Ancient practice of yoga gets a thoroughly modern twist

The latest trends in yoga involve acrobatics, sailboards and silk hammocks. Rachel Jacqueline talks to some of the people bringing them here

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 7:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 7:04pm

Think yoga is about contorting your body into a human pretzel while chanting om for hours on end? Think again. The ancient practice is being dramatically transformed as the latest styles send practitioners spinning around, hanging weightlessly or floating in the middle of the ocean.

Yoga mats are optional in acro-yoga, where partners work together in a manner more akin to a circus routine than conventional yoga. One person - the base - lies on their back with their legs in the air to hold up the flier who performs movements with the support of the base.

Los Angeles-based YouTube sensations, husband and wife team Dice Iida-Klein and Briohny Smyth, visited Hong Kong recently and demonstrated their technique at Pure Yoga in Tsim Sha Tsui. "We have so much fun," says Smyth breathlessly, as she is positioned in a scorpion-like pose while suspended by Iida-Klein's feet.

"We both love to go upside down … not only does it strengthen the body but it also has strong mental and emotional benefits [like] building confidence and working through obstacles which really applies to life," says Smyth.

Though it looks difficult, the pair insists acro-yoga is accessible to everyone. It can be as simple as balancing over your partner's feet or as complicated as performing handstands using your partner's feet as a base.

It's also therapeutic. "If your back is tight, having someone push your heels down releases lower back tension," Iida-Klein explains. "And when she's lying over my feet, I can massage her neck," he adds with a grin.

Fusing yoga with acrobatics and Thai massage, "acro-yoga is all about play," says Melanie Bourgeois, a local teacher who runs a free session in Sheung Wan on Sundays. All that's required is space, a partner and the confidence to fly.

"I came to acro-yoga after 10 years of teaching yoga and was instantly hooked," she says. "It is as calming for the spirit as it is as demanding for the body. Once you get into a flow with your partner … the outside world disappears."

I came to acro-yoga after 10 years of teaching yoga and was instantly hooked. It is as calming for the spirit as it is as demanding for the body. Once you get into a flow with your partner … the outside world disappears

Another yoga variant which has become popular in the city is antigravity, or aerial, yoga. Think Cirque du Soleil meets yoga, where practitioners hang from the ceiling in silk hammocks. The weightlessness has a stress-minimising effect as well as being beneficial for spinal decompression. Encouraged to literally "hang loose", the practice creates more space between the vertebrae, relieving back pain.

"It also provides support for you to go deeper and do the full pose even if you're not able to do it in normal yoga," says James Barret, who practises Flyoga - a form of antigravity yoga practised at Aerial Arts Academy. Flex studio and Bodywize Hong Kong also offer the new style.

Aerial Arts Academy have been teaching Flyoga since 2009 and launched acro-yoga in September.

"It's a funny way of fitness training," says co-founder Vea Lea of the new forms of yoga. "Students enjoy the teamwork experience in acro-yoga and Flyoga is just like dance. It teaches lots of beautiful postures. Students find it exciting when moving while suspended in the air."

If that isn't enough, yoga is also heading outdoors thanks to Nadine Bubner and Dee Cheung. After becoming enthused with stand-up paddle board (SUP) yoga in America, Cheung partnered with Bubner to bring the craze to Stanley beach.

"Taking yoga out of a studio is what appealed to me," says Bubner. "Falling into the water is also less scary for some people than falling onto the studio floor." They have hosted several sessions of SUP yoga in response to demand since the first in July.

Gecko Yoga is taking yoga to the youth of Hong Kong with Jenny Smith, Hong Kong's only certified kids yoga trainer. Classes are modified to engage children while still providing the benefits of yoga.

"Kids don't have the same attention or energy as adults," says Smith. "So we have to diversify the way we teach.

"The kids' yoga class is a mix of creative elements and traditional practices, including breathing and meditation in a way which engages children."

The classes also include positive affirmations, encouraging the children to be strong, happy and to learn breathing techniques. "It equips children with tools for life; they can deal with the stress of exams, anxiety and exhaustion."

Since establishing her practice five years ago, Smith has trained 100 yoga teachers to teach kids yoga. "In the past two years it has really grown. Most yoga schools in Hong Kong have kids' yoga on their schedule."

Although yoga has always evolved with the times, teacher Hersha Chellaram offers a word of caution. Unless these practices encourage internal reflection, they are missing the core of the discipline, she says.

"Yoga is different from being merely a physical exercise," she says. "It empowers a person to be peaceful in their mind, body and life." Although Chellaram has explored many different types of yoga, she has come full circle to the practice of integral yoga, the yoga of her childhood, under guru Sri Swami Satchidananda.

"The potential of yoga is so great … it allows you to ultimately realise your higher self, to be healthy in your body, peaceful and useful to the word around you. If these classes are just a physical practice, how is it different from something like running?"

While they may seem faddish at first glance they are all careful to remain true to yoga at their cores and are an imaginative way of encouraging people who might never otherwise challenge themselves to experience its benefits.

"In our eyes, whatever gets you in the yoga door doesn't matter. The fact is you've stepped through that doorway and most likely you'll come full circle," says Iida-Klein.

It's more straightforward for SUP yoga's Cheung. "I promise you savasana [final resting pose] on the board connects you more with yourself, nature and the universe than any air-conditioned studio."