Some of us have a hard time working out upright — running, walking, or riding seems challenging enough. But imagine this: You’re doing a really tough workout that involves core strength, balance, and flexibility, and … you’re doing it suspended a few feet above the floor in a hoop, a hammock, or a long strip of fabric attached to the ceiling.
Wait, before you think, This isn’t for me, I’m not in the circus, read on. Aerial fitness not only offers a full-body workout, but it can also be a lot of fun. By using your own body weight and gravity, you can work out in the air without putting strain on the joints or back, and you might just enjoy that cool feeling you had as a kid on the monkey bars or in gymnastics class years ago.
The aerial fitness trend is an offshoot of the popularity of Cirque du Soleil and its many aerial acts, according to Karri Becker, an aerial fitness instructor at Crunch on Chestnut Street in San Francisco. Circuses from small to large have long featured trapezes, aerial hoops, poles, and hand balancing, and the transition of some of these acts to mainstream fitness classes like several taught at Crunch and at gyms worldwide is a natural one. “Adding new types of classes keeps working out fresh for our members who are always looking for new challenges. It keeps them coming back,” Becker says.
There are several kinds of popular aerial workouts, including aerial yoga, which uses a soft fabric hammock as a prop much like a block or strap. Many traditional yoga poses are taught with participants hanging in the hammock, holding onto it with one or two hands, or using it as a support for an extended leg. Inversions, such as headstands and handstands, are often easier for yogis to practice with the support of the hammock to lift their lower bodies into the air.
Broadway dancer and choreographer Christopher Harrison developed Anti-gravity Yoga, the kind taught at Crunch, while playing with hammocks on a retreat in India, according to a 2013 article in the U.K. Daily Mail. He continued to study yoga and began to use flying silk and hammocks as a way for his dance troupe to exercise and train for acrobatic acts. Harrison, who has created entertainment for stars including Pink,
P. Diddy and Mariah Carey, started using antigravity equipment in Broadway acts, and upon discovering its fitness benefits created Antigravity Yoga & Fitness in New York. His trademarked techniques are currently being used in gyms in more than 30 countries (including here at Crunch).
Aerial yoga uses traditional yoga poses and acrobatic, Pilates, gymnastic, and dance moves, and works every muscle group, providing toning and strengthening, particularly the core, shoulders, and spine. Being suspended in the air releases muscle tension and helps to increase flexibility. Hanging upside down is also good for blood flow, flexibility, and overall stability. And as with most forms of yoga, aerial yoga is good for the emotional system as it helps clear the mind and relieves stress.
Another form of aerial fitness gaining recognition is aerial hoop or Lyra. This class involves doing a series of choreographed dance and fitness moves using a suspended aerial hoop that’s about chest high, so those afraid of heights have no excuse. Hour-long Lyra classes at Crunch all start on the fitness floor with a dance-based warm-up that might include some hip-hop moves and bits of the choreography included in the workout. Then comes conditioning that often means pull-ups, chin-ups, and abdominal work as class participants transition from the floor into the Lyra hoop. The entire class is set to an upbeat soundtrack.
After mounting the hoop, an exercise in itself, the instructor takes the class through three-to-five moves until participants really know the choreography. Once everyone dismounts, “We dance out the movements,” says Becker. “This gives everyone the feeling that they learned something tangible.” Then comes a much-needed cool down.
Becker says those who attend Lyra classes on a regular basis not only get fit faster but they leave with a feeling of accomplishment because in any given week, the choreography tends to build on itself. “Regular participants learn a whole dance combination,” she says. For those who are skeptical about aerial fitness, Becker says, “Pretty much everyone is nervous at first, but we take a lot of time explaining how to trust the hoop, and once people give it a try, they tend to like it and come back. Our classes have grown exclusively through word of mouth; our members love Lyra.” (Editor’s note: Crunch is offering an exclusive five-day guest pass to Marina Times’ readers; visit crunch.com/marinatimes.)
Aerial silk, another circus-inspired workout, incorporates a long swath of fabric called silk, ribbon, or curtain that participants use to climb, spin, and pose, sometimes wrapping the fabric around parts of the body during a class. Several gyms in San Francisco offer aerial silk classes, including Aerial Artique and Circus Center.
Curious? You can go the Crunch website and sign up for a free three-day pass and try any of its aerial fitness classes. You just might get hooked on the hoop.
Crunch Fitness: 2324 Chestnut Street, 415-292-8470; 2330 Polk Street, 415-292-5444; crunch.com
Aerial Artique: 132 Ninth Street #302, 415-658-7988, aerialartique.com
Circus Center: 755 Frederick Street, 415-759-8123, circuscenter.org