come in to relieve back pain,” says Yeun, who explains that hanging upside down in the hammock decompresses your spine and creates lots of space and freedom there. “Some students also come in because they can’t do a floor-based yoga class because of injuries, back pain and too much compression on their joints.”

You’re not doing tricks and gimmicks while you’re raised off the ground, you’re practising traditional yoga poses, both in the air and on the mat.

For Yeun, other major benefits of AntiGravity Yoga are that it gets you off your major joints, improves your circulatory system, keeps your spine supple, healthy and young, and reverses the flow of blood to your brain. “It also brings out your inner child — and it’s fun,” she says. Inverting is calming and relaxing for your nervous system, so AnitGravity Yoga can also help improve sleep-wake cycles and alleviate stress, anxiety and depression.

Know that this isn’t you’re standard yoga class, though. Lawyer and yoga teacher Leanne Varga says, “The AntiGravity class I attended was fun, but yoga wasn’t part of it, except for the single om chanted at the end. There was no pranayama breathing practice, breath awareness or yoga knowledge, and I felt unable to really let go and relax with the constant pop music.”

Model Maddy King, meanwhile, found AntiGravity challenging at times but really enjoyed getting into positions that would not normally be possible. “I found the class to be more acrobatics in a hammock rather than a traditional yoga class, but … this would probably change from teacher to teacher. Overall I thought it was a great experience. It would be good to add to my exercise routine to mix things up.”

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be young, strong and flexible to practise this new yogic trend. However, it’s not suitable for everyone. Pregnant women, people with extremely high or low blood pressure, glaucoma, heart disease or anyone who has any recent back injury or surgery should find another style.

Unnata Aerial Yoga

Unnata is the Sanskrit word for “elevated”, meaning both elevated in spirit and physically elevated. Founded by Michelle Dortignac, who has 20-plus years of yogic teaching, meditation practice and movement and aerial arts performance, Unnata Aerial Yoga offers “authentic yoga, and works with gravity to relax and realign your body, centre your mind and uplift your spirit”.

In this flying form, you’re not doing tricks and gimmicks while you’re raised off the ground, you’re practising traditional yoga poses, both in the air and on the mat with the use of a silk hammock, which enables gravity to do a lot of the work for you. Dortignac feels that using the hammock first enables students to perform a pose, then take the memory of what that felt like to the mat, where they do the same pose.

No previous aerial, acrobatic or yoga experience is necessary if you want to practise Unnata Aerial Yoga but, to prepare for class, you’re asked to allow any food in your stomach to fully digest and to make sure you’re not overly hungry so that you don’t get “light-headed” when you’re upside-down. Unnata Aerial Yoga is not recommended for individuals who have high blood pressure or cataracts or are pregnant, or anyone for whom hanging upside-down could cause medical complications or discomfort.

Growing rapidly, Unnata Aerial Yoga is now taught in 25 countries, predominantly in the USA but also in Austria, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Finland and Saudi Arabia, by yoga instructors who have been trained by Dortignac.

SUP Yoga

In the 1940s, when Waikiki surfers stood on boards, navigating their way through the waves with a long paddle, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) was born. Stand-up paddleboard yoga (SUP yoga) is a more recent development, started when yogis began practising their asanas (yoga poses) on 10-to-12-foot-long boards. SUP yoga can be practised on an ocean bay, a lake or even a river (providing it’s moving slow enough), which is why it’s most popular anywhere that’s warm and near the water, particularly in Australia and Hawaii.

“When yoga is combined with SUP you get a greater core workout, better balance training and, of course, you get to be out in nature, which is great for overall stress release,” says Jodelle Fitzwater, a sponsored SUP pro athlete who currently teaches in the US.

On the water, the yogi has to let go of control or wanting to do everything perfectly.

On the water, the yogi has to let go of control or wanting to do everything perfectly. If the current changes, or if your weight isn’t evenly distributed front-to-back or side-to-side, you may suddenly find yourself in the water, so you’re not in control and your asanas won’t be as perfect as they may be on land.

Doing yoga on a surface that’s constantly in motion strengthens muscles that aren’t called on in everyday practice, but the challenge isn’t just physical. SUP yoga requires a different quality of focus, not just when you’re in a pose, but when you’re moving between poses. Bringing your foot forward as you move from a downward dog into a lunge, for example, can shift your board a few inches forward, so you need to constantly be adjusting your weight, making tiny movements and focusing your gaze on a point somewhere in nature, like on the horizon or a rock or tree.

At the end of SUP yoga practice, relaxing in savasana (corpse pose) is quite a different experience to on land. You’re lying there, in the sun, your hands resting in the water, being rocked by the waves. You won’t be able to let go as deeply as if you were on the ground, but there are different benefits to both. On the water, you’re soaking up the prana (life force) from the ocean and from nature; on land you could be sinking deep into yogic sleep (yoga nidra).

According to Matt Worley, yoga teacher and Kirtan devotee, SUP yoga is suited to most people but it’s advantageous to have reasonable body awareness and some level of core strength — being able to do a sun salutation is a great starting point. While certain injuries may limit your ability to do SUP yoga, as with other yoga styles there are modifications that can accommodate an individual’s needs.

Acro-yoga

Different forms of acro-yoga — a fusion of yoga and acrobatics — have been around for hundreds of years. You can even find videos on YouTube of the great master of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya, doing acro-yoga, for example. More recently, though, two schools of branded acrobatic yoga have emerged: AcroYoga Montreal and AcroYoga Inc. Dancers Jessie Goldberg and Eugene Poku created AcroYoga Montreal in 1999, uniting acrobatics, yoga and dance; AcroYoga Inc. was formed in California by acrobat Jason Nemer and circus arts teacher Jenny Klein — both dedicated yogis — in 2003, bringing together acrobatics, yoga and Thai massage. Now there are now hundreds of certified AcroYoga teachers throughout the world.

