If you’re sweating it out in an asana class, find yourself in the midst of a heated argument, or have an impossible deadline you’re struggling to make, a concept like lila (Sanskrit for “play”) is probably the last thing on your mind. Lila, often defined as the ability to joyfully embrace life, is according to Acroyoga founder Jenny Sauer-Klein, “our natural state of being” and yet, she notes, “it’s a choice we have to make every day, on our yoga mat, at home, or at work.”
I recently met Circus yoga teacher Kelly Curtis, and talked to her about how the playfulness of yoga styles like Acroyoga and Circus yoga can teach any of us, to lighten up and not take ourselves so seriously.
What makes a circus yoga class unique?
Circus yoga classes have a lot of the same elements as Acroyoga—yoga poses, flying partner yoga, thai massage—but in a different way. There’s a lot of play and co-creation and collaboration. Those are the underlying principles—multiple people working together in multi-generational groups.
We also play a lot of games, do juggling, poi, and tightrope walking.
Do you think activities like that really promote creativity, for kids and adults?
Definitely. Some of the activities that we do ask you to literally create new things in a short amount of time. We set up the environment in such a way that it just seems like a perfect garden for creativity, for things to blossom out of no matter what.
What are some skills someone could develop using Circus yoga?
Trust is huge. We do a lot of things that are scary—not just up-in-the-air scary, but scary because you have to get up in front of everyone else and show them things that you just came up with.
When you’re flying, in flying partner yoga, you have to trust the person who is facing you. For some people that’s scary—some people cry. It tends to bring up any insecurities you have.
Circus yoga gives you an outlet. I think there’s a lot of therapy that happens.
Wow. Can you give me another example?
We play this game called the “Yes” game. The idea behind it is that we all say “Yes” to everyone’s ideas by literally shouting YES at the top of our lungs.
Somebody comes up with an idea like, “Let’s ride our bikes downhill” and then everyone has to go “YES! Let’s ride our bikes downhill!” and then everybody pretends to ride a bike downhill.
It’s kind of a cool way to get people to say yes to things.
Has anyone ever asked you what makes a class with juggling, tightrope walking, and games like the “Yes” game actually yoga?
One of the common definitions that Erin, who is a founder of Circus yoga, has given is that we are bringing the consciousness of yoga and the creative celebration [of circus arts] together.
It’s not like while juggling you’re doing yoga at the same time, but there’s an aspect of concentration that yoga embodies, [dharana], that is also there when you’re juggling. The moment your mind wanders while you’re juggling, you’re going to drop a ball or a club.
We also do practice yoga within the circus yoga workshop—actual yoga poses and partner yoga and flying partner yoga.
What effect, if any, has teaching circus yoga had on the way you teach traditional forms of yoga?
Circus yoga has helped me personally see [hatha yoga] in a slightly different way. It has given me more freedom.
I come from such a serious yoga background and it’s hard to break free from that, especially when you only have 50 minutes with people, which is what I have most of the time. [But] I now tend to be funnier when I’m teaching my yoga classes. Getting people to just laugh and open up—”this pose is the windmill pose, also known as the wind relieving pose—hahaha”
Has it also affected your life, in any way, off the mat?
Yes. I think it’s helped me in a lot of ways to think about how I communicate with people in relationships. That can be a challenging thing sometimes (laughs).
How can a teacher apply circus yoga to their teaching style?
Try to add in some fun. Keep it light. There’s so much depth to yoga, but you can still keep it light, so the students can understand it and they’re not taking it too seriously.
—It’s not a bad thing to take your practice seriously. But it depends on how seriously you take it and how that’s affecting you.
No kidding. Any other tips?
Practice lion pose before you teach—practice it a couple times. It can help you express yourself more clearly.
I’d also recommend that teachers try sharing their personal experiences—I think that relating something you’ve experienced to whatever you’re teaching is something that people appreciate.
What about advice for beginners—what would you tell someone before their first class?
Explore yoga with creativity and an open mind. We have a little song in Circus yoga that goes, “you can’t get it wrong, you can’t get it wrong…” There is no exact right or wrong. [A pose] doesn’t have to be perfect in any way, so we say that practice is perfect in Circus yoga, instead of saying that practice makes perfect.