Tag Archives: circus arts

Interleaving update

 

A few weeks ago I did a post about interleaving and for the most part I’ve been using this innovative learning strategy for learning new unicycle skills since then. In case you’ve forgotten, interleaving is a learning strategy that involves mixing things up instead of focusing on just one skill at a time. So far it appears to be working.

As you can see in the video I figured out how to juggle while idling one-footed(at least that’s how unicyclists would describe it). I even figured how to do the tricky two to one foot transition in only one practice session; I assumed it would take longer to learn the transition. Instead of a long block practice approach, I interleaved learning this skill with the closely related juggling while unicycling backwards. I would focus on one skill for 10 to 15 minutes, then switch to the other skill for 10 to 15 minutes, then back to the first skill, in an ABABA pattern for about 50 minutes to an hour or more. Of course in this heat breaks are very important.

It took a mere few weeks to learn juggling while idling one-footed though I can’t do it that well yet. I think interleaving did give me a learning boost. I also think the fact that it’s just an extension of juggling while idling two-footed, which I can do competently, was also a big help. There’s a lot of overlap, it’s really not that distinct of a skill in other words.

Since juggling while one-footed idling is a more challenging version of juggling while idling, I think it’s helping me polish my juggling while two-footed idling(sometimes the key to mastering something is to practice the more complex variation of what you’re trying to learn— you don’t even have to do the more complex variation that well to benefit from it). It would be interesting to see what happens if I try interleaving with skills that are unrelated.

It also helps that I mixed it up with juggling while unicycling backwards, which I can almost do competently now. Idling and backwards are related skills and if you can do one well it helps with learning the other. Idling is, after all, going forwards and backwards just a little.

So if you’re on a learning plateau with anything, consider experimenting with an interleaving approach or at least trying variations of what you’re trying to learn.

How to ride a unicycle

 

I thought I’d finally do a video on how to unicycle since so many people keep asking me how to do it. It’s really not that difficult if you devote enough time to it every day.

The key things to remember are:

  • Practice in a flat area along a long wall or fence — the longer the better.
  • Lean forward to gain forward momentum.
  • Try to keep most of your weight in the seat though this isn’t absolutely essential early on. With time you’ll likely end up doing this without thinking.
  • When breaking free from the fence or wall use your arms to help you balance.
  • Patience, practice and perseverance.

As far as which size unicycle to learn on, I say choose a 20″ or 24″ inch unicycle(for small children a 16″ may be best). These days most people learn on a 20″ inch unicycle — I learned on a 24″. I chose a 24″ because I wanted something that I could ride around town on, besides doing freestyle tricks. A 20″ inch unicycle is great for freestyle but it’s impractical for riding around the neighborhood. A 24″ also makes a better gateway to the larger size unicycles used for long-distance riding, like 29″, 32″ and 36″ inch unicycles.

Whatever size you choose, get plenty of practice! If you’re a runner, this is a great cross-trainer. Happy riding!

 

 

 

 

 

Juggling while unicycling backwards

Lately I’ve been working a lot on my juggling while unicycling backwards technique, particularly in circles and figure 8’s. It is extremely challenging to say the least, but I am slowly learning to do smoother circles. In essence, it’s the same thing as doing forwards circles and figure 8’s while juggling: leaning in the direction you want to go in, as well as pointing your shoulders toward where you want to go. Your body is just facing the opposite direction from where you’re going.

Beyond this it can be difficult to explain the how of it. This is because so much of the learning when it comes to this difficult skill is subconscious. Repeat the same task over and over again and it gets stored in your muscle memory.

Although I haven’t mastered this skill yet, here are some tips for those who want to know how to do this(this assumes you can already juggle while unicycling forward):

  1. Relax. Breath deeply before and while doing it to calm your muscles and oxygenate your cells. Try to achieve a state of mind that is both focused and relaxed.
  2. Try to find a large, flat, quiet area to practice in. Don’t worry if your circles or figure 8’s are over-large, with practice you’ll slowly make them smaller.
  3. Learn to idle while juggling first or while learning this. Idling and backwards are closely related skills. The better your idling, the better your backwards and vice versa.
  4. You’ll likely make the same mistake over and over again. Learn to fail better, try to do the opposite of what keeps leading to the same mistake. In other words, try making different mistakes.
  5. Don’t worry if you notice an asymmetry with your turning abilities, this is perfectly normal. I find clockwise backwards circles much easier than counter-clockwise. Just work a little more on your weaker side.
  6. Be patient. It takes a while to learn a skill like this. You may experience many learning plateaus or you may even regress before getting better. Take breaks if you get very frustrated.
  7. If you are a very self-conscious kind of person and there are people watching, just ignore them. Try not to care what others think and learn to laugh at your mistakes. Or just learn to get used to having people watch you.

