Hooping and the hybridization of yoga in America

Nature, its three qualities, sattva, rajas, and tamas, and its evolutes, the elements, mind, senses of perception and organs of action, exist eternally to serve the seer, for enjoyment (bhoga) or emancipation (apavarga).

Yoga Sutra II.18, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, BKS Iyengar

Yoga and hula hooping? Yes, according to an August 2011 Yoga Journal article, “You Spin Me Round”: Hoop-yoga is trendy among Anusara yoga practitioners. The magazine profiles performer Shakti Sunfire (aka Laura Blakeman), who’s “part whirling dervish, part pinup girl, and 100 percent yogini.” It quotes Anusara’s founder, John Friend: “Hooping rocks.”

My reaction was mixed. On one hand, I’m all for innovation. I myself have invented new props, practicing one-legged standing poses on the flat side of a Bosu. The added wobbliness upped the ante: I had to stabilize my ankle, rediscover my balance, and risk toppling over. By forcing me to adapt, the Bosu woke me from complacency. So I’m not anti hooping (and the performers are amazing to watch).

On the other hand, does a hoop actually deepen the yoga experience or simply add another distracting flourish? To me, asana is interesting enough. A mere glance at Light on Yoga (BKS Iyengar) points out dozens of poses yet untried, while even the basics are teeming with details to refine.

Yogis just want to have fun?

What really perplexed me, however, was the notion that yoga asana needs to be more fun and playful. Anusara teacher Sianna Sherman says, “I feel like the appeal has something to do with people’s longing to play, to feel beautiful, to dance, to not be so burdened by the pressures of everyday life. You get a hoop on and some music, and suddenly you get a little lighter, freer, happier. It energizes you and draws more light into your life.”

Maybe it’s a matter of defining “fun.” To me, my regular yoga class is… fun. It’s intense and challenging in a calm way: There’s no loud music or party atmosphere. While there’s humor and camaraderie, it’s not a rip-roaring scene. And that’s exactly what I want from a yoga class.

Modern yoga is full of distractions: legendary masters, YouTube celebrities, crowded classes, the cult of lululemon. For me, the asanas themselves can be distracting in my ambition to do them—and to do them well. I, too, must remember that the real practice is actually introspective and solitary, subtle rather than spectacular (and you can wear your oldest T-shirt and shorts!).

Yoga offshoots introducing new “fun” elements reminds me of how I prefer my tea and coffee: au naturel. Quality tea. Quality coffee. Why tamper with a good thing? And where is the tipping point? A Frappuccino does contain coffee amid the milk, syrup, ice, and whipped cream, but, seriously, it’s a different species.

Elation and empowerment

The emphasis on fun and play repeated throughout the issue: Acro Yoga founder Jenny Sauer-Klein writes about the connection between play and bliss. “When I teach Acro Yoga,” she writes, “I’m helping adults to feel like children again, to trust themselves and each other, and to rediscover that belief in infinite possibility.” She describes how the pure joy of being held in the air turns fear and doubt into elation and empowerment.

Sound positive, if unmistakably American (nevermind my critique of Acro Yoga here). But do most folks who choose hoop-yoga or Acro Yoga need lessons on elation and empowerment? I suspect that able-bodied Western yogis (including me) actually need lessons on taming the ego. On stilling the mind. On being solitary and self-sufficient. On being content with less rather than more.

These new varieties of yoga do promote fun and play—and they’re certainly creative. I’d probably enjoy trying an Acro Yoga session or watching a hoop-yoga performance. Indeed, I relish the physical aspect of yoga and the exhilaration of a breakthrough. But, admittedly, I must work on the opposite: To find freshness in fundamental poses, day after day, year after year. To be more honest and humble in my asana practice (and in the rest of life).

Asana is inherently bhoga for me, so I need not increase its fun and playfulness. For me, a simple, serious practice is best.

Images: Shakti Sunfire; The Yoga SpaceAcro Yoga

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7 thoughts on “Hooping and the hybridization of yoga in America

  1. What strikes me the most – these yoga practices seem like the “fun” is in the performance. Whereas I practice yoga, not for an audience but for my own forward movement and to become a better teacher to help others move forward.

  2. As a Yoga practitioner for almost forty years, I find it’s always fresh & new, always the same. The excitement comes from within, not from hoops or loops or acrobatics. The quiet knowing, deep stillness is more than enough… Thanks to Linda for ppointing me to your blog.

  3. Oh My God. It is worse than I thought it would be. Honestly, is this really called yoga??? I don’t even know what to say.

  4. Thanks for your comment beeryogi.com and for pointing me to this post. I’m glad to have read this thoughtful take on hooping and other yoga-hybrids. I’ve practiced many different styles of yoga throughout my life. Like many yogis, I find that my practice has shifted depending on my physical and mental needs and capabilities. Lately, that means I’ve been playing around with hooping and acro-yoga, though these practices haven’t replaced my regular yoga practice any more than running, lap swimming, biking or going for walks. The last line of your post resonates with me, though it doesn’t apply to my particular situation:

    “Asana is inherently bhoga for me, so I need not increase its fun and playfulness. For me, a simple, serious practice is best.”

    Right now, a simple, serious practice is what serves you best, so that is how you structure your practice. I find that I thrive on variety, and so I practice accordingly.

  5. It is difficult these days to teach and discuss ‘traditional’ yoga – like Ashtanga, Iyengar, etc – because of this notion that only if you feel happy (elation) and bolstered (empowered) during your class are you doing something worthwhile. That whole idea that, if you’re not feeling that way, then you are somehow still “burdened by the pressures of everyday life” as one person put it and that, by virtue of a style of yoga that is perhaps more difficult, it somehow does not let you “rediscover that belief in infinite possibility”. Hogwash. I am so tired of how Anusara and all its clones take away the joy that is inherent in the practice of yoga postures in all its manifestations – even if it is not “playtime” in an Ashtanga class. It is so apparent that these teachers have abandoned the traditional yogas for the sack of appeasing their own egos. Truly, we are not kids any more and that notion that we must somehow get back to that is a fallacy. It’s steering those people who want to deepen and give birth to their true selves in the wrong direction. I have always said that Anusara and the like have usurped the heart out of the other practices and, as a heartfelt, sincere, mindful practitioner and teacher, I wholly do not appreciate it. Thanks for your article. I am glad you are writing these things.

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