A Blending of Disciplines: Non-Traditional Yoga
The practice of yoga is over 5,000 years old. It was traditionally handed down from teacher directly to student, one on one. In order to practice yoga, a student first had to prove their worth in the eyes of the teacher, by showing up every day before the crack of dawn, performing menial tasks or backbreaking work. Once the teacher decided the student was serious, he would be accepted as a student and taught yoga philosophy, lifestyle, breathing, postures, and meditation techniques. Today anyone can try yoga, no prerequisites required. As a result, yoga draws students from a variety or backgrounds for a variety of reasons, and the teaching has evolved to meet each new student right where they are.
Because yoga has such a rich tradition, there are many physical styles suitable for different students. Iyengar yoga, for example, focuses on very refined alignment and encourages the use of props to make a pose accessible for any body. Ashtanga yoga includes the same postures, but is performed in a flowing manner with a focus on the breath. Interestingly, the founder of Iyengar yoga and the founder of Ashtanga yoga both had the same teacher! They each took what they learned and then adapted it for their own specific needs and the needs of their students.
Today, many yoga teachers are doing the same. In the past decade, some interesting hybrid styles of yoga have emerged. These styles are not intended to replace a more traditional yoga practice, but to open it up in some way. Each emphasizes the lighthearted side of yoga, or Leela (playfulness). Here is a short list of some of my favorites:
Aerial Yoga: Aerial Yoga (a style that I teach) is a blending of traditional yoga postures and low-to-the-ground aerial work. This style is practiced using the support of a soft fabric “trapeze” (similar to the silks used in Cirque du Soleil) that hangs at waist height. Body weight is distributed between the fabric and the floor, and traditional yoga poses are practiced using the aid of gravity’s pull to elongate the spine and create space in the joints of the body. This practice can be deeply restorative as you relax into gravity’s pull, or highly energetic as you learn to use new muscle groups. Unlike an aerial class, it is not about learning tricks but rather about using the fabric and gravity to gain new insight into your body and breath. It is appropriate for all levels of yoga student, including those new to the practice. The philosophy behind it is about learning to let go and trust, reversing the flow of energy in your body by flipping your relationship to gravity, and having fun with what is often a very serious practice. This is a class where laughter and interaction are encouraged.
Acroyoga: Acroyoga is a blending of yoga, acrobatics, and thai massage. It is practiced with one or more partners, and the philosophy behind it is building a sense of community and the practice of “metta” (loving-kindness). Much (but not all) of this practice is meant for intermediate or advanced level yoga students, and many traditional yoga postures are performed with one partner lying face-up on the ground with their legs in the air, and the second partner balancing in a yoga pose on that person’s feet. Much of the practice involves learning to trust your partner and yourself, and practicing ahimsa (non-harming) toward another person as you practice. Mindfulness is key, and learning to give and receive support. This practice can deepen a students awareness about how they approach relationships, with friends, family, and loved ones.
Doga: Doga is yoga that you do with your dog! It can be practiced in a studio setting or outdoors. Typically a group of students come together with their dogs and learn techniques such as dog massage and assisted stretches. It is a style of yoga where you will laugh a lot and definitely have fun. If you have a big dog, you might practice a warrior pose while lifting the front feet off the floor. The same pose would be practiced with a small dog by lifting the dog up over your head. In every class I’ve seen, most dogs were instantly calmed by the chanting of “Om”, and all were incredibly well-behaved. If yoga is all about being present, then practicing with a dog can be a natural extension, since dogs naturally live in the present!
Slackasana: Slackasana (slackline yoga) is a style of yoga developed by rock-climbers. A slackline (a flat material similar to a tightrope) is suspended anywhere from a couple of feet to a couple dozen feet off the ground, and yoga postures are practiced balancing on the line. This style of yoga is very difficult to learn, as simply standing on the slackline takes considerable practice. But for the dedicated it can be a great way to build strength, balance, and most of all, focus. The philosophy is that you must stay present at every moment, because if your focus wanders even for a second you will fall out of the pose. It can be seen as an extreme form of concentration, which in the 8 limbs of yoga, leads to a state of meditation and eventually enlightenment.
At first glance some of these styles may seem far removed from traditional yoga practice. But the foundation of any yoga practice is the yamas and niyamas (moral precepts like non-harming, truthfulness, etc, and personal observances like self-study, devotion, etc), and each of these hybrid practices takes these concepts at the core. Yoga is about union, and while uniting yoga with disciplines like acrobatics or aerials may not resonate with everyone, there can be real value in taking the practice of yoga out of the traditional studio, off of the traditional mat, and giving yourself freedom to explore. Any serious yoga student can benefit by trying something different, and these blends are attracting new students as well, many who become interested in yoga for the first time and then go on to explore a more traditional practice.
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