Israelis flipping for acro-yoga
Jerusalem-based instructor Ayo Oppenheimer bases student Rabbi Rachel Kobrin in her first acro-yoga flight. (photo by Daniel Cuevas)
As I walk through Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon Park on a gorgeous day, I watch people enjoy nice, normal activities like soccer, running, rowing and yoga. But that’s not what I’m here for. No, I’m at the park to join a weekly meetup of people who balance, flip and manoeuvre each other in a series of gravity-defying poses called “acro-yoga.”
Even though I don’t know a soul, I instantly recognize the acro-yoga group. They are all partnered up, the “bases” lying on their backs with the “flyers” balancing on top of them.
Within minutes of joining them, I meet Yair Chuchem, a computer programmer who’s practised these strange yet fun-looking moves for more than three years. When I tell him that I’m writing an article about Israel’s growing acro-yoga craze and ask for an interview, he responds, “The best way to understand acro-yoga is to do it.”
Anything for my craft….
The next thing I know, I’m trusting Chuchem – a complete stranger – to balance me upside-down with my shoulders planted on the soles of his feet. Surprisingly, Chuchem doesn’t feel like a stranger for long. After all, we are literally in a position that requires us to communicate and cooperate clearly and patiently with each other.
“This is what acro-yoga is all about,” he said after carefully lowering me back on my feet. “It’s trust and teamwork, and it bonds people.”
Once the blood rushes out of my head, I realize he’s right. Chuchem already feels like a friend (although, had he dropped me, I might feel differently).
In terms of the physical dynamics, acro-yoga is a practice that combines acrobatics and yoga moves between the base and the flyer. But, as I learned from my first experience, it also involves cooperation and some fearlessness, which perhaps is why Israelis are going absolutely crazy for it.
“Acro-yoga is a really fun practice with lots of social components to it,” explained Ofir Gothilf, an established acro-yoga instructor based in Tel Aviv. “It’s a warm community that uses touch in a safe, secure way; and everyone is looking for that human experience – maybe Israelis more than others.”
While acro-yoga (or acro-balance) is an international practice – with the trademarked AcroYoga school founded by two Americans in 2003 – it has grown leaps and bounds in Israel, which is recognized as one of the strongest, if youngest, acro-yoga communities worldwide.
“[The community] started out as just 10 friends wanting to jam and get together in the park,” explained Eitan Padan, an Israeli acro-yoga instructor with six years of experience. “And now, in just two years, it’s grown to over 4,000 members.”
That figure is based on current members of Israel’s acro-yoga Facebook group called LaOof Nifgashim or Fly Together. Padan estimates that among the 4,500 members, several hundred of them actively practise. The interest is also evident by the sheer number of acro-yoga opportunities throughout the country. According to Fly Together, Israel boasts nearly 30 instructors, classes and self-organized meetups spanning from Eilat to Haifa.
From May 21 to 24, a few hundred Israeli acro-yoga enthusiasts of varying levels were in the Negev for the fifth Israeli Acrobatic Convention, featuring workshops led by world-class teachers hailing from cities including Berlin, Paris and Moscow.
Among the headlining instructors was Lux Sternstein, who, for his third year in a row, traveled all the way from Seattle to lead several advanced workshops throughout the convention’s four-day program. Upon each visit, Sternstein grows more impressed with the growth and diversity of Israel’s acro-yoga community.
“Most remarkable to me is the age range [in Israel],” Sternstein said. “It’s the model that I wish the entire world would practise – to have teenagers and senior citizens working together. We don’t have that in North America, where it’s typically people in their early 20s to mid-40s.”
While it might seem shocking to imagine senior citizens doing acro-yoga, it speaks to the inclusive, welcoming nature of the practice, said Padan, who is in his 50s.
“Everyone can come join,” he said. “No matter your sex, race, religion, size, age. There is no sense of competition in ‘acro’ like there is in other sports. It’s about working together.”
Beyond recreation and fitness, acro-yoga also has therapeutic applications, said Jerusalem-based instructor Ayo Oppenheimer, who taught in the United States before immigrating to Israel.
“Acro-yoga is a tool for happiness, self-awareness and empowerment,” she said. “In addition to teaching my regular practice, I’ve taught here [in Israel] at a women’s shelter for victims of domestic violence and at a hospital for teenage girls at risk. I don’t see myself as a fitness instructor. For me, I really believe that acro-yoga can improve people’s lives.”
Back at the HaYarkon acro meetup, I hear a similar sentiment. People aren’t here for exercise, per se, but for a challenge that thrives on personal connection.
“It’s nice that people are cooperating together for one goal,” said Shira Rosenzweig, who is one of the best flyers at the meetup.
Next comes a real visual treat: Rosenzweig and Chuchem pair up. From handstands to turns to straddles, Rosenzweig gracefully flows from pose to pose with Chuchem expertly guiding and supporting her. They look like an ice-dancing couple who has practised together for years. But, then I remind myself that this is acro-yoga. It’s quite possible that they only just met.
Israel21C is a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.