Circle of Hope

Power to the hoop. We speak to a viral social media star about uplifting India with the simplest of sports

By Rathina Sankari

She moves in a rhythmic, steady flow to the lilting music of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits. Oblivious to her surroundings, she glides effortlessly into a fish roll dance move with her hoop still twirling in her toes. This is 24 year-old Eshna Kutty, a flow artist spearheading a growing community of hula hoopers in India.

Eshna frolicking with the hoop in Fort Kochi, Kerala. Shot by Paras Thakur.

In recent years, the hoop has become a medium of empowerment and self-expression for many in India. In September 2020, Samyukta Hegde (an actor and Eshna’s hoop student) was heckled for wearing a sports bra while hooping in a park in Bengaluru. The lady who shamed Hegde called the act of hooping “cabaret dancing.” While Hedge was resolute and unwavering, pieces of fan artwork poured onto social media, declaring “power to the hoop!”

Eshna has taken it upon herself to uplift people with hooping. Credit: Iukasz Augusciak.

Eshna posted an appreciation video on Instagram supporting Hegde. “Calling hula hooping ‘cabaret dancing’ and thinking that’s an insult is misinformation,” she argued in the 3.5 minute video. “A sports bra is the most comfortable thing to work out in. What is wrong if it makes you feel sexy? It is the same amount of skin that you show when you are wearing a saree.” Soon she released a video tagged #sareeflow that saw her hooping in an unconventional combination of a saree and sneakers. With her curly mop, Eshna stomped and whirled her way with the hoop to the beats of famed Academy Award winner and musician AR Rahman’s ‘Genda Phool.’ Her video was an instant hit and went viral.

Flow art is an umbrella term for the intersection of movement-based art forms like dance, juggling, slacklining and fire-spinning. The objects or props include hoops, swords, levitation wands, poi, clubs, spheres and fans. Flow art draws influences from ancient Maori spinning, martial art forms like Tai Chi, modern fire-dancing, and hooping. According to Eshna, it’s a meditative experience that helps her reach the mental state of ‘flow’ or ‘zone.’

EMPOWERMENT

Hooping gets you into the mental state of flow or zone. Credit: Karan Hiranandani.

In his book, ‘The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World,’ author Michael Pollan describes the flow state as “a kind of transcendence — a mental state of complete and utter absorption well known to artists, athletes, gamblers, musicians, dancers, soldiers in battle, mystics, meditators, and the devout during prayer.” The art form pushes you to let go of the past riddled with regret and worry, if any, and being in the present. “It is a state that depends for its effect on losing oneself in the moment, usually training a powerful, depthless concentration on One Big Thing,” adds Pollan.

Delhi resident Eshna is a self-taught flow artist. “I was never interested in dancing during my childhood days,” declared Eshna. “From the looks of it, I thought it was difficult.” A national level badminton player, she learned to play the guitar in her teens. At the same time, she was drawn to the hula hoop videos on YouTube and soon took to it. Back then, hooping was just about another workout for her. The path to discovering it as a dance form of sorts was a personal journey, which also saw her travelling across the length and breadth of India.

While hooping you let go of your worries and live in the present.

At the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for Women in New Delhi, she enrolled in a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “I was really interested in the study of the mind,” she told me. “This was six to seven years ago when Indian society did not talk about mental health openly. It was unlike other subjects like History or Geography. I thought it would make me more aware. I found it intriguing.” She joined the alma mater’s Dance Society since it provided an active platform for various talents, including hooping. “There was no professional training. We were a bunch of college kids who got together to dance and perform. That became my dance training, and I slowly became open to the idea of dancing.” However, she prefers to call herself a ‘hooper’ and not a dancer.

Movement plays an important role in healing and wellbeing. Credit: Meghna Bhalia.

