This is an exciting time in the area of health, fitness, and exercise as we are at a point where the industry is ready to move beyond cardio and weights! Functional training has become an area of interest over the past decade which has blurred the lines between fitness and sport performance and movement. Unlike most forms of exercise, which are bound to the floor (i.e., feet, hands, back, or front on the floor), activities that are suspended provide new challenges that take your workout to the next level!
Although Pilates may be the first form of exercise to come to mind, Aerial yoga is creating a lot of buzz in the functional fitness world! To help provide some insight on the practice of Aerial yoga, TodaysFitnessTrainer.com has enlisted the help of Alexa Kelly, Aerial yoga instructor at Soul Hot Yoga in Calgary, Alberta (Canada) to give us the scoop on the benefits of the practice and how it can ramp up your workout routine!
1. What is yoga?
AK: Yoga is a set of practical and experiential disciplines, including meditation, pranayama (breathwork), and asana (poses), that aim to connect the mind, body, and soul. Yogic practices promote a sense of inner peace, mindfulness, and physical ease that can help improve overall quality of life. There are many different styles of yoga (i.e., Hatha, Vinyasa, and Kundalini) but, despite their differing methods, ultimately all of these yogic paths serve to unite the practitioner with their deepest, truest Self.
2. What exactly is Aerial Yoga (and how is it different)?
AK: Aerial yoga offers a different way of exploring and experiencing an asana practice, while still upholding traditional yogic ideals. This style of yoga combines the soft support of suspended fabric with classic yoga poses to create a practice that is both light-hearted and challenging. The fabric is suspended only a few feet off the ground, but it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
Ungrounded, the body can suddenly move in many more directions, opening up into new shapes and spatial perspectives. The fabric is anchored at two points to the ceiling and looped at the bottom to create a hammock for the body. It is wide enough and long enough to encompass the entire body for total privacy, and it is strong enough to absorb 2000 pounds of force.
This dynamic prop can be used to suspend the practitioner in midair, which opens up a wide array of backbend and inversion possibilities. It can be used to stabilize a body part so otherwise unattainable poses become possible, including tricky standing-balancing and arm-balancing poses. It can also be the ultimate prop for relaxation by offering a forgiving amount of support for stubbornly stiff muscles, helping the practitioner to find comfortable stillness within a pose.
Though many similarities can be drawn between grounded poses and aerial poses, the aerial practice has an air of light-heartedness to it that is positively addicting! It feels like a yogi’s playground, so many new things to discover, so much uncharted territory to explore!
3. What are the key benefits of the Aerial yoga practice?
AK: Physically, Aerial yoga will train your body how to move more mindfully and effectively. Any alignment difficulties experienced on the ground will be amplified in the air, so the engagement of key muscle groups is more strongly encouraged. As your body begins to move with greater efficiency and structural integrity, this will translate into better posture and greater ease in everyday actions.
Aerial yoga increases proprioception and body awareness through exposing the body to a wider range of spatial perspectives. It also allows for the practice of prolonged inversions with very little effort, which can help decompress the spine and release bodily tension. In addition, the practice of Aerial yoga can help students enter challenging poses that might otherwise be inaccessible by supporting and stabilizing certain areas of the body. This creates muscle memory, which later aids the body in re-creating that shape without the assistance of the fabric.
There are many opportunities to build greater core and upper body strength using actions and movements that aren’t normally included in a regular asana practice (such as a pull-up), by using gravity and body weight as antagonists.
Aside from the physical benefits, Aerial yoga is empowering. It helps build trust in oneself, confidence, and the compassion to know when to rest. Over time, it helps quiet the constant fluctuations of the mind.
4. Please describe an Aerial yoga class experience (as a participant).
AK: Typically, Aerial yoga classes begin with some form of meditation and grounding, in order to connect to your Self and the Earth before taking flight. Then, we take advantage of the mobility and natural sway of the fabric to warm the spine and bring gentle, awakening movements into the body. Through gradually giving more and more body weight to the hammock, trust is established.
Stronger and more challenging movements will be introduced incrementally, usually leading to a “peak pose” (a pose that exemplifies a key physical concept, usually an alignment principle or a large muscle group, which would be the focus of the practice). More supportive variations of the peak pose are always offered for students who don’t feel ready for the peak pose. Usually, an opportunity for a long, relaxing inversion will be given, but is always optional.
