The Evolution of Unnata® Aerial Yoga

I grew up in Colorado where my family and I spent a large part of our time in the Rocky Mountains hiking, camping, and contemplating the silence of nature. I’m sure it came as no surprise to my family, then, when I became a teacher of Hatha Yoga. Like hiking among majestic mountains, Hatha Yoga uses strength, endurance and flexibility to seek an inner calm and peace. My practice of Hatha Yoga is therefore a natural outgrowth from my own personal history.

Many people ask me where aerial yoga comes from, or who invented it. Just like my own study of Hatha Yoga was the natural evolution of my childhood upbringing, Aerial Yoga evolved naturally over time through contributions from many yoga and movement teachers, each using their ingenuity to contribute a puzzle piece to the whole picture of what aerial yoga is today.

As far as I am aware, BKS Iyengar (1918-2014) was the first yoga teacher to hang students off the ground upside-down. He was looking for a way to help his students achieve the king of poses, headstand. Over time, he and his teachers created a whole system of using ropes attached to a smooth wall to suspend a student in a variety of asanas, including a supported headstand. He developed exercises using the rope wall to relieve stress on the joints, and improve postural alignment within asana practice.

By the time Iyengar started using ropes to assist his students with inversions (and eventually other yoga postures, as well), he had already developed a number of other assistive props that helped his students with a variety of difficulties in various asanas. The idea to use ropes was simply the next logical step on a progression of prop inventions, and only looks like a dramatic invention if taken out of the context of all the other props he developed.

Creating Unnata® Aerial Yoga was for me the next logical step on my own personal progression of teaching Hatha Yoga.

I originally moved to NYC in 1991 to study Art and Modern Dance. I studied Modern Dance in a mixture of experimental, and traditional dance and movement forms from various countries. I focused mostly on classes in Kinetic Awareness (originally developed by Elaine Summers), Butoh (a style of Japanese modern dance), Release Technique (originally developed by Joan Skinner), Contact Improvisation Dance (originally developed by Steve Paxton), Vinyasa Yoga (contemporary yoga style), Developmental Technique (originally developed by Wendell Beavers and his studies in Body Mind Centering), and Ballet. Eventually, my studies focused on studying only Aerial Dance and Hatha Yoga. Since many of the dance forms I studied were themselves modalities evolved from more traditional forms of dance, the idea to blend two movement modalities together (Hatha Yoga with Aerial Dance) was simply a natural and logical step in my own growth and learning process.

Every person who teaches yoga (or any movement, for that matter) draws from individual experience. And whether or not they have a “name” for what they teach, each person’s instruction is a hybrid of all the learning and education, practice and experience that has brought them to that very moment. When I first started teaching Unnata® Aerial Yoga classes back in 2006, the way I originally used the yoga hammock was informed by what I had learned about movement through all of my previous dance and yoga experience, as well as all the breath and meditation I had practiced through classical Hatha Yoga.

In the broader field of “aerial yoga,” there are a variety of teachers, each with a unique background. Some have had a lot of yoga practice and study, and some have had very little. Many aerial yoga teachers draw from their experience with training in aerial acrobatics, pole fitness and Pilates. Some aerial yoga teachers draw from their experience with various specializations of yoga. (For example, restorative yoga is a specialization.) Each teacher’s class will be a unique reflection of their own background, and as you might imagine, this means not all aerial yoga classes will feel the same to students. In fact, each class can feel dramatically different, and give the students completely different results, too.

All Unnata® Aerial Yoga teachers are trained in traditional yoga before entering an Unnata® Aerial Yoga Teacher Training course. This is because our primary intention is to use the hammock as a prop to explore traditional yoga asanas. As you wrap your body in and around the hammock, you might play and explore some fun or dramatic postures in an Unnata® class – but the goal is always authentic yoga: aligning the body, deepening the breath, healing the nervous system and soothing the mind.

As Unnata® Aerial Yoga teachers, our intention is to awaken in the air a full experience of yoga asana, as it affects the whole being – body, mind and spirit. Remember, the main goal of a traditional Hatha Yoga practice is to affect the mind of the practitioner. We consider Unnata® a traditional Hatha Yoga practice. If a student also happens to move into a fun and dramatic asana in the air, well, that is a happy coincidence but not the main goal.

It has been important to me to create a style of yoga that is available for all levels of experience. As long as a student is in ‘good’ health then Unnata® Aerial Yoga is right for them. Since the hammock is used more as a prop rather than the main purpose of the class, adjustments can easily be made to best suit practitioners of almost all levels.

As of the writing of this blog post, Unnata® Aerial Yoga is over 11 years in the making, and continues to evolve through contributions of several senior Unnata® Aerial Yoga teachers as well as myself. Together, we are using our ingenuity and insight through years of Hatha Yoga study and continued practice. It is our joy to help our students fit together some of the numerous puzzle pieces that will help them eventually see the complete picture of Hatha Yoga.

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