Category Archive

AcroYoga: A Fun, Healing Practice

Jenn Hipps, an FA Youth Instructor, shares ten things she loves about AcroYoga at First Ascent after finally taking the plunge despite her initial fears and doubts. Read on, then join us for an Acro class!

When I found out FA had a regular AcroYoga class, I felt every bone in my body lurch forward, ready to cartwheel in. I did gymnastics throughout my childhood and have had a crush on partner acrobatics since I was six and first saw photos in the Gymnastics DK Superguide by Joan Jackman in a bookstore. A friendly member of staff invited me to join her for AcroYoga class every week for a month. I declined each time, and eventually she stopped asking. All told, it took me a good two and a half months to work up the courage to finally go.

I was scared, not of falling on my face, but of have having a full-blown panic attack in a room full of strangers and/or in a dangerous position for myself or another person. Although 99.99% of the time, I can participate in and enjoy high fives, fist bumps, hugs and kisses with the best of them, I’m a survivor of sexual violence and sometimes experience a lot of anxiety around touch.

If I could tell my hesitant and longing self in those months ten things about AcroYoga to make her more ready to try something new, these would be those things:

1) Paula Bui, the instructor, is amazing. She is knowledgeable, nurturing, kind, and funny while simultaneously being no-nonsense. She’s a great guide for something that requires you to be so daring, deliberate, and delicate. She cultivates an intentional, fun, collaborative and safe class.

2) The structure of the class usually involves six distinct and gradual stages:

  1. Circle time/ Introduction (Names, if it’s your first class, and how you’re feeling in your body)
  2. Group yoga warm-up individually
  3. Calibration and conditioning in partners
    1. Instructors model the pose or transition you’ll be working. They demonstrate and discuss entry, exit, body placement and positioning, safety concerns and spotting.
    2. Group work taking turns as base (the person with the most contact with the ground), flyer (the person elevated off the ground) and spotter.
    3. Periodic group check-ins and troubleshooting.
    4. Lather, rinse, repeat.
  4. Therapeutics
  5. Circle time/ debrief (How was it?)

3) In AcroYoga, you work in partnership, not just pairs. AcroYoga demands that everyone involved is attuned, attentive, and responsive to one another.It’s a practice of communication, trust building, consent, and lots of valuable checking in with each other.

Not great at communicating what you want or need? The instructors are awesome models for this too!

4) You are in charge of the challenges you choose to take on. No one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to, and you can always opt out. Opting out of one thing doesn’t mean you have to opt out of others.  No one will give you a hard time about it or demand an explanation. At all times, whether basing or flying, for everyone’s safety, the golden rule of AcroYoga is down means down.

5) You’re not the only one navigating boundaries. Whether it’s a recently sprained ankle, a past trauma, nervousness about being upside-down or coming out of a long day of work, everyone else in the room is working in the body they’re in, figuring out what feels like a good challenge that day.

6) We do a lot of connections between base and flyer with feet. In the past seven months, about 75% of the poses in the all-levels classes I have done involved the base supporting the flyer with their legs and feet instead of, or in addition to, their hands. This makes sense: our legs are super strong. About another 20% involved hand/arm/shoulder connections. Approximately 5% of the poses involved hip-to-hand or thigh-to-hand connections. Personally, I tend to have some anxiety around hip-to-hand and thigh-to-hand connections, but connections with feet feel playful and fun.

7) You get to pick your partners. Because there is always a demonstration of each pose,  you know what you’re getting into before you get into it. You might choose a partner because of your relative sizes. You might choose a partner because you haven’t worked together before, or, conversely, you might choose a partner because of the rapport you’ve built. There are a variety of things that may factor into who you choose to partner with for any given pose.

For me, I don’t feel comfortable with a strange man’s hands on my hips or thighs. If a given pose involves that connection, I choose a partner accordingly and remind myself I have permission to opt out at any given moment.

8) Your climbing will improve like magic. Ok, not quite like magic. It will improve like you are training your body awareness, your sensitivity through your hands and feet, your core strength and ability to shift your center of mass, your flexibility, your balance, and your creativity because you are. Look out, stemming routes, here you come!

9) In addition to being a little silly and super fun, AcroYoga is incredibly empowering. In AcroYoga, you’ll collaborate in a group with at least one person completely off the ground.You’ll be a little nervous but in good company, and together with your group, you’ll work through your mistakes and celebrate your successes. You’ll be well-supported and laugh a lot; you’ll make friends without trying.

You’ll also learn your own body and the ways in which it is strong. I’ve learned, for example, that properly grounded, my legs can hold up a person much larger than I am with ease! That feels pretty cool.

