Inner Peace, Off the Ground: Yoga in the Air and on the Water

by Valerie Reiss

On a good day during my friend Dara’s cancer struggle, I took her to my favorite yoga class. Though she had some yoga background, it was on the advanced side, and I was concerned she might exhaust herself. When the teacher announced that we’d be practicing Forearm Stand—an inversion I’ve never been able to do without fear—I worried. But Dara, with the teacher’s assistance, gracefully popped up into the pose, her first time. For a moment I could see it: She was free. When she came down, with a euphoric smile, she wanted to do it again, and she did.

That moment of lightness and play during a time of heaviness and grief has stuck with me—when you’re dragging, to feel like you’re flying is an amazing gift.

No matter your life or health circumstances, though, we all know that giddy rush that comes with defying gravity, the thrill of leaving the ground—whether you’re surfing, riding a roller coaster, or pushing up into Handstand. In recent years, an entire style of yoga has launched from the notion that changing our relationship to the earth beneath us can alter our perspective, redefine our sense of what’s possible, and even change our lives—while also being a whole lot of fun. It has many names: aerial yoga, AcroYoga, Anti-Gravity Yoga, and more, but no matter what you call it, you can expect to see things differently. “It’s the ultimate rebellion,” says Dana Flynn, cofounder of Laughing Lotus yoga studios and Lotus Flow Yoga.

Yoga in the air, though, still needs to be mindfully grounded so that taking flight is possible, both physically and emotionally. “There’s often a lot of fear that comes up from leaving the ground and moving into the unknown,” Flynn says. “But when you’re rooted and connected, the more you can take flight. It’s finding that balance.”

For Flynn, yoga in the air inspired love at first flight. Her devotion to yogic playfulness comes from a desire to stay curious, fired up, and passionate about life—“as you get older, you become more of a spectator, and this is the ultimate participation,” she said.

Like yoga in general, airborne practice offers what Flynn calls “inner tools that create this feeling of lightness—freedom from stress, freedom from worry.” It’s not how high you lift, she says, it’s about taking risks and going all in. “People say, ’I’m coming here to learn a Handstand and I’m leaving falling in love with my life and inspired to live more fully.’ That’s the big turn-on about flying.”

Suspended in Comfort and Ease

Other styles of elevated yoga include more deliberately therapeutic forms, like Sarah Kellett’s OmGym. After a bad car accident left her with chronic injuries, Sarah began experimenting with suspended yoga and started to feel more flexible than she ever had (and, for the self-professed least bendy girl in dance class at age six, that was saying a lot). But she found the equipment offerings for suspended yoga lacking. So Sarah developed the Complete OmGym Suspension System, an adjustable, portable, comfy way to fly that fuses Iyengar Yoga’s slings and ropes and Aerial Yoga’s silks. “It’s about alignment and creating long-term comfort in the body,” says Sarah.

This style is geared for any yogi body, including newbie practitioners and the physically handicapped. Some of the poses Sarah teaches are practiced completely in the air, but many are done while partially suspended and still maintaining contact with the ground. For example, Downward-Facing Dog is practiced with a sling lifting the hips: You walk backward, lean forward, and relax into the pose. Because of the traction and support, many experience a deeper release—and more enjoyment of the posture—than they ever have before.

This accessibility allows for just about anyone to safely reap the benefits of inversions. “Gravity is such an intense force,” says Sarah, whose background includes training as a physical therapist. “It’s constantly pulling on us in one direction all the time. When you start reversing the effects of gravity, it’s subtle, but you feel like you have more motivation, your digestion gets better, blood flow gets better, your body gets looser. Things come into synergy.”

Balanced in Nature

Another way to redefine the body’s relationship to gravity is to move off the earth and onto the water, which is what Ryan and Juliet Burch do when they teach their Float Your Yoga workshops.

The cofounders of SUPfari Adventures in Cape Cod start their yoga retreats with a mock paddling session on the ground; students learn to navigate the equipment before making a splash is even an option. Once acclimated, the group hits the water and paddles to a protected area to form a floating yoga studio.

The yoga that happens atop the swaying boards instantly connects students to the shifting water beneath them. “There are a lot of subtle poses in yoga that became very challenging on an unstable surface,” says Ryan. Even a relatively simple posture like Warrior I necessitates lots of weight shifts and balances. Other poses use the board as a prop. All strengthen muscles related to balance and help improve core strength and overall stability. They also demand a heightened awareness. “You have a constant connection to being present because you have to,” Ryan says. He assures those afraid of losing their balance that falling off the board is part of the fun.

Also part of the fun is playing in nature. “As the wind shifts, the class shifts with it,” says Ryan. He sees students noticing, absorbing, connecting with, and appreciating their surroundings in a whole new way. “You can feel the breeze, and you can hear the birds and the water lapping against your board,” he says. “This slows people down,” so they can be even more attentive to their shifting relationship with yoga, gravity, and themselves.

Valerie Reiss is a writer, editor, speaker, consultant, and Kripalu Yoga instructor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Women's Health, Natural Health, Yoga Journal, Beliefnet, Vegetarian Times, and more.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail