Learning to trust in our humanity

An interview with Acroyoga Co-Founder, Jenny Sauer-Klein

Photo Credit: Cleveland Groove

This weekend at the Yoga Journal Conference San Francisco, I took decided to venture just a little beyond my comfort zone and dip my toe into the world of Acroyoga. I walked in expecting circus tricks, silliness, and maybe (if I was lucky) some good stretching… but I found was that PLUS a practice much more deep and rich than I’d ever imagined. After class I sat down with Jenny Sauer-Klein, one of the founders of Acroyoga, to chat about some of the surprises that had arisen. Enjoy the interview!

To start off with, what is Acroyoga?

JS: Acroyoga is a combination of acrobatics, yoga, and healing arts that cultivates trust, connection, playfullness and community.

CR: Awesome. And you’re one of the developers, correct?

JS: Yes. Jason Nemer and I created Acroyoga eight years ago.

CR: How did that happen? Was it intentional, did you set out to create a whole new style of yoga?

JS: (laughter) That’s a good question, how did we develop it? A lot of experimenting, a lot of playing, a lot of jamming! You know, Acroyoga is a grassroots movement in the very literal sense of the word. Our office is Dolores Park in San Francisco, and we used to go there and play all the time.

We definitely had previous background in acrobatics, thai massage, and yoga… So we already had a lot of the building blocks. It’s like, we had the words but we were creating totally new sentences. We were taking the backgrounds we had and saying, what happens if we combine this with this? What if we link this with this? What if we put three people into this? The first couple years were a pretty big free-for-all. A lot of imagining and just letting it reveal itself.

CR: One of the things that stuck out to me most when we were in class earlier was that all the exercise we were doing really felt like a reflection of what you do in a relationship with someone. Trust building, sharing power, communication…

JS: Oh, yes.

CR: I wonder how developing Acroyoga has influenced your personal relationships… not just your intimate relationships, but across the board?

JS: It’s been huge. I think of them as one in the same. When I was going into college I knew I either wanted to study Psychology or Theater, because I’ve always been fascinated with interpersonal dynamics and how we relate. And I actually ended up doing theater because I felt that theater was like embodied psychology. It was a way of understanding the way we are from the inside, from our own experience. And Acroyoga has been another step in that direction in terms of really working with our consciousness and relating not just on the level of consciousness, but through a physical practice.

So, I’ve always intended this work to be about relationship. Even though it seems like I’m teaching Thai Massage or acrobatics, what I’m really teaching about is principles of how we can work with one another. For me, it’s infiltrated all parts of my life — my friendships, my intimate relationships, my family. It’s been really deep to walk the talk… to not see what I’m doing on the yoga mat or  as a teacher as separate from what I live in our everyday life. It’s held me to this really high bar of honesty and compassion, and really speaking my truth.

CR: Can you give me an example of one of those principles?

Sure. We often speak to this concept of benevolent curiosity. For me, that’s been super powerful. To me, benevolent curiosity is about always assuming the best in other people. It’s assuming that everyone has a good intention, and if there’s something that upsets me, it’s like… I assume you have a good intention and that I somehow misunderstood it. Instead of reacting with, “I can’t believe you said that! How could you have done that?” my question is, “What was behind that? What were you thinking when you shared that with me?”

It’s really a practice. It’s a practice of taking time to pause, to filter, to flip things around, and then to communicate from that place of, “I want to understand and I want to be connected form my heart.”

CR: For someone who has never practiced Acroyoga, they might hear you talk about benevolent curiosity and be like… How the heck does that come from a people playing around and flying one another in the air? So, for someone like that, how do these relational concepts emerge from the practice of Acroyoga?

JS: Well, often when you work with people (and especially when you get into acrobatics) you have an active base and an active flyer. So two people are having a very dynamic conversation through their bodies, their voices, their intentions, and their minds.

It’s wild. I feel like the body is just so revealing. When I teach people and watch them practice… if they only knew how much I am learning about them in like five seconds! When I observe the way people work together, I learn so much about their psyche and their emotional life. Do they trust themselves? Do they trust other people? It’s just so very revealing. And there’s also risk involved. You’re taking people’s weight, they’re off the floor, and when that happens all of our fight or flight instincts come to the surface.

So it’s just very revealing. And the really beautiful part is you get to use the body and the relationship as a laboratory to shift those emotional patterns. To discover how you can trust yourself, how you can learn to trust others, how we can take these step-by-step, physically embodied activities to transform our mental and emotional lives.

CR: Yea, and I can imagine it seeps out into all your other relationships? I mean, we say that all the time: This practice carries off the mat. But with this, you are quite literally playing out…

JS: …your whole life story!

CR: Yes! It’s amazing. You’re literally practicing how to be in relationship with others.

JS: Yes, absolutely. And often times we try to help people learn tangible things, like asking for what you need. For example, we talk a lot about solutionary feedback. So instead of, “Ow, that hurts!” it’s “Can you soften your foot? Can you move your hand?” Intead of just pointing out that something doesn’t feel right, offer a solution to your partner. Invite your partner to give you something that will work for you.

CR: Man. It makes me think… wow, this could have such a tremendous impact on a communal, on a collective level. I know you’ve done a lot of work internationally and with global communities. What are you seeing the effects of this practice be in your students and their communities?

Photo Credit: Acroyoga

JS: It’s been amazing.It’s giving people a forum to connect in a very intimate, non-sexual, safe, and nurturing way. In a time when we have so much technology connecting us virtually, it seems like we have less and less opportunity to have that real life, human, vulnerable interaction. There are so many people who don’t get touched everyday, who don’t hug anyone, who go to an office and stay in an embodied bubble all day long. But we need touch; we need nurturance.

This practice is about breaking down the barriers between people, the assumptions, the projections about otherness. It’s bringing it back to the remembrance that we all have the same human experience, the same emotions, the same fears.

You know, we have a lot of students who have been victims of sexual violence. They come and they’re not necessarily comfortable touching or being touched. But through this practice — because it’s permission based, because it’s consensual, because it’s nurturing — they’ve been able to start to rebuild that kind of trust with people. That’s been really powerful.

When you fly with someone (so to speak)… the beauty of it is you get the opportunity really deeply connect with a stranger in just five minutes. I don’t care what their name is, how old they are, what they do for a living… because we’re connecting at essence level. It shows people what’s possible when you open the heart, let go and just trust in humanity.

If you’re interested in learning more about Acroyoga, you can check out information about upcoming workshops, trainings, and events on their website.

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- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

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