10) As a survivor, AcroYoga is one of the most healing experiences I’ve ever participated in. The flip-side of being able to opt out whenever is that opting in is that much sweeter. AcroYoga is an exercise and practice in consent, trust, generosity and gratitude. It’s become a sacred part of my week that lets me stretch my comfort zone and flex my heart.

If you’ve been waiting in the wings to (base and) fly in an AcroYoga class like I was, I hope these ten things help quell your fears a bit.

Feel free to reach out; I hope to catch you in a class soon! ~Jenn

All-level AcroYoga classes meet at the FA Humboldt Park location on Mondays and the FA Uptown location on Tuesdays from 8:15-9:45pm. Intermediate AcroYoga classes meet at FA Avondale on Wednesdays from 8:15-9:45pm.

FA’s New Yoga Schedule Drops April 1st

Mission: Expanded

When we opened First Ascent, we had one simple mission: to serve and grow Chicago’s vibrant climbing community. My partners and I are longtime climbers, and we joined forces to create a space for climbers of all experience and ability levels to enjoy the sport they love, develop their skills, and connect with other climbers.

Version 2

At launch, we thought of yoga as a complement to climbing, something that climbers would enjoy doing occasionally to rejuvenate and restore their achy climbing muscles. Over the last year and a half, we’ve come to see yoga not as a nice addition to our climbing gym but as an essential part of what we do. We’ve excitedly watched the climbing and yoga communities learn so much from each other at First Ascent.Image-18 And we’ve gathered an incredibly talented group of yoga instructors that have taught us a thing or two about proper shoulder alignment, “flying” (see: AcroYoga), and taking time out for self care.

In fact, we’ve enjoyed being the connection point for climbers, yogis, and fitness enthusiasts so much, we had to expand our mission. Moving forward, First Ascent exists to serve and grow Chicago’s vibrant climbing, yoga, and fitness communities.

Improving Yoga at FA

And so I’m excited to announce that we’re revamping the yoga program at First Ascent. Starting April 1st, we’re launching a new, improved yoga schedule at both our Avondale and Uptown facilities. Our goals for re-launching the schedule are simple:

  1. Add and adjust yoga class times around the schedules of people in our community. We’re especially excited to launch our 7:30 am and 12:00 pm classes, as well as more classes on the weekends.
  2. Update class names and descriptions to better suit each class. For example, you’ll now see Yoga For Climbers: Power and Yoga For Climbers: Restorative on the schedule.
  3. Add 75 minute classes to serve the maturing yoga community at First Ascent. That extra 15 minutes allows instructors to teach more challenging poses that just don’t fit into an already jam-packed 60-minute class.

The Schedules

Without further adieu, below are the new yoga schedules. You can also peruse the new schedules and sign up for classes on our website: just go to First Ascent Avondale’s yoga page and/or First Ascent Uptown’s yoga page, then navigate to April 1st and beyond to see the new schedule in action.

Yoga Schedule Rollout April 2017_Avondale

Yoga Schedule Rollout April 2017_Uptown

I hope you’re as excited about these changes as we are. If you feel at all disappointed that your favorite class has been changed, I encourage you to explore the new schedule with an open mind. We have the same great instructors and new class times to meet your needs – I’ll bet you’ll find a new favorite in no time.

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to email us at Otherwise, we’ll see you in a yoga class soon!

Dan Bartz is co-founder and Director of Marketing & Adult Programming at First Ascent.

Meet Jamie: Gymnast, Yogi, Routesetter, and Walking Smile

Jamie Mann is the latest setter to join the FA Setting Crew. She is a former gymnast, longtime yoga instructor, and a smile personified. Look out for “JM” on boulder tags to climb some of Jamie’s vertical flows, as well as yoga classes led by Jamie weekday evenings at FA Uptown.

Hello, dear readers. Whether you know me as a yoga teacher, the newest route setter, or just a familiar face around First Ascent, I’d like to tell you a little bit about myself and the journey that brought me here.

My love for movement and body awareness started when I was 3 years old. My mom was a gymnast through high school, so when I was old enough to enroll in a “Mommy and Me” gymnastics class, we were in. It turned out that gymnastics was as much mine as it was my mom’s. I was enamored.

In the 3rd grade, I was asked by the team coach at Northbrook Gymnastics Training Center to consider doing gymnastics at the competitive level. Overnight, my schedule jumped to 4 hours of training everyday after school at the gym, then going home to do my homework, eat, sleep, and do it all again the following day. image1Even Saturdays were spent drilling routines. The gymnastics gym was my home, the team was my family, and nothing made more sense to me than being in the air and having complete control over my body in space. So, bring on the long sleeved leotards, body glitter, and buns so tight you could actually feel your eyelids being pulled towards your scalp.

