If you happen to be near Fayerweather on a Sunday, you might consider making a trip down to room 108. If you are lucky, you might find something you haven’t seen before: 30 students balancing on each other, striking poses, and holding positions that don’t seem humanly possible.
These students are engaging in partner yoga, a practice that combines athleticism, balance, touch, grace, and awkwardness all in one. Dance 420: Acro-Yoga in the Age of Mechanicity, a student forum lead by Miles Bukiet ’11 and Ryan Rodger ’11, is, as its name suggests, a combination of acrobatics and yoga with a little Thai massage mixed in.
According to acroyoga.org, AcroYoga® blends “the spiritual wisdom of yoga, the loving kindness
of Thai massage, and the dynamic power of Acrobatics.” All poses are done with partners constantly touching, while continually increasing the difficulty of the movements and balancing acts. It is a recent practice, created in San Francisco late in 2003. However, interest has already spread across the country.
“Ryan and I found a group of people doing Acro in the park in New York City one day,” Bukiet said. “When we tried it out we found it not only felt amazing, but also created powerful bonds between people. This forum started from the hypothesis that if a group of people practiced partner yoga seriously for an extended period of time, we could build a space for growth and healing, a space that stands as a model for how to treat others and create community. I think people are hungry; they’re hungry, to touch, and to play, and to connect. It’s been beautiful to be a part of the release of all that pent up energy that just wants to love and be loved.”
Although neither of the students leading this forum are certified AcroYoga® instructors—technically, they practice “partner yoga”—their practice is inspired directly from AcroYoga®, and there is no real difference between their poses and what a certified AcroYoga® instructor would teach.
Although partner yoga may seem to just be a fun way to get exercise, Rodger believes that there is a lot more to it than it seems, and it has the potential to teach its students about themselves and about others.
“The coolest thing is that the knowledge is not preparation for any test, and will not be forgotten,” Rodger said. “It is the result of investigation and practice with our own bodies and the bodies of others, and we are developing a new awareness of how those bodies feel, function, and can be affected.“
Bukiet has an extensive background in dance, and has studied yoga in India. However, most of the students in this forum have limited experience in any of these studies, although a few are practiced yogis. Even students with experience have said that they feel as though they are experiencing something entirely new.
“I took this student forum because of my love of yoga in general,” said Marie Scarles ’12. “I’ve done ashtanga, hatha, power yoga, etc., and when I heard there was a form of yoga being offered for credit, I was on board. Miles had introduced me to some basic aspects of Acro-Yoga last semester in our Modern dance class, and we basically had a lot of fun experimenting with movements and poses.”
The class schedule is variable, but often starts with therapeutic poses in either traditional, ashtanga, or high-energy flow, or by using a partner’s breath and bodies to dictate where each student needs to stretch. Then, the students will move to practice “sculptures” of people, which can range from colossal twenty-person groups, all the way down to just two people.
“Usually we learn something new from Miles and Ryan,” said Reid Meador ’14, a student in the forum. “They make it look really easy, and then we all split up and attempt to do whatever sequence they’ve demonstrated, and we end up falling over and over. Then, some time, probably not the first class, we try the sequence, it becomes easier. Sometimes other students lead a warm up sequence, like partner stretching, or teach us a sequence they’ve been playing around with. Often we end with learning some Thai massage.”
Although Dance 420 mostly focuses on athleticism and balance, there is an important spiritual and intellectual aspect to the forum as well. Many of the students say that they have gained a heightened awareness of themselves, others, and the space around them.
“I’ve spent my entire life training for traditional sports—soccer, track, tennis, rugby,” said William Mithoefer ’12. “Practicing partner yoga has taught me a different way of approaching being physical. It has taught me how to be aware of how my body moves, balances, and reacts, both on its own and in relation to others.”
However, Rodger believes that partner-yoga presents a difficult challenge to its practitioners aside from its physical aspect. He feels it is a challenging activity mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
“The practice itself includes focus on your own body, the body of your partner, the composite unit of both partners, and the current moment in time,” Rodger said. “Engaging with and prioritizing a present-moment practice in an academic setting is very difficult to do, as most of academia focuses on analysis. The challenge is remembering that each moment in our practice of partner yoga, even moments of total technical incompetence, is meant to be experienced as complete, from wherever we stand.”
Another important aspect of the class is touch. During AcroYoga®, participants are almost continually touching one another, and the Thai massage component leads to physically intimate moments between partners.
“Often in today’s society touch is avoided,” Mithoefer said. “Practicing massage allows one to get comfortable with personal contact in a non-sexual way. Touch is a powerful and healing thing, which is often forgotten about, stigmatized, and underrated. Acro-Yoga has helped me to get comfortable with physical contact, which in turn has led to a greater appreciation of my own body and a greater attentiveness to those around me.”
Meador agreed with Mithoefer, commenting that she has learned how to use parts of her consciousness she hadn’t accessed before.
“I have learned so much from Acro that I couldn’t have learned elsewhere,” Meador said. “We tend to forget about our bodies and focus only on our minds. But our bodies are just as much a part of us, and being able to work physically with other students really teaches something that other classes don’t. Learning to tune into my own body and my partner’s body requires a different concentration. I’ve learned how important it is to work up trust with others and to pay attention to my body.”
AcroYoga® is certainly not always so serious, however. Even if it leads to interpersonal insights, the ambiance of the class is relaxed and fun.
“Personally, I love the class atmosphere because it’s playful, a space to experiment with communication, trust, and taking chances with the body,” Scarles said. “It becomes a practice applicable to the everyday—in the forum we’ve fostered an ability to approach discomfort with a sense of curiosity and humor, and it’s been an amazing experiment in interpersonal communication. It’s about finding your inner bird.”
Bukiet hopes to encourage deeper personal relationships between people, to help them get more in-tune with themselves and the world around them, and to encourage the creation of positive, supportive social spaces.
“People have the capacity to give incredible joy and pleasure to one another,” Bukiet said. “Given the right space and shared purpose, this side of us not only blossoms and grows, but also sends its seeds floating off on the wind.”