Flexible therapy

Instructor Ayo Oppenheimer-Abitbol asserts that the practice of acroyoga is about much more than physical fitness – it is ‘a tool for social and personal transformation.’

The instructor at the record-setting flash mob in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square this past March (photo credit: DAVID ABITBOL)
The instructor at the record-setting flash mob in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square this past March
(photo credit: DAVID ABITBOL)
Acroyoga, the combination of yoga and acrobatics, tends to conjure up images of nimble, semi-nude bodies stretched out in sunny parks in various stages of balanced pose. Although it may be considered a fun, flirtatious, circusesque activity, there is much more to acroyoga than that.
Acroyoga instructor Ayo Oppenheimer- Abitbol says, “Acroyoga can be adapted to fitness, circus or performing environments, but the way that I like to use it most is as a tool for social and personal transformation.”
In the classes she holds in her home in Nahlaot called Acroyoga with Ayo, she teaches students of all levels. In her beginners’ class, they are currently learning the transitions between all the introductory moves and are having important conversations about consent.
“Everything in acroyoga is a model for the outside world,” Oppenheimer- Abitbol explains. “What happens if there’s someone in the class who you aren’t comfortable working with? What if someone bigger than you asks you to base them and you’re worried that you may not be strong enough? How do we communicate our own boundaries and give consent when there is actually consent, not just saying yes? Acroyoga training is helpful in a lot of areas in life. If we’re not prepared with how to respond, we end up in situations where we’re not comfortable.”
Some of the students in her classes are survivors of abuse, while others are going through divorce. They feel that in one way or another their bodies have failed them. Acroyoga allows them to reconnect with their bodies and feel the love and joy that once felt so out of reach. The playful, positive and therapeutic environment of acroyoga classes means it’s all happening in a safe setting.
“Once I saw what acroyoga could do for your average person who walks in the door, I realized there was something very powerful and transformative here,” Oppenheimer-Abitbol adds. “There is this element of rediscovering play and childlike wonder.”
Acroyoga’s introductory position is called bird, and it’s something most people haven’t done since they were five and played airplane with dad. The pose brings back the childlike feeling of flying in a way that few other activities can provide.
Oppenheimer-Abitbol points out that another important element of acroyoga is the support that’s found in the class environment. In team sports, everyone works together, but there are always the star players who get the most game time. For acroyoga to work, both partners have to be on board and in sync not just with each other’s movements but with each other’s breathing as well. It is truly another level of connecting person- to-person.
Acroyoga’s supportive environment is due in large part to the idea of safe, consensual touch. Oppenheimer-Abitbol has worked in the field of healthy relationships, sexuality, communication and intimacy for many years. As founder of the Jewrotica website, with the tagline “Get Jewish, Get Sexy,” she dealt with all those subjects and more. She also spent time lecturing on sexuality and relationships.
“What I’ve seen being raised in an Orthodox Jewish community is an extremization of touch, where most people are not getting enough at all or the touch they do get is put in this very stigmatized category. To take something as beautiful as touch and to either not get enough or to put it in only a sexual category is not healthy for our development. Acroyoga is an environment, where in a respectful way, you have non-sexual, playful, consensual touch. This is a huge component that’s missing from most people’s lives,” she explains.
From 2012 to 2015, Oppenheimer-Abitbol volunteered and worked for Bat Melech, the only shelter in Israel for religious women victims of domestic violence and their children. She began in an educational capacity, gathering and writing material on healthy relationships and signs of abuse, as well as building up the website. Then she started teaching yoga and acroyoga and saw the incredible effect that it had on the women.
“It was fascinating,” she recounts. “In every environment, you have unique factors. At Bat Melech, a good portion of the women were haredi or hassidic. Because of modesty, in their communities there is not a lot of body awareness or importance placed on physical fitness. So going into the shelter, I broke a stigma by teaching a kosher-style class.”
With the shelter’s trampoline and acroyoga as tools, Oppenheimer-Abitbol’s classes broke through the constraints that had been put on the women of Bat Melech. As victims of abuse who were suffering from trauma, there was a part of them that had retreated inside; they no longer trusted or felt comfortable expressing themselves because they had been beaten down physically and emotionally.
