Yoga can sometimes seem like a stoic undertaking. As if it should fit a certain mold, or be practiced within a set sequence of poses, “physical expression” in yoga at times feels limited to finding stillness and balance while holding postures. But in truth, yoga at its base level means “union,” and any intentional practice can be yoga. Yoga is as broad as breath, and more yoga teachers are pushing the limits of what yoga “should” be, towards what yoga “can” be.
Jessica Abner in Honolulu’s Kaimuki neighborhood does just that with her expressive, sensual, power-driven Shakti Flow yoga.
“There’s something really powerful in being able to let your guard down and just be happy in doing something ridiculous,” says Abner. “It’s childlike, it’s freeing and healing.”
Shakti Flow combines yoga, dance, functional fitness and meditation. Instead of a typical chair pose, in a Shakti Flow class, participants might circle their hips or bounce in the pose. Modifications to traditional postures by derrière-shaking or pounding imaginary drums set Shakti Flow apart from other forms of yoga. Abner’s practice is high-intensity, although anyone can adjust speed or range-of-motion to suit personal abilities. The accompanying music is carefully chosen for rhythm, and can range from remixed classics to modern hip-hop.
Abner founded the practice with the notion that yoga with an expressive flair can be more than a physical practice. Shakti Flow is a liberating opportunity to explore movements that usually aren’t seen outside of a club, in a safe and caring environment free of judgment.
That liberation through movement is part of what attracted Stephanie Keiko Kong and Katrina Yoder to Abner’s practice. Yoder and Kong were both yoga instructors on Oahu when they teamed up with Abner. The trio developed a training manual and process with Abner at the helm.
All three yogis bring mindfulness and a level of spirituality to their classes. One of the guiding principles of Shakti Flow is ancient in origin — it’s the idea that yoga is union: a way to combine disparate energies in one’s spirit. Among these forces are the two prevailing powers, Shakti and Shiva. Shakti symbolizes divine feminine energy, and Shiva, the divine masculine energy. All individuals have a combination of Shakti creativity and Shiva consciousness within them.
Shakti Flow strives to honor and enhance the sacred and divine feminine energy in a world largely dominated by Shiva energy. Shakti is often associated with the ability to express and create. There are a lot of circling movements and stimulation of the second chakra — or “sacral chakra” located in the lower abdomen — to unleash that creativity.
“Shakti Flow views energy as divine and kind of miraculous,” Kong says. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate that.”
Although it’s not surprising that women are mainly drawn to a yoga form that bears a feminine name, the class is not designed just for the ladies; Shakti Flow is accessible to everyone. The most important thing is to be free of judgment, and simply to keep an open mind.
A typical session lasts an hour, and instructors add their own flair to each class. One teacher might focus on arm balances for a portion of the class, while another might use the same amount of time on inversions. Many students love the opportunity to practice handstands against the wall, then alternate the inversion with booty pops and hip circles. It’s nearly impossible not to smile in this yoga class!
However fun, the practice goes deeper than simply a light-hearted workout. While there’s the physical joy of moving freely, the magic happens when you break free of inhibitions.
“During a Shakti Flow practice there will come a time when you will look in the mirror and fall in love with every part of yourself,” Abner says. “Dance like nobody is watching, trembling, exhausted and blissful after an intense and satisfying introduction to your truest self, all b.s. aside.” It might seem impossible for an hour of yoga to have such an impact, but with the right mindset, it does.
Some of the movements in Shakti can make people feel vulnerable, which is why Abner and other Shakti Flow instructors are very mindful about creating a safe haven. It’s necessary to have a judgment-free zone when encouraging practitioners to attempt something new. As Kong recalls, it can be intimidating to try. One student was afraid to go to her first class because of the impression that Shakti Flow is “butt-shaking yoga.”
The intimidation factor is one of the reasons Abner makes a point of being approachable. “I’ve heard horror stories where people have gone into classrooms where a teacher was not welcoming,” she says. She wanted to make sure anyone who came to class felt they belonged.
To those who are still skeptical of yoga that involves butt-shaking, Abner has one suggestion before passing judgment: “Try it, and then tell me how you feel about it.” Abner’s home base is Yoga Hawaii in Kaimuki. Kong also teaches at Yoga Hawaii, and at Hot Yoga By the Sea in Kailua. Yoder teaches at Power Yoga in Kahala.
According to Abner and Kong, the teacher network is growing each year. Teacher trainings are popping up all over the country, and Shakti Flow has been featured at the Wanderlust yoga festival and at other workshops. Its growing popularity is a testament to the physicality and intention behind each class.
For Abner, being accessible and maintaining a comfortable space are key to allowing students to “let go.” Fully letting go is part of why each class is so fun and liberating. As Kong puts it, when she takes a class she thinks, “Yeah, these are all my parts. And I’m shaking them all.”
Julie Yaste is originally from Northern California, but has lived all over the country. Currently she’s living and working in Honolulu as a yoga instructor and writer. Her works can be seen on Huffington Post, Elephant Journal, Waikiki Menus and more.