If You Want to Hang Out in a Silk Womb-Hammock, Aerial Yoga Is for You

If doing yoga on solid ground bores you, spit in the face of gravity by learning how to downward dog upside down. We strapped in to try out the new fitness craze.
July 6, 2016, 3:25pm

There are so many things you can do with a Saturday. For your entertainment, I'm spending mine in a scarlet silk hammock womb. A disembodied voice is telling me to breathe, focus, relax. I can't see the instructor talking—I can't see anything outside this blood red cocoon—but I can hear her pacing around the white box basement studio at Old Street's London Dance Academy, where I'm about to experience my first aerial yoga class.

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To the uninitiated—which is probably most of you because let's face it, this is Broadly and not Goop—aerial yoga (sometimes called AntiGravity yoga) is airborne gymnastics performed with the support of an unusual prop: a parachute silk hammock. The hammock is attached to the ceiling with a collection of S&M-style metal hooks that suspend it around three feet above the ground. The deceptively thin parachute silk holds your body weight firmly, so that yoga positions can be performed upside down, in mid-air, or upside-down-in-mid-air.

So why would you want to exercise arse over head? Well, yoga practitioners have long boasted about the benefits of inverting—holding a pose where the head is higher than the heart, like a shoulderstand or headstand—on the body's lymphatic, nervous, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems. Given that aerial yoga mostly takes place upside down, these benefits should in theory be felt far more than they would be in a mat-based class.

Along with aerial yoga's purported highs—including adrenaline boosts, head-rushes, and an increased pulse rate—its devotees argue that practicing regularly decreases stress levels, increases flexibility, strengthens muscles, and even decompresses the spine.

"Aerial yoga allows you to move in a way that we usually can't," says Antonia, my instructor for the class. "The swing supports the body where needed and can be a perfect tool if we are stiff or with restricted mobility. At the same time, it can be used in a powerful and challenging way. Aerial yoga brings out the child in us and frees both body and mind in a unique way."

It all sounds a little too good to be true for something involving what looks like a meat hook, but who am I to argue?

It might still be mystery to even the most dedicated gym-goers but as I discover during my visit to London Dance Academy, aerial yoga already has a cult-like following. There are a few self-professed "beginners" amongst the 12 people taking the class, but they are freakishly flexible, with enough gymnastics or dance experience to perform the splits in mid-air without raising an eyebrow. Before we've even got started, the only man in the class is swinging from the rafters, his vest falling towards the floor to expose his tattooed torso. It's all a bit Crossfit.

As studio manager Vanessa Fagan explains: "I don't think there is a typical person who comes to these [classes]. [Some] are keen to try out something new and different, others have previous yoga experience and want to experience a different style. There is no particular type of person, age, fitness background—they just discovered how much they loved to fly!"

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Similarly, the instructors at LDA—and presumably at aerial yoga studios across London—are from a range of athletic backgrounds. Back to Vanessa: "Some of our instructors came from traditional yoga backgrounds, others discovered aerial or AntiGravity yoga and just fell in love with 'flying,' which then led to them training up to become instructors."

Now as well as being a writer, I'm also a yoga teacher, so I feel qualified enough to say that aerial yoga at London Dance Academy is not a yoga class, whether or not the teachers are from a yoga background.

Yes, the basic asanas were there: downward dog, plough, and plank, as well as more complex poses including assisted handstand pikes; a pose where you start in a plank with your feet suspended in the air on the aerial silk and slide your feet through the air towards your wrists, until you end up ass-to-sky in a flipped V shape.

But "yoga" is more than the poses that make up a physical practice. In a conventional yoga class, you might have heard your regular yoga instructor mention the diaphragmatic ujjayi breath, an ancient yogic breathing method intended to create a rhythm to the physical yoga practice and elevate it from wacky acrobatics to a spiritual practice. In aerial yoga, this went completely unmentioned.

Still, as a gymnastics class, aerial yoga works. During the hour-long class, I felt exhausted, dizzy, and my ears popped more times than I felt comfortable with. But once I had mentally divorced myself from the idea of yoga and embraced the comic reality of spending an hour swinging from in a hammock secured only by my ankles, it was fun. And given the complexity of the moves involved, the claims I'd read about online of stronger muscles, increased flexibility, and a newfound sense of focus were easy to believe.

Whatever it was, by the end of the class, I was fizzing with energy—maybe it was all the freshly oxygenated blood running through my brain. In typical yoga class tradition, the instructor ended the hour where we had started: back in our silk wombs, the wordless tranquility of savasana broken only by the frantic snapping of my photographer's trigger finger.

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This article was presented by Danone and was created independently from Broadly's editorial staff.