Gwyneth Paltrow is a known fan and now Lena Dunham is Instagramming pictures of herself balancing mid-air. We’re talking about aerial yoga: Performing poses, inversions and other movements suspended off the ground with the help of a hammock. But how did this hundred-year-old circus art break ground in the fitness industry — and is it safe? One thing’s for sure: It’s trending!
What Is Aerial Yoga?
After spending years as a dancer and acrobat in a performance entertainment company, Christopher Harrison’s body was beat up. All the jumping and tumbling had taken a toll on him and fellow crewmembers. One night in 1999 after practice, Harrison proposed doing the same types of shows — but from hanging apparatuses. By suspending themselves in the air, the performers could make the moves less taxing on their bodies. So they decided to give it a go. “Circus silks were perfect because when light hit them, they looked beautiful to a crowd,” says Harrison.
Soon, his company was performing aerial shows — and Harrison went on to share in a Tony Award win for his work. Eventually, celebrities like Mariah Carey were requesting Harrison’s trademarked hammocks for performances. They even appeared at President Obama’s Inauguration and were a part of the medal ceremonies at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.
In his time hanging upside down, Harrison realized his new sport was also helping to get rid of the kinks in his back. And with that, the performer — who also had a gymnastics, ballet and yoga background — lowered the silks closer to the ground and created a new aerial art form, AntiGravity Yoga, in 2007. Today, there are 250 locations worldwide including classes in India, Taiwan and Australia.
“I began adapting modalities from forms I knew using the apparatus,” says Harrison. “I codified every grip and wrap and developed a program. And then I got it approved by fitness organizations like Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE).”
Getting Past Fear: Is Aerial Yoga Really for Everyone?
For individuals with back and neck pain, many yoga poses and inversions, like headstands or even downward dog, just aren’t an option. But when you’re suspended in the air, performing these positions and holds doesn’t put any pressure on your spine or neck. (Note, if you have a lingering injury, be sure to check with a doctor before trying.)
“Because people aren’t pushing against gravity, but rather falling into gravity with some of the backward bending positions, it’s possible they are bending in ways that are less problematic,” says Sharon Gary, MSPT, physical therapist based in New York City. “For the neck, it’s a really interesting approach.”
Harrison even got his 70-year-old mother to try using a hammock. “She’s heavy-set and has two new hips so of course she was nervous at first,” he says. “But taking it one step at a time, she was able to do inversions.” She now practices restorative yoga, six to eight inches off the ground, which Harrison says is great for older individuals or people who are physically challenged.
Still not keen on the idea of being suspended upside-down? All AntiGravity Yoga instructors are trained to teach using guided progressions, so students can scale moves according to their comfort level in order to be successful. Think of it like learning any other physical activity — one step at a time.
What Are the Benefits of Aerial Yoga?
If “because Pink and Mariah Carey are doing it,” isn’t enough to convince you to give antigravity workouts a try, there are a lot of other potential benefits to aerial yoga.
“The best reason to do it is because all day gravity is compressing us, whether we’re sitting, bicycling or typing at a desk,” says Harrison. While it might not seem harmful at the time, extended periods of sitting have been linked to back, neck and hip pain. “Instead of compressing, AntiGravity is decompressing. Many people love it because it has helped get rid of their pain.”
The complex movements also force you to focus your attention on breathing and rebalancing the body and mind. “Every time you breathe and move with purpose, you reconnect,” says Harrison. “If you don’t have balance in your workout, you won’t have balance in your life.”
Beyond that, aerial yoga can also build strength. Moves and poses recruit both the arms and legs, plus a constantly engaged core is required to perform most of the balances. “I imagine the strengthening effects are probably pretty incredible,” says Gary. “I can’t think anyone up there couldn’t get stronger.” It’s the best way to get an ab workout without even noticing how hard you’re working.
Plus, swinging and turning upside down is just plain fun. “You open up space in the body and mind, and the more space, the happier you can be,” says Harrison.
To learn more about AntiGravity Yoga or to try a class, visit their website at antigravityfitness.com.