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Whether you consider yourself a "flier" or a "base," you'll find yourself both in the air and on the ground during a typical acrobatic yoga class.
"It's all about bone-stacking," explained Sonja Kirwan, the "Acro Jam" teacher when I visited the class at Project Yoga on a Sunday afternoon.
If the bones are stacked correctly and balance is achieved, a huge weight differential is no big deal. You might see a wispy, petite woman holding up a broad-shouldered, 6-foot-plus guy with her feet.
For newcomers, it can be a little intimidating. When we paired up to try some of these stunts, I found myself partnered with a 180-pound guy, the biggest participant in the room.
A good draw, I thought, because he would be a sturdy base. But what the heck was I going to do when it came time for me to lift him?
With his expert tutelage, however, I found myself hoisting him into a "bird" position (similar to lifting a young child into a Superman pose over your feet while lying on the ground) fairly easily.
We didn't try "free bird," which would have meant our hands ceased to make contact. I wasn't sure I was skilled enough in the stacking and balancing to make that work, and I certainly didn't want him to come crashing down.
Zach Surina, an experienced acrobatic yoga participant who modeled many of the partner lifts with Kirwan as she introduced them, said this type of yoga, like others, gets easier with practice.
"Once you find the bone-stacking, you've got it," he said. "But it can take months."
Kirwan was careful to reiterate proper technique throughout the class, making sure that spotters were on hand when a new lift was attempted.
"The safe word in here is 'down,'" she told us early in the session. "The base can always say 'down.' There are no questions asked."
AcroYoga, as this format is often called, was introduced in 2003 as a way to combine "the wisdom of yoga, the dynamic power of acrobatics, and the loving kindness of healing arts," according to the AcroYoga website, www.acroyoga.org. This type of yoga is now practiced worldwide.
In Richmond, Project Yoga offers special monthly classes. Project Yoga is a donation-based yoga studio located off Dickens Road. The suggested donation for the 2½-hour Acro Jam class is $10.
Most of the participants don't arrive with an assigned partner. In fact, partners switch around throughout the class.
Amanda Rone, who's been doing acrobatic yoga for a while, brought her husband, Rob, for his first time on the day I visited.
"I want him to learn so he can do it with me," she said.
Kirwan started the class with some warm-up yoga moves and then some basic acrobatic positions to get everyone comfortable with the format. She gradually added more challenging lifts and positions, encouraging anyone who needed help to ask for a spotter.
"No eagle talons on the toes," she reminded the fliers as they moved into more complex positions that required wrapping their legs around the legs of the base person. "You need to keep flat, soft toes" so that toenails don't dig into the base's skin.
Eventually, she worked up to the most difficult moves, such as the three-person thigh stand. Pairs of experienced acro participants also worked on transitioning from one position to another without bringing the flier to the floor in between.
Toward the end of class, Kirwan showed participants some lifts that offered stretching to the flier. I had pulled myself out of the class to take pictures and talk to some participants.
Luckily for me, Surina insisted that I take advantage of the stretching opportunity as he acted as my base and talked me through the different ways to lengthen from a lifted position.
"You can't miss this part," he said.
I was glad I didn't.
Maria Howard is a group exercise instructor for the YMCA of Greater Richmond. Her column runs every other week in Sunday Flair.