 

The transition from forwards to backwards can be especially tricky when you first start out. Even if you can do it well without juggling it can still be a huge challenge. It’s almost like a separate skill in itself. The key to this is to isolate your lower body and upper body so your unicycling doesn’t interfere with your juggling and vice versa. This is a good approach to juggling while unicycling backwards in general.

With enough practice this should become a second nature. Happy riding!

 

Flying Free — Life Lessons Learned on the Flying Trapeze

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I just finished reading “Flying Free  Life Lessons Learned on the Flying Trapeze” by Lynn Braz(@air_dancer on Instagram), and thoroughly enjoyed it. Lynn Brazz is a Renaissance woman she’s a very talented writer, yogini, trapeze-artist, dancer, vegan and adventurer who tells an inspiring story of overcoming fear to become a trapeze-artist after a series of career setbacks and distressing life events. Her biggest fear for the longest time was a fear of heights and taking up trapeze many years ago helped her overcome this fear. She artfully uses trapeze as a metaphor for overcoming fear and things that limit us from achieving a more fulfilling life.

For as long as Lynn can remember, fear was omnipresent, and not just her fear of heights. Fear of failure was also a constant hindrance. Taking up trapeze was the ultimate way of challenging these deep-seated fears  climbing a ladder to a platform over 20 feet in the air then swinging on a trapeze at 25 mph, that takes some courage! Courage she didn’t know she had in the end, her fears were shown to be an illusion. Her fears are not completely gone; instead of being ruled by fear, she developed a healthy relationship with it.

This book is not a how-to manual on learning trapeze or a recommendation to take up trapeze. Rather, Lynn’s aim is to encourage you to take up enriching, meaningful activities that challenge you physically and/or mentally. In other words, endeavors that take you out of your comfort zone, that involve learning new skills that put you in the “zone” or in a state of “flow”(as described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi). It’s obvious that Lynn is in the “zone” when doing trapeze, or dance or yoga for that matter.

As both a joggler and unicyclist I can relate very well to Lynn Brazz’s story. In a way her book is a celebration of circus arts and how they can lead to a more fulfilling life. There are many sentences in this book where you could substitute “trapeze” with “unicycling” or “joggling” and it would make perfect sense. Unicycling also helped me overcome some of my fear, though that wasn’t the original reason I took up unicycling and joggling. There’s a kind of magic in circus arts, whether it’s trapeze, unicycling or juggling that’s difficult to find elsewhere.

It’s an understatement to say that trapeze is a great way to exercise. It goes far beyond that and Lynn Braz explains in her book how learning trapeze has influenced many other areas of her life for the better. After deciding she wasn’t going to be ruled by fear, she eventually traveled alone to Kashmir, then and now a volatile region that’s contested by India and Pakistan. I’ll definitely reread parts of this book whenever I struggle with learning new unicycling or juggling skills since her advice has relevance for doing anything challenging. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for inspiration to overcome their fears or discover hidden talents.

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Juggling relaunched as AcroTrekker!

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Wild Juggling is no more we’re relaunching as AcroTrekker to better reflect the new direction of the blog. As I’ve said before, the name “Wild Juggling” was meant to be temporary until I could come up with something better. In part this is because I’m no longer just a joggler, I’m also a unicyclist. “Acro” does a good job of representing both of these pursuits, with “trekker” suggesting adventurer, traveler or endurance sport.

I’m as committed as ever to vegan living and to a science-based approach to health and fitness. This hasn’t changed. What has changed is that I’ve become more of a scam-buster over the past year  I’m an ally of the anti-MLM coalition and will do more posts exposing these types of scams. Sadly, it seems few vegans are speaking out against this.