But Eshna did not limit her knowledge of hooping to what she learned through the YouTube videos and her performances at college. She travelled the country to participate in various festivals and events promoting flow art. “Jugglers from across the world would attend these festivals like the Indian Juggling Convention in Goa,” said Eshna. “I got introduced to slackliners, jugglers and acro yogis in these flow art festivals. Just for the fun of it, I would join in.” As a self-taught artist, Eshna broadened her skills by learning dance forms like hip hop, dancehall, juggling, slacklining and acro yoga. These art forms continue to complement her hula-hooping capers.

But Eshna did not stop there. She secured a place at the Tata Institue of Social Sciences for Diploma in Dance Movement Therapy. The course aimed to provide knowledge about the importance of movement for healing, wellbeing, empowerment and rehabilitation. “I wanted to pursue some form of psychology, and I also loved moving in general, not just dancing,” explained Eshna, “at the institute, it was like two worlds colliding.”

MOVEMENT

Various skills like juggling go hand in hand with hooping. Credit: Arsh Grewal.

Eshna’s journey of self-discovery took a new turn through this course. “It’s made me a lot more aware and grounded, whilst building my vocabulary in the movement language: why I feel a certain way when I move in a certain way. I saw how the movements were making a difference in other’s lives, and I think it was just a very empowering experience.”

Eshna: “The hoop is an extension of me.” Credit: Shreya Dutt.

Eshna breaks into a smile when she talks to me about her experience of working with the female inmates at Tihar Jail: Asia’s largest prison complex located in Delhi. For six months, she visited the jail weekly to teach women (ranging from 18 to 60 years-old) the art of hooping. “Jail is not a happy place to be in, and when you give them a toy that brings joy, I think it is very uplifting,” she said. “I noticed many of them practiced day and night, and every time I got back, they would be twice as good as they were before.”

Eshna told me how the art form is very accommodative. “You don’t need prior training, and you don’t need to be flexible at all, which is why it is inclusive of all genders, ages and sizes.” Hooping helps build core strength, boosts cardiovascular fitness, works on the back muscles, and is also believed to reduce anxiety and stress. The ring brings out the best in you.

UPLIFTING

Eshna: “Today, when people are very career driven and wanting to be productive, the hoop slows down your pace.” Credit: Arsh Grewal.

“Quite often, my students’ reaction is utter shock,” Eshna continued, “they say ‘I never knew I could do so much!’ When a fully grown person is playing with a toy, it brings out the inner child. Today, when people are very career driven and wanting to be productive, the hoop slows down your pace.” A hoop is a tool of self-care for many. It is about the time you spend on yourself by connecting with the ring. “I find a lot of solace just by feeling the hoop on my body, as an extension of me. Of course, it is my personal experience, but some of my students also feel that way,” explained Eshna.

During her travels, Eshna would organise a three or five-day workshop to teach hooping. Initially, these hooping workshops were a side hustle, and Eshna preferred to wear the hat of a dance movement therapy practitioner as her full-time job. But the sudden advent of the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. She resorted to taking virtual hooping classes from April to September 2020.

Eshna calls the hoop a toy that brings joy. Credit: Shreya Dutt.

In December, she launched her e-commerce and EdTech company Hoop Flo. Here she sells collapsible, travel-friendly hula hoops and pre-recorded four-week hooping training programs (offering lifetime access). Her advice to anyone who wants to learn hooping is: “Get yourself a good sized, lightweight hula hoop. All you need is some space, a hoop, and a positive attitude – and you’re good to go.” Eshna, also a TEDx performer, wants to pass on the message that it is not difficult to learn the art form. Her saree videos also convey the same idea of how liberating the sport is. “Often, people find it difficult to walk in a saree. The moment you make it fun – not something you only wear at weddings or serious events – you can enjoy it. This surprises people,” she said.

Used to break gender stereotypes, tackle mental health issues and throw light on the need for self-care, Eshna’s hula hoop continues to shatter barriers. “Through Hoop Flo, I would like to host gatherings and teach more people this art form because it really does help,” she insisted. By the end of our conversation, I needed no convincing.

Hooping is a very accommodative art form. Credit: Shreyans Dungarwal.

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