Why my body is fucked up : Three+ Years of Non-Stop Acro

In this article, I go through my experiences as a “typical” base in AcroYoga, and the struggles that my body has gone through with the practice. Before I was an AcroYoga teacher, I was a certified Yoga teacher, and I’m now working on my 300-hr yoga cert with YogaMedicine. My background didn’t stop me from experiencing physical problems due to bad habits and movement patterns, but it did give me awareness in retrospect of what caused them.

I wrote this for Empowered Acro and Jim Donak of the San Francisco’s Circus Center during his visit to Austin TX. I was asked to share it, and I hope that this might be a starting point for a bigger discussion. 

The path of a “typical” Base in AcroYoga. Let’s assume a base is new to acro and progressing through a “normal” track: first working on L-Base poses, then transitions, then adding in more arm work, and then move to standing. 

The first few months of acro is focused on getting the L-shape. Which is to say Legs straight w/ hips in flexion. Acro will get people into this shape, with stretched hamstrings, at the expense of strain on their sacrum. Over time, constant focus on stretching hamstrings will weaken them. While quads and hip stabilizers become strong, and tight.

While Acro is good to lock in an L-position, it doesn’t help so much going beyond L. So in Yoga, my forward fold great at 90 degrees, and rough beyond that.

The next few months of acro adds in transitions. Transitions are demanding on hips. Hip flexors and stabilizers get very strong, and tight. My glute-medius and TFL are rock solid. However, glute-max is barely used in the L-position. And while hip flexors are over strengthened, abs become weakened. We pick up some dysfunctional movement patterns trying to make transitions happen. Since we don’t have deep forward folds (hip flexion), often we end up catching weight with the sacrum off the ground, to get the range of motion we need. Often the bases head will come off the ground, straining the neck as a by product of attempting to keep a flyer from drifting away. Overall this mimics the rounded back we see from extended desk usage at work. Also: We’re generally pushing through the pads of our feet, causing limited range of motion in ankle dorsiflexion. Most transitions require rotation, and because of limited hip and ankle flexibility along with just plain unusual weighted positioning required in the transitions, the knees can be tweaked.

Meanwhile, bases will favor one side in transitions, leading to additional imbalance. If I do a mono press/hold, it’s it’s likely going to be with my right leg or right arm. Result in my case: sacrum being pulled to one side (diagnosis by a functional trainer I use) and shoulder/neck pain from trapezius imbalance (diagnosis by a therapeutic massage therapist I use).

The movements in L-Basing are very linear. So for instance, I can see clearly from my yoga practice that I’ve lost a lot of the range of motion in my twists (tight hips and shoulders), and I’ve lost strength and endurance in side planks (weak obliques). It’s also a push practice in flexion, so I’ve lost a lot of my ability to do pullups and backbends.

The next few months of acro adds in more and more arm work. Acro practices starts focusing on foot-to-hands: low, high and presses. The range of motion for this is narrow, and again movement is fairly linear. Grip strength is focused on one specific hold, rather than the full range of the hands ability. The repetitive grip seems to have sort of locked in the muscles in my forearm at times. We do no finger extension work. Extended holds require great stability in the joints of elbows, shoulders & wrists, but often bases compensate by gripping stronger, which is ineffective and harmful. Shoulders typically round forward. The presses stop when elbows are at the ground. There’s no shoulder extension (arms behind back) in the practice. Arms are rarely extended out to the side as in a fly. There’s no shoulder presses in L-basing. So shoulders are overworked along a single movement. Delts are overworked for stabilization for one specific type of movement. My chest is overly tight leading to more constricted breathing. Pecs are highly overworked, very tight, causing significant problems with shoulder flexibility and joint issues.

Much of the pattern of L-basing amplifies dysfunction caused by sitting all day. The only real difference is that legs are bent when sitting.. But hips are flexed, spine is in general flexion, arms are forward with shoulders rounded. It’s a bad situation to sit all day, double up when strengthening this movement disfunction in acro, and have no practice to unwind..

But I’m certain many people are doing this. Most people are not able to allocate enough hours of reconditioning on top of the many hours they spend doing acro as a hobby. As acro becomes a lifestyle, more than a simple/occasional activity, it’s more and more likely that we do not have the time alone to work on physical self-care and conditioning. Most bases that make it to intermediate become proud of the point that they start doing acro 7 days a week.. And there’s not enough extra time in the week for rest and sufficient self-care.

The next few months bases start experimenting with standing 
[cue ominous music]

With standing you start demanding your body be strong in ways that have became weak with L-basing. You demand glute max strength for squats, and overhead pressing and stability for extended positions. This is all weakened and unused movement patterns after all the L-basing. With a lot of L-basing and nothing else: hamstrings are weak, glutes are weak, hip flexors are tight, transverse abs are weak, shoulders are tight, back is weak, neck is strained in flexion. And now you’re supposed to hold a handstand shape perfectly, but with a human wiggling around on top of you. So the result is that the base’s butt sticks out a bit (tight hip flexors, weak glute max), ribs are flared open (weak abs), arms cannot raise overhead, so they arch their back more. And because there’s a human on top of you, you’ll contort your body in whatever way necessary to keep them up, ignoring form for accomplishment.

So, what to do about all of this? This article is more about identifying the common physical patterns than it is about suggesting how to address them. I intend to come back to all of this with the exercises and approaches I’ve used to treat my own injuries and prevent new ones. And I must say that many of the problems have sources that are deeper than just the physical movements. With acro, there are challenging emotional and social demands that must be addressed. 

But all of that will have to wait until another day. Soon, I’ll be teaching more Acro and also begin teaching Yoga in Austin, and I’m always happy to discuss things in person. So find me, and let’s chat.