Other than this, things won’t be that much different. Expect the usual(or unusual) adventures, the inter-state runs, the vegan meals, the training plans, among other things. To those of you who have followed and supported me over the years, thank you for sticking around.

Unicycling and improved core strength

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As I often say, even if unicycling didn’t have any unique benefits beyond improved balance, I’d still do it because of how much fun it is. Us unicyclists often like to tout unicycling as a great way to strengthen the core, though there hasn’t been a lot of hard scientific data to support this.

Until now. Last year in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, they did a study on the effect of unicycling on the trunk strength of children. They concluded:

Unicycling proved to be an effective and funny tool to develop proximal stability and strength, which prevents low back pain and improves the efficiency of energy transfer between body segments.

This is just one study, but it is terrific news. Hurray for unicycling! I admit I am very biased. Better core strength is often associated with better athletic performance in many sports, including running. Though this study was done on children, I can’t think of any reason this wouldn’t apply to adults, and it’s too bad they didn’t study juggling while unicycling. So if you want to strengthen your core, consider taking up unicycling!

What I’ve learned from 2 years of unicycling

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Me juggling while idling on a unicycle, a very difficult skill to master

I’ve been unicycling now for over 2 years, and what an adventure it has been! Here are some things I’ve learned over these 2 years:

 

Most learning is subconscious

When learning a new skill(going backwards, idling, juggling while idling, etc), it’s critical to use the right technique or in the very least not do things that will impede your progress. While we all may use a different learning method, we should observe some general guidelines, especially early on.

As important as these guidelines are, they are not written in stone. Through trial and error we may occasionally find it helpful to ignore certain guidelines. It can be frustrating when we hit upon a technique variation that seems to work but later on doesn’t. If we’re persistent enough we improve, though we’re often not sure why. This is because so much of the learning is happening at a subconscious level, to the extent that it’s very difficult to describe or replicate what we are doing that is leading to success instead of failure. This is largely due to muscle memory and that practicing the same thing over and over again forces our body to do it more efficiently.

This isn’t all that unique to unicycling since it happens when learning just about anything. However, it’s because learning new unicycling skills is so bewilderingly difficult and complicated at first that every little improvement is celebrated as a victory. While we all have an innate sense of proprioception(the sense of where we are in space which helps with balance), unicycling will lead to a quantum leap improvement in this ability to the extent that we feel like we have acquired super-powers. This is why unicycling is so uniquely enjoyable.

Taking breaks can help you improve

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was going to be rusty after a break but instead got better. I am not saying you shouldn’t be persistent, but rather that after practicing on a consistent basis, a break of a few days to a week may be helpful, besides taking off one day a week(or whatever works for you).

Finding the magic formula to ensuring breaks will be helpful is interrelated with figuring out what is the ideal of amount of practice time. It varies from person to person, and more isn’t necessarily better. We probably all notice that there are diminishing returns to going beyond a certain amount of practice time, and that excessive practice can lead to burnout or extreme frustration.

This is why one day off a week from unicycling may be better than doing it 7 days a week, and anything more than a few hours of practice a day is unlikely to be helpful.

Besides providing rest, a day or a week off may help your brain and muscles properly assimilate what it has learned, and practicing excessively may interfere with this assimilation. This is why occasionally taking time off may be more helpful than detrimental to getting better at unicycling, or anything for that matter.

Variation is the key to improving

You practice the same thing every day, with the same unicycle at the same place at the same time and you’re noticing very little to no improvement. We all know the cliche that “practice makes perfect”, but some of us(myself included) get stuck on a learning plateau and we’re not sure why. Again, this is not unique to unicycling. Besides taking the occasional break, practicing subtle variations may help us improve.

What do I mean by variation? By playing around with tire pressure, or putting in different size cranks, or simply practicing with a different unicycle altogether. I’ve experimented with different tire pressures while learning to go backwards and would often notice significant improvements after a few days of variations. I’ve also tried carrying(not juggling) heavy balls to increase the challenge. Also changing locations can sometimes be helpful.

The reason this probably works is because these variations force our brains to discover the essence of a skill by feeding it unique data points it otherwise wouldn’t have access to if we practiced the same exact way every day. In this sense it is kind of related to cross-training.

