I’ve never been very into exercise, at least in the formal sense. As a child, I preferred dancing and gymnastics over sports or physical education. In my 20s, when I was living in San Francisco and D.C., I stayed in shape with daily treks up and down subway escalators and long city blocks.
But then I hit my mid-30s and moved home to Nashville, where people will often drive just to get to the other side of the street. Prime parts of me started to soften, sitting regularly behind that wheel. I needed to get serious about working out.
As I’m easily bored with exercise (I’ve been known to spend $200 on a gym membership and go to one fitness class before cancelling it), I’ve started taking advantage of daily deals from a group coupon site. So when an offer for aerial yoga arrived in my inbox, I was intrigued. The images of women hanging upside down in silky fabric looked so beautiful. And a tad scary. I had to try it.
Aerial yoga is similar in some respects to Iyengar, or restorative, yoga, which uses props for support and to deepen flexibility. But instead of foam blocks, blankets and straps, aerial yoga employs fabric “hammocks” hanging from the ceiling in which you suspend yourself—often upside down.
A small group of fellow newbies and I gathered at Una Bella Yoga in Franklin, Tenn., for our first class. The yoga room was spacious with hardwood floors, mirrors and silky blue hammocks hanging from the ceiling. The contraptions looked a bit like fabric swings—they were suspended at one end from a single knot tied to a large hook embedded in the ceiling beams. (Some studios use hammocks hung from two points, attached on each end using metal hooks.)
The class at Una Bella alternated between floor work and aerial poses. Having practiced yoga on and off for the past two years, I was comfortable enough with the basics and could focus on learning to use the hammock. After a warm-up of standard yoga poses—shoulder rolls, cat-cow stretches, downward dogs, lunges and warrior poses—we were warmed up for our first inversion.
Our instructor, Nicole Larossi, assured the class that the aerial setups are very sturdy and can accommodate up to 1,000 pounds. I was less nervous about the rope breaking, frankly, than I was about mastering an inverted pose. Having never even attempted a handstand in regular yoga class, what made me think I could hang in the hammock upside down?
But once I finally got into that head-over-heels position, I found that it wasn’t nearly as scary as it looks. First, we aligned the fabric of the swing along the sacrum—the part of your lower back behind your hips—while we were still standing. Then, making sure we were directly under the plumb line—the point from which the hammock hangs—we tucked our chins and leaned backward into the fabric, holding onto each side of the swing.
As we lifted our feet off of the floor, and pulled them overhead, our legs spread outward at the hips, knees bent, sort of like a frog dangling upside down. Once inverted, we hooked our feet around the fabric and crossed them at the ankles and let our arms dangle freely. The leg position helps hold you securely in the hammock.
As I practiced variations on the basic inversion—straightening out my legs for an upside down straddle stretch, for instance–I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Even the simplest poses in the swing are rather beautiful. I looked like an acrobat—both graceful and empowered. Until my head began to throb. (That’s the moment you know it’s time to return upright.)
Following the first inversion, which only lasted a minute or so, we flipped over right-side up, and did some deep stretches and core strengthening exercises with the swing as a prop. Then,during the second inversion series, we stretched our legs straight overhead for handstands. Practicing handstands in the swing is great upper-body work, and the hammock keeps you from tipping over. In this position I could feel my core and inner thighs flex to hold me in place.
While in the second inversion, we also worked at our own pace on crunches and sit-ups—yes, upside down. With the extra measure of gravity, I felt my heart rate rise and began to sweat.
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When I noticed at this point that I was closer to the ground than when I started, I asked Nicole, “Do these things stretch?”
“No, but you do,” she responded.
Apparently, not only was I getting the hang of it (pun intended), but my body was too. Inversions are a bit like traction therapy, stretching and elongating your spine. Some say that, if you measure your height before and after class, you might find you’ve grown an inch. Even though the effect is temporary (sorry to dash your hopes), the spine stretch feels great, especially for someone like me who spends so much time sitting down.
Toward the end of the class, we stretched out into shavasana, or corpse pose, inside the hammock. Instead of lying your back on the floor with arms at your sides, as you would in a typical yoga class, you stretch out in the swing so that you’re completely enveloped by the fabric. The nickname for this pose—“cocooning”—perfectly describes how it feels and looks. I couldn’t help but imagine a passer-by peering through the large windows at a room full of hanging human pods. They wouldn’t have any idea what they were missing.
As we nestled into our hammocks, the light dimmed. The upbeat music changed into serene lyrical sounds, and from outside my cocoon emanated a sweet, earthy scent like eucalyptus and oranges.
Breathing deeply, I focused on relaxing my forehead, my jaw, all the muscles in my body, and on silencing the rambling thoughts that threatened to overtake the quiet. In this glorious moment, I wondered if I could hang an aerial hammock in my room. I could so get used to this.