I remember competing on the balance beam and knowing that there was another team’s floor music, the buzzing of the crowd, and the cheers of my team happening all at once, but all I could hear was radio fuzz. It was my breath and the knowledge of exactly what I had to do to stick my next trick on a 4 inch wide block of wood, 4 feet off the ground. And the uneven parallel bars were perfect physics understood in the most physical of forms, gliding fluidly around and between the bars. It all felt like music that my body made intrinsically. I was Jamie the gymnast, and this was my flow state.

That flow didn’t come for free, though. By the end of junior high, my body, specifically my spine, started to feel it. I had to quit the sport for two years and undergo my first couple rounds of physical therapy. I was young and able to bounce back, so when high school came around, I joined the Highland Park High School team. Even though I competed at the varsity level, I could no longer compete in vault or floor exercise by my junior year.image2The high impact nature of those events aggravated and worsened my already significant back injury. Fast forward to college days, my last meet long behind me at regionals senior year of high school. I was left with nothing but longing for the flips, the leaps, (yes, even the sparkly leotards) and a constant ache in my low back and around my hips.

The physical therapy journey I took was extensive and long. Do a Google search for different therapy options for a lumbar spinal injury, and I’ve probably gone through everything on the first three pages: chiropractics, acupuncture, massage therapy, epidural and cortisone injections, and the list goes on. We threw everything but the kitchen sink at the problem over such a length of time that I have trouble recalling the details.

I was nearly immobile for a few years there, living with 8’s and 9’s out of 10 on a pain scale day to day. Unable to sit through a lecture, I eventually had to drop out of school, losing all social and physical outlets in the process. I was isolated and missing a huge part of my identity. If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know that I’m a consummately expressive person. I communicate with my whole body. Feeling cooped up inside my fragile frame did brutal damage to my mental state. I was no longer Jamie The Gymnast. I became someone I didn’t know or particularly like, and I could not relate to the body that I was now being held hostage in.

I’ll bet you’re sensing a downward spiral. Well, you’re right. The bottom of the spiral landed me in a partial hospitalization program for depression where, you might’ve guess, the turning point in this story lies.

I took my first yoga class during that time, and was introduced to Eastern philosophy,Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 7.23.23 PMthe combination of which took me to mental states that are an unthinkably blissful counterpoint to legitimate depression. It was (pardon my French), frickin’ wonderful. My first class was the first hour in so many years that I could not only turn down the volume on my obsessively negative self talk but also see a glimpse of some kind of connection with myself and my body that I had thought was long gone. It was a handshake with myself that desperately needed to happen.

About a year into devoted daily practice, I could feel that yoga was helping with pain management and alignment of my spine,Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 7.19.52 PM but it was still very obvious that there was something very, very wrong with my back. My last ditch effort was to speak with one last surgeon who agreed to take me on.
Turns out I had a very badly herniated disc that got a bit tangled up in some nerves. That micro discectomy operation paired with a daily yoga practice helped me achieve a virtually pain free life (minus the occasional flare up).

Eventually the spiritual and physical practice of yoga became so important to me that sharing the gift of yoga through teaching felt like a responsibility I was more than happy to take on. Image-11To be entirely present in your body, to focus on nothing but your breath, alignment and joint organization, and to allow everything else to slip away into background noise is quite possibly the most healing thing I have ever experienced. The idea of creating and holding that space for others to experience the same gave my injury and years of angst deep meaning.

To make a long story very short, when I found First Ascent and the sport of climbing, I couldn’t get enough. I nearly begged for a yoga teaching gig so I could afford being a regular member of the community and fuel my new found addiction to pushing my physical limits and comfort zone. I found my new self in the sequencing of yoga asanas, and I continued to develop this new self in climbing.Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 7.22.34 PM Having nothing but your breath and control over your body is a sure way to make all the other nonsense in your head disappear.

There was one small problem: everything I climbed seemed to be designed with bigger humans than myself in mind. Being a relatively new climber and 4’10” (on a good day) was definitely a challenge coming to First Ascent. I felt that there was a population in the gym that was not being represented: adults and children under the height of 5’. I knew there was more to sequencing a boulder problem than jumping and cutting feet at each crux. I felt strongly that there could be routes and boulder problems that are challenging for climbers of all sizes. IMG_1898 (1)I even felt it would be beneficial to have climbs that favored the shorties, and gave the taller people something to sweat over. I think that variety is important to keep everyone motivated in the truly spectacular sport of rock climbing.IMG_8522When I asked Cheech and Mike (FA’s Head Setter and Foreman, respectively) if I could join the setting team and bring these beliefs to bear on my setting style, they welcomed me with open arms.