Think of all the ways you can vary your routine. It doesn’t have to make learning much more difficult, but it should be different enough so that it feels new or a little awkward at first. One approach I’ve often found helpful is to warm up with a variation or something different, then I practice what I usually practice. Sometimes it’s a short trail ride with the municycle, then a long practice session juggling while idling with my freestyle unicycle.

*  *  *

Unicycling is not just a lot of fun, it offers so many different fitness benefits without breaking the bank. Like I’ve said before it’s great cross-training for runners and offers similar fitness benefits. It also forces you to pay close attention to your body and all its asymmetries and quirks, like yoga or dance. Besides this, taking up unicycling is a great way to learn about learning.

Related:

The Attraction of Unicycles: A Lesson for Learning Complex Skills

How to Unicycle Backwards

 

 

 

Unicycle ride from City Hall to Coney Island

I am sorry I haven’t posted in a long time. Certain life issues made regular blogging difficult. Now that these have been mostly resolved I am back to updating you on my latest athletic adventures, tips on vegan living, and occasional random stuff.

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Last Friday, I completed my first ever group unicycle ride, riding 12 miles from City Hall to Coney Island for the Brooklyn portion of the NYC Unicycle Fest. This involved unicycling across the crowded Brooklyn Bridge, my first time ever unicycling across it. It was an amazing experience, and wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. Though this wasn’t a race, my training over the past several months paid off and I didn’t feel wasted at the end. It helped that we took several big breaks. Thank you Bindlestiff Family Cirkus for organizing this event and for your volunteers who made sure we went in the right direction.

This event was scheduled for 3:00 PM, and so I arrived at City Hall at 2:30, having unicycled part of the way down there along the East river from Grand Central Station. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect that day — though still technically summer, it went up to only 70 F with low humidity. It felt both strange and wonderful approaching City Hall and seeing so many unicyclists, about 47 of them, getting ready to take on Brooklyn. I’m always unicycling alone, but here was my tribe, so many different ages and ability levels and wildly different personalities. But here we are all united by our love of riding unicycles.

I brought my 29″ road unicycle for this ride, and so did a bunch of other unicyclists. I was expecting to see mostly 36″ inch unicycles considering the distance, but was surprised by all the 24″ unicycles. I made small talk with a few of the riders and before I knew it it was time to start our quest for to Coney Island. I was a little nervous at first because of how crowded it was, and kept thinking I would bump into someone or someone would bump into me. Fortunately, this didn’t happen.

So we all mounted our unicycles and started to climb the Brooklyn Bridge bike path. Since I ride on hilly terrain almost every day, this was like nothing to me, but it was challenging for some of the other riders. I was more concerned about bumping into some careless tourists than getting wiped out by the ascent. We basked in the lovely sea breeze while unicycling across the historic bridge and many tourists and pedestrians were excited by the seemingly endless parade of unicyclists. A few bicyclists on the other hand seemed annoyed.

Going across, it felt less and less like Manhattan and more and more like Brooklyn. Hello Brooklyn! I felt elated making it to the Brooklyn side without a hitch(it reminded me of the time I flawlessly joggled across many years ago), and so did the sub-group of unicyclists I was with. Once on the other side and across the street we had our first break. I talked some more with Jeff about his unicycling experiences, then had a conversation with Chris, who I ran into nearly 2 months ago up in the wilds of Yorktown in northern Westchester on the North County Trail when we were unicycling in opposite directions(he was doing his first century ride, wow!). He told me he hasn’t been riding much these days, and that he still has trouble mounting the 36″ he had with him. I admit to being a little envious of his 36″ because of how much faster it is than my 29″, but I think I would also have serious trouble mounting such a large wheel.

After waiting for the slower unicyclists to catch up, we were off. It was a little scary unicycling through the streets of downtown Brooklyn, but I soon got used to it. Since a lot of people were on vacation that weekend, the traffic isn’t as heavy as it usually is. Amazingly, I found that I could idle(staying in place on the unicycle by quickly pedaling back and forth) at some of the traffic stops. I can idle proficiently on my 24 inch unicycle but usually have trouble doing it on my 29 inch. We soon found ourselves cycling through the streets of Parkslope, an upscale area full of trendy restaurants, boutiques, cafes and lots of onlookers who were delighted by the unicycle parade. Even in New York, a large group of unicyclists cruising through the streets isn’t something you see every day.

