Models: Megan Rhoden (left) & Sam Chernoff (right) // Photo Credit: Eric Rosso
A rush of blood flows to the head. Suddenly and inexplicably, you’re smiling. That’s the involuntary effect many people get from their very first aerial yoga experience. There’s something about being upside down that completely changes your perspective on the world around us, as well as what’s within.
“Every practice needs reinvigorating from time to time,” says Wendi Lynch, founder of Aerial Yoga Hawaii, “We are often stuck in an asana rut; we practice our favorite poses over and over and attend the same classes until eventually we feel the need for something new. Aerial yoga brings that fresh inspiration to your current practice.”
Certainly fresh and fun, aerial yoga is anything but ordinary. A feeling of levity, wonder, and weightlessness permeates throughout the class, adding an entirely new dimension to body movement. Yoga is ultimately about finding an inner connection, so what better way to identify the true essence of yourself, than to challenge the very plane on which you currently exist?
What attracts most people to aerial yoga is the ability of the swing to create an unorthodox and constantly changing sense of space. Most activities in our lives are linear—we typically stand straight, walk straight, and project our bodies in straight lines—while aerial yoga guides the body through gentle, circular motions. Each movement introduced in class is often simple, but still lead to complex streams of flowing sensation unlike any other form of exercise. Because the body is suspended, aerial yoga requires the engagement of your entire core, as well as the small stabilizer muscles. You get quite a brain work out too, as you attempt to turn and move your body while being swung. It’s not uncommon to confuse left and right, up and down in these classes as you gently sway, wrap, and wriggle into your postures. As you’re challenged to synchronize your body, movement, and breath while suspended, aerial yoga encourages a whole new level of concentration.
Suspending your asana off the ground ultimately makes you rethink your body’s alignment. “The movement of the hammock causes the body to make micro-adjustments constantly,” explains Lynch, “Your body refines its movements. Many of the traditional poses performed in the air require extra awareness of the head and limbs to keep the body balanced.” Practicing above ground is easier when you let go of rigid expectations. Keeping an open mind and a sense of humor definitely help you release any “hang ups” too; pun intended.
“Embrace adbhuta, the Sanskrit term for wonder,” Lynch continues, “Learning a new form of movement will encourage you to adjust, grow, and identify possibilities both physically and mentally. Wonder keeps us young. Your practice can always use more laughter, curiosity, pleasure and new communities. Not only will you have more faith in your ability to move your body through space, but these positive thoughts will transfer over to a healthier, happier daily life.” And if you have trepidations about defying gravity, Lynch puts you at ease. “It turns out,” she says, “We can fly.”
Beyond the acrobatic elements and euphoric addiction that often attract students to aerial yoga, practicing in mid-air and upside down can have huge physical and mental benefits. Inversions are known to increase blood flow to the brain and stimulate drainage paths throughout our body, but how comfortably—and safely— can the average person sustain a long inversion pose?
“The goal behind an inversion is to reverse the effects of gravity,” explains Jen Healy, creator of Aerial Yoga Play, “Gravitational forces are hard on the body and when you reverse gravity, you relieve incredible amounts of pressure and disrupt your normal rhythms, which carries with it benefits you cannot get with any other exercise.” Inversions can have highly therapeutic and healing effects on the body. Thanks to nutrient-rich blood flow to the head, inversions help relieve stress symptoms, sharpen focus, and improve overall brain function. The right inverted positions can also reduce chronic back pain, improve posture, balance, flexibility, and greatly enhance both joint and digestive health.
Upending the body also stimulates the lymphatic and endocrine systems —our filter and hormone delivery paths which, unlike the circulatory system, don’t have an organ pump to aid the secretion and flow of vital fluids. But for those who find long holds difficult upside down, aerial yoga makes inversions accessible to practically all body types. Yoga swings, hammocks, and other aerial apparatus are gentle solutions to the elusive inversion; a passive way to address imbalances and chronic pain. Inverted decompression creates an ideal stretch to improve total spinal health with the same force that compressed it while upright. Moreover, most aerial inversions can be achieved with little or no muscle activation, further allowing the body to adjust itself properly without struggle or strain.
“Aerial yoga play swings are one of the most effective tools you can use to suspend the body, open up the spine, and create more space in the neck and lower back, which provides a unique advantage in rehabilitating these commonly strained areas,” says Healy. “They support your body in your yoga practice and increase your ability to enter into challenging poses, like backbends and inversions, with more safety and ease.” There’s more to aerial yoga than “hanging out” upside down; it’s about discovering something new in the body, mind and spirit. It can ignite a sense of “change” within, and much like dance, inspire the body to move in new ways. That sense of free and inspired movement makes aerial yoga feel like it goes beyond just yoga; it’s a dance, and art form.
So don’t be shy! Take flight, and elevate your practice.
Amanda is the owner of Body in Balance, a hybrid fitness facility and The Pole Room, Maui’s premier aerial arts and pole fitness studio in Lahaina, Maui. She enjoys all things aerial from aerial yoga to silks, pole, and more and has been teaching multiple styles of yoga for almost 15 years. She strives to make fitness fun while empowering others to love themselves.