AcroYoga: a combination of interactive Cirque du Soleil–like acrobatics and partner yoga. AcroYoga is not just about the poses. It’s about the virtues these yoga innovators hold dear: trust, communication, and playfulness.
Though we gather in community to practice, most of us go it alone on the yoga mat, except for the occasional hands-on adjustment or quick partner pose thrown into the mix. But more recently, groups of yogis have come together to practice AcroYoga, a combination of interactive Cirque du Soleil–like acrobatics and partner yoga. The form was founded in 2003 in the San Francisco Bay Area by Jason Nemer, a yoga teacher and acrobat who represented the United States at age 16 in the 1991 World Championships of Sports Acrobatics in Beijing, and Jenny Sauer-Klein, a yoga and circus-arts teacher. The two met at a party and stayed up all night talking about a practice that would combine what they loved the most: the playful and whimsical qualities of acrobatics with the more grounded and practical aspects of asana. Just two weeks later, they taught their first AcroYoga class together at the San Francisco Circus Center. And it caught on, first with their friends, then within the Bay Area yoga community, and now, just over a decade later, internationally, with an estimated 500 teachers who have gone through a 15-day intensive training and with 200,000 practitioners in more than 39 countries.
Watching two AcroYogis transitioning together from pose to pose is awe-inspiring. It’s a mostly silent yoga pas de deux, with the “base” and the “flier” flowing seamlessly from one gravity-defying move to the next, then the next. The advanced moves take practice, determination, and skill. But if you look deeper, you’ll see something else: You’ll notice trust between partners, cooperation, and rock-solid communication. Beyond the fancy shapes and poses, those are the qualities that AcroYoga co-founders Jason Nemer and Jenny Sauer-Klein hope to instill in their students. Put simply: AcroYoga is not just about the poses. It’s about the virtues these yoga innovators hold dear: trust, communication, and playfulness.
You don’t have to be a bendy pretzel or be willing to balance on the side of a cliff to do AcroYoga. You only need to be open to trying something new. Sauer-Klein and Nemer have created a structured system with a series of manageable moves so that there’s an accessible starting place for everyone. Sauer-Klein says that the clear structure and rules of their system tend to make adults feel more comfortable letting go and being playful. “When we’re kids, we see something amazing and we want to do it because there’s no limitation in our mind,” she says. “We encourage people to have that kind of positive curiosity about the form.”
The appeal, say AcroYogis, is that the practice teaches us how to trust, something many adults struggle with. This form of yoga isn’t about performing or showing off: It’s about becoming completely vulnerable, in trust with a yoga partner, and discovering that sweet spot of opening up to curiosity, freedom, and play.
In class, AcroYogis work in groups of three, with a base (the person on the ground who acts as the support), a flier (the person in the air), and a spotter (who gives verbal and physical cues to both partners to ensure that everyone is safe). Working with a spotter instills confidence in the base and flier, and it requires that all three people communicate clearly with each other. “There’s always someone there whose job is the safety of the flier, and that person acts as the cheerleader and the coach,” says Sauer-Klein. “They’re really there giving you encouragement. And there’s something really powerful about having someone who is just there to support you.”
The flyer must trust the base in order to ascend into the posture. The base must be confident and stable, and trust the flyer to land the position. And both the flyer and the base must trust the spotter to keep them safe. All of these leaps of faith build community and connection. Nemer sees the group of three as a microcosmic community of its own—if you can learn to communicate well and navigate the challenges of being in this small group, you can take those skills to other group situations. “Trust is an investment,” says Nemer. “With it, you create an emotional bank account with the people you practice with, and as that grows, your relationships grow.”
In this way, AcroYoga really does merge its two arts, becoming a physical, yet introspective and insight-offering practice. “Everything can go really well by yourself on the yoga mat, but interacting with other people challenges your mindfulness practice,” says Nemer. “Partnership is one of the most beautiful ways to see how well you can stay in your center while interacting with others.”
AcroYogis are conscious about cultivating an atmosphere of playfulness. In fact, it’s so important to them that it’s the central theme of their mission statement: “We bring people together through divine play.” The co-founders noticed early on that although play doesn’t always come naturally, it helps people connect in a way that’s noncompetitive, which they believe is key. Playfulness also creates a sense of inner liberation that we don’t often experience in daily life. “For some reason, we see that adult humans have lost the ability to play and connect with other adults,” says Nemer. But a few minutes into an Acro practice, he and Sauer-Klein witness a transformation: Nervous adults turn into kids having fun while they support and encourage each other.
It’s taken years of exploration (the practice was founded in 2003), but what becomes clear from talking to Sauer-Klein and Nemer is that their system is process oriented, not outcome oriented. They want students to enjoy what they’re doing and to learn to work together harmoniously in spite of the challenges they face. They remind you that AcroYoga is not about “getting” a Handstand or any other pose, because there are an infinite number of other variations. It’s about learning, trying new things, and having fun. This philosophy of staying present and attending to what’s actually happening is part of what distinguishes AcroYoga from pure acrobatics and establishes it as a yogic practice.
And yet, there’s no denying that the poses themselves hold a special alchemy. The biggest shift in AcroYoga students is the sense of empowerment they gain from doing things that they never could’ve imagined, says Nemer. “People have shut down in their mind what is possible in their body, but when a skillful teacher takes them through the steps and gives them the support they need to do a difficult-looking posture, students come back with more openness and more belief in what’s truly possible for them.”
In the nine years since they introduced the practice to their first group of fledgling students in San Francisco, Sauer-Klein and Nemer have grown a community of AcroYogis that spans the globe. With 180 teachers in North America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and South America, they’ve created a powerful, perhaps even essential, way to counteract the sense of separation so many people experience in the digital age. “One of the main drawbacks of our amazing technical advances is that there’s a lot of virtual connection and fewer places to come together,” says Sauer-Klein. “AcroYoga gives people a safe place in which to trust and to love and to feel connected.”
How Do They Do It?
“In AcroYoga, as in life, the transitions can be the trickiest part. The mount and dismount require intense focus and attention. Once we actually hit the pose, there can be glorious moments of enjoying the quiet, subtle experience of being in the “sweet spot.” This place of effortless effort is the confirmation of acrobatics done well.” —Jenny Sauer-Klein
“Ultimately, we are always looking for ease in the balance, and this can be tricky to find. As a flier, you want to be tight and trust the base completely. As a base, you need to be stable and focus on balancing your strength and receptivity. When everything aligns, it feels so light and amazing. In the moment, it feels like you could hold it forever.” —Jeremy Simon
Want to try AcroYoga for yourself? Book into our AcroYoga workshop in Feb 2018