“Welcome to Cirque du Soleil auditions!” Susan Park, the owner of Spark Yoga Studio, cheerfully greets her novice students perched in hammocks awaiting the Sunday afternoon Aerial Yoga Basics class. She’s kidding, of course, but this acrobatic yoga practice does have one thing in common with Big Top attractions: circus-grade fabric.
Aerial yoga, also known as anti-gravity yoga, is performed in sturdy nylon hammocks, called silks, that are suspended from the ceiling. The fabric supports your body like a swing, allowing you to perform inverted poses and flips. It also puts a unique spin on standing stretches like lunges and can be used for suspension strength training exercises like planks and push-ups, with your feet in the hammock.
Chances are, you’ve already come across the trendy new yoga practice on Instagram, where yogis show off their newest gravity-defying tricks and triumphs. Aerial seems to be having a moment now, but it’s been offered at Spark Yoga’s Arlington studio since they opened three years ago.
Spark offers three levels of aerial: an introductory basics class, an all-levels class, and an advanced class. I went for a spin in a hammock in the basics class, which was populated by first-timers. Throughout the session, Park slowly eased us into the idea of using gravity to enhance our yoga flow. We started with stretching, strength exercises, and a few poses standing up in the hammock. Many of the beginner poses bear the same names as they do in traditional yoga – warrior, downward dog, tree. These felt somewhat familiar, but the hammock required us to pay greater attention to our balance.
After learning to work with the billowing fabric, we turned up the intensity and tried a few simple inversions and flips. Parting with the floor was a challenge for some, but once we were in the air, the anxious yelps were replaced by sighs and laughter. While in poses with your head below your body, it was surprisingly difficult to figure out which way was up, or which direction to move your feet to complete the pose. Thankfully, there was always an “emergency exit” maneuver to right yourself in case anything became too intense.
Fellow student Jolene Caro enjoyed the challenging nature of the class. “I don’t know why I just expected us to hang in the hammocks for an hour, but it was a lot harder than I thought,” she said. “It was a lot of fun.”
When the beginner class ended, I stayed to watch the advanced yogis fly. The only two women in the class were experienced regulars at the studio, and they added new skills to their repertoire during each session. I was in awe of their strength, flexibility, and balance as they took on poses that sounded as terrifying as they looked, from skydiver and vampire to coffin and inverted splits.
“The hammock helps you to do something that you cannot do on the ground,” said Ruosi Wu, one of the advanced students. She tried aerial for a change of pace and is now considering becoming an instructor.
In addition to being ridiculously exhilarating and freeing, aerial yoga offers a multitude of health benefits, like spinal decompression, acupressure, facilitating deeper stretching, improving cardiovascular fitness, and building muscle strength.
For the skeptics out there, the American Council on Exercise performed a study to evaluate the merits of aerial yoga. They found that the practice offers many of the same benefits associated with low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercises, such as walking or cycling. After six weeks of three 50-minute aerial yoga sessions per week, the study participants saw significant improvements in weight, body-fat percentage, VO2 max, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
Now that I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to defy gravity, I’m hungry for more. Classes at Spark are $30, and everyone is required to take a basic class before moving on to the all-levels session. Beginners are welcome, but Park warns that aerial is not appropriate if you are pregnant, have vertigo, have artificial joints or limbs, or have glaucoma or retinal detachment.
Park’s advice to first-time fliers? “Expect a wild ride!”
Spark Yoga’s Arlington Studio is located at 2201 North Pershing Drive, Suite G. Sign up for classes here.