Aerial Yoga: the Art of Levitation
Paramahansa Yogananda speaks of enlightened yogi masters achieving a state of levitation during their yoga and meditation practice in his book, Autobiography of a Yogi. At a yoga studio in Northriding, you can see students doing exactly that: levitating in the air while quietly holding traditional yoga poses
These students, however, are supported by a special hammock or “sling” hanging from the ceiling, made of tissu, the super-strong nylon fabric used by Cirque du Soleil acrobats. Unnata Aerial Yoga, a new form of yoga developed by circus aerial acrobat Michelle Dortignac in the USA, has come to South Africa, and is being taught by Carly Bowden and Julie Swart, who travelled to New York to train and qualify under Dortignac. Unnata is the Sanskrit word for “elevated,” meaning both elevated in spirit and physically elevated.
Aerial Yoga is a fun, challenging, dynamic yoga practice incorporating traditional yogic philosophy and teachings, as well as aspects of Pilates, Aerial Arts and Strength Training. It is specifically designed to increase strength, mobility and flexibility. Aerial yoga classes consist of floor work and aerial exercises, stretches and relaxation. The class focuses around the low-lying soft fabric sling suspended from the ceiling to hip height.
Aerial Yoga makes use of the fabric sling to distribute the body’s weight between the floor and the sling, allowing a variety of strength-building, flexibility and core strength movements and poses. The sling assists in particular with challenging yoga poses, supporting the body’s weight during those poses, allowing the body to lengthen as it holds a pose. It allows the practitioner to focus on alignment, and uses gravity to deepen the stretch.
The sling supports the body during inverted poses, allowing the spine to lengthen as it bends, resulting in reduced spinal compression during the pose. This decompression of the spine and joints leaves the body feeling stretched and taller. The sling allows deep stretching without the impact that gravity can often inflict.
Recently, I attended an Aerial Yoga class taught by Julie Swart, and I now have a whole new respect for the idea of “elevated consciousness.” Luckily, her classes are designed for most levels of fitness, with modifications offered for different levels of strength and flexibility. Doing yoga poses hanging from or being supported by the cloth hammock allowed me to deepen the pose more than I could have on a mat and added a rigorous element of stretch and strengthening that surprised my muscles and gave me a new mind-body awareness. For example, in a few short steps, we were in Baddha Konasana (Butterfly Pose), but suspended in the air. The aerial version of this pose offered an intense stretch into the inner thigh muscles and a profound opening of the hips. In addition, the feet are pressed together so intensely from the binding of the fabric around the ankles that I’m certain there must be some pressure point benefits as well!Floating quietly in this pose with hands in prayer position, I perceived the “effortless effort” of yoga more profoundly than ever before.
We then continued with a series of Warrior poses, with the front leg elevated and supported by the hammock, forcing me to put all my weight onto my back legs, again intensifying the strengthening and stretch. Even Downward Dog has an aerial version, bending over the hammock, which is situated under the hips, giving you a sense of hanging and suspension, as well as the pushing and stretching of the leg and back muscles. The pose that intrigued me the most, however, was the Headstand. By hanging straight with your legs wrapped securely around the fabric sling, one can attain an advanced inverted pose without neck and spinal compression. Students appear like large bats hanging ever so quietly and peacefully in their day slumber! Gravity is reversed and a profound elongation and lengthening of the spine occurs, allowing spinal fluid to fill and lubricate the discs between vertebrae. Students feel taller, and possibly may be slightly taller after doing this pose.
I was able to do most of the poses in the class despite not being super-fit or a trained acrobat, for that matter. However, I did have to really listen to my body, as some of the poses are very intense. Julie Swart is a former pole-dancing champion, so her strength and flexibility are quite impressive. She was very good about offering various levels of challenge when it came to certain poses. There are, however, some medical conditions that will restrict some yogis from doing the intense inversions of Aerial Yoga. These include high or low blood pressure, glaucoma, pregnancy, neck injuries, heart conditions, epilepsy or eye problems.
My favourite part of the class was the relaxation at the end, when we spread out our hammocks and laid quietly inside them, cocooned and cradled, just floating and rocking gently.
When asked about how Aerial Yoga is being received in South Africa, Carly Bowden reports that classes are fully booked on weekends, which so far is the only time they are offered. Her goal is to offer more classes in more areas, and to begin to train more teachers in Aerial Yoga. She and Julie Swart are running their first teachers training programme starting at the end of May. They do require, however, a yoga teachers training certificate in order to enroll. The training runs over 10 weekends.
It seems that Aerial Yoga is here to stay, and is growing.It is a great complement to one’s traditional yoga practice as it allows a yoga practitioner to attain some of the poses that are out or reach in a floor practice. There are very few of us who can hold a handstand for minutes at a time, even fewer who can achieve challenging poses such as the Scorpion, but with the aid of the hammock, these now become accessible to any level of fitness and flexibility. As founder, Michelle Dortignac, describes it, ”I always relate hammock work to a vitamin supplement: I wouldn’t want to live off it, but it really helps push you further, faster.” I was impressed with how Aerial Yoga aims to stay true to the traditional yogic principles and teachings of harmonising the right and left sides of the body and bringing the physical and energetic bodies into union with the mind. It is a great way to explore your yoga practice further.
By Debbie Banda