I had seen the ladies of a certain age doing stretches with noodles in the pool at my local Y, so I thought I knew what water yoga was all about: Your standard yoga poses aquaticized, probably super gentle, maybe a little boring. Still, I was planning an article on aqua yoga so I trotted over to that very same YMCA for a class. And boy, was I surprised.
I've done quite a bit of yoga and a fair amount of swimming in my day, but neither really prepared me for what it's like to do yoga in the water. The water envelopes and supports you while up-ending your relationship with gravity. Most of us have probably tried doing a handstand on the bottom of the pool. Kicking up is no problem, unlike on land, but once you're there, everything goes light and wobbly because water supports your body in a completely different way than air. In the pool, some yoga poses become easier while others seem harder. (More on this in a minute.)
Aqua Yoga BackgroundLike most forms of water exercise (besides swimming), aqua yoga is super low impact, making it possible for people with joint pain to improve their strength, flexibility, and range of motion. As Kate Winge, who is trained in Aqua Kriya Yoga and teaches at the Town Lake YMCA in Austin, Texas, explains, "The buoyant effect of the water takes the pressure of a person's weight off the joints, alleviating pain or discomfort people may feel when exercising. Since the body bears less weight in the water, the muscles are relaxed and therefore can be stretched and strengthened with less incidence of injury. I have seen a wide variety of people benefit from aqua yoga, such as those with arthritis, hip and or knee replacements, Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Muscular Dystrophy, anxiety, depression, pre-natal, post-natal, post-surgery, people with difficulties balancing, sciatica, and beginners as well as people who already have a regular practice."
Aqua Kriya Yoga is a style of water instruction that emerged from an inclusion program at the Saratoga, California, YMCA in the early 2000s, according to Nancy Britton, Aqua Kriya Yoga's business manager. Founder Camella Nair's approach brings the benefits of yoga to people who are not able to practice on the mat due to physical limitations, injury, or disease. Nair holds Yoga Alliance accredited teacher-training programs several times a year. Though there are other water yoga methods, Nair's distinguishes itself in its fidelity to modern land yoga, including emphasizing the breath, props, and alignment.
What to Wear
When you think of the pool, you probably think of putting on a swim-suit and that may be something that produces anxiety. The great thing is, while swimwear is the most appropriate attire for water yoga, once you are submerged, you can lose all self consciousness. The water acts like a cloak of invisibility. You never have to think about what your butt looks like because no one can see it.
What to Expect
Many land poses are adaptable to the pool, especially when you use the wall as if it were the floor. (This approach will be familiar to anyone who has done yoga in late pregnancy.) Plank, chataranga, and cobra are all done on the wall. Props like kick-boards and those noodles can also come into play. Turns out, floating in savasana while supported by two noodles is pretty blissful.
To examine how water affects a familiar yoga pose, let's take a look at warrior III. On land, a lot of effort usually goes into keeping your leg up. In the water, the leg floats, freeing you to focus on other things, like the alignment of your hips. Staying upright in a pose like pyramid is not particularly hard for an experienced yoga student on land, but in the water I found I had to engage my core and bandhas in a much stronger way (plus tread water with my hands) to avoid tipping over to one side. Though water yoga is great for students with low range of motion, it actually has a lot to offer any yoga practitioner interested in deepening her practice, including an unexpected amount of fun.