The 4 (NEW!) Pillars of Acroyoga: Foundational concepts of partner poses
Here we discuss four concepts that apply to all poses. These helped us out when we were just getting started and now we always use them to introduce acroyoga to beginners. Are you beginning an acroyoga practice? Teaching beginners? An experienced acroyogi who likes thinking about the basics? Or acro-curious...? Then this post is for YOU!
Before The Pillars
Years ago we took a workshop at the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, KY with Matt Eshleman and Erin Winters of You Do Yoga in Cinncinati, OH. Matt and Erin introduced us to a strategy they called, The Four Pillars of Acro. These were four concepts that applied to any acro pose or transition. A year before that workshop, when we began practicing acroyoga, we lived in a small town, with no teachers, classes, jams, or other practitioners close by. The two of us struggled through YouTube videos and our own trial and error process to learn those first poses and transitions. And because we are movement teachers, we immediately started sharing our practice with others, teaching and learning simultaneously. It was tough. Communication was always an issue. Between us, we had many years of studying various movement techniques, we had keen eyes for analyzing alignment, and we had our own physical experience of the poses to help us guide others. But acroyoga was (and IS still!) a young form and we didn't have a clear protocol for introducing it. So, once we were given the language of the Four Pillars, we felt as if we had struck gold. The Pillars allowed us better communication and troubleshooting within our own development, and provided us with better teaching tools.
Learn Principles, Not Poses
So, now we had a clear way of thinking and speaking in terms of principles rather than poses. Rather than learning a zillion rules for each new pose we tried, we could lean on the Pillars to guide us through the learning process. We could research poses and watch videos with greater awareness. When we tried new poses, we could speak to each other with a shared understanding and clarity that made it smoother to work out the bugs. And now, when we shared our practice with others, we had a clear starting place and a means of setting a foundation from which to work cooperatively.
After several years of using those original pillars to frame our thinking about acroyoga, we decided to refine them. They were a great starting point, but as our own practice and teaching evolved, as we've traveled and played with acroyoga communities around the world, and as we explore and incorporate other movement techniques into our acroyoga practice, we find that we want to expand on the original pillars. So, in the spirit of paying it forward, and offering our experience to others who may be in small communities without experienced leaders, just starting out in your acroyoga journeys, or experienced but refining your own thinking about the foundational concepts of partner work and acroyoga, here are our own...
Four (New!) Pillars of Acroyoga
1. Breathe Together, Move Together: timing, breath, sensitivity
Like the practice of vinyasa, this pillar encompasses timing our movements via the breath. We communicate so much to each other through our breathing, some times intentionally, often unintentionally. And when we stay sensitive to each other's breathing, we receive a lot of information to prepare us for and to manage the pose. For example, when we mount into a pose, we almost always take an inhale together on the ground and then enter the pose on a shared exhale. It is a simple means of ensuring that we both arrive to the party at the same time. When we are sensitive to our partners' breathing, we can note whether she or he is anxious or confident, in a rush or poking along slowly, happy to remain or ready to exit, excited or bored, focused or distracted... When a pose is falling apart, we can check the tension within a pose through the lens of the breath - if we are holding the breath, maybe there is also too much holding in the muscles and so, if we breathe steadily together maybe we find more ease in body and pose. And when a mount or other transition is just not working, we can slow down and find a shared rhythm by syncing our breaths.
2. Be Predictable: tight, slow, pour weight, broadcast, and present
We've talked about shared intention in other blog posts, and how important it is to assume and remember that everyone in the partnership is working toward a common goal. (Check out our post, Building Trust part 2: Finding the Yoga in Acroyoga.) Being predictable goes a long way toward that end. This pillar deals specifically with how we touch, offer touch, and invite touch. When flying, remember "Tight is Light," meaning a sufficient amount of tension in the muscles is needed in order to hold your shape stable and for the base to be able to push through the flyer and maintain control. Also as a flyer, pour your weight slowly into a base to allow the base sufficient time and warning to provide stability where you need it. When basing, broadcast your movements (aka, move "loudly") to provide the flyer with time and space to adjust to the changing support. Present clear platforms as a base so as to let your flyer know when and where you can accept his or her weight. And for everyone, spotters included, move slowly, especially in a new pose, to give brains and bodies time and space to interpret what is needed and respond appropriately. In essence, being predictable is about practicing patience and clarity with yourself and your partners.
