Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2020, including this trip to Koh Phangan in February 2020.
After completing my 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training in New York in 2018, my head was spinning with asanas and anatomy and uncertainty. Does anyone graduate from their introductory training feeling ready to take on the yoga world?! I know I didn’t! But I did know one thing for sure: I was thrilled to begin my yoga teaching journey, and hooked on trainings to deepen my knowledge and experience.
I vowed to do one a year to keep my mind fresh. In 2019, I did a Buti Yoga 30 Hour Bands + Sculpt Training in New York, and then, in 2020, enrolled in ULU Yoga’s 50 Hour Aerial Yoga Teacher Training in Koh Phangan, Thailand. Aerial yoga had long been a passion of mine for its ability to decompress the spine, support and deepen traditional yoga asanas, and bring some fun and whimsy into a studio setting.
I was returning to Thailand to run the 2020 edition of my Wander Women Koh Tao retreat, and was delighted when I realized that the dates finally aligned for me to take one of ULU’s famous programs. While even some of the busiest aerial yoga studios in the world might run a training once or twice a year or perhaps even once a quarter at most, ULU was running a monthly aerial vinyasa training with students from all over the world, before it was interrupted by the pandemic. Since 2014, ULU Yoga has lead over a hundred yoga teacher training courses (dang!) and is a 500 hour Yoga Alliance School.
ULU Yoga is a registered Continuing Education Provider with Yoga Alliance, and their 50 hour certification counts towards additional teacher training hours required to maintain long-term standing (stick with me here — you must take thirty hours of continuing education, with at least ten of those being contact hours, within three years of your initial enrollment in Yoga Alliance.)
I kind of giggled when I read the description of how the name ULU was chosen — at first, the founders just thought it sounded nice and had no meaning in English, like many of the sounds made in yogic chanting. Later, they learned it means whirlwind or crazy in Arabic languages, and also functions for some as an acronym for Universal Love and Understanding. “All together,” they wrote, “this summarizes perfectly ULU Yoga’s love for traditional yoga and crazy styles like aerial, which can serve to uplift and unite humanity.” How cute — and it really resonates with me and my aerial journey, too.
ULU runs for about ten months of the year out of their Koh Phangan, Thailand location before moving to their Ubud, Bali base for the rest of the year, and had recently introduced brand new aerial restorative trainings when I was a student (I came this close to arriving a week early to take that training as well.)
I completed the Koh Phangan version, which took place at Ulu’s headquarters based at Bounty Resort outside Srithanu in Haad Yao. Pricing ranged from $700USD for tuition only to packages ranging from $800-1,200USD that included a room at Bounty and various meals. The training is a week, with an orientation on arrival day, five days of intensive training and on departure day, a final meditation, aerial class and closing circle.
I arrived in Koh Phangan exhausted but happy, having taken three long flights to get there — from Tel Aviv to Amman to Abu Dhabi to Bangkok to Koh Samui and then, finally, a ferry to Koh Phangan. Orientation was brief — the trainers introduced themselves, handed out the manuals, gave us an overview and explanation of the schedule, and facilitated a nice get-to-know-you where we did all the normal introductions of where we were from and what brought us to this training.
Our lead instructor was Cody, from South Africa, co-teaching with Vik from Austria and Naomi from England. My fellow trainees were equally as diverse. We were a group of thirteen from all over — the US, the UK, China, Singapore, The Netherlands, Austria, and Germany.
Honestly, that’s a typical group dinner passport scan for an island like Koh Phangan. But what did surprise me was most of the group had never even tried aerial yoga before! Some were not even yoga teachers at all. As a mat yoga instructor, an experienced aerial yoga and arts student, and someone who had already organized two different aerial retreats (with a third in the works!) I was a bit disappointed by this at first, since I love to learn not just from my teachers but my fellow students — but, I kept an open mind. And good thing, because of course, I had a lot to learn from them regardless.
So, how did the week go? For the first three days of the training, we kept essentially the same schedule. Every morning began with a 6:30-9am session that included both a meditation and an aerial vinyasa class. The meditations were very enlightening for me — I went in planning to skip them entirely and arrive in time for the aerial class. When I realized the flow wouldn’t allow for that, I was annoyed and resistant. But, in true ULU style, each day we tried a different form of meditation, and were invited to do so however we wished — laying in a silk, seated gently swaying in a swing, sat on our mat, whatever. And I can say truly, by the end of the week, my begrudging relationship with meditation had changed. (I even started leading them for the first time ever in my virtual retreat not long after!)
