Lately I’ve been fielding more and more questions about the difference between aerial silks (circus) and aerial yoga. For anyone who’s taken both types of well-taught classes the differences are usually pretty obvious, but it can sometimes be confusing for new students.
I teach both aerial yoga and aerial circus (in different classes). As a yoga instructor I am constantly thinking about intentions. “Why am I doing this pose?” As an aerial instructor I am constantly thinking about progressions. “How am I doing this skill?” Of course, there is definitely going to be some overlap in these two types of classes and these two questions, but there are many important differences as well.
Progressions are defined as “the process of developing or moving gradually towards a more advanced state.” Whether I’m teaching an aerial yoga class or an aerial circus class, I am using progressions.
Aerial acrobats are constantly using progressions to get into a harder skill. I want them to understand the skill and through the sometimes arduous process of mastering a skill they are likely to learn something important about themselves too.
But the way I use progressions in aerial yoga is different because the intentions of yoga are primary and the difficulty level of a pose is secondary (or even further down the list). When I’m teaching yoga classes, whether on the ground or using the aerial yoga hammock, I always think about how to guide students to the next level of understanding themselves. In any yoga practice we are constantly moving toward a state of yoga. It’s a circular path because we’re both “practicing” yoga, and at the same time trying to achieve a state of “yoga”. And that’s what I love so much about yoga…it tells us both that we are already where we want to be, and also that we can always improve. It’s very empowering and at the same time, humbling!
How this applies to my teaching:
In Unnata we use the hammock very effectively, but the wraps and the setups tend to be simple because we don’t want to take too much attention outward during our yoga practice. I’m not teaching complicated wraps or complex movement skills, I’m teaching simple supports and slow movements that naturally allow us to focus our attention inward. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras say “Yoga is restraining the mind-stuff (Citta) from taking various forms (Vrittis).” This can be interpreted in many ways but I always come back to the idea that when we practice yoga we are essentially moving to a deeper awareness of ourselves and the world around us and how we are connected. We are not trying to achieve a future goal, we are practicing becoming more connected in the present moment.
So when teaching yoga my intent is to help guide students toward that state. That means the progressions for yoga look very different from the progressions for aerial circus, because the goals are also completely different! In aerial circus we help students understand their body in relation to the apparatus, and help them take baby steps toward a bigger outward goal. In yoga we guide students’ awareness inward.
How this process looks in an Aerial Yoga class:
From the first moment that a student touches their hammock in an aerial yoga class, I’m focused on guiding their awareness from where it is right now to a deeper level of awareness. So if a new student is really excited about the hammock (yay!), then I want to guide them to best using the hammock so they can feel their own body as they use it. I’m guiding the attention from something outside of themselves (the hammock) to something inside, their own physical body and how it feels.
Once a student is really in tune with their body and how it feels using the hammock, then I might guide their attention deeper in toward their breath. This adds a new layer of awareness. Once a student is really in tune with their breathing and their body while using the hammock, then I might guide their awareness toward how they are feeling. Are they tense? Worried? Ecstatic? Or I might guide their awareness towards what thoughts are going through their brain. And then back again toward how their body is feeling and how they are breathing.
This process of shifting awareness deeper continues on and on, and it’s very circular. This is a lot to be aware of and a lot of work, so in aerial yoga I always keep the use of the hammock simple. I don’t want to distract students from the greater inward goal.
Reminder to teachers:
When teaching aerial yoga there’s a powerful opportunity to help students feel and experience new sensations, and in our Unnata teacher trainings we always remind our trainees that with the potential power of using the hammock for yoga comes a great responsibility as teachers. In aerial yoga we are teaching yoga, and we’re using a prop to help students move toward that state of yoga. In other words the prop is secondary in Aerial Yoga, whereas in aerial circus the prop takes center stage.
At the end of an aerial yoga class students should feel that they’ve moved closer to a state of Yoga, and that’s what makes for a great class!
About the Author
Jordan Anderson has been teaching Unnata® Aerial Yoga since 2009, she is an Unnata Aerial Yoga Course Leader, and co-founder and director of Aerial Fit®. Jordan looks to yoga teachers such as Doug Keller for inspiration on grounding and anatomy, Andrey Lappa for energy bodies and Dharma Mittra for kindness.
Jordan is a firm believer that the practice of yoga (all 8 limbs of it!) can enhance anyone’s quality of life.