At Grand Army Plaza(mile 4) at the northern end of Prospect Park we had our next break and first group photo at the memorial arch. I talked a little more with Chris and drank some of the juice I had with me.21314811_1594702827216762_8372208298688654356_n

After the break we rode south through Prospect Park, by far the easiest part of this journey since there were no cars or traffic lights to worry about. I even took a video during this section, it was that easy. And it seems many people in the park were taking pictures or videos of us. I easily could have juggled while riding at this point, but I didn’t bring my balls with me. Another short break at the southern end of the park, and then we were back on the streets of Brooklyn heading south toward the Atlantic ocean.

We made our way to Ocean Parkway which takes us straight to Coney Island and has a wide bike path that’s separate from the walking path and used this for most of the rest of our southward ride.

The ethnic and religious diversity along this route was amazing. This is what makes NYC and the U.S in general such a wonderful and dynamic place. Russians, Chinese, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Indians, Caribbean islanders and Middle Easterners were all happy to see us and very supportive of our unicycle parade. The further south we went, the more Russian it got(a lot of these Russian-speakers aren’t ethnically Russian but they speak Russian because they’re from a former Soviet republic).

We didn’t have to worry about traffic except at the cross streets, and although this wasn’t a race it sure felt like one when we would frantically try to beat the light before the traffic blocked us. I was still able to idle when I had to stop, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, but it started causing soreness in my upper thigh because I’m not used to idling on such a large wheel.

A few miles from completion and we could feel the sea breeze again and the sweet smell of the mighty ocean. Or was that the sweet smell of success? In my mind I was thinking how I had yet again nearly accomplished something that not too long ago I would have thought impossible. Though this wasn’t my longest ride(I unicycled for 20 miles a few months ago on a rural bike path), it was the most challenging long unicycle ride.

Finally, we made it to Coney Island in front of Nathan’s. What an incredible journey it was! I felt like I could have unicycled for another 10 miles, my legs were certainly up to it. It was such a festive atmosphere on Coney Island with all the revelers, the lights, the rides and games, the perfect place to celebrate this achievement. All in all, was very happy with my City Hall to Coney Island ride experience. I think unicycling through Brooklyn is the best way to experience it.

Like last year, I’m joggling and unicycling for Team Humane, any support is appreciated.

 

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Unicycling as the ultimate cross-training

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Unicycling starts to get really interesting when you ride the trails.

Like a lot of athletes, I’m always on the lookout for a cross-training activity that complements my usual regimen. As a joggler, it’s difficult finding something that fits the bill that challenges me in a way that is similar to joggling, but isn’t as strenuous. I’ve sometimes tried simply running, but it often makes me feel like I am regressing from joggling and is otherwise too similar. I also wanted an activity that is easier on the knees. I’ve considered juggling while swimming or “swuggling”, but I don’t have access to a pool.

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The 24 inch Club unicycle I purchased. This is a good beginner model.

After exploring countless options, I recently “discovered” unicycling, and won the Nobel prize for my amazing discovery. Granted, I’ve always known about unicycling, but for some silly reason or other I didn’t seriously consider taking it up. I used to think it would take too long to learn how to ride one, or that I wouldn’t have enough time, but in late October of last year I finally purchased a 24 inch wheel unicycle. It took about 3 weeks for me to learn to ride forward 500 feet(while recovering from the Yonkers marathon injury), and I am now capable of riding up to 13 miles on it. I can even go up and down hills, so long as they are not too steep.

It should go without saying that it took a lot of practice and patience to get to where I’m at with unicycling, just like how I progressed with joggling. In fact, I can now juggle while unicycling, though very sloppily. I think my joggling ability helped make the transition to juggling while unicycling a lot easier. I can also “idle”, which means pedaling back and forth to stay in the same position without dismounting(which comes in handy when waiting for a traffic light to change), and do a little hopping. Backwards riding I can barely do. Though I’ve taken a bunch of nasty falls, so far I haven’t suffered any serious injuries.