Traditionally, yoga is a solo practice of self-study: there’s you, your mat, your body, mind and feelings. But, in acro-yoga, there’s all that plus someone else, and so it becomes more about building trust between strangers and partners. In acro-yoga, you’re encouraged to embrace vulnerability and curiosity and there’s a lot of emphasis on having complete faith in someone else to support your body. Each partner takes on the role of either “flyer” (the person in the air) or “base” (the one on the ground). In addition to the flyer and the base, you might also have a “spotter”: someone who has an objective view of both partners and whose role is to ensure that the flyer lands safely if they slip and/or to make recommendations to both partners to improve their form.

While it’s a trend that’s feasible for all shapes and sizes, your bodyweight and the force of gravity have a significant part to play — enhancing the stretching and strengthening of the yoga pose for the partner who’s in the air. While one partner is “flying”, the other is completely passive, perhaps even having a restorative experience, and this role makes acro-yoga more accessible to people who otherwise might not do it. However, yoga teacher and health writer Eva Norlyk Smith, PhD, suggests in an article on yoga injuries for The Huffington Post that, because acrobatic yoga classes are more vigorous than many traditional yoga practices, injuries in them appear to be more common.

When Matt Worley first saw pictures of acro-yoga he thought it looked like awesome fun and just had to try it. From there he got totally hooked, and now instructs acro-yoga — as well as his classes in SUP yoga and yoga of the more traditional variety. “Acro-yoga blends the wisdom of yoga, the dynamic power of acrobatics and the loving kindness of healing arts,” says Worley. “It’s a practice that cultivates awesome strength and spatial body awareness, trust, playfulness and community. You get to develop connection to both yourself and others … and to build your communication skills. It enables people to step outside their comfort zone and to then do what they thought was impossible.”

Hoop yoga

There are many versions of hoop-assisted yoga asana popping up around the world, according to American yoga instructor Pippa Dorfman. Schools that have been popularising this form include Hoop Yoga, HoopVinyasa, Hoop Dance Yoga and Hoop Yoga Sydney.

In Dorfman’s hoop-assisted yoga, most popular on the west coast of the US, she merges the cultural ideas of Native American hoopdance with the Indian practice of yoga asana. “Hoop Yoga utilises the hoop throughout the asana flow (without ever spinning the hoop at high velocities around any part of your body), while using wooden hoops to stay connected to the elements of nature,” she says.

There are three parts to the practice of Hoop Yoga: learning the postures, their names and their meaning; learning how to weave them together into a flow; and then weaving together the postures in your own way in order to share a story. In Native American ceremonial hoop dances, the hoop is used as a constant reminder of the circle of life. Dancers use it to create formations of what’s in nature (animals, insects etc), just as is done with the body in the yoga asana practice. Dorfman uses the hoop-dance concepts to slow down the movements into a meditative therapeutic balance of controlled movements and storytelling. “It’s a way towards self-expression,” she says.

Dorfman uses the hoop-dance concepts to slow down the movements into a meditative therapeutic balance of controlled movements and storytelling.

Gloria Tong, teacher of Hoop Yoga Sydney, feels there are a lot of similarities between hooping and yoga. She was drawn to how both practices can be grounding and calm when you need them to be, but also uplifting and playful when you have a different energy. “On any given day my yoga and hooping practice will be different so, when I combine the two, I have a very fulfilling way to stay centred,” says Tong. “In both practices, you can really go with the flow, follow your breath and move your body how it wants to move. Using the hoop in traditional yoga postures also helps you to focus on your alignment and is a fun tool to play with in balances and standing poses.”

For Tong, Hoop Yoga is also a way of making movement and exercise really accessible for children and teens to help them build self-confidence, concentration skills and to find balance.

Major benefits she has experienced when practising new yoga forms include clarity of mind, joy and freedom. She also loves that there are no rules. “Although I give guidance with hoop techniques and yoga poses, my classes are designed to be fun and to let you explore and move your body however you want.”

Marsupiyoga

All of the trends mentioned so far have arisen abroad, but there’s at least one Australian trend that may well take off worldwide.

As a yoga practitioner and teacher, Madina Tanekeyeva discovered that it’s really hard to find time to do yoga when you’re a mum. One day, she decided to do her practice while wearing her baby in a baby carrier — and in that moment “marsupiyoga” was born.

Marsupiyoga is a yoga sequence developed for parents who carry their little one in a “pouch”, hence the name. It is based on traditional basic yoga asanas that are suitable and comfortable to perform while you’re wearing your baby or toddler in a carrier. Marsupiyoga allows parents to develop their bond with their child, calm their mind, strengthen their core and improve their balance, flexibility and blood circulation.

Because marsupiyoga means you can practise yoga while having close physical contact with your child, you’re not the only one who benefits: your child also gets to participate in the routine and to acquire a firsthand experience of yoga. And, for the most part, the child does not disrupt the practice because they’re part of it.

Meggan Brummer

Meggan Brummer

Born in Zimbabwe, Meggan has been practising yoga since she was four years old. In 1999, she left London and the corporate world and travelled the globe for a year, searching for a way to make her life meaningful and fulfilling. She became a yoga teacher in Varanasi — India’s city of light — during that time and, after a year of working in Zimbabwe as a yoga teacher and journalist, moved to live in Australia. Currently a stay-at-home mum living in Sydney, Meggan balances motherhood with a variety of interests and work. She’s a civil celebrant, a corporate wellness consultant and an internationally published writer.

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