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How Acro Yoga Helped Me Finally Send 5.13a

How one languishing 5.12 climber finally broke through her plateau (and pushed past her foot phobia) by taking up... of all things... Acro Yoga.

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Like every other agitated soul in the universe, I experimented with hobbies during quarantine. I picked up hangboarding. I picked up tennis. I picked up elbow tendonitis. I explored my artistic side by hammering away at the piano until my sister, who is also my roommate, politely asked me to “shorten” my sessions. I found myself competing in hip-hop dance. 

None of these pandemic hobbies have survived as long as the pandemic itself. 

Except for one: Acro Yoga. 

This was just as unexpected for me as it was for my friends and family. I am–or consider myself–a traditional Yogi, defined by self-sufficiency and a deep-seated desire to find myself through my practice… whatever that means. So when I started posting photos of myself standing on other peoples’s legs, my friends and family were perplexed, maybe even alarmed. 

I was a little alarmed too. I thought Acro Yoga was for idealistic hippies, people who spend their free time frolicking in fields of flowers. Had I become one of them? Also, I despise feet. And touching other people’s feet comprises about 99% of the practice. Yet there I was, touching feet daily. 

So why was I doing it? 

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Well, I was at war. My opponent (once the gyms opened again) was my most daunting project yet: a burly 5.13a. My first of the grade–or so I hoped. But I couldn’t quite send. Time and again, I found myself so pumped on the roof that I was unable to make the crux clip and had no choice but to fall. But I was close, and I knew it was possible. The route taunted me in my sleep and further inflamed the tendonitis in my elbows. Easy mid-5.11 climbing. Long rest before the overhang. Shake out, shake out, shake out. Menacing crux overhang, clip. Big pull through the roof. Keep it all together for the top crimps. I tried it over and over, in my head and in real life. My elbows ached in my sleep. 

Then one day I was listening to a podcast called The Tim Ferriss Show, and Tim was touting the physical benefits of Acro Yoga for climbers. He said two things that got my attention. 

First, he credited Acro Yoga with alleviating some of his long-term elbow injuries. (Interesting. I turned the volume up.) And second, he said he’d seen huge jumps in climbing performance since starting his practice.

When I got home, I typed “acro yoga near me” into Google.

If you told me I would be doing “pops” and inversions six months later, I would have told you that you were crazy. 

Crystal and her friend Dana playfully stumble upon a new pose: standing shin counterbalance. Don’t try this at home, folks. (Photo: Crystal Nardico)

Crystal Nardico is a longtime climber and the founder of AcroRoots. On her Instagram (the first Google result when I searched), I saw her climbing hard boulders in Southern California and pumpy jug hauls in the Red River Gorge. I also saw her lifting 200-pound dudes above her head with her feet. 

We met in the park on a sunny Saturday afternoon in LA, and I was alarmed to find that she was just 5’3”. How could she trust me, a complete Acro Yoga gumby who towered over her, to be her partner? Didn’t we need a spotter? My mind immediately went to a worst case scenario: I would fall on her. I would crush her. My crashing body would ruin her Acro Yoga career. 

“Do you have any related acrobatic experience?” she asked me. 

I told her I used to be a gymnast. I did not tell her that I’d quit at age seven. 

She smiled and said we’d start on a beginner move called bird. She lay on her back with her legs straight up and, after telling me to put my stomach on her feet, easily lifted me into the air. 

As I tottered above her, Crystal explained that, as with climbing, Acro Yoga’s practitioners rely on counter-pressure, balance, and gravity to stretch and lift into poses. The difference, she said, is that Acro Yoga relies on a partner for that counter-pressure, whereas in climbing you use the wall.

Turns out, it’s less of a difference than I would have originally thought.

The basics, Crystal explained, are quite simple. Acro Yoga consists of individual moves, generally resulting in poses that are not dissimilar to boulder problems. The poses are complicated and committing. At the more advanced level, they consist of multiple moves linked together and cycled through–like stacked cruxes on a route. For whatever reason, this is called a “Washing Machine.” 

Crystal took me through the most basic Washing Machine: bird, throne, foot-to-shin. Throne was a bit awkward to get into but easy once I was in position; Crystal kept her feet straight in the air and I sat on them as if they were a chair. Then the committing pose: foot-to-shin. She explained I needed to move from throne to place my feet on her shins and stand up, while she balled her legs up close to her chest to create a flat surface. 

My eyes grew wide, “You want me to do what?” I barked down from my throne. 

“You got this! Just commit!” 

This girl has lost her mind. She’s some kind of masochist; what kind of sane person knowingly requests to be stepped on? 

Your funeral, I thought, as I went for it. 

Two seconds later, I found myself balancing on someone else’s shins.

Crystal flies as she practices her “pop” with Stephen  (Photo: Crystal Nardico )

There are two roles in Acro Yoga. The “base” maintains direct contact with the ground and provides a foundation for the “flyer,” who is lifted off the ground. In olden times, men were bases, women were flyers, but those grim days are long behind us. “Ladybasers” are everywhere. And you regularly see male flyers and same-sex Acro Yoga pairings. 

