YOGA Being suspended upside down in an aerial yoga swing in Peaceful Warrior position, transitioning into Happy Buddha as I reached for the Quantum Playground to deepen my stretch, I gained a new perspective on the world — and the ongoing evolution of yoga in the Bay Area.
Innovation and the cross-pollination of various ideas and practices are as quintessential to the Bay Area as yoga and other mindful approaches to self-improvement and secular spirituality. So it makes sense that local yoga teachers and entrepreneurs are developing new twists on a timeless art.
My yoga practice began in 2001, and I was fortunate to have an instructor who emphasized that yoga is about breathing more than stretching or exercise. It's about being present and maintaining that presence through the pain of life and its contortions. Inhale to lengthen, exhale to deepen; breathe in, breathe out, repeat indefinitely.
When aerial yoga instructor Jen Healy first hung me upside down in her San Rafael home and "Healyng Sanctuary" while we were dating in 2012, that focus on breathing was essential just to keep my lunch down (or up, in this case). Yoga can have that disorienting quality, particuarly in the inverted postures.
And then I worked through it, finding a new world opened up on the other side where previous limits yielded to new openness and flexibility. It can be playful, as in Healy's Aerial Yoga Play swings and teacher trainings; or the partner-based AcroYoga that emerged here about 10 years ago.
"You get to play your way to a healthier and happier state of being," Healy says, calling her swings and jungle-gym-like Quantum Playground she built tools for "awakening the courageous inner child."
Or the new approaches to yoga can cultivate a deeper sense of self-awareness, purpose, and integration of our mental, emotional, and physical bodies, as instructor Dina Amsterdam strives for with her InnerYoga approach.
"Yoga is about finding balance. We are walking around so out of balance as a culture," Amsterdam says, describing her teachings as helping people better understand their inner landscape "so they can discover what is out of balance within them...InnerYoga is not a style, it's an approach to life."
San Francisco's progressive, humanist values have also helped project yogic teachings onto the sociopolitical scene through groups such as Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM), with the mission "to use the power of yoga to inspire conscious, sustainable activism and ignite grassroots social change."
A new local company called YOL is trying to marry that sense of activism with the yoga retreats to exotic locales that have become so popular, creating trips that combine yoga and meditation with volunteer work on service projects.
"I do think it's part of yoga's evolution," says YOL co-founder David Cherner. "It's taking that good feeling you get from yoga and channeling it into giving to someone else."
A DAY TO BREATHE
In this hustle-bustle world of ours, it feels grounding and luxurious to take a full day to breathe, to meditate, and to practice yoga. Retreats of a day to a week have become big in the yoga world, but my first one was Feb. 23 at Amsterdam's home near Mt. Tamalpais.
"Yoga in the United States, particularly in the Bay Area, became very focused on the physical component," says Amsterdam, who instead strives "to really make self-awareness and connection to essence the primary purpose of yoga."
She developed her InnerYoga approach in 2008 during the economic crash — since then graduating 36 teachers who now employ her approach — using the mindful evolution of her own practice to meet the growing anxiety and imbalance she saw in the community.
"What I was most effective at teaching is what people were really needing," Amsterdam said. "My classes slowed way down."