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Finding Balance

By Angela Arsenault
Posted On Sep 06, 2016
Finding Balance

From paddleboards to slacklines, these yoga trends challenge balance and stretch your inner warrior, too.

I vividly remember taking my very first yoga class. I was in my last semester of college and had some space to fill in my schedule, so I turned to the “Physical Education” section of my university’s course listings. To my great surprise, this thing I’d sort of heard about in passing called Hatha yoga was a class I could take for two credits. Panic attacks and near-constant anxiety had become a part of my life that year, and yoga sounded like a wonderful antidote.

I recall a stinky wrestling practice room and worn-out yoga mats. But the less-than-lovely surroundings faded into the background as we moved through sun salutation after sun salutation, over and over, generating heat and energy in my body in a way that I’d never before experienced, even as a lifelong athlete. But mostly I remember breathing—or specifically, I remember learning how to breathe. What a concept that was! To turn a completely unconscious and life-supporting activity into an intentional practice. I swear it changed my life.

That was 16 years ago, and I’ve been practicing yoga ever since. One of the joys of yoga for me over that time has been my personal discovery of different styles, variations, and instructors. From Ashtanga to Vinyasa, the world of yoga is vast, fascinating, and growing wider with each new fitness modality.

It should be noted here that one of the most important lessons to be gained from the practice of yoga is the ability to respect your body’s limitations. Many sources report that yoga injuries are on the rise as the number of yoga practitioners in the U.S. has skyrocketed as high as 20 million in recent years. Dr. Jeff Cantor of the the Cantor Spine Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says that yoga injuries can best be prevented by paying attention when your body tells you to rest or come out of a pose. There is a fine and very important line between a healthy stretch and pushing too far. So check your ego at the door and let your inner child come out to play with these three yoga variations that each emphasize a sense of adventure over the quest for perfection.

What Sup?

Balance is one of the things that many people find most challenging throughout their yoga practice. No doubt about it: Standing on one leg in natarajasana (dancer pose) or perching steadily upon your forearms in pincha mayurasana requires strength and concentration. So what happens when you take that task to the water?

International yoga instructor Dashama is credited with being one of the first yoginis to combine her practice with the sport of paddle boarding. After posting a 2009 video on YouTube doing some basic yoga poses on a paddleboard, Dashama was invited to teach SUP yoga at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. She now gives SUP yoga teacher trainings in locations throughout the world.

Dashama says her first step when teaching this variation of yoga is to make sure the practitioner is comfortable on the board, and at ease in the water. “If you don’t have any background in paddleboarding at all, you need to have a little bit of instruction on that side, too,” she says. But once those basics are covered, the actual doing of the yoga can be “easier (on a paddleboard) than on land because it forces you to be present… And in some cases it’s less intimidating than doing yoga on land because if you fall, you’ll just get wet,” explains Dashama.

If you’re still feeling timid about the idea, there are ways to ease into it. Dashama suggests placing your paddleboard in calm water to gain confidence, like a pool or lake versus the ocean. Once you’re there, try a few gentle stretches rather than launching into a complex sequence. “Anything seated or kneeling,” is a good place to start, says Dashama. And don’t underestimate the benefit of simply being out on the water. Nobody would fault you for resting in a floating savasana if your trepidation persists.

Angle Dangle

If a 36-inch-wide paddleboard sounds like a precarious place to practice your poses, imagine doing so on a one-inch-wide piece of webbing. My first thought when presented with the opportunity to try slackline yoga was, “But my bum is so much wider than that!” I couldn’t conceive of actually pulling off a seated pose with so little material underneath me. As it turns out, that’s kind of the magic of it.

Sam Salwei helped pioneer the practice of slackline yoga by co-founding YogaSlackers in 2006. Salwei had been introduced to slacklining as a rock climber and discovered that working his way through a series of poses on the line was far more rewarding than simply trying to walk from one end to the other. “It was less frustrating when the process wasn’t about getting to the end of the line, it was about experiencing the path to the end of line, if you will,” he explains. Which, unsurprisingly, is a powerful metaphor for the journey of life, too.

The life lessons presented by the practice of slackline yoga certainly don’t end there. Salwei says that a slackline is also a place where you become much more aware of the consequences of your actions. Without the added input of “water, the ground, or anything like that, your energy makes a correction and you feel that correction immediately. It helps you understand what the repercussions to your reactions are. If you make a harsh reaction, you’re going to get a harsh reaction back.”

Fellow YogaSlacker Raquel Hernández-Cruz says another beautiful benefit is the almost unavoidable mediation that it becomes. “When you get on a slackline, it literally shakes all your worries away,” she explains, and because of the focus that’s required, you arrive at a deep meditative state, sometimes without even trying.

Namaste, Fly Away! 

The notion of ease versus effort is one that’s explored through creative play and partnership in AcroYoga. Certified Acro instructor Jeff Mandell, who’s based in Burlington, Vermont, says the practice is really all about having fun, the way you did when you were a kid and wanted to “fly” like Superman with your torso balancing atop somebody’s feet. “Everyone’s done that, so nobody can say they’ve never tried AcroYoga,” Mandell jokes.

This practice also pushes you to explore important interpersonal relationship territory, covering issues like trust, vulnerability, and communication. “The whole practice of AcroYoga is helping each other get to where you’re going together. Because you can’t ever do it by yourself, it’s just not possible, by definition.”

As with so many variations of yoga, the skills you develop in class have countless applications to life off the mat. With AcroYoga in particular, I can’t help but think of my own marriage and how many times it would have (or can) benefit from a deeper level of compassion.

There are two basic roles in Acro: One person is the base and the other is the flyer. In a relationship, we tend to choose our roles and stick to them. But Acro gives you the opportunity to switch roles every now and then, so that each partner can see and feel the pose or sequence from the other person’s perspective. If you took this one aspect of the practice and apply it to your relationship, my guess is that you’d see your partner—maybe even your whole relationship—in a new light. And you’d probably want to do more AcroYoga.