A Day of AcroYoga – South London Charity Day, South London

(aka a day of hanging out, being pushed around and learning to trust and yield!)  
Without doubt, the Day of AcroYoga, South London’s Charity Day held in June, has to be the most stimulating and fun BWY day I have attended yet! As the name suggests, AcroYoga is a mix of yoga and acrobatics with the added therapeutic delights of Thai yoga massage. It is at the same time energising and blissful (once you get the hang of hanging and learn to “yield”) and it is uplifting in more ways than one! “A legal zing” as Diana Currey, South London BWY teacher, put it. Well, we all certainly left the Clapham studios with a big smile on our faces and buzzing brains.

Six hours earlier, we were the usual, slightly wary BWY attendees arriving on the Saturday morning, wondering what we had let ourselves in for. The day started gently enough, as Jesse Saunders, the incredibly patient tutor, eased us through exercises to demonstrate the principles and ideas behind AcroYoga. Since it is a form of yoga after all, there were, unsurprisingly, many similarities and themes that ran through the exercises.

Those same yogic principles of strong foundations, and yielding and releasing down to grow tall are especially important when you are in inversions and for when being a base (the supporting half of the partnership). The familiar ideas of creating length and space to open upwards or reach the fullest expression of the pose and ensure there is no compression of the lower spine in backbends. And of really opening and extending the body in twists and of course making sure you are pointing your hands and body in the direction you want to go, even when you can’t see them! Easy enough. The difference was exploring and experiencing those principles at play from an entirely new perspective — mostly upside down and balancing on another person.

We started with a warm-up exploring the idea of transitioning the weight gradually and gently from one foot to the other to balance, with no jumping or sudden erratic movements, thinking of our centre of gravity, and gradually moving into deeper forward bends, back bends and balances.

We kept coming back to the idea of cat/cow — or really “angry cat”, arching into the upper back to transfer the weight into the hands to move into handstand, and so avoid collapsing the lower belly and back, and working with a spot (partner) to gently reach and lift up into hand and headstands to maintain control.

Lessons in trust/testing trust

The partner work proper began with some lessons in trust and trustworthiness. Most of us agreed we were probably trusting but not sure if we were trustworthy… It takes a lot of strength to hold up a partner and we did not want to let anyone down — or let them fall. The first exercise in trust, just as in that 1990s film Trust, was falling backwards and trusting that your partner would catch you before you hit the floor. We did that a few times, moving away a little further each time. No one crashed to the floor! The second, really tested whether we were ready to relinquish control… having our partner push us and guide our movements as we walked, then ran around the room with eyes shut, dodging other people doing exactly the same! We were all laughing manically through that one.

I for one, really did not trust myself to hold and support some of the other students as a base. As Jesse put it, some pairings resembled “an inverted pyramid” … It is generally easier if a smaller, lighter person is the flyer (balancing on top) or if people roughly about the same size work together. “But you are all strong?” he said encouragingly. So we all had a go, switching partners and experimenting, and yes it is possible for a smaller person to support a larger flyer. Though I was glad of the spots (supporters) either side, on hand waiting to help, in case.

Jesse had a brilliant way of explaining things, and of getting the desired improvement in technique.
“Imagine you are coming in for a kiss!” Or, at one point when a male student was gingerly leaning in to put his weight on a slightly smaller female partner, Jesse called out: “ think of yourself as a randy teenager — and lift your hips!” It worked perfectly! Apart from confidence and precision, mostly it was about extending through arms and pushing into feet or hands, and finding the power lines running through your arms, or legs, and through your partners. As always it is back to those strong foundations!

 Show time
As stomachs started rumbling, we were treated to a wonderful demonstration from Jesse and his flying partner Marijke Vermeir, performing a series of balances and transitions, so elegantly executed and linked together that it looked almost effortless and very inspiring. Marijke somehow made AcroYoga look both graceful and strong.

It was truly awesome. Jesse said that for a slight person Marijke ate a lot, and spent hours practicing, especially handstands, “She’ll still be practicing her handstands long after everyone has finished!” I don’t think any of us ate much at all at break anticipating the inversions and general dangling upside down in store after lunch. Ah, maybe that’s why we weren’t as good as the experts!

Another treat was the Thai yoga massage lessons thrown in. After lunch, again working in partners, Jess guided us through a few massage techniques… I think if the workshop had ended at that point, we would have been perfectly happy. There were lots of blissed out expressions and noises. As it was, the best was yet to come.

After more groundwork, we had the option to try funkier stuff, and we were all game! Really pushing ourselves to overcome our fears or lack of confidence.

It was at times very hard work, yet surprisingly despite working into fairly intense backbends over a couple of hours and holding them for longer than in most usual classes, I felt no niggles or twitches at all. “When you open and extend in the backbends there should be no compression or pain… just as in ground-based yoga backbends,” said Jesse.

Still it was far easier to stay in postures such as upside down bow (dhanurasana) holding the feet or just releasing back and breathing while feeling your partner, the base’s, feet on your sacrum. It really allowed the spine to uncurl and well, just hang and lengthen down. Once confident that the flyer was securely held, the base could massage the flyer’s shoulders and back while the flyer released down suspended from the base’s feet! Not of all of us managed that! (So we definitely need a second session!)

For the base, having the weight of the flyer (the person on top) evenly distributed across the feet encouraged you to draw the hips down evenly in their sockets — a bit like having sandbags in viparita karani at the wall, I felt. And the weight of their arms pressing through your arms, also encouraged you to broaden across the upper back. So it was a reciprocal deal.

We all managed flying, basing and spotting. I think for all of us, our favourite (apart form the massages and demo) was a wonderful manoeuvre that involved launching into a handstand and taking your feet over the base’s legs then staying in the back bend to hang out and open while suspended from the base’s feet (think hanging Urdhva Dhanurasana/crab). Then the base gradually moved their legs to set you down at the front of the mat. Playful, fun, and so good!

Check out the BWY London Facebook page and you will see pictures from the day, including Eugene caught in action as flyer doing that very sequence! You can also view the amazing video of Jesse and Marijke!

* If you are inspired or intrigued, watch out for another Day of AcroYoga…. coming soon!

In case you want a little box: 
Geeky guide (in the tradition of a Daily Mail translation of teenage vernacular!!)

  • Base
  • Flyer
  • Spot

Common postures

  • Pike
  • Straddle
  • Straddled pike

The charity day was organised by the South London BWY to raise funds for the Larches Communities Centre.*

*The charity supported this year is the Larches Community Centre, whichworks with young people and adults with learning difficulties and/or autism

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