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The Hidden Benefits of Aerial Yoga - Eve Cunard




What first drew me to Aerial Yoga was a lingering childhood wish to fly, inspired by Peter Pan theatre where the actors miraculously took to the air. The idea of combining yoga and flight was entrancing. From the first class I attended, I embarked on an adventure that would revolutionise my yoga practice.

In New York in 2006, Michelle Dortignac, a dancer, aerialist and yogi, began weaving together yoga and aerial acrobatics under the name Unnata Aerial Yoga. Aerial Yoga has since become a worldwide phenomenon, interpreted in uniquely nuanced ways by teachers according to their own interests. Some teachers bring a strong Pilates flavour to their classes, focusing on repetitions and building strength. Others come from a yoga background and see the hammock as a valuable tool to support the development of the yoga asanas. Many teachers are dancers, highlighting movement, choreography and acrobatics. As an incredibly diverse and multi-pronged practice, Aerial yoga classes often incorporate all these elements – yoga, Pilates, strength training, dance and aerial acrobatics. The physical benefits of Aerial Yoga are numerous, including elongating and decompressing the spine, which can be a balm for back pain. With the hammock as support, various poses or exercises can be practiced with minimal load on the joints—something helpful for post-injury rehabilitation. The instability of the fabric and its tendency to move encourages our stabilising muscles to engage in support of our joints as well as steadying the fabric. Aerial Yoga’s potential for building strength is incredible. With all the swinging, hanging upside down and then pulling our bodies upright, the core is summoned into powerful action. The focus on pushing with the arms, which is common in yoga and other forms of training, is balanced by Aerial’s requirement for pulling, particularly when practising flips and tricks. Our ancestral tree-climbing muscles in our upper arms (anterior deltoid and biceps brachii), shoulders (trapezius and rhomboids) and back (latissimus dorsi) are given a cellular reminder of their ancient purpose. Internally, our immune systems are boosted by hanging upside down, which encourages the lymph to flow from its many ducts in the abdominal area towards the chest and upper body. Our circulation improves as gravity encourages blood to flow from the legs back towards the heart, while the brain receives freshly oxygenated blood. But there are benefits beyond the physical that bring students back to their hammocks regularly. There is something about the support of this strong, silky fabric that infuses us with courage to explore more challenging poses like headstands and handstands as well as arm and hand balances. Once we trust the silk to hold us, the fear of falling dissolves and we can practice inversions with a completely different emphasis. This allows us to build the strength required to eventually take a pose out of the hammock and back onto our mats with increased confidence. Personally, I always had difficulty with backbends during my yoga practice. My body would tense up, my lower back would overbend and my upper spine would feel locked and rigid. Aerial Yoga slowly changed that. With the hammock at the base of my shoulder blades in the ‘rib hang’ position, I felt my heart gradually opening more with each practice and a renewed sense of mobility in my spine. Hanging upside-down while backbending in bow or inverted pigeon was a revelation. As gravity created more space between my vertebrae, I felt they could easily move in relation to each other, taking me into previously undiscovered arcs with ease and freedom. An important gamechanger for me was the need to engage my core in aerial backbends, a requirement for promoting an even spinal curve and backbending safely. In the Aerial hammock, students often access a sense of release beyond anything they had experienced on the yoga mat. A student confided that she had tried many different styles of yoga, but continued to struggle emotionally during some very difficult years. ‘Aerial Yoga was the first thing that made me feel whole’, she confessed. It was something about the complete support for her entire body that finally allowed her to let go. Consciousness Coach and Yin Yoga teacher Sibylle Sharon was amazed at the many emotional benefits she gained from Aerial Yoga classes. ‘I felt in touch with the lightness of being again—floating,’ she said, ‘and it invited that lightness into my life.’ Sibylle loves the fact that she can experience the full benefit of a pose while being contained in a safe cocoon. She believes it’s healthy to ‘stretch yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone’—to notice and confront fear. Although she often protested ‘I can’t do this!’ when first attempting a challenging pose, then —voila! She would do it anyway. One of the things students adore is the soothing effect of a restorative low hammock class. The womb-like experience of weightlessness, being contained and gently rocked can be deeply calming as well as rejuvenating. Emotions can flow freely as the body is restored to a state of balance. Movements commonly practiced during an Aerial Yoga class, such as pushing, pulling, lifting our body weight and climbing, provide us with what is known scientifically as proprioceptive input. This input is received by our muscles, tendons and joints, giving the nervous system information about where the body is in space as well as having a calming, organising and regulating effect on it. And it all feels like being in a playground. We can return to the joyful fun of childhood as we backflip and swing, escaping briefly from the pressures of our lives to regain our inner essence. I witness when teaching how each student has their unique challenges, whether it is finding courage, untangling the mental puzzles of co-ordination, easing into flexibility or building strength. Yet what we all face universally, from our first Aerial Yoga lesson, is the need to trust—to trust that the silk will hold us as we turn the world upside-down and move in all directions. An immense sense of relief arrives with this trust; a reassurance that we are held by yielding, yet strong fabric. It is then that we are able to venture out of our comfort zones, beyond the ordinary and into a realm of infinite possibilities.

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