From the Amazon to Boston: Aqua yoga is the best new way to be active

I brace myself for a chill, then step in and smile. The water in the pool is heated to a balmy 92 degrees. I spend the next couple minutes mingling with other students before class starts. Patricia McCallum, our instructor, enters the pool room and my first aqua yoga class begins.

I was worried about a couple of things going into this class. For starters, imagining a pool room brought me back to the days I took diving classes at my local pool club; the water had always been freezing and there were usually small children screaming. Upon walking into Boston Sport Club’s echoing pool chamber, I saw that it was much different from my diving days. There was a large pool to the right and then a smaller one to the left. The large pool was empty and the smaller one only had people in the aqua yoga class. To my delight, the water in the smaller pool was heated.

I was also concerned about the water aspect of class. I felt vulnerable and was worried that I would be asked to hold my breath or dunk my head below the surface in some sort of odd pose. To my relief, our heads never went below the water’s surface and I felt more as if the water was working with my body, rather than against it.

We started class by practicing “meditative walking” along the width of the pool; the focus being on breathing and maintaining a consistent pace as we moved. I enjoyed the feeling of the water moving around me and it was a relaxing way to begin class. After this, we were asked to arrange ourselves in rows, standing with our shoulders submerged.


Francoise Freedman is an English medical anthropologist who founded aqua yoga. She conducted extended fieldwork in the Amazon that happened to overlap with one of her pregnancies. During these fieldwork trips she was in need of a way to stretch and exercise. Swimming long distances -- her preferred exercise -- was not possible in the unknown Amazon waters, and neither was traditional mat yoga.

“You can’t do yoga in the Amazon because of the ants and hazards on the forest floor, but in the water it became much more possible and beneficial and I realized I could do yoga in the water and really enjoy it.” Freedman said of her discovering aqua yoga.

While in the Amazon, Freedman spent lots of her time with the local Amazonian women and they would comment on how her yoga movements resembled Amazonian animals and aquatic creatures. The local women soon started to join Freedman in her yoga practice.

“The [local] women were copying me and we had lots of hilarious fun,” Freedman said.

The bonding and enjoyment Freedman shared with the amazonian women inspired her to bring aqua yoga to England and eventually to create the Birthlight organization, which is focused on enhancing the health of women and their families. She continued developing aqua yoga and soon published several books on the topic including Aqua Yoga: Harmonizing Exercises in Water for Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond.

Aqua yoga began as a way to provide a meditative and spiritual place for mothers and their children, but it has since been realized that aqua yoga can be useful for people outside of that demographic as well. Birthlight offers an aqua therapy course, which is available to anyone interested in participating, and aqua yoga classes offered at Sports Clubs are beneficial to anyone looking for a way to be active.

Injury Prevention

As someone who exercises and practices yoga regularly, I was surprised to discover my thighs burning during the standing leg lifts and my balance faltering when standing in tree pose. The water adds resistance and instability, meaning that while practicing people need to focus more on form and balance. Matching my breaths with the yoga movements made me feel as if my body, my breathing, and the water were all working together. As I inhaled, I felt my body lift as my lungs filled with air while I raised my leg during the standing leg lifts. Then, as I exhaled and lowered my leg, I felt a sinking feeling as air left my lungs.

“It is sort of sneaky strengthening. It is also a very good stretching class,” said Nadda Hobbs, a student who has been taking aqua yoga for nearly 20 years.

She believes the warm water makes the pool a better stretching option than land for anybody with joint problems, and praises the opportunity it gives her to move without pain.

“[Aqua yoga] doesn’t hurt at all. Unlike land, which I don’t do well with, the warm water helps make muscles softer and flexible,” said Hobbes, who has struggled with rheumatoid arthritis for years and praises the aqua yoga class for allowing her to stretch as little or as much as she can and for allowing her to do so without pain.

This pain-free benefit also applies to injuries, which any active person can take advantage of. This past year, I had a stress fracture in my lower back and a knee injury. Since suffering those injuries, I have experienced pain during traditional yoga classes. Conversely, in aqua yoga, I never felt as if my knee or my back was at risk, yet I still felt as if I was getting a good stretch.

I have never made an effort to stretch before exercising, which is what made me susceptible to the injuries I faced this year. Yoga is an excellent way to improve flexibility and in aqua yoga the warm water provides an added layer of protection for those looking to avoid pain.

Relaxation and Spirituality

Rose Marie Sanson began her aqua fitness journey when the Boston Sports Club branch in Waltham, Massachusetts started offering aqua yoga 17 years ago. A few years later, she took over teaching an aqua tai chi class, while still attending aqua yoga.

Sanson appreciates both the meditative and physical benefits that come from taking the class. She appreciates the opportunity she gets from the class to get in touch with her body and mind on Sunday mornings. “It’s spiritual and it’s what anybody wants to make of it. It’s their own personal, peaceful time,” Sanson said.

Immersion in the water is an essential principle of aqua yoga and helps participants to relax better than they may be able to on land. The immersion allows participants to feel buoyant, which is thought to translate to a lightness in the mind. It takes the pressure of gravity off of the body, a rare and often relieving experience. Think of how cathartic a hot bath after a long day can feel -- aqua yoga takes that idea and creates a more mindful and purposeful experience while soaking in warm water.

Aqua yoga is an excellent way to stretch, relax, and get active, so take your next free morning to give it a try!

Emily Mason
Student in journalism at Emerson College in Boston, Mass.
Article written for the College magazine, November 2017

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