Stretch and strengthen with aerial yoga
Susan Johnston Taylor
Aerial yoga offers a fun and challenging twist on the ancient practice of yoga. Why not try it out?
Traditional yoga may strengthen the core and clear the head, but a plain downward facing dog may not excite everyone. For those in search of a more adventurous workout, variants such as aerial yoga offer a challenging twist on the ancient practice, along with many of the same mental and physical benefits.
Using fabric hammocks or swings affixed to the ceiling engages multiple muscle groups and assists with poses. Hammocks and swings are both made of parachute silk and affixed to the ceiling with steel carabiners; but while yoga hammocks are a continuous piece of fabric, yoga swings may have extra attachments such as straps and stirrups.
In aerial yoga (also called antigravity yoga), students can suspend themselves parallel to the floor, flip upside down, cocoon themselves in fabric, and perform many of the same poses they’d do on the mat while suspended a few inches off the ground (usually with a yoga mat underneath). Some yoga hammocks are rated to support over 3,200 lb (1,451 kg)!
Stretch and strengthen
Penny McGuire, who teaches suspension yoga privately in Parksville, BC, says a yoga swing can help people build up strength and flexibility. “You can use the swing like a prop so you can hold a handstand longer, or use it as a support to help you get stronger and then [poses] easier to do,” she explains.
Depending on her students’ goals and fitness level, she might tailor a session to give them an intense, TRX-style workout or a gentler, more restorative one. In fact, McGuire works with clients ranging in age from childhood all the way up to 92.
While it might take a student several months or even a few years of traditional yoga to work up to poses involving arm balances such as firefly or crane pose, Cait Anthony, an instructor in Halifax, says some aerial yoga students using a hammock get to “experience arm balances without having to take yoga for a couple of years. It makes your core and upper body really strong.”
The ins and outs of inversions
Inverted poses are a big part of aerial yoga, and they offer the same benefits you’d get from performing those poses on a mat. “It’s really great for spinal decompression and for your joints, and it’s also good for skin and blood flow,” says Prestonne Domareski, an instructor in Coquitlam, BC. “It’s also just kind of fun to hang upside down.”
In addition to the benefits of inversions, yoga in general can help lower the resting heart rate and increase melatonin production, which aids sleep.
While McGuire says she can work with people who are afraid of heights, those with certain medical conditions may want to avoid inverted poses and aerial yoga altogether. She cautions those who have had a concussion or have high blood pressure and aren’t medicated to check with their doctor first.
Pregnant women may be able to do inversions if they’re used to them, and those with heart conditions, glaucoma, or recent stroke may not want to hold inversions for very long, she adds. Interestingly, some people actually find inversions more comfortable on a swing or hammock than they do on a mat.
The fun factor
Aside from aerial yoga’s gentle stretching and strengthening potential, some students find the weightless quality of aerial yoga to be just plain fun. Kristy Scime took a beginning yoga class a few years ago, but later fell out of practice. Earlier this year, she discovered aerial yoga and now attends classes several times per week.
“It’s a really good workout, but it reminds me of when you’re a kid playing on the monkey bars,” Scime says. “It has an element of fun and whimsy to it that other exercise doesn’t tend to have.” Since she started attending classes more regularly, she says her flexibility has improved, along with her handstand abilities.
Bianka Bargmann tried aerial yoga after spotting a photo on Instagram. Since she started aerial yoga classes, Bargmann says she’s noticed an improvement in her core strength and a reduction in the lower back pain she used to suffer.
Although Bargmann hadn’t tried traditional yoga first, she hasn’t found aerial yoga to be too intimidating or scary. “The hardest part of aerial yoga, especially for someone like me with no yoga background, is trusting your own body to hold you, and letting go,” she says.
Anthony stresses that aerial yoga appeals to a wide variety of people, regardless of their past yoga experience (or lack thereof). “It’s really fun to have your body suspended in the air and feel like you’re flying,” she says. “You don’t already have to be a yoga superstar or a circus superstar.”
A pose by any other name?
Here’s a look at a few different aerial disciplines offered by studios across Canada (and in some cases, these practices may blend together).
instead of one continuous silk hammock, aerial silks uses two strips of fabric, with an emphasis on dance rather than yoga
similar to aerial silks but uses a hoop suspended from the ceiling
uses a hammock (one continuous piece of fabric) to assist with yoga poses
similar to aerial yoga but uses a swing with straps, handles, or stirrups for a slightly different variety of poses