What does a small but growing practice called acro yoga have to teach us earthbound mortals about love and relationships? Turns out, quite a lot. New Westminster’s resident writer-yogini Diane Haynes weighs in on the ups and downs of going upside-down for love in this long read.
Love yourself! It’s the mantra of the new millennium. The question, of course, is How? There are a lot of options out there, most of them available in the self-help and diet sections of the store for the low, low price of $29.95. And then there’re all those other stores outside the bookstore, too. Retail therapy, I think it’s called. I wouldn’t know, I’m spiritual.
I’ve got my own self-lovin’ mantra, and it goes like this: “I don’t go upside-down.” Okay, hang on, it’s not what you’re thinking. Tenth to the Fraser didn’t just get a kink column. Or maybe it did, I don’t know, but this isn’t it. No, I just don’t go upside-down. Literally. I don’t go there. I stay upright, feet on the ground, head in the clouds, everything where it’s supposed to be, all’s right with the world. That’s my mantra, and it’s as good as any as far as I can tell. When I say it, I know what I mean, which is more than I can say for some of the Sanskrit I’ve chanted in recent years.
I’ve got my reasons for staying upright. They include a broken left arm, a broken right ankle, a dislocated right ankle, two left ankle sprains, two car accidents with a side of whiplash, a horseback riding accident, a roller-skating incident, a broken right shoulder, and a Mary Poppins debacle (the umbrella didn’t … never mind). So I suppose my mantra is, more accurately, “I don’t go upside down on purpose.” I was the kid in elementary school who got a doctor’s note to be excused from the gymnastics unit in gym class. Yes. Yes, that was me.
“…maybe today you face your fear and you fly.”
So it’s this mantra that rolls effortlessly off my tongue the moment I see Slava Goloubov on Sunday morning. The moment it gets real that I’m about to pay good cash money for the chance to have a complete stranger turn me upside down. On purpose.
“I don’t go upside down,” I say to him as I hand my money to the front desk staff at Dharma Movement Company. “One for Slava’s 90-minute acro yoga class, please,” I mumble. Slava sips his tea. Smiles.
“No problem,” he replies. “Maybe today you base.” I glance down at my long, slender, slightly crooked arms, doubtful. “Or maybe today you face your fear and you fly.”
Acro yoga is a physical practice that combines yoga and acrobatics. Jessie Goldberg and Eugene Poku first coined the term in 1999, and include dance in the method they teach at Acroyoga Montreal. The California school, founded by Jason Nemer and Jenny Klein, opened in 2003 and replaces dance with Thai massage. Slava Goloubov is the founder of AcroYogaVancity a growing community of avid practitioners who gather at Trout Lake and Kits Beach in good weather, and wherever they can find space otherwise. DMC’s Sunday morning class is one of those places.
“All right, everybody,” Slava booms, “three laps of frog leaps to warm up.” I frog-leap down to the far end of the room, feeling like an idiot in good company, and quietly proud that I’m having no problem keeping up. And then I turn around to head back for the second half of the first lap, and the burn hits. It’s my quads, like someone’s knifed them both. My eyes bulge and my mouth goes dry as I realize, with dreadful certainty, that I will not be physically able to finish the class warmup. I manage two full laps, with panting rests, in the time it takes almost everyone else to do three. And then … I cheat. I stop. I pretend I’m done. And I stand there and watch a woman who is stronger and braver and more honest than I am finish her final half-lap alone, while those of us already across the finish line cheer her on. I’m off to a truly auspicious start. Shame now vies with fear for complete control of my mind.
“I’m holding my breath. I know I should be breathing. I’m a yoga teacher, for bleep’s sake.”
There are three roles in acro yoga: the base, who lies on his or her back with the full back torso in contact with the ground and uses feet, knees, arms, and legs to support a partner; the flyer, who balances over the base, moving through a sequence of dynamic poses with the help of gravity; and the spotter, whose primary responsibility is safety.
“Okay, everybody, gather in the centre,” Slava calls to the class. “Devon and I are going to demonstrate today’s sequence, along with a few variations, and then you’re going to break into groups of three and give it a try.” I watch. I’m holding my breath. I know I should be breathing. I’m a yoga teacher, for bleep’s sake. But all I can manage is an occasional shallow puff. Slava and his teaching partner of three years Devon French run through a Cirque-worthy sequence and then share some instructions that touch down briefly in my fear-addled, context-deprived brain before departing for regions unknown.
Everybody breaks into groups and suddenly it’s grade five P.E. class and I’m 10 and nobody’s picked me for their team. I’m aware enough to bear witness to this emotional regression and the accompanying fear and humiliation and to just be with it. This is it. This is yoga. This is the practice, this being with what is and being aware that I am not that; I am the one who observes that. I keep trying to breathe. I’ll get through this, I tell myself. It’ll get better. I’m going to feel so amazing when I’m done! I realize that at some point pretty early on, probably during the frog leaps, I gave up all hope of enjoying the class while it was actually happening.
