Photo: Anjali Sunita (Baltimore Yoga Village) and Josh Young (DC AcroYogi)
Ever wanted to runaway with the circus? To soar through the air with the greatest of ease? Yes, becoming an actual circus acrobat is something that takes years (even a lifetime) of dedication to be able to do; but that doesn’t mean it’s not something to aspire to, right? If you’ve taken yoga classes (or if you’ve met people who have) you probably know that practicing yoga has the power to transform the human body—and to make you able to do things you never dreamed of. Push-ups? Head stands? Traditional yoga poses that would make even a practiced break-dancer blush? Totally. It can be done! And not only that—learning how is fun! The AcroYoga classes offered at Baltimore Yoga Village are tailored to train you to fly, catch, and soar by yourself and of course, with partners—they even call it “playing” rather than practicing. Not only that, Thai massage is an integral part of the practice, and who among us is going to turn down a little massage integrated into our day? AcroYoga is not just about fitness (though of course that’s a component) it’s also about connecting with others, developing confidence and balance, and it can even put a couple of new party tricks in your back pocket.
Photo: Anjali Sunita (Baltimore Yoga Village) and Jean-Jaques Gabriel (Philadelphia based AcroYogi)
If it’s hard to imagine busting out your downward dog in the middle of a soiree, don’t worry—it’s not quite that. AcroYoga really is that—yoga transformed into acrobatics. And local teacher Jean-Jacques Gabriel is not shy about sharing the fun: “I was at friend’s party in Chartlotte, NC, as you can imagine, AcroYoga is a great party trick, I often fly [that’s Acro-speak for “put in the air”—like a parent playing airplane with their child] as many people as are brave. I finished flying a dozen or so souls, and then got up and stretched out. As I rolled up my yoga mat, a 300lb football player, walks up, and out the side of his mouth says, “can you fly me?” I immediately unroll my mat, and fly him through some therapeutics, and he touches down exclaiming ‘I’ve never felt so light!’ It was truly amazing to talk with him afterwards about being a big guy, and not being upside-down or feeling weightless for ages.”
But it’s not all party tricks and feats of strength, of course. AcroYoga (like any yoga practice) is also extremely therapeutic on levels besides just the physical. Says Gabriel, “I taught an all levels AcroYoga workshop in West Philly, and at the end of the workshop, I asked for volunteers to show how the practice can expand. This one student volunteered and I proceeded to fly her through a signature therapeutic flow that took her through forward flying, back flying and a back opening form known as high flying whale. I placed her on the ground gently, and found her in tears. I asked if she was ok, and she told the entire room that she had once been paralyzed from the neck down from a car accident, and in last five years, regained full movement of her spine, and in the last two years regained movement of her neck from a rigorous practice of yoga. She let us know that she was crying because she was in awe of the power of transformation. That at one point in her not too distant life, she could be paralyzed, and then within a short period she could move through all the dynamic forms I had just flown her through. It was incredible and truly touching.”
So wanting—of course—to know more (like, how can we get some of that?) we asked two of the acroyogis at Baltimore Yoga Village (Jean-Jacques Gabriel himself and Amy Longcrier) for the rest of the scoop on AcroYoga.
Photo: Anjali Sunita (Baltimore Yoga Village)
Baltimore Fishbowl: How did you get started in yoga and teaching yoga?
Jean-Jacques Gabriel: I started yoga my sophomore year in college at art school in Philly in 2001. I bent down to pick something up from the ground, and realized I was well away from the ground. I quickly shifted my schedule to include a yoga class, and during that first class fell into a deep meditative state during shavasana (corspe pose). I was aware of my body, but more aware of this other state that was completely full, but completely empty. When I came out that place, all the other students had left, and the teacher was waiting with her coat and bag. I immediately dove deep into a daily practice at a fresh new yoga studio that offered donation-based noon classes. These noon classes helped me to build a home practice and I practiced once or twice or day from that point on.
Amy Longcrier: I began practicing asana [traditional yoga poses] to keep my body prepared for the many sports I enjoy playing. My body was not very flexible and it was getting less so with each birthday. I so enjoyed the way I felt when I practiced regularly I wanted to learn more and share the practice with friends and family.
BFB: And what about the “acro” component? When did that come in?
AL: Well, Jean-Jacques was a much loved teacher of mine, and was also an AcroYoga teacher. His enthusiasm was contagious and I loved the connection and coordination aspect that came along with AcroYoga. I started playing every chance I got. It’s been 5 years now and I love it just as much now as I did then. I have also been training weekly under Lin Junming, a retired Chinese Acrobat, for over a year.
JJG: I found AcroYoga in 2007. I was teaching yoga and practicing Thai massage and a friend went to a workshop in North Carolina and immediately called me and said that I needed to find a workshop! I took a workshop with a teacher in DC, was floored, and followed her to Philly for her next workshop. after that workshop I told her I needed to be teaching AcroYoga and she suggested I get a manual and fly folk as often as possible. I then flew one person every day for a year until the AcroYoga teacher training. If I missed a day, I doubled up.
BFB: How would you describe acro-yoga to the unitiated? What makes it so special?
JJG: AcroYoga is an amazing practice of connection and community. It blends the dynamic connection of acrobatics with the therapeutic benefits of Thai massage, and the wisdom and presence of yoga. AcroYoga is amazing at building community. I love teaching a workshop and watching the folks that play together at the workshop continue to play together afterwards and grow to be close friends that play often.
AL: AcroYoga puts the smile of a child on the face of an adult. I love the strength and stability you find when someone else is depending on you. It creates a community, you have to get to know the people you’re working with; you don’t just come in and out of classes without speaking, you really get an opportunity to connect with people.
JJG: AcroYoga leverages something that we humans are blessed to have: life-long play. It also taps into the innate need to feel good, and the innate need to cooperate in a common good.
BFB: AcroYoga sounds like maybe it’s only for experts– or people who are already super strong and flexible. Is this true? Are there classes for beginners? How do you get started?
AL: Anyone can benefit from AcroYoga. Classes can be completely therapeutic. It will make you stronger and more flexible with practice, but you don’t have to come in that way. It’s really just a form of guided play, it’s too bad adults need guidance to play, but most do.
JJG: Acro for all! AcroYoga is an equal opportunity practice. I love how the practice is accessible in ways yoga isn’t, in ways Thai massage isn’t, and in ways acrobatics isn’t because all three disciplines intertwine to influence and open the practice to all beings. If you’re inflexible, you’re welcome here, if you don’t think you’re strong, but open to building strength, you’re welcome, if you’re just getting started, you’re absolutely welcome! Look out for “elemental”, “all levels”, or “beginners” classes.
AL: For me it’s so fun it is effortless to commit to. I’ve tried a lot of sports and exercise regimens, but when something is this fun I never consider it exercise.
If you’re interested in trying your hand (and feet, and spine, and spirit) at AcroYoga, Jason Nemer, one of the founders of AcroYoga, will be coming to Baltimore (hosted by Baltimore Yoga Village) from November 2nd – 6th to co-lead (with Jean-Jacques Gabriel) a 5 day AcroYoga immersion experience. Other AcroYoga classes are on the horizon as well, including monthly summer classes at BYV, leading to regular classes in the fall and a therapeutic AcroYoga (taught by Anjali Sunita this fall) with Roland park Country school Kaleidescope program.
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