“In acroyoga, you can’t do anything without trust; it’s a prerequisite. Even starting from the most basic poses, we took about an hour beforehand just building trust again in their own intuition. With victims of abuse, that’s something that was taken from them. The awareness of connecting and listening to the body are also prerequisites. Then building on that with another person when you’re generally not getting enough trust, comfort and play is so beneficial. During those sessions, there was a lot of laughter and a lot of light,” she says.
Oppenheimer-Abitbol saw the therapeutic benefits of acroyoga in a different light when she taught classes at Israel’s ROI June 2012 summit. One of her students was a former IDF commander who had lost an arm in battle. She tailored the class to his specific situation, and he was able to participate fully.
“We changed the movements so that everyone used only one arm, which heightened the level of empathy and also the challenge,” she says.
When Oppenheimer-Abitbol and her husband, David, went on their honeymoon last winter, she received an invitation to guest teach an acroyoga workshop in southern Vietnam. From there, she was able to connect with teachers from the international acroyoga community, which is a worldwide network.
“I heard about this initiative where they were trying to go into schools and prisons in Thailand,” she recalls. “So we ended up switching around our travel schedule to fly to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to partner with the women’s prison there, which holds 1,900 female inmates, primarily for issues of substance abuse or dealing. Thailand is pretty strict on that. Most people have this perhaps unfair stereotype of Asian countries being rigid, but northern Thailand is actually very progressive. In this particular prison, they have rehabilitation programs. So we got in touch with some people from this program and they agreed to let us come in.”
The atmosphere was somewhat uneasy when the couple first arrived at the prison, given that the guards put them in the back of a paddy wagon before taking their cameras, cellphones and passports, but what transpired afterwards was transformational and memorable. Each workshop had about 90 women with five teachers. There was no common language. Although the prison provided a translator, body language proved to be the most effective method of communication. The acroyoga warm-ups utilized dance and music, and the prisoners and teachers also sang together to engender an environment of trust and support.
After two hours, a room of total strangers was filled with laughter and hugs. Oppenheimer-Abitbol stayed in Thailand for two weeks and led two more two-hour workshops at the women’s prison there.
“The other teachers and I set up a class rhythm that continued even after we left, with volunteers from the local acro community, so the impact continued on beyond our physical presence, which is really important,” she adds.
After her experience in Thailand, Oppenheimer-Abitbol wants to bring acroyoga to Israel in a more impactful way, teaching workshops in prisons and other more challenging environments. She is not sure, in terms of security and rehabilitation programs, what will be allowed and what’s already in place, but the seed has been planted in her mind.
“I’ve spoken to other acroyoga instructors who were born and raised here, and they’ve been very interested too. We’re letting those ideas percolate and are thinking beyond public parks and flash mobs,” she says.
Acroyoga has become increasingly popular in Israel in recent years. In March, the Israeli acroyoga community set a world record for the largest acroyoga flash mob in the world. With more than 150 participants from around the country coming together in Tel Aviv's Habima Square, the record-setting event has inspired domino-effect flash mobs around the globe. Oppenheimer-Abitbol was in touch with teachers from as far away as Malaysia, who were so inspired by the Israeli flash mob that they wanted to produce a response.
The affinity for acroyoga is spreading to such an extent that she was recently invited by the IDF to southern Jerusalem to lead workshops for soldiers in continuing education and leadership. The soldiers sit in lectures and classes all day about history and tactics, until Oppenheimer- Abitbol comes in for a two-hour acroyoga workshop.
“I get the group smiling, moving and breathing while learning a fun new skill and, most importantly, instilling values of teamwork, group dynamics, interpersonal coordination and communication/consent in a real-life environment,” she notes.
Currently, Oppenheimer-Abitbol teaches the only all-women’s acroyoga class in Israel, which allows the national- religious and haredi communities unprecedented access to this unique physical activity. She also facilitates couples experiences and team-building sessions. After having seen the therapeutic impact that acroyoga can have on trauma victims of all kinds, she feels there is still more to do, especially in Israel, where it is sorely needed.
She is left asking the question, “What can we do to have a deeper and more positive impact on society here?” If it’s left up to her, we’ll have the answer soon enough.
For more information about Acroyoga with Ayo: ayo@yogabatics.com and www.facebook.com/acroyogawithayo.