Bay Area innovators take this timeless practice in new directions
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."
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."
I met Amsterdam through the YinYoga classes that she teaches at Yoga Tree, classes that involve holding postures for extended periods of time — from a few minutes up to a half-hour — which can open up both joints and deep emotions as practioners breathe through their resistance.
But Amsterdam says that YinYoga is just part of InnerYoga, which involves active and passive poses, meditation, and teachings and exercises designed to connect yoga with a mindful approach to life. Its four foundations are "awareness, kindness, breath, and ease."
"I'm teaching people self-care practices both on the mat and off the mat," Amsterdam said.
That idea was the basis for OTM, which is "in the business of creating leaders and helping leaders connect to their passions," says Rebecca Rogers, who splits her professional time between teaching yoga and working for OTM on its seva fundraising campaigns.
"When you slow things down, you have more time to make choices," Rogers said, describing the notion of mindfulness that yoga helps create. "A big part of mindfulness is the ability to tune into the world."
That bridge between the yoga and political worlds will be tested this year as yogini and renowned author Marianne Williamson runs for Congress in Southern California, promoting mindfulness, a campaign that OTM's Yoga Votes project is supporting.
Between the connections to self and to the world, AcroYoga is a hybrid of yoga, acrobatics, and Thai massage, a fluid practice where partners use one another for pressure or as a plaform for poses.
"I don't think there's enough safe touch in the world, so AcroYoga allows that," says Tyler Blank, who discovered the practice in 2004 and became one of its first certified teachers.
Later, in Hawaii, Blank discovered the concept of ecstatic dance — with its "contact improv" techniques that are similar to AcroYoga — and brought it to the Bay Area, where its twice-weekly events in Oakland have grown in popularity.
"I realized we could take partner yoga and start to dance with it very slowly," Blank said. "I think yoga is evolving into dance."
However yoga evolves, the Bay Area is likely to be at the center of that process.