What is Aerial Yoga?
One of the most popular bookings on yoga class reservation apps these days is aerial yoga. This unique practice combines traditional yoga poses and philosophy with aerial arts techniques. Practitioners use fabric, hung from above, to find their way into various shapes. Used as a prop for support, the fabric can cocoon the practitioner to fully suspend them in the air, or it can be wrapped around certain body parts while the rest of the body remains firmly rooted on the ground.
Two main fabric designs are used in the practice of aerial yoga. The yoga hammock is a single loop of fabric anchored to the ceiling. Similarly, the yoga swing has a single loop of fabric, but it also has handles, allowing practitioners to maneuver into even more shapes by providing additional support. Hammocks and swings allow students to get into poses that they might not otherwise attempt on a mat.
Aerial yoga gives students opportunities to not only strengthen and stretch but to flip and fly. Like traditional yoga classes, aerial classes are offered in a variety of styles, including yang yoga, which is strength-based, and yin yoga, which focuses on deep stretching. Aerial yoga classes can include elements of playful acrobatics, power movements, inversions, deep relaxation and even healing restoration. While some classes make use of the fabric from start to finish, others use it only for specific poses. Either way, the hammocks and swings improve practitioners’ proprioception —their understanding and awareness of the body’s movement, action and location—and their wellness.
How did Aerial Yoga Develop?
Practicing yoga with props is not new. B.K.S. Iyengar, creator of the Iyengar system of yoga, is known to have created the first yoga prop in 1937, when he used a wooden rod to assist an elderly student who had difficulty keeping his legs stable. Ultimately, Iyengar didn’t only use what are now considered traditional props, such as blocks, straps and blankets; he used ropes attached to wall hooks or suspended from the ceiling to help his students with pose alignment.
Aerial yoga originated in New York City in the early 2000s. Called “anti-gravity yoga” at the time, it was created by Christopher Harrison, a yogi, gymnast, performer and Broadway choreographer. At first, it was a blend of dance, Pilates and traditional yoga. The name change and hammocks and swings as we recognize them today started appearing around 2011.
What are the Benefits of Aerial Yoga?
One of the reasons aerial is quickly gaining stride as a therapeutic style of yoga is that it provides many physical and mental benefits. It’s also a very accessible practice, so it’s appropriate for novice and veteran yoga students alike. Aerial is complementary to a traditional practice, so many experienced yogis enjoy incorporating it into their regular routine.
Because the fabric provides support and stability to the practitioner, aerial yoga improves balance and range of motion in addition to proprioception and increases flexibility, stability and core strength. Many poses, including inversions, become available to students who might otherwise not be able to access them on the mat, and students are often able to move deeper into stretches because of the anti-gravity effect.
Greater depth allows students to feel the alignment of postures more fully and better understand how those poses should feel on the floor. Because the person is suspended, aerial yoga reduces load on wrists and knees; with the full support of a hammock or swing, there is zero impact to joints. The practice also takes pressure off of the head, neck and shoulders when the practitioner is inverted, and it lengthens the spine, relieving spinal compression. This is especially beneficial for people who spend a lot of time seated.
For those with neck or back problems that prevent them from participating in traditional yoga classes, the traction provided by the hammock or swing provides greater freedom and joint decompression than might be possible on the mat. Aerial yoga promotes circulation, boosts the lymphatic system and reduces risk factors for heart disease. Similar to other forms of yoga, aerial improves students’ breath awareness and releases endorphins.
Mentally, aerial yoga reduces stress, improves confidence and is a mood-boosting activity. It invites a sense of fun and play into the practice and improves overall mental health and well-being.
Are There Contraindications?
Although aerial yoga is widely accessible and beneficial to practitioners of any fitness levels, due to the potential for flips and inversions during class, there are a few contraindications of note. As with any form of exercise, it is prudent to consult a healthcare provider prior to participating if there is an underlying condition that could be exacerbated by anti-gravity movement. Hanging upside down is not recommended during pregnancy or for people who suffer from vertigo. It is also not advisable for students with high blood pressure, glaucoma or any other condition for which suspension and inverting is not medically advised.
However, not all aerial classes include full body-weight suspension and inversion. For example, in restorative classes, the fabric is low to the ground, providing gentle support to students in deeply relaxing positions. There are gentle options available to all practitioners, even for those who need to avoid flipping in the air. If there are any concerns, it’s advisable to speak directly with the teacher before taking a class to ensure that it is appropriate.
What Should You Expect from a Class?
Prior yoga experience is not necessary to participate in an aerial yoga class; there are many beginner-friendly options available. The teacher will offer modifications and progressions throughout the class to meet everyone’s needs. As safety is of utmost importance, it is essential to seek out a certified aerial yoga teacher. Instructors should review with the class how to get in and out of the hammock or swing properly and safely and advise students on how to adjust the fabric. The length of the apparatus is not one-size-fits-all, and sometimes adjustments must be made during class to ensure the integrity of specific poses.
Aerial yoga students should wear comfortable, stretchy clothes that allow for a full range of movement. The aerial fabric is often placed in the armpits and behind the knees and can take time to get used to, so wearing a shirt with sleeves and leggings that come below the knees is recommended. Fabric placement in each pose is key; if something is painful or doesn’t feel quite right, ask the teacher for assistance.
Moving too quickly too soon can cause students to experience a bit of motion sickness. Aerial yogis should start slowly to adjust to the sensations of the practice. As with all forms of movement, students should listen to their bodies.
Aerial hammocks and swings are sturdy and, depending upon the brand, can hold from 400 to 600 lbs. or more. Practitioners are encouraged to not only trust themselves and the process, but also the fabric!
Finally, students should expect to have a few laughs and a lot of fun as they allow themselves to enjoy the experience.
While aerial yoga won’t take the place of traditional yoga classes, it is an innovative, playful and beneficial way to complement them by promoting greater strength, balance, flexibility and confidence. ❧
Resources: Yoga Studios Offering Aerial
A Mindful Movement (Alpharetta)
Mila Burgess, E-RYT 500, YACEP, teaches at LifePower Yoga in Sandy Springs. She is the owner of Metta Yoga, offering workshops, private lessons, virtual classes, teacher trainings and retreats. Contact her at [email protected]