After practicing a few “counter poses” to create a well-rounded practice and bring the energy level down, rest is taken in a fully-supported savasana. This is by far my favorite part of the practice. With nothing to listen to but the sound of your own breath, and being completely supported in the most comfortable way (think private hammock on a secluded beach), you are invited to simply float.
5. What three tips would you give an Aerial yoga class participant to make sure they get the most out of each class?
AK: For participants in an Aerial yoga class, I would recommend the following:
- Use blocks and blankets to move with compassion instead of toughing it out. Sometimes, especially when first starting out in this style, the fabric may feel unusual or uncomfortable against certain areas of the body. Blankets are a wonderful way of creating more comfort within your practice by padding those areas.
- Drink water, before, during, and after class. Being hydrated will give you more energy, and keep your body in optimal condition for physical activity.
- Come with an open mind, without expectation, and don’t take it too seriously. After all, it’s just yoga.
6. How often should someone do Aerial yoga?
AK: There is no limit to how often you should practice Aerial yoga. Within a class, you decide how much you have to give that day, and whether it would be more benefit to you to rest and modify, or challenge yourself with a more energetic practice. Both are equally valuable and valid options. In order to gain the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of the practice, consistency is key. By making Aerial yoga a part of your daily routine, you create new, healthy habits. I recommend two to five practices per week, depending on what your body and schedule allows.
7. What are the benefits of Aerial yoga versus traditional exercise?
AK: In Aerial yoga, you are intentionally nurturing your inner wellbeing, and well as the outer body. Additionally, this practice is accessible and adaptable to all skill levels. While traditional exercise may leave you feeling drained, often you will leave an Aerial practice with more energy than when you arrived.
8. Does Aerial yoga alone meet the ACSM Physical Activity Guidelines requirements?
AK: It is my personal opinion that a dedicated Aerial yoga practice would meet all of the ACSM requirements for physical activity. The guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week for cardiorespiratory health, which could easily met by attending three or more Aerial yoga classes (60 minutes) per week. However, the intensity of the workout is truly in the hands of the practitioner.
Some poses in an Aerial yoga series will provide resistance training, such as planks, pull-ups, lunges, arm-balances, using the body’s own weight and gravity as the resistance. This can help maintain a healthy level of strength, but does have its limitations, as more resistance will never be added.
The recommended requirements for flexibility training are certainly met. Most of the time, a single Aerial session will focus specifically on lengthening one group of muscles at a time (such as the hamstrings), and then move on to another muscle group the following week, which is why it is particularly important to stay consistent with your practice. It is likely that a new Aerial student will experience a marked change in flexibility after the first few months.
Balance, agility, and coordination are all improved through following a set sequence of complex movements. Standing-balancing poses, inversions, and core work are particularly useful in improving balance. Almost all poses would contribute to the development of neuromotor function.
9. What type of person is best suited for the Aerial yoga practice?
AK: Aerial yoga is accessible to all ability levels. It may be specifically appealing to yogis (and yoginis) looking to add variety to their practice with some new poses and possibilities! However, anyone who is interested in improving his or her strength, flexibility, and overall health could benefit from this practice. Aerial yoga is decidedly meditative and, as such, offers a quiet space to reconnect with your inner self and experience the present moment. When you take care of yourself in this way, the rest of the day can seem more manageable.
10. Who shouldn’t participate in Aerial yoga?
AK: Though everyone is welcome in class, not everyone should go upside down. Students with eye conditions, such as glaucoma, detached retinas, or infections, and pregnant women should remain right-side up. If you have diabetes, or any other serious medical condition, it is recommended that you consult a health care practitioner before attending an Aerial yoga practice.
Alexa Kelly is an accomplished yoga instructor in Calgary, Alberta. With over 600 certification hours under her belt, she teaches both Moksha Yoga and Aerial Yoga to enthusiastic and devoted yogis and yoginis throughout the city. Her passion to teach is continually fueled by the sweaty (yet smiling) faces of students who find their way to her classes each day. For more information about Alexa and Aerial Yoga classes and workshops, visit www.soulhotyoga.com.