Fusing flexibility, fun and fitness

Saluting the sunshine ... Charlotte Piho.
Saluting the sunshine ... Charlotte Piho.

What's fun, fast and will make you serene while working on your six-pack?

The new styles of "yoga" that are gaining popularity around Australia and the world, that's what.


There's acro-yoga, which "blends the wisdom of yoga, the dynamic power of acrobatics and the loving kindness of healing arts". There's naked yoga, which many may not deem "fun", but it's certainly racy. There's hip hop yoga, where you do sun salutations to the soothing sounds of Eminem.

And let's not forget "Doga", where people essentially use their dogs as props to deepen their poses. No, not their downward-dogs.

Two new styles to hit Australia recently are stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga and hoop yoga.

Charlotte Piho of Work Out On Water chanced upon SUP yoga while teaching paddleboarding classes in the Cook Islands.

On a day off work, she found there were no waves to surf and it was too hot to go inside for a yoga class. So she paddled into the middle of a lagoon, on her paddleboard, to do her daily yoga ritual. "It was one of the most euphoric experiences I've ever had," she says.

Her lessons in Sydney begin with a gentle paddle, but once you're out on the water it's yoga as usual. "If you're going to salute the sun it makes sense to get out and salute it. All the hype about saluting it in an enclosed room where you breathe in dry, sweaty heat, I don't get it. I'm all for fresh air and sun on my skin.

"The water adds another dimension to a standard yoga routine, improving your balance and stability... so, it's great for getting a six-pack as it really targets your core ... And a lot of my students can do advanced yoga postures like headstands and full wheels [backward bend] on a board, but can't do them in a studio."

Similarly, Gloria Tong found a way to fuse yoga with her other passion - hula hooping. After attending workshops in the United States, where it's a "big scene", she began hooping in Sydney. "Lots of yogis do it," she says. "Because it's getting in tune with your body a bit more - it's fun and active."

She felt that traditional yoga moves, or asanas, and the flow of hooping (which is known for developing core strength and well as cardiovascular fitness) were a natural fit. "So I made a fusion up. In yoga we use props like blocks and straps to align. We can use the hoop in this way too - placing it against your back if you're off centre [for example].

"The fusion of these two forms of exercise allows you to stretch, relax and explore the freedom of your body in many different ways."

While she doesn't "talk too much about the philosophy [of yoga]", she says that "it's a movement meditation ... It ignites the kundalini [spiralling] energy in the body - so you get a physical and spiritual benefit through the practice." Plus, "it's fun - why not inject some smiles and laughter into your practice?"

Why not indeed? But are these "yogas" really yoga or are they just marketing gimmicks?

"I think different types of yoga are making yoga more accessible to everyone," Tong says. "It always comes back to the same principles of yoga: breathing, connecting and moving with your body."

Charlotte Piho agrees. "They're not just some contrived, photogenic exercise gimmick. There are few sports that make you feel invincible and insanely happy ...

"Yoga is all about being present in the moment and forgetting all the stresses of your past and future. When you're on the paddleboard you instantly forget about all your worries - you're too busy concentrating on staying on the board and admiring the scenery... It's a spiritual experience that is indescribable."

But, respected yoga teacher and physiotherapist of over 30 years, Simon Borg Olivier has mixed feelings

"On the one hand yoga means 'whole' or 'complete' so you could say that every new style is a valid yoga, and if something is safe and fun then I am all for it", says the owner of Bondi's Yoga Synergy. "On another level yoga means 'to unify' or 'to join'. The best way to do this on a practical level is improve blood flow because it brings energy, in the form of oxygen, to your cells... But, over-stretching or over-tensing muscles inhibits blood flow and the transfer of oxygen to the cells."

His point is that much of what we now call 'yoga' is not really yoga at all, in its traditional sense. A traditional yogi may sometimes look like they are in very strong and/or contorted posture, but are not likely to feel like any sense of 'stretch' or 'tension'. Yet what is mostly taught as yoga today is actually over-stretching, over-tensing and over-breathing exercises that are physiologically known to reduce the flow of blood and the delivery of oxygen to the cells.

"People are confused as to what yoga is. The ancient system has been significantly altered.. and it's been re-imagined in the last 10 to 15 years. The average teacher has only been teaching for four or five years - so [10 to 15 years is] already ancient history, yet most teachers think they are teaching traditional yoga."

While he thinks that calling a form of exercise 'yoga' may attract more people, it will also put others off. "I taught two classes at Filex (Fitness Industry Conventions and Exhibitions) last year. They were exactly the same, but one, which  has the term 'core stabilisation' in the title, had 70 or 80 people attend while the other, which had the term 'yoga' in the title, had only had 10 or 15 people."

His main concern is that unless they're taught properly, all the new forms of 'yoga' can give 'yoga' a bad name. "90 per cent of what is being taught is not yoga. It's a mishmash," he says. But, he is not pointing the finger: "you can't generalise about all of them."

For Gloria Tong it's a case of the more options the merrier. "I know people think yoga should be grassroots and traditional, but I think it's great. You're in your own zone and it's all about getting people to move and be more healthy and fit in with lifestyle. It's all so personal - there are so many different types."

This story Fusing flexibility, fun and fitness first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.