Learning to Fly with Aerial Yoga

Harness your inner Cirque du Soleil aspirations and turn your practice upside down with aerial yoga.

Suspend all disbelief for a moment, and envision a weightless Savasana: Enveloped inside a silk fabric cocoon, fully supported, safe, and held. Your meditation transports you deep into the rainforest, all tucked in for the night by large palm fronds high inside an alcove of a kapok tree. No, you have not transformed into a monkey… but for a brief moment in time perhaps you understand what it’s like to sleep like one. To fly through the air with the greatest of ease is not limited to our primate ancestors alone, however—with aerial yoga, we can defy gravity and deepen our regular practice, one swinging hammock at a time.

But aerial yoga is not a sleepy, nor lazy practice, mind you. The amount of core strength, courage, and not to mention, coordination cultivated in a beginner’s level class may pose a challenge to even the most advanced students. For example: In the first two minutes of class, I could not figure out how to wrap my wrists correctly around the hanging fabric. It was embarrassing, and so I laughed. But throughout the class so did a few others. In fact, a light-hearted approach to aerial yoga might be the only requirement to succeed in this practice. You’ll swing and flail about clumsily, you’ll place the fabric on the wrong parts of your body, and you’ll giggle as you tilt backward with no idea where you’re headed next. But that’s what makes aerial yoga equally fun and challenging.

Our regular yoga practice is often so confined to solitude; the small island of our yoga mats where there is a tendency to take asana too seriously. Aerial yoga takes everything we land-yogis know about mind-body awareness and throws it out the window. And yes, going upside down with little to no control of your body in space is terrifying… but the small adrenaline rush that comes with it makes it all worth while.

Kevin Bigger, an aerial yoga and vinyasa instructor at OM Factory, coordinates workshops and teacher trainings in New York, South Korea and Vietnam. He says that yoga is meant to be experiential, rather than intellectual, and that the aerial practice works to help facilitate that. “It doesn’t matter how many times I tell someone that the hammock can hold over a thousand pounds of weight,” he explains, “I need to prove to them that it will not drop them.” So naturally, Bigger doesn’t ask students to flip upside down at the start of class, but will slowly integrate challenges that may induce fear as the class goes on. “By the time students do the full pose it just feels like the natural culmination of everything that we have already done that day,” he says.

Not surprisingly, many new students to aerial yoga encounter plenty of fear when they begin entrusting their safety in a piece of fabric suspended from two small hooks affixed to the ceiling. But as Bigger explains, fear can be an incredible teacher. He says that good teachers will show students all the ways the fabric can interact with the body, so that students learn to trust the hammock. “As their trust grows, so will their ability to practice with grace and ease,” he says.

An unanticipated challenge of aerial yoga is the discomfort that the fabric can present in certain postures—despite its soft, silky texture. When pressure is put on muscles of the body that aren’t engaged (ouch, hip flexors!), the fabric can feel tight and pinching on the skin. This is simply an adjustment phase however, and there are many modifications a student can take to make themselves more comfortable. (Beginner tip: use a blanket for cushion when you’re performing a suspended Downward Dog overtop of the fabric.)

The paradox of aerial yoga is that it can make classical postures either more easily facilitated, or a lot more challenging. For instance, a student who typically struggles with balance could use the hammock for extra support. Alternatively, a suspended Supta Baddha Konasana proves far more difficult upside down in the hammock versus laying on a mat. “This allows students to be fully inverted without needing to support their body weight with their heads, necks, or shoulders,” Bigger explains. “When the upper body relaxes fully, the hammock provides beautiful traction to the lumbar spine.” The good news for any student is that they can receive all the benefits of an inversion practice, despite any previously held beliefs or limitations in their minds and bodies.

An aerial practice requires students to engage more fully with a pose—and use their core in ways they may not have previously imagined were possible. In some poses, when gravity is removed from the equation, different muscles are used—sometimes with more intensity—than they would otherwise. “We often teach Locust Pose balanced on a thin bar of fabric in the crease of the hip, with no part of the body on the ground,” Bigger says. “The only way to achieve balance is to use the legs and the torso equally.”  He explains that it is far more difficult to achieve the backbend while floating on a piece of fabric, so students have to relearn how to properly engage their muscles in order to stay afloat. Bigger attests that this, in turn, improves the students’ posture in when they take it back to the mat.

Believe it or not, staying grounded is also integral to practicing aerial. Bigger explains that in a Level 1 class, students are gradually introduced to the relationship of their bodyweight to the hammock by keeping some part of the body on the ground at the beginning. “This teaches students to find the requisite stability they need to feel safe as they slowly bring more and more of their practice into the sky,” he says. Then, when the student is ready to put their entire body into the hammock, they can better understand how to ground down by pressing into the fabric the same way they did on the mat earlier in class. Bigger insists that aerial teachers must be properly trained to spot students safely and effectively so they feel supported whenever fear and anxiety arises. “Most yogis don’t learn to do a handstand on the first try,” he says. “It’s totally fine if someone decides they want to skip something that freaks them out—there’s always going to be another day to try again.”

Many students may come to aerial yoga because they’ve struggled on the mat and have even sustained injury to their shoulders, wrists, or spine. The weightlessness of an aerial practice provides extra support, liberating a student from any modifications they may have had to practice on the ground. “Many of my students with chronic back pain, for instance, find relief from my aerial classes that they simply cannot find in a vinyasa class,” Bigger says.

Aerial yoga gives students a profound sense of empowerment, especially to students like me who’ve been practicing for a long time and craving a new challenge. Aerial is equally humbling and rewarding, and will shift your perspective by literally turning you upside-down. “The childlike sense of joy that erupts when adults challenge their perspectives and learn to do the impossible can have a profound impact on their mental fortitude,” Bigger says.

Photo by Karen Fuchs, courtesy of OM Factory

andrea-rice-headshot-new-editAndrea Rice is a Senior Writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a freelance writer, editor, and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, SONIMA, mindbodygreen, AstroStyle, and other online publications. You can find her regular classes at shambhala yoga & dance center in Brooklyn, and connect with her on InstagramTwitter, and on her website