Yoga Takes Flight

If you thought gravity-defying yoga poses were just for Cirque du Soleil performers, hang tight! People of all ages and abilities are flipping over the benefits of aerial yoga

Shannon Sims makes her classes accessible for students with no previous yoga experience. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Shannon Sims makes her classes accessible for students with no previous yoga experience. Photo by Kelly Rogers

One look at the silk hammocks suspended from the ceiling and you know this isn’t going to be your average yoga class. Sure, there are variations of the familiar downward dog and pigeon poses; but during the next hour, students in an aerial yoga class are guided through stretches and poses that cannot be performed in a traditional mat-based yoga practice. At the end of the session, they are literally swinging from the rafters, executing moves called “chandelier,” “skydiver,” “sumo,” “corset,” “butterfly,” and “inverted dancer.” They are taking photos for their social media accounts, and perhaps best of all, they are giddy with excitement and newfound confidence. 

“One of my coworkers told me about aerial, so I tried it and it was so much fun,” says 32-year-old David Madrid. “It felt like flying—like I was a kid again on a swing.” 

Madrid, who works as a server at The Tides restaurant, now takes three to four aerial classes a week in addition to barre and traditional yoga. “I move fast in my job, and aerial has increased my strength, flexibility, balance, and mobility. Every pose gives you a different feeling, but what I enjoy most are the inversions. It gives you an opportunity to hang upside down in a safe way. It aligns your spine, neck, and hips, where most of our trauma is stored, and helps me move better through life.” 

Sometimes family members enjoy hanging out together in hip-supported inversions
Sometimes family members enjoy hanging out together in hip-supported inversions.

“Aerial yoga helps you gain greater awareness of your body’s alignment and movement,” says certified yoga and aerial instructor Shannon Sims, owner of Bending Light Yoga, the only Vero Beach studio offering both traditional and aerial yoga classes. “The silks act like a spotter, helping to improve strength without compressing joints, bones, and tendons. It allows students to try harder poses without the risk of falling or putting excessive pressure on wrists or knees. By hanging upside down at a strong foundational point, like the hips, we can stretch and decompress the entire spine, including the neck.” 

Sims points out that inversions in aerial yoga are safer than hanging upside down by the ankles on an inversion table, which can injure and damage joints. “Hanging by the hips is a safe way to help the hips and entire vertebral column. We also use the silks to dig into scar tissue and adhesions in the body that keep us tight and less limber. In this way, the silks facilitate a deep tissue massage.” 

According to Sims, breaking into underlying connective tissue has the added benefit of activating fibroblasts, which release collagen and elastin, the building blocks of younger-looking skin. Not only does aerial yoga help you look better, she claims, it also improves blood circulation, stimulates digestion, detoxifies the body, improves balance and brain function, and literally makes you taller. “I have several students who come here instead of a chiropractor.”

The silks provide support, enabling students to stretch more deeply into a pose
The silks provide support, enabling students to stretch more deeply into a pose.

Sixty-four-year-old Jeanie Shearer had been taking traditional yoga classes for many years before trying aerial yoga at an open house at Sims’s studio four years ago. “I was hooked as soon as a I tried it,” she admits, and now she incorporates aerial yoga into a weekly fitness regimen that includes HIIT (high-intensity interval training), traditional yoga, and spinning.  

“I type a lot in my job as a legal assistant, and I had pain in my hands due to arthritis,” says Shearer. Since taking aerial classes, “I’ve increased my upper-body strength and my hands no longer hurt. I believe gripping the silk has really helped my grip strength and reduced the pain of my arthritis.”

Since discovering Bending Light Yoga more than two years ago, 56-year-old Meg Reford makes it a point to take an aerial yoga class at least once a week. “It’s a great complement to other types of exercise,” she says, “and it doesn’t feel like working out because you’re having too much fun to realize that you’re exercising!”

Azalia Rosado makes a good case for the increased flexibility and upper body strength aerial yoga promotes
Azalia Rosado makes a good case for the increased flexibility and upper body strength aerial yoga promotes.

While inversions are still a highlight of the classes, Reford acknowledges, “I’ve learned to appreciate the stretching, balance, and core strength parts of class as well. It’s addictive in a good way and the atmosphere is very supportive.”

“It takes quite a bit of upper body strength, and I love that I’m getting stronger each and every time I practice,” says Julie McFarlane, who has been taking Sims’s aerial and barre classes for three and a half years. “The physical benefits are extensive,” adds the 43-year-old teacher. “It’s a good workout as well as a full body massage. When I finish a class, I feel like a new person; and that effect lasts for days.”

An independent study commissioned by the America Council on Exercise confirms that aerial yoga delivers health benefits on par with moderate-intensity exercise such as brisk walking or a Zumba class. Researchers at Western Colorado State University found that a single 50-minute aerial yoga session burned an average of 320 calories. Women who participated in three 50-minute aerial yoga classes a week for six weeks lost an average of 2 pounds, 2 percent body fat, and nearly an inch from around the waist, all while lowering systolic blood pressure and improving maximum aerobic capacity as well as HDL and triglyceride levels. The study suggests that improvements in these cardiometabolic risk factors helped participants in the six-week program reduce their risk of a coronary heart disease event, such as a heart attack, by 10 percent. 

Jeanie Shearer, Brooke Dove, and another smiling flyer are at home in the silks
Jeanie Shearer, Brooke Dove, and another smiling flyer are at home in the silks.

Aside from the physical benefits, Sims and her “frequent flyers” point to the positive impact of conquering the mental fear of hanging upside down. “Aerial encourages students to take chances, go outside their comfort zone, and learn that they are stronger and more amazing than they ever thought possible,” says Sims. “Once they hang upside down and realize that it’s okay, there is this freedom. It’s empowering and it gives them confidence that carries over to other aspects of their life. I’ve seen people go back to school, get out of bad relationships, change jobs, or make other significant changes in their life.

“I do the class with the students,” Sims adds, “so they always have a visual example, and inversions are optional. All the classes are designed for students who have never done aerial or even yoga. No prerequisite is required.”  

For those who may be intimidated to try aerial yoga or who have physical limitations, Sims offers private sessions so that students can work within their own comfort levels before attending a group class. Amy Lyons says that Sims has worked one-on-one with her 16-year-old daughter, Chloe, to address postural and muscular imbalances. “Aerial is a fun form of exercise, and Chloe enjoys choreographing her own sequences of poses,” says Lyons. “She is also active in equestrian riding and competitions, so the strength and confidence Chloe gains from aerial benefit her riding as well.”

David Madrid has so much fun flying he takes three to four aerial yoga classes each week
David Madrid has so much fun flying he takes three to four aerial yoga classes each week.

McFarlane, like many other students, admits she was fearful at first: “I wondered if the silks were strong enough to support me, and when I flipped over, whether I would fall on my face.” 

Sims quickly dispels those fears at the outset of every class by explaining how the ceiling and silks can support the students’ weight as well as the velocity of their movements. “The ceiling supports can handle 10,000 pounds,” she explains. “We buy professional-grade carabiners and daisy chains that can handle over 1,000 pounds, and the silks have a breaking point at 3,000 pounds. To keep the silks strong, they are hand washed and line dried to ensure the fabric is not weakened.”

“When you go to flip over the first couple of times, it’s scary,” says McFarlane, “but when you accomplish it, you feel completely secure.” For her, the quiet relaxation pose (Savasana) at