“First class, my ass.”
I spot two women who don’t have a third partner. We make eye contact, smile. Suddenly I can breathe again. They’re strangers, but I’m not alone any more. It’s so basic, so human.
Carrie and Brit are mother and daughter. Carrie’s a sherriff and a fitness instructor, and this is her first acro class, too. Brit is a dancer, and it’s pretty clear she could do this stuff in her sleep. They’re both solid muscle. “We do this at home on our granite floors,” Carrie laughs. “We’ve made a few videos and posted them online.” I realize too late I may be in the wrong threesome.
Carrie bases, Brit flies, and I spot. Brit stands behind Carrie’s head as Carrie lies on the floor, knees up and arms raised. She grasps her hands and pikes forward, suspended now over Carrie’s torso. The base lifts her right leg and plants her foot under the flyer’s right knee. Then left. The flyer releases the base’s hands and wraps them around her own knees in a tight tuck. Squeezing the base’s feet with her legs, the flyer pushes her hips toward the ceiling and arcs backward as the base’s hands support her shoulders. After pausing in backbend, the flyer curls back up into a tuck, and the base bends her knees to deliver her to the floor in a flawless finish. Tens from all the judges. First class, my ass. I’m pretty sure I’ve injured my hands during the spotting.
And now it’s my turn.
I had no idea hands could sweat so much. My arms are shaking and I’m grinding my teeth as I struggle to find my balance over Carrie’s body. She’s strong but sweaty, and I’m long and flailing. I get my right leg extended but wrench my weight off centre as I try to bring up my left leg. Carrie’s arm buckles. I feel myself going down. I watch myself kick her in the crotch. I die, wait to fall through the floor, but apparently there are still 70 minutes to go and the floor holds solid. I consider thinking about possibly working up the nerve to try again. I am not given the option. It’s still my turn, my partners say. I mutter something in Sanskrit, wipe my hands on my tights, make a mental note to start wearing my night guard again if I have any teeth left when this is over.
My second attempt goes marginally better. I keep my feet away from Carrie’s private parts and I consider this a victory. Slava calls us all to the centre, shows us an easier way to get into the first position. I think perhaps he has found his muse and that it is me. Another victory of sorts. I’ll take what I can get.
It’s my turn again. I do not know why. Perhaps the counting of turns is done in Sanskrit. I try the easier entry … it works! The honeymoon is over quickly, however, as I realize success means having to continue with the sequence. But it turns out the entry was the hardest part. I curl, I tuck, I unfurl, I arc backwards, I triumph. I tuck again and am lowered to the floor like a mahout by the trunk of her elephant. I am utterly spent, but I am complete. I am victorious.
I am—oh, god—only 25 minutes into the 90-minute class.
Slava calls us to centre again. Without apparent effort, without a change in the pace or depth of his breath, he cartwheels from the ground into star pose, his hands and Devon’s joined, Devon’s feet under his shoulders and his legs high above him, extended in side splits. They release their hands and Slava extends his arms to the side, the only point of contact now Devon’s feet to Slava’s shoulders. They join hands again and Slava pikes, legs wide, then lowers himself slowly—not to his feet but all the way to the floor in seated splits. He does it all again, shows us the straight-on entry, shows us what not to do, pretends to fall, does even that beautifully. It’s geometry and music and art and circus and two human beings just playing with one another. I can see it, the fun other people find in this. I can see it. I just can’t feel it.
I decide I’m not doing star. I’ll spot. I feel the shift inside me, from terrified participant to relieved, in-control observer. I feel safe now. Safe and bored and a little numb. I realize with a start that it’s a familiar feeling.
Slava was quoted in the Georgia Straight last year talking about acro yoga as a form of relationship therapy. “’If there are problems in a relationship, it comes up really quickly,’ he says … because people have to work together as a unit and therefore must build trust, effective communication, and a [safe] comfortable environment.” Slava’s relationship partner, Leiah Luz, is also one of his acro partners, and as Amercian choreographer Martha Graham said, “Movement never lies.”
“Are we even still talking about yoga?”
My decision to take this class—a decision I’ve been regretting since the second lap of frog leaps—was initially inspired by another pair of acro yogis. Matt Fernandes, a recent graduate of Karma Teachers’s yoga teacher training, recently posted a video on his Facebook page of a sequence he and Sunita Prowse created together. I was immediately entranced: I wanted it all … the movement, the connection, the kiss … and, let’s face it, the relationship everything else rested on. A couple of messages later, I’d booked an interview with them both.
