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Beyond the mat: alternative yoga practices 

Suspended from the ceiling, or posing on a land-locked surfboard or on a paddleboard floating on Bayou St. John are not typical yoga environments.

  Unconventional yoga forms combine the spirituality of meditation with a cardio and core workout typical of doing crunches and planks until you pass out. By adding an element of instability (a silk tether, a surfboard attached to inflated ballasts, an aquatic current), yogis can maximize the workout potential of vinyasa flow yoga, which focuses on the transition between several postures of varying intensity. Stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga, surfboard yoga and aerial yoga are designed to improve balance and strengthen core muscles while promoting mental clarity.

click to enlarge NOLA Paddleboards’ Anne Messner (left) leads yogis in the Sun Salutation pose. - PHOTO BY KATHERINE M. JOHNSON
  • Photo by Katherine M. Johnson
  • NOLA Paddleboards’ Anne Messner (left) leads yogis in the Sun Salutation pose.

1 Paddleboard yoga

  Jeff Lakey, owner of NOLA Paddleboards, makes sure his clients feel comfortable with paddleboarding before instructor Anne Messner adds yoga. Each session begins and ends with a 10-minute paddling trip on Bayou St. John, which warms up the muscles needed for everything from the Sun Salutation pose to Warriors 1 and 2. Boards are provided, and are equipped with small craft anchors.

  Messner and Lakey's class combines the physical exertion of yoga with a love for the outdoors.

  "Being out in such a beautiful place definitely makes you feel more connected to nature and to the city," Messner says. "It's a little more of a transcendent experience."

  Once Messner and her students have reached the class site (where Grand Route St. John intersects with the bayou), Lakey anchors the paddleboards and lashes them together. Yogis start supine, navels pressed to the board, to establish centers of gravity. Poses progress slowly, from being on all fours to kneeling to standing, so clients can adjust to the changing equilibrium.

  The paddleboards are balanced by design, and if yogis stay astride the midline of the board, falling is unlikely, Messner says. Students are encouraged to challenge themselves, but not to the point of capsizing.

click to enlarge Clients strike the Downward-Facing Dog pose during Buddha Board yoga at City Surf Fitness. - BY LIZ DAINO PHOTOGRAPHY
  • By Liz Daino Photography
  • Clients strike the Downward-Facing Dog pose during Buddha Board yoga at City Surf Fitness.

2 Surfboard yoga

  Balancing on a surfboard is trickier — especially when that board is mounted on air-filled rubber balloons. Becky Hardin, owner of City Surf Fitness, and her business partners first saw the SURFSET Board on ABC's Shark Tank, and were inspired to create a gym with workouts centered around the boards. The Buddha Board class infuses the serenity of yoga with the core and cardio kick of riding the waves.

  "One of our clients once said, 'I feel like I just worked out and took a nap at the same time," Hardin says.

  Kirat Sundrani, Buddha Board instructor, created her own yoga mat/board blend. Yogis are required to wear surf socks for gripping the board. The studio recommends clients bring their own mats, but there are a few available. Like SUP yoga, Buddha Board requires students to engage core muscles to set up the body for good balance. Sundrani's technique also is informed by vinyasa flow, although transitions are tougher because of the inherent instability of the board. Its balance point is not in its true center, but more toward its nose. The boards are pressure-sensitive, so it's easier to balance by pressing one's weight into the board rather than being light-footed. Students can kneel on the board or move to a mat if they find a position too difficult.

  "It's easier to balance with a lower center of gravity, but it's just as challenging to the core," Sundrani says.

click to enlarge Students acclimate to a sling in aerial yoga at Crescent City Aerial Arts.
  • Students acclimate to a sling in aerial yoga at Crescent City Aerial Arts.

3 Aerial yoga

  Aerial yoga uses a sling with one or two points of attachment to the ceiling. Novice practitioners often use a sling with both ends attached for stability, creating a loop that varies in height from a few inches to a few feet off the floor. Aerial yoga also uses core muscles for balance, but the sling relieves stress on weight-bearing body parts, allowing yogis to spend time suspended in the air or even inverted. It also lessens pressure from spinal compression. Aerial yoga is a great workout, and is used as a rehabilitative treatment for musculoskeletal injuries.

  Michael Quintana, aerial yoga instructor at Crescent City Aerial Arts, begins all classes with what he calls "terrestrial yoga," and moves to more dynamic positions in a sling. Many of the poses maintain at least one point of contact with the floor, such as a foot or a hand. More experienced practitioners progress to complete suspension.

  "There are not a lot of experiences that we can bring to aerial yoga that will help you," Quintana says. "You have to allow yourself to be an amateur, and approach it with a blank slate and be open to how the body responds."

 Instructors across these disciplines agree that open-mindedness is essential. Understanding of yoga postures is important, especially for suspended practice, but classes can be modified to fit the skill level of attendees.Balance is learned — each of these yoga styles alters the body's center of gravity, and it takes a few lessons before people acclimate.

  "Be open to explore your own possibility," Sundrani says. "If you come in with expectations, then you don't open yourself to the opportunity to be surprised by what you can or cannot do."

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