Still, practitioners often identify more with one role than the other. Crystal is rare for being almost equally strong in both positions. In developing her base abilities, she explained that she needed to start small, practicing first with lighter and more  experienced flyers and only gradually moving on to larger partners and more complex sequences. Her body awareness is now off the charts. She can take the most inexperienced flyers and guide them through sequences far more advanced than their abilities would otherwise give them access to. She also is a self-identified “bossy flyer,” an endearing term used to describe a flyer that tries to dictate the movement of the practice–something that’s traditionally the role of the base.

“Ladybaser” Crystal breaking gender norms working with bases of all shapes and sizes. (Photo: Crystal Nardico)

I left the park battered, but happy. That evening I texted Crystal and committed to my first 10 classes. 

Twice a week, after that, we followed the same cadence, a 15-minute warm-up of stretching and basic poses, then a little over an hour of intense practice, followed by a brief cool-down. As the season changed, the mornings got cool, and we had to move to a gym. I began attending “Jams” on weekends, where Acro Yogis meet to practice together in groups and meet new partners. I was all in. It wasn’t immediate, but slowly, my body changed–as did my climbing. 

The benefits of Acro Yoga for climbers

1. Opposition & Balance. At the most basic level, what brought me to Acro Yoga was opposition training, a way to work on my antagonist muscles and develop a better sense of balance in the body. And it worked. A few months after meeting Crystal in the park, I stopped feeling my climber’s elbow altogether.

2. Strength. I consider myself a more technical climber, comfortable on balancy faces and sequential crimp lines. For most of my early years as a climber, I avoided overhangs because overhangs were hard. As a result, my biceps, triceps, and core muscles–all of which are essential to keeping your body on the wall when it’s steep–were less developed than my finger strength and mobility. Acro changed all that for me. I’d now say that steeper climbs, while still not a strength, feel far less out of my wheelhouse than they once were. 

3. Body awareness and alignment. In the early days of practicing, I was very shaky. It was like having elvis leg… but throughout my whole body. Crystal explained this was very common, and less about strength than the fact that my nervous system had not yet adjusted to the movement. 

Being good at Acro Yoga, as it turns out, is less about pure strength (though strength is part of it) than about “stacking” or body alignment. That’s why petite people like Crystal, who have perfect technique, can base for people literally twice their size. In Acro, as in climbing, you learn about how to move your weight over your center and find refuge in your stack, where your body is aligned and you can rest. There are no 5.14 climbers with bad technique.

The author clips the draws between cruxes on the “french fry” route, yet another 5.12d. (Photo: Stacey Castaldo)

4. Communication. Communication is vitally important to Acro Yoga. You need to be able to quickly explain to your partner how a move feels and what adjustments they need to make. And since verbal communication is often confusing (communicating “right-side” or “left-side” doesn’t translate correctly for both the base and flyer), much of this communication is intuitive and non-verbal communication, consisting of squeezes and pushes. It’s not dissimilar to the kind of intuitive adjustments belayers make all the time, assessing how far their climber is falling, what obstacles they need to avoid, and how hard to jump in order to soften the catch. 

5. Falling. My biggest demon in climbing has always been falling. I dug my own grave on this one: I spent years toproping, opting to follow rather than lead. And once I started on the sharp end, I became very reliant on the word “take.”

But in Acro Yoga, there is no “take”–and a fall is almost always in the cards. As a result, you need to fully trust the person that is basing you, trusting that they will adjust themselves to minimize the severity of your fall. This may be unique to my experience, but I found that practicing this trust translated into my climbing, especially after I convinced my main climbing partner to start doing Acro with me.

6. Commitment. You can’t inch your way into most Acro positions; you can’t get halfway through a move, back down, then try it again. Most of the time, Acro involves being dynamic, which often means risking a fall. For me this made it an education in “going for it.” In a small way, the mindset mimicked that of a send attempt: You have to completely accept the consequences, and sometimes those consequences  involve falling to the earth head-first, tangled up in another body.

7. Acro is fun. Instead of feeling like training (or, worse, cross-training) Acro Yoga felt like play. I often found myself spontaneously combusting into laughter as I toppled over or messed up a pose. It’s a very fun way to get a “workout” in on a rest day.

The author shows off her strength after clipping the chains on another pumpy 5.12d. (Photo: Robert Carroll)

So did I send?

Yes! I clipped the chains. I celebrated. The nightmare was over.

But then some 12-year-old setter downgraded the damn thing.

I was mortified, depressed, convinced I would forever be relegated to the world of 5.12s. But then the 12-year-old set a new 5.13. “A real one,” he said.

Same color. Same cave.

I sent it in a week.

I could have sworn it felt like 12d.

Jackie VanSloten is a climber based in Hermosa Beach, California. When she is not in the gym taking falls, she can be found on skis in the Sierras, in the Pacific Ocean attempting to catch a wave or exploring any new crag she can find.