“The acro came first,” Matt explains. “We were offered an opportunity to perform. We wanted to give it a shot, but we only had a week to practice.”
“We spent every single day together for that whole week,” Sunny adds. “I hadn’t spent that much time with a guy since my ex.”
“We fell in love,” Matt smiles. “When you start moving with someone, as a base, you see the amount of trust that she gives you, you’re her foundation, and if you aren’t strong, it’s not going to work.” Matt looks like the jiu-jitsu yogi acrobat that he is. He looks pretty strong.
“There’s so much stimulation out there,” Sunny says, “that we forget to look in another person’s eyes.” She looks into Matt’s eyes. I type.
Matt adds, “You have to be constantly fully present. If you’re not, you’re going to get hurt. For newcomers, to enjoy it, you have to be vulnerable. If people aren’t used to physical touch, if they’ve never been inverted, even holding their hand … they kind of shy away from that. We talk a lot about consent: ‘Is it okay to play with you? There’s no sexual intentions, it’s just us moving together. If you fall on me and it’s awkward, that’s okay, too.’”
Sunny laughs. “It’s the ultimate ice-breaker, when you’re falling on somebody!” I laugh, too, but I can’t imagine anything good coming of falling. See list of injuries, above.
Vulnerability. Trust. Presence. Eye contact. Touch. Communication. Awkwardness. Risk. Falling …. Are we even still talking about yoga?
I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Slava. “How’s it going?” I’m embarrassed to have to tell him I’ve hurt both my hands spotting and we’ve had to add a fourth person to our ménage. So now I’m just spotting the spotter. The role feels familiar. I’m really beginning to wonder how much of my life I’m spending on the outside looking in.
“Do star,” Slava says, looking me in the eyes.
“I can’t do star,” I say, in my I don’t go upside down voice.
“You can do star,” he says. He gets down on the floor and reaches his hands up.
You turn my world upside down. Isn’t that what we say to someone when we fall in love? Is there … could there possibly be … a connection between my refusal to go upside down and …?
I take Slava’s hands and surrender. I’m going to do what I know I cannot do. He’ll see. I’ll show him.
He tells me to jump. I jump and tuck and … I’m there—with a spotter’s help, but I’m there—suspended, Slava’s feet beneath my shoulders, our hands joined. I lose track of my body in space. I have no idea where I am. And I feel … safe. Scared, and safe. I’m even breathing.
“Lighter on the hands,” I finally hear him saying. I loosen my death grip, realize that’s not what’s holding me up. What’s holding me up? His feet. His legs. My abs. My bones stacked over his bones. Gravity. “You’re pretty light up there,” he says. I can feel that. I can feel I’m where I’m supposed to be.
I begin to unfurl, extending my legs out to the sides. I’m still not sure where some of my body parts are, or what they’re doing, or, goddess help me, what I look like. But I’m breathing and moving, and I can listen and I can talk, and I’m safe. Some ancient knot in my stomach begins to loosen.
“Close your eyes,” Slava says. I do it. The little protestor in me has gone silent. “Get to know this place with your eyes closed, so you can find it again.” I do. And here’s the crazy thing: with my eyes closed, I don’t feel like I’m upside down. I’m just … here. Now.
The crazier thing: it’s fun.
“Now pike and bring your legs down with control.” Okay, so I’ve got some abdominals work to do, and I might not have scored any 10s, but I land on my feet, and probably wouldn’t have cared if I didn’t. I got into star. I got upside down.
Chicken Soup guru Jack Canfield says, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
I say I want a relationship. But I also say I don’t want to go upside down. Which I’m beginning to realize is another way of saying I want big, love-story love and deep intimacy and the abiding trust of an unshakeable bond … but I don’t want anything to change. Least of all me.
This is yoga. This observing of mind and emotions and patterns, this coming back to the breath, this realization that how we do anything is how we do everything. I got a stark look on Sunday at how I do life when I’m afraid. I saw a lot of things about myself that were—that are—hard to accept. But I see the other things, too. That I showed up, that I stayed, helped out some strangers and let them help me, that I kept breathing and stayed awake, and that I had the most fun of all doing the thing I was most afraid to do. Hmm …
I’ll give my hands a little time to recover, and then I’ll go back. Because I want to do all three laps of frog leaps, no matter how long it takes me. Because I don’t want to stand on the outside, safe and numb, any more. Because I want to be able to find my self wherever and whenever I am. Because I want big love. Because there is only love or the absence of it, and I am love and I want to be present in every moment of my life. Because I want to go upside down.
 Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
 Disclaimer: This article is in no way intended as instructional. Acro yoga is an intense and strenuous practice with a higher-than-average risk of injury. For your safety, please try it first with the assistance of a qualified, experienced teacher and in the presence of a spotter.