Like a squadron of determined superheroes soaring to the rescue, four women leaned forward in a row, midair, their bodies parallel to the floor, arms locked to their sides. They were flying -- bold, powerful, on top of the world.
And on top of their partners' feet, which may not be the way superheroes do it, unless of course they're taking an AcroYoga class.
"This is as much an exercise in trust as anything else," says Teresa Kabba, 25, of Santa Rosa, with a breathless grin, as she dismounted off the sturdy hands and feet of Valerie Acton, of Berkeley. The women were part of instructor Ron Avitzur's introductory Acro class on a recent Monday night in an upstairs studio at the Athletic Playground in Emeryville.
AcroYoga is a blended practice of partner-based acrobatics, gymnastics and yoga with a focus on balance, concentration -- and definitely trust.
"You have to know your base (the person holding you up) isn't going to drop you," Avitzur says.
This variation on the yoga theme, developed in Berkeley by instructors Jason Nemer and Jenny Sauer-Klein, has been around for about a decade, but it has been getting more attention of late as students have caught on to its benefits. It has spread throughout the Bay Area and around the globe, in studios with thick cushioned mats and mirrored walls as well as in the middle of community parks -- San Francisco's Dolores Park is a popular site -- where practitioners gather to "go upside down" and "fly," in the fashion of little kids on their parents' arms.
Yoga in general continues to evolve from its ancient traditional roots with new forms emerging every day, adding blends and crossovers and new techniques, "from silent meditation to hot-and-sweaty strength building" styles, Avitzur says. Even within Acro, students can work their way up to highly acrobatic poses like something out of Cirque du Soleil or incorporate Thai massage for therapeutic effects.
For the most part, AcroYoga involves at least two people, a base (the person on the ground) and a flier (the person being held aloft in a wide range of poses). Ideally, a spotter is close at hand.
Some of the poses are jaw-dropping, yet a first attempt is not necessarily as hard as it looks. While fitness helps, no experience in gymnastics or acrobatics is required.
"It's all based on precise body alignment, not strength," Avitzur says. "At first, it might seem difficult if you're off alignment, because you tend to muscle through. But as you refine your practice, you're using less and less energy, you're using the momentum to lift your partner up, and it becomes almost effortless, like walking. That's when it becomes restful and therapeutic."
This highly physical connection -- often with partners who start out as total strangers in a class but end up as friends -- is what draws many people to the style. Such was the case for Ariel Mihic, who teaches AcroYoga at the Sports Basement in San Francisco and with the BayAcro program.
"It's built on partnership, on communication and trust -- it takes a lot of trust to balance on somebody's feet," says Mihic, who has been involved with Acro for about six years. "To me, it's the community aspect that's important. With many traditional yoga styles, it's about the mental aspects, the presence, the meditation, often in classes where people come in and go out without even saying hello to each other. And that's great if that's what you're looking for.
"For me, when I saw people doing Acro and being upside down and talking and laughing, I knew that's what I wanted," Mihic says. "It's like being a kid, trying new things, playing in the park. You're having so much fun, you don't even realize you're getting one of the best core workouts possible."
Medha Garg, 29, of Oakland, has been taking Acro classes for about a year, and was one of the more advanced students in Avitzur's intro class last week.
"Growing up, my family would practice yoga together, but more traditional styles with a more breathing type of focus. (Acro) is more like dance but on the emotional and spiritual level," Garg says.
"As a culture, I think we value spoken communication," she adds. "With this, your body is speaking to your partner's body, getting the alignment and balance in harmony together. It's not something you can talk about out loud. You have to feel it."
Last week's class at Athletic Playground started with students in a circle doing fairly traditional sun salutations, then moving into modified downward dogs and baby cobras in which partners used each other's bodies to lean and balance and stretch. And get to know each other.
"Be sure to introduce yourself if you haven't already," Avitzur instructed. "That's part of Acro, knowing you're supporting your partner and you feel supported."
After about 15 minutes of warm-ups, the group began some Acro exercises. They started with tightening drills -- one person on the floor, feet in the air, and the other leaning her collar bone area against her partner's feet while keeping her body flat and firm.
"You want to be able to hold your body like a statue," Avitzur says. "It's much easier to balance a stick than a wet noodle. You don't want your body to hinge while you're up in the air."
Soon, the group moved up to "the bird" pose -- a la flying superheroes -- with the bases' feet on the fliers' hip bones, lifting them into the air. Later, they practiced "the throne" in which the flier literally sits on the base's heels.
"Just lean back and relax, like you're really sitting in a chair, ready to order a drink or watch a movie," Avitzur jokes.
The hourlong class finished with a cool down, also using partners to sway each other's legs and match each other's slowed breathing. "The best thing is, you don't need a gym membership to do Acro," Avitzur says. "Anywhere you have friends, you can do it."