The idea of floating in the air, held up by silks hung from the ceiling, seemed exciting. But I wondered if the aerial craze was just a hot gimmick instead of a legitimate fitness option. The risk of falling aside, the biggest surprise to aerial yoga is the mental workout. Twisting around in the air to achieve classic yoga inversions challenges parts of the brain that control fear and letting go.
No risk, no reward, right? I signed up for a class at The Fitness Loft in Manhasset, a posh gym on Northern Boulevard owned by Cynthia Conde, an early convert to the high-flying workout. “I became interested in the aerial arts after seeing a Cirque du Soleil performance many years ago,” Cynthia says. “I began taking flying trapeze, silks and aerial yoga at a circus school.” Aerial yoga fuses classic yoga poses and class structure with aerial hammock choreography.
The small room where aerial classes are held looks calmer than most gyms. Ethereal ceiling-to-floor curtains in soothing pinks and greens help to calm—albeit briefly—your nerves before you notice the six aerial hammocks. These large swaths of fabric hang from the ceiling just above a pad. Although the hammocks are relatively low to the ground, once you’re airborne, knowing you’re one slip away from hitting terra firma is daunting. You feel a bit like Dumbo being encouraged to fly by Timothy Q. Mouse.
In this case, the encouragement came from Demi Hristofidis, the aerial instructor who, like the cartoon circus promoter, keeps reassuring that you can do it. “You can’t fall,” she promised. “You’re locked in and you’re not going anywhere.” She claims she’s never had a student fall yet—“Knock on wood!”—during her ten years teaching aerial yoga and silks. Both the hammock and silks incorporate elements of acrobatics, dance and circus skills.
Demi develops her own choreography and her method of encouraging aerial newbies is more art than science. “I test out your fitness level and your comfort level when you come in,” she says. “Having a dance background is helpful but not necessary.” The hour-long class is open to students of all levels and although I was nervous, I performed all of the movements. Class began with a series of stretches in the hammock, including variations of yoga standards like warrior pose. Working against gravity gave the stretches more intensity—it was like a yoga class on steroids and I left feeling pleasantly pulled and elongated.
Holding my bodyweight and countering the pull of the hammock was a core workout in itself. “This is the fastest way to activate those stabilizing [midsection] muscles,” Demi says. Aerial workouts are said to develop back and arm strength and benefit your mood, a result of hanging upside down. Some say flooding the brain with more oxygen can help treat depression. It certainly seems to open up your posture—a welcome change if you spend your days hunched in front of a computer. Doing inversions on the hammock without pressure on the spine can be a welcome release for those with back problems, too. Demi joked that it’s akin to having an adjustment at the chiropractor’s office.
April Yakaboski, owner of Aerial Fitness in Riverhead, sees the class as an alternative to yoga floor exercises. “It’s restorative and less invasive than traditional yoga,” she says. “I have clients of all ages, many with back issues. Aerial yoga allows them to reach stretches and decompress their spines without requiring the muscle strength of floor poses.”
But not everyone is so enthusiastic once they look up. “Everyone is so scared! It’s doable for everyone, though. I have a 72-year-old woman who comes every week. It’s therapeutic for her.” Back at The Fitness Loft flips come halfway through the class, when we did several inversions hanging backwards, bending at the waist, attached to the hammock at our hips. The most intimidating version rotated me 360 degrees, held up by a circle of fabric around my lower legs that I gripped with my hands. Forget to hold on and you’ll pay the price. Demi nicknamed the move “The Supergirl.”
It took me a few minutes to work up the courage to do the flip. Demi stood by and gently prodded me. Once I did the flip, it didn’t seem like such a big deal after all. She said my reaction was typical. “It’s all about getting used to the feel. Some people come to this class just to conquer a fear.” The class ended with a traditional savasana, or rest period, as we swayed gently back and forth in a cocoon of fabric—all fear was gone, replaced with the serenity of letting go.