Learning a new art where body positioning is everything has been an absolute pleasure. The parallels that can be drawn between creating a flow on the wall and creating a flow on the mat are almost poetic. I’ll spare you the balladry, but I will say this: helping people understand and experience their bodies as a means of personal growth is what I feel I was put on this earth to do. I hope to set things that inspire, educate, and strengthen all body types and sensibilities. And I hope my setting and my yoga instruction at FA create space for you to breathe, flow, and tune out all of the noise in your own life so you can reconnect with the one and only you.


Learn more about Jamie and all of the amazing setters on the FA Setting Crew here

Climbers Guide to Yoga: Vol. 1

In what will be a series of essays, Julia “Jules” McGuire breaks down how climbers benefit from a consistent yoga practice. Jules is both a seasoned yoga practitioner and a well travelled climber. She teaches two popular yoga classes on Saturdays (1230pm and 2pm) at the Avondale gym and can be spotted gracefully making her way up lead routes and boulder problems when class is over.

Julia getting ready for some trad

Julia getting ready for some trad

Pranayama: A Deeper Look

Before scaling up a wall, it is imperative that climbers understand their immediate atmosphere. How long is the climb, and what gear does the route call for? Is it a balance-dependent vertical climb or a powerful, sustained overhang? Assessing the climb helps to prepare a climber’s mental state and sets the expectation of how the climber’s body will need to perform and maneuver. Developing a keen awareness of one’s movement on a wall allows a climber to expand on their technicality, achieving deeper connectivity between their body and the wall itself as their stems crimp and pinch and tiptoe across the rock face.

Training on hangboards, maintaining cardiovascular health, and keeping a fit core all serve a clinging climber well. But how can climbers train their mental game to confront heady moves that could result in a big fall – leaving them dangling in midair from a rope with a diameter the size of their thumb?

Enter yogic breathing

FA Yoga instructor Carrie Pokorney

FA Yoga instructor Carrie Pokorney

A discussion on yoga can be approached from a multitude of angles: flexibility, fitness, meditation, even religion. There are also numerous yoga styles and forms, from static Hatha to dynamic Vinyasa, powerful Ashtanga to restorative Yin. But no matter how broad the scope, all sectors can agree on one very key factor: Pranayama.

Pranayama is the Sanskrit terminology used to describe yogic breathing exercises (in simple terms, prana means life force; yama / ayama means to restrain / to draw out.) Among many benefits, the practice of slow, disciplined breathing has been proven to have a direct effect on the body’s nervous system, specifically the parasympathetic nervous system commonly recognized as the “rest and digest” mode. This system allows for lowered blood pressure, increased circulation, and relaxation. Whenever the body is outside this realm of restoration, whether experiencing healthy, physical exertion or less desirable stressors like worrying and rushing, then the body is using the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” system.

Through devoted efforts to harmonize both mind and body, yoga practitioners can begin to develop a heightened awareness of their internal atmosphere, and thus better recognize the impact of external stressors and the reactions they impose inside one’s body.

Attain focus, climb better

Savannah Buik on Contorted (V4) Mt. Lemmon, AZ (img: c/o @TC.Bukowski

Savannah Buik on Contorted (V4) Mt. Lemmon, AZ (img: c/o @TC.Bukowski)

There are many different approaches to Pranayama with different goals.

Ujjayi breathing, translated as “victorious” breath is the most commonly known breathing technique. This practice is done by creating a pulling sensation of air in through the nose, almost as if you snore in air to the back of the throat. This audible, ocean-like breath not only sounds pleasant and soothing, but it allows the yogi to formulate a connection to their inner state.

Breathing through pursed lips (or even a “taco tongue”) helps cool the body down and relax nerves. Quick, forceful “ha” sounding exhales stoke heat in the core to build energy as well as detoxify.

Alternate nostril breathing, or nodi shodhana, translated as “energy channel cleansing,” allows for the hemispheres of the brain to balance differing functions such as rationality and creativity.


Breathing and meditation works. Try it out!

Whatever form you practice, climbers armed with the knowledge of Pranayama can attain a calm, focused state through learned breath work. This state more adequately prepares the climber to concentrate on the task at hand – namely, leading a tall, overhanging route that demands the entirety of the climber’s mind and body. Long exhales can be especially useful when assessing a long run out to the next clip, deterring anxieties and reservations of one’s true abilities. If you’re stepping into a crux, shaking on “Elvis legs,” or slipping off a hold just in time to catch the next one, just breathe.


Yoga: anytime, anywhere

Perhaps the best aspect of Pranayama is that it can be done anywhere, at any time. Whether you are in a tranquil yoga studio or clinging to a micro-crimper for dear life, tuning into the breath will give way to an understanding of the internal physical and mental state. When you better understand and control your mental state, you are more equipped to move forward. Breathe better. Stick the crux. Send your project!

By: Julia McGuire

PS the Meditation for Climbers Workshop drops on 1/8/17 at the First Ascent Avondale gym