Unicycling just makes perfect sense to me. Similar to juggling/joggling, it’s an aerobic and acrobatic activity that was long ago appropriated by circus performers to the point that few people see it as a sport. Whereas joggling requires a great deal of coordination, unicycling requires a great deal of balance. There’s something about being in “perfect” balance or coordination that brings about a state of euphoria. Unicycling engages the brain in a manner few exercises can approach. Unlike running or joggling, it’s a low impact activity so it gives your knees a break while still providing your legs a great workout.

Unicycling generally requires more effort than bicycling. You always have to pedal if you want to move since you can’t coast on a typical unicycle. This means you burn more calories on a unicycle than on a bicycle when covering the same distance. It’s not as many calories as a person would burn while running, but it is significantly closer.

A lot of people balk at the idea of unicycling as a sport. The association with the circus is still too strong and some people are too self-conscious about all the attention they would get. Besides this, some people see it as inherently dangerous. However, over the past two decades unicycling has become much more popular as an athletic activity for fitness enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. These days, there are even some gutsy people riding mountain unicycles, which are usually called “municycles”. Some prefer riding long distances on roads or bike paths with large 36 inch wheel unicycles which kind of look like smaller versions of the Victorian era Penny Farthing, except that they lack the tiny rear wheel.

As far as safety goes, as long as you know what you’re doing and wear a helmet and safety gear, it probably isn’t much more dangerous than bicycling. If you are still concerned about safety, keep in mind that unicycles tend to be much slower than bicycles, and if something goes wrong they are easier to bail from since they lack handlebars.

Though I enjoy it for its own sake, I unicycle mainly for cross-training since I still see myself primarily as a joggler. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with making unicycling your main athletic activity. I don’t intend to do a lot of juggling while unicycling, but it’s a good skill set to have since it helps to make your upper and lower body movements more independent of each other.

I am considering doing some cycling events in the future, but haven’t found anything suitable yet. Since I am still a novice, I can’t travel very far on my unicycle yet, but I am getting there. I plan to upgrade to a bigger model soon so I can go much farther. In the mean time, I will enjoy the cross-training benefits of unicycling. Unicycling around the neighborhood after a long joggling run is a great low-impact recovery aid, and is a lot of fun both for me and the local kids(as well as adults) who love all the free entertainment. The mean kids love it when I fall off, of course. On the other hand, the geeky kids enjoy it when I explain the physics of unicycling. Actually, they usually do a better job of explaining it to me. I highly recommend unicycling as a cross-training activity for jogglers and runners alike.

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My first wheels

 

 

Kids and acrobatics

AcroYoga pose called Hangle Dangle. Source: Earl McGehee

Acroyoga pose called Hangle Dangle. Source: Earl McGehee

I don’t have any kids of my own, but if I did, I would take their physical education as seriously as their intellectual development. After all, active kids are not only healthy kids, they generally tend to do better in school. This is why athletics are so important for kids and adults alike.

In order to get more kids interested in fitness, we should broaden what we consider to be athletics. The focus in schools is often on boring old calisthenics, team sports or track, and I think this is very limiting. I believe widening the scope of athletics to include acrobatics can help kids find the fitness activity that is right for them. It can also accommodate children who are not inclined to play team sports for whatever reason. If kids aren’t having fun with what they’re doing, they won’t stick to it. Many people don’t see acrobatics as athletic, but I do. How are the abilities of trapeze artists, tight-rope walkers, or jugglers not athletic?

What is probably the biggest stumbling block to wider acceptance of acrobatics as athletics is acrobatics close association with the circus. This association is unfortunate since the world of acrobatics offers so many fun ways to stay fit that can either be the mainstay of you or your child’s athletic routine, or a supplement to it. And before anyone mentions it, I am not recommending you or your kids take up acrobatic daredevilry.

Juggling is arguably the best gateway to this world, and it’s a safe(unless you juggle chainsaws), fun athletic activity in and of itself. It’s definitely a step forward that more schools are including juggling and acrobatics in their physical education programs. Acroyoga is another excellent way to practice acrobatics. Not surprisingly, juggling and/or acrobatics is linked with improved academic scores. The more options kids have when it comes to athletics, the better.