3. Co-balance: counter-push, counter-pull, flyer-assisted grounding, base-supported flying
Some poses are explicitly counter-balances, where there is not a clear base/flyer relationship, but rather partners are supporting each other, so that if either partner left the pose, the other could not hold his shape independently. These shapes may be leaning into each other (counter-push) or leaning away from each other (counter-pull). Some poses have a clear base and flyer, and also include a counter-push or pull to create the tension needed to make a pose efficient or calm. But creating balance together does not end there. We consider it the mark of an intermediate practitioner when flyers can start helping to ground the base and bases can start responding to the specific, immediate support needs of a flyer. When we were beginners, we each focused on the "job" of our own role. For example, in Bird pose, the flyer should hold a steady shalambasana shape, look up, stay tight, etc., and the base should create bone stack, adjust the ankle flex to create a level platform, and keep the sacrum down, etc. If we each do our job, the pose works....right?! Not always. We now consider this line of thinking a beginner-level approach. (Read more about the dangers of dualistic thinking in our post, Who's fault is it?) As we work with each other and with our students to mature the working relationship, we encourage flyers to help stack the base, for example, place your base's hand under your own shoulder and press through that arm into the ground underneath. And we encourage bases to be responsive in your support, so if you feel your flyer tilting to one side, invite them toward balance by creating more support on the opposite side. These are examples of what a partnership MIGHT try. The point is, there is not one clear way of flying nor basing any pose. This pillar reminds us that on and off the mat balance is something that we co-create.
4. Power lines: bones stack and energy lines
In acroyoga, we create power through bone stacking and energy lines. The principle of bone stacking means we align a flyer's center of gravity over a base's base of support through the long bones and weight-baring joints, and in this way we lift and hold each other more efficiently than through muscle strength alone. Some poses and transitions require us to come out of bone stack, and then we count on shared lines of energy to maintain balance, connection, and control. For example, when we introduce Reverse Bird pose to beginners, we encourage the flyer to push downward and base to push upward through a shared diagonal line that exists from one partner's shoulder to the other partner's shoulder through their arms. The arms are not stacked, as they would be in Bird pose, but the connection is sill present in the shared strength of the energy line. (Incidentally, this shared energy line also allows the flyer to help ground the base's shoulders and the base to support the flyer's upper body so that they co-create balance.) Bone stack and energy lines reduce the amount of effort either individual must spend in a pose.
The Pillars aren't just for beginners
Trouble shoot with the Pillars.
The Pillars are excellent tools for troubleshooting. When things are feeling clunky, out of sync, or are painful for base or flyer, a good question to ask might be, Are we breathing together? If one partner is struggling with a pose they have practiced easily with someone else, a good question might be, How can we be more predictable? If the pose is attainable but keeps falling down, a good question might be, How can we co-balance better; where can flyer help base stay grounded and base lend more support to the flyer? If one partner doesn't feel strong enough, maybe ask, Are we using the power lines to their full effectiveness or are there different power lines we could use? By using the language of the Pillars, we have the potential to avoid frustration, steer away from blame, and work smarter.
Get Creative with the Pillars.
Are you someone who thinks: Why stick to the existing vocabulary of poses when I could be creating new ones?! Use the concepts of the Pillars to guide you in creating strong poses that other partnerships can replicate. And when explaining your newly developed pose to someone else, use the language of the Pillars for clarity.
Is there a 5th Pillar?
What have we left out? If you were going to add a fifth concept to this list, some bit of strategy that you consider foundational to partner work, what would it be? We would love to know your thoughts and maybe steal your ideas!
Have you been introduced to these concepts in a class or workshop? Or are tother pillars you learned as a beginner?
If you are just starting out, might these concepts change your thinking about the poses? Might your learning strategy shift from learning poses to learning principles?