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Why I Separated My Aerial Yoga Practice From My Circus Practice

 I’m in a love triangle. I love yoga and the idea of practicing with non-judgement. I am also enamored with the circus arts and its ability to dazzle, capture the child within while opening the floodgates of possibilities within yourself. Both are based on working mobility strength and flexibility. Both could potentially work well together, moreover the industry has fused yoga and cirque via the aerial hammock. An apparatus used in the circus arts for performance as well as a working tool to increase flexibility and proprioception. So how come I’ve chosen to separate them into two avenues in my practice and teaching style? 

    Since 2015, the road to my wellness career path has not been easy. Imagine a massive fork in the road that seems like they merge but both paths turn out to be truly different. In order to acquire some peace of mind, I needed to investigate. For  6 months, I took an intensive program for the circus arts in the mornings while my afternoons were spent teaching Aerial and traditional Yoga. Slowly but surely, I came to form my own conclusions.

     In this article I will express how my formulations came about. Not to convince you to do the same but to present that there are other ways to teach these 2 disciplines. Likewise, It will serve as a reference to myself for future reminding. Let’s get to it!

The controversy

     In the 6 years I’ve had as a yoga teacher I noticed this rift between mainstream and traditional teachers. So when I made my decision to take my Aerial Yoga teacher training, I had mixed reactions from my peers. One side disclosed, “It’s not real yoga.”,“Iyengar is similar and more rooted to tradition.” While another party remarked “Go for it!” and “I’ll be the first to sign up in class.” It was actually a very confusing time in my professional life that it took me a year to finally shut the peanut gallery doors to simply follow my heart. Still, I wondered why there’s a grand canyon sized gorge for the new additions to my industry. What makes Aerial Yoga “unreal”? 

    According to an article by Sandra Parker of Democrat and Chronicle, that today’s westernized yoga is just skimming the superficial layers. Still, in the same article she quotes teacher Cyndi Weis, owner of Breathe Studios, “Anything that’s more than a fad evolves.” Which is true in yoga–It has appropriated poses from calisthenics and gymnastics since time immemorial. Was a line drawn when the Aerial hammock came into play?I have to say, if there is a type of yoga that continually connects you with yourself, let’s you be at peace around others, moreover ignites a passion in you, how is that not yoga? 

The Very Brief History 

     A form of aerial yoga was first seen in the Iyengar practice when a rope rigged in 2 points was used to assist practitioners in their inversion practice. In 2001, An apparatus called the Yoga Swing or Omni Gym was invented in Bali. An apparatus similar to today’s Yoga trapeze by Lucas Rockwood of Yogabody. In 2007, Christopher Garrison created Antigravity Yoga and the list goes on. More teachers came up with their methods, different rigging styles came up in the market,  whether the method was born from the world of dance, circus arts, or a branch of yoga, the common denominator remains the same: it provides a myriad of health benefits and it’s fun. 

My experience 

     My first aerial yoga class was also the scariest. That first inversion when you don’t trust your body yet but you flip over anyway. First, we learned the basics, harness holds where you feel safe. Then came tension hangs, where you have to keep a tight core requiring a certain level of body awareness, which I did not have at the time. Suddenly that 3 feet from the floor may as well have been 3 meters or so. I’ll never forget that feeling. What did I get myself into? In any case, I kept on going back. I felt my body adjust to the pain, calluses developed as I found balance points in my body eventually creating shapes.  

     After a while of practicing on a hammock, I decided I wanted to go for the big top. I needed another point of reference. I thought that knowing other disciplines from their respective points of view will improve the understanding of my own. Off I went to the local circus school in my city of Madrid to learn the ways of the “circense” ( circus artist in Spanish ). Our training days were longer focusing on teamwork as opposed to the individual inner workings in a yoga studio.  The unskilled worked with a semi-pro while the teacher went around the different groups to work with us one by one. It gave us time to rest our failing grips or prepare our inner performer before our teacher came around again. The one thing he stressed more than anything was how to fall on a crash mat or come out of an inversion. Each time I came out of class, I picked up a new tip on precision. I got stronger in record time, I pushed myself harder than ever, and was proud of every bruise or scar I earned. So what did I learn from all these experiences?

My observations 

  • Anything new will be subject to scrutiny. Even Iyengar yoga was not spared from ridicule and earned his method the nickname “furniture yoga” because of all the props he used. 

  • There is no perfect discipline. There is no perfect way to become stronger, learn all the moves and have inner peace. It all depends on the skills you want to gain, your reason for pursuing said abilities. Knowing that following said path will lead to loss of other things. A good example is that traditional yoga offers a complete total body workout except for wrist strengthening. Circus arts builds skill, strength, flexibility and doesn’t neglect your wrists, but you can fall and crack your head open. So instead of a quest for the perfect lifestyle activity, embrace the lack and give these methods the respect they deserve. 

  • Yoga has been around for a long time. It has evolved in spiritual, physical and mental aspects. It has borrowed from different methods of fitness, it has incorporated everything into its’ practice from music to beer to goats. The thing is, other disciplines have been around a long time too and their training was invented to serve a purpose they deserve respect by learning their way. 

My conclusion

      That said, instead of incorporating and combining both disciplines. I decided the best way to learn or teach is in  their respective fields of study. 

    Aerial Yoga is about taking time with your body but the fact that a low drop only requires a yoga mat for protection does not sit well with me. A drop is still a drop and it will still hurt.  So in my Aerial Yoga  focused classes, I will limit the poses I do or teach so that my students’ hands or feet mostly touch the ground. Inversions will be limited to harness type hangs that ensure student’s safety as we will only have a mat. We will lean towards stress relief, increasing range of motion, proper alignment, with low impact strength and flexibility building.  

    On the other hand, my Aerial Sling practice and teachings will focus on aesthetics, technique and conditioning under the banner of Aerial Fitness. As such, our classes will progress to higher rigging ( with all the safety paraphernalia of course!)that will  eventually go into choreography building. 

     This way no credo gets stepped on while each discipline gets the recognition they deserve with clear progressions. As both areas complement each other perfectly the practitioner will get the best of both worlds. 

    In the end, it all boils down to your intention as a teacher or student. As Jesse Aimsmith of YogaVibe Rochester said, “If your purpose is to connect with yourself, then you’re doing yoga.” By that logic, if you are focusing on the aesthetics, your strength gains, the lines you create then it is dance or fitness. It’s that simple. We can argue about semantics til we are blue in the face but if there’s so much to be gained, why bother? Enjoy the ride!


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