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Juggling Grandmas & Tumbling Toddlers= Yoga Circus

Yoga hybrids abound. And why shouldn’t they? If you love yoga and dance, why not fuse them together to create Yoga Trance Dance, as Shiva Rea did? Similarly, combining Yoga and Pilates makes Yogalates. But yoga and a circus?

Yoga hybrids abound. And why shouldn’t they? If you love yoga and dance, why not fuse them together to create Yoga Trance Dance, as Shiva Rea did? Similarly, combining Yoga and Pilates makes Yogalates. But yoga and a circus?

The unlikely fusion began when Erin Maile met Kevin O’Keefe at a dance party in New York City in 1997. They shared an interest in the power of community, expressive movement and play. Erin’s training in dance and yoga, combined with Kevin’s experience in circus, theatre and performance, gave rise to the principles and practices of CircusYoga. Their first retreat was hosted by Kripalu Center in 2000. Two years later, Erin and Kevin began training teachers who wanted to learn how to facilitate CircusYoga practices. They took it on the road, travelling and teaching across America and around the globe to India, Thailand, The Philippines, Australia, Tasmania, Hawaii, Mexico, Belgium, Holland and elsewhere.

This intriguing hybrid piqued my curiosity, so I interviewed Erin Maile O’Keefe, and her husband and co-founder Kevin O’Keefe, to find out more.

I already do yoga. Why should I try CircusYoga? 

Erin: CircusYoga takes my solo yoga practice into relationship. Within a workshop I explore many different learning and relational situations. The playful, co-authored natured of a CircusYoga practice is profoundly supportive of how I move in the world with others. Participants come away feeling thrilled, fully-expressed and with a deep sense of belonging.

Kevin: CircusYoga is an open grassy field where everyone is included and anything can happen. In the case of CircusYoga, 1 +1 = 27. Circus + Yoga equals something much greater than the sum of its parts, because it is fun, easy, accessible to all, multi-generational, good for parent and child bonding, and because we long to care and connect in a circle of our community.

Walk us through one full workshop. How does it begin? What does the day feel like? What are the highs and lows?

Erin: We teach Partner Yoga, Counter Balances, Partner Acrobatics, Flying Yoga, Thai Yoga, Juggling, Balance, Circus toys, Bhangra Dancing, creative movement, hooping and so much more. Each facilitator weaves their own practices into the workshops.

We typically begin with a Fire Circle practice. This is a warm-up for the body and for the group forming as a whole. We stand or sit in a circle. A sequence of yoga postures is led or everyone is invited to offer a piece of our sequence through various creative games, such as a mirroring practice called Kaleidoscope or warm-ups for juggling.

Then, we’ll learn a specific skill. It might be in partnership with a prop or some partner yoga. We gear the progression for success, so often we will lead participants in a partnering activity before they work alone. The use of props is helpful in laying down developmental patterns such as push and pull. We always allow skills to be explored in a freer more creative way for some time before taking them further.

Kevin: We start seated or standing in a ‘fire circle’, a warm-up that incorporates spontaneous movements of people or actions happening in the room while weaving in a flow of yoga poses and movements that twist, turn and bend in all six directions. We emphasise safe touch and care with our circle mates. Good ideas travel quickly in a circle, and Circus Yoga teachers are tenders of the flame that exists in the centre of the circle.

How do participants respond? Tell me about a student who was resistant at first but came around by the end.

Erin: Years ago a girl name Kate and her mum Margaret (not their real names) came to our workshop. Kate was adopted from another country and had trust and socialisation issues. All the members of the circle were introducing themselves to the group with their name and a gesture of their choosing. Kate couldn’t handle the stress of this seemingly simple interaction. She ran and hid in the corner of the adjoining room. The entire circle followed her into the other room, where we ‘hid’ for a moment with her. She then led us back to the original room and it was the next person’s turn. One year later, her mother told us that Kate learned this was a circle of people who even if she rejected them would not reject her. We embraced her ‘no’ until it became ‘yes’. This is one small example of something we see every day.

Kevin: Like most of us, participants walk into the room for the first time a little reticent. It’s the first day of school syndrome. It’s the fear of not belonging. This is why inclusion is the first principle that we lead with. We use a bit of trickiness, in the beginning, to get everyone up on their feet, moving in the space and interacting right off the bat. Music is a great ally in this endeavor. One of our emblematic practices is the YES! Game. The gist of it is that the group embraces every idea that is offered and then proceeds to act it out. This is a game of inclusion. CircusYoga teachers practise this 24/7. So, if someone is particularly resistant, showing it in their body with folded arms perhaps, then the facilitator might enfold that emotion or body posturing into the flow of postures. This has worked for some feeling resistant. It is a way of empathizing by taking their shape with respect. The practice moves swiftly and there is lots of room to meet each activity in your own way. Facilitators get good at being able to discover the yes in themselves and in others. Rarely can anyone resist the allure of play? Those who are resistant or fearful get swept up in the play, usually by the end of the Fire Circle.

Finally, how is CircusYoga the same or different from summer camp?

Erin: Well, when we lead two- to five-day retreats, it feels like summer camp. It is important that everyone feels like a part of the whole and that it is safe to take risks, experiment and express the wide range of who they are. It is very hard to leave a CircusYoga Retreat. We do also lead CircusYoga Kids Camps in the summer. Because CircusYoga is designed as a multi-generational curriculum, the camps for kids are very similar to the Community Retreats.

Kevin: I never went to summer camp with my mom, dad, uncles or grandmother. In CircusYoga, everyone’s ideas, creativity, and needs are important and incorporated into the practice. At the summer camp, I went to, I was told what to do and expected to follow – and there was no show at the end, although we call our show a closing ritual or practice.

In addition to bringing families closer together, CircusYoga is highly adaptable to the needs of any group and has been applied in a variety of therapeutic environments including special needs schools, orphanages, mental health facilities, detention halls and homeless shelters. Retreat dates, locations, and prices can be found at circusyoga.org.



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