The class that followed was a standard aerial yoga class mixing hatha and vinyasa styles, with a blend of strength training, acrobatic tricks, and traditional yoga flow. Generally, the class would include principles or asanas we’d circle back to later in the day.
After, we’d have a two hour break for breakfast, free time, and self-study. Since I rented a motorbike for the week, I generally scooted off to one of Srithanu’s lovely cafes to have some alone time (a roundup of my faves coming soon!), though I also admittedly did some serious napping.
From 11am-1pm we’d gather again in the shala for what Ulu calls “Analytics,” similar to what we called Asana Clinic in my 200 hour program — we’d go through our manual and break down one pose at a time going through detailed instruction of ideal alignment, technique, how to cue, and safety concerns. We’d practice adjustments, discuss modifications, and feel the postures in our own bodies. Obviously in aerial yoga there is a greater opportunity for immediate injury than in a mat yoga class, where long-term, repetitive injury prevention is the focus — so safety in the swing is a huge topic.
From 1pm-3pm, we had another break for lunch and self study.
In the afternoon, we’d be back in the shala from 3-6:30 for three back-to-back class sessions or workshops. Sometimes they were more analytics sessions, sometimes it was anatomy class, sometimes it was a speciality workshop (which means yes, like any training your body is really pushed to the limit — you might have three full hours of being a student in an aerial class, plus the physical exertion of analytics all in one day.)
Personally, I was grateful that I had previous anatomy knowledge as I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I had a hard time understanding the teacher who led the anatomy section of the course. While it’s not a volume issue, if someone isn’t annunciating or speaking in an accent I’m familiar with, I can get lost easily — I even watch English language Netflix with subtitles on, a lot of the time! — and so I struggled to follow (I don’t think I was alone in this, though — several other students mentioned they were having trouble understanding, too.)
I loved the speciality workshops. Partner aerial was my favorite and totally inspired me for workshops I want to teach someday… perhaps in a post-pandemic world! It was a mix of aerial and acro that spoke to my soul. This was where I got a lot from ULU, trying out creative new ideas that I can make my own and bring into a studio someday.
Another was silk methodology and silk aerial, which we did twice. Of course, I’m super familiar working with a silk but I enjoyed experiencing it through the lens of a teacher training and learning from Naomi. Technically, you can choose to do the entire course with a silk swing and modify the classes and clinics for yourself, but the course is geared towards the ULU Swing, which is a smaller, modified version of the standard nylon swing you’ll find in most studios around the world.
Finally, we did restorative aerial, which was a much needed treat for our tired bodies — and a preview of further training we might take someday. It’s a super recharging mix of meditation, physical therapy, yin yoga, essential oils, and the supportive beauty of the swing!
After the afternoon workshops and sessions, we were free for the night to have dinner, get a cheap Thai massage perfect for unwinding after a long journey to Koh Phangan or to ease tired bodies from training, or go on an outing — which, considering how exhausted we all were, just happened once.
The course also includes fifteen hours of anatomy, methodology and philosophy videos. While technically you can watch them in the evenings during the course, I’d definitely recommend doing so ahead of time to prepare and get in the mindset — plus give yourself some time to absorb and relax during the course itself.
On the fourth day, we started to shake things up.
Our early morning session was swapped for a beach photoshoot, featured heavily in ULU’s promotional materials. It was advertised that we’d learn to make a bamboo tripod, do aerials outside, and learn about organizing groups, giving event demos, conducting short performances, and boosting social media.
Instead, it was a bit of a free-for-all, with each of us taking turns hopping into poses while the others snapped photos for us. In our excitement we didn’t even warm up before going straight into some pretty deep back bends first thing in the morning, which we really suffered for later.
I’m still so glad we had this experience — hanging over the water was incredible, as were the resulting images! — but I’d love to see it as a more structured activity. I love practicing in unique places, and it’s something I’m very eager to recreate for future retreat guests, someday.
Reconvening, the rest of the day was dedicated to preparing for our teaching exams — our late morning session was a sequencing and class design session, and the entire afternoon was dedicated to creating our seventy-five minute classes and various practice teaching activities.
The next morning, both sessions were set aside for our teaching exams. We didn’t each teach to the entire class, which I’m grateful for on one level, as it would have taken a million years, but also doesn’t really give you much experience teaching a large group of varying skill levels, which I later learned is incredibly important in subsequent aerial trainings. Instead, you practice teach to one other student and switch off while one of the instructors is observing you.
I practice taught with Linda, a fitness instructor from the US, who I enjoyed working with. I think we were good foils — she was a confident teacher from years of working with clients in personal training, and I had the aerial and yoga background. Confidence in my voice and my sequence is the number one area I need to grow as a yoga teacher! I was, as always, incredibly stressed about my teaching exam — but relieved and proud when it was over.
Finally, with exams done, our fifth afternoon was dedicated to an aerial choreography and blacklight workshop. I’ve taken aerial dance classes before in my hometown and I’ve taken blacklight Buti Yoga classes before — but I’ve never put the two together!
We broke off into two groups and learned to synchronize various aerial sequences to create a performance that combined aerial, acro and dance. After, we broke out the black lights, went wild painting ourselves and each other, pulled out a bin of old paint-splattered swings, and did a final performance for the camera and for each other! To what song, you ask? Colour, of course!
The whole thing took up a lot of time on the schedule, and at first I was slightly perturbed by spending 4.5 precious hours of the training on it. But eventually I just went with the flow, lost myself in the silliness and the creative flow and and treated it as a final celebration (which it was!) and something I’d love to do with my own retreat guests someday. And gosh, I had a blast.
So, what did we do with all our free time? Ha, free time! As you may have noticed, the schedule was demanding — which I appreciated, because I was there to learn, after all.
I mostly spent my non-shala hours cafe-hopping around Srithanu and trying to keep a loose handle on work — that, and sleeping! But I did manage a few brief adventures.
As I was sketching out the foundations of my future Wander Women Thailand: Aerial Arts + Yoga retreat at this time, I was also trying to sneak in a bit of retreat research in my spare moments. While I couldn’t make the timing work to attend one of their classes or open gyms — and I think my body would have given out if I’d tried! — one day I went to LABracadabra Koh Phangan to see their space for silks and lyra.
I can’t wait to bring this trip to life someday! (I miss Thailand!)
I also had two beach adventures with two of the girls in the training: one day, we headed to Secret Beach and walked over to one of the resort restaurants for lunch. Another day, we used our lunch hours to head to Haad Yao Beach for smoothies and beach massages.
At night, I pretty much retreated to my room and passed out early (I was getting up at around 5am to make it to the shala not long after 6am, after all!)
Still, I couldn’t pass up the weekly outing to The Dome Sauna. So famous on the Thai islands that I’d been hearing about it over on Koh Tao for years, this mystical mountain sanctuary boasts two herbal steam saunas, meditative sound healing performances, a bonfire, and a cafe of raw and organic eats. Basically, it could not be more Koh Phangan.
I came mostly out of a huge curiosity but actually had an incredible experience here. I went back and forth between the two saunas many time (I wore a sarong, but keep in mind many will be nude!), laid and watched the projections on the jungle and the constellations in the sky, and snacked on yummy healthy treats.
The entrance was 300 baht, and we all shared a taxi for 60 baht round trip, a well-worth-it splurge.
Our final morning we gathered one last time for one of the most moving guided mediations of my life (I told you I had a breakthrough!) followed by receiving our diplomas and a closing circle.
We did it!
Where to stay during an ULU training? While it definitely added a little layer of hassle, and definitely an increased expense, I was actually happy in the end that I stayed elsewhere during the course. I just liked having some mental and physical space to decompress — plus was checking out slightly elevated options for Wander Women Retreats research!
As I booked quite last minute, I had to split my time between two resorts. I started at Sea Garden Resort, under a ten minute walk to ULU. The rooms were spacious but dark, with outdoor showers, and the resort had a refreshing pool, and expansive ocean views.
I really fell in love, however, with Haven Resort, which is literally opposite the road from ULU. I got an extra workout each day climbing the stairs, but the incredible views and sense of peace in my simple but stylish bungalow were worth it!
I loved the restaurant here, which had a unique menu, and the hip pool area.
Next time, I’ll be sure to check out their on-location yoga classes (and maybe ask for a lower level room — ha!). I really loved this spot.
So there you have it, my week at ULU Yoga’s 50 Hour Aerial Yoga Teacher Training in one blog post!
Of course, sadly, at the moment, with Thailand’s borders effectively closed and international travel heavily restricted by COVID-19, ULU’s aerial teacher trainings have been temporarily suspended — though it appears they are tentatively scheduling bi-monthly courses starting in mid-2021. While they have adapted to online trainings for their 200 and 300 hour trainings, it’s just not feasible for a practice as hands-on as aerial (it’s not a program I would ever recommend doing online, regardless). I’m hoping they — and all of us! — will be back in the air soon.
In conclusion, I appreciated having a team for a lengthy training like this. I had some teaching breakthroughs with Cody, who was a very confident presence. Vik had the warm energy I didn’t realize I needed — one morning I was so jetlagged and exhausted I arrived to class late and flustered. After, Vik just came up and didn’t chastise me, she just asked if I was okay and I burst into tears, which she responded to with a huge hug. Loved her for that. Naomi was our resident silks expert, and while she was very new at leading trainings, which sometimes showed in her confidence, she had a lot of experience teaching aerials in the real world at festivals and studios that I appreciated learning from.
For me, the drawbacks to this training were (1) that the majority of the program is taught with an apparatus unlike what you’d find in the real world. While the ULU Swing is an interesting creation, it has very limited application — I’ve never before seen it in the many, many aerial yoga studios I’ve been to around the world — and doesn’t allow for savasana in the swing, which I think is a big drawback. (2) Most fellow students, at least on my week, are unexperienced and so a lot of time is spent on simply introducing aerial yoga to them. Some were not even yoga teachers at all. As a result, less time is spent on practice teaching and I didn’t leave feeling excessively confident about being able to lead a standard aerial yoga class.
If there was one thing I could have done differently, it would have been to arrive earlier to reduce jetlag. I know many students come from around the world with limited time off, but if you can even fit in even just a weekend beforehand to adjust and get settled, I think it will make a world of difference.
Also, the training schedule is understandably demanding and leaves little time to explore Koh Phangan, so you’ll want to plan accordingly if it’s your first time to the island and you want to properly enjoy it! Luckily, I’ve been several times before and while there’s always more to explore, I didn’t feel like I’d massively missed out.
However, to end on the positives, (1) it was FUN! And hey, this is Thailand — it’s affordable. (2) Srithanu is one of the great yoga training centers of the world — the kind of place where you’ll see posters for laughter yoga, and where people hand out business cards that list profession as “energy manager” — and it’s a beautiful place to learn. The facilities are incredible and I’m hoping to partner to use them for an aerial Wander Women Retreat in Thailand in 2022. (3) You will be exposed to a lot of fresh ideas and voices — starting to enjoy meditation for the first time was huge for me.
If you don’t have a serious aerial center or training program around you and you want to kind of check it out and see if it’s for you, you couldn’t ask for a better program. This works as a great education retreat, so to speak, but if you are looking for a more bootcamp style training where you leave feeling confident and fully qualified to teach to a room of aerial students, you will likely need to be an extremely confident and experienced mat teacher to begin with, or to supplement this training with much self study and practice teaching. For me, it was the perfect pre-cursor to the more intense weekend training I did at Good Karma Studio in my hometown eight months later.
I’m forever grateful to ULU for getting me started on my aerial teaching journey — and I can’t wait to work with them again in the future!
Considering an aerial yoga teacher training? I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, below!
This is another post made me feel good and happy.
So glad to hear that Jo 🙂 Makes me happy too!
Love the neon face paint. I would have mistaken you for your ++++times being a guide in Koh Phangan, a guide to your friends and family. When i saw this post, I was like “Oh, no – they didn’t make Alex go to the Full Moon Party again, did they? Haha. Peace, love, Namaste.
Haha, I think I’ve definitely quite thoroughly crossed that off the list 😉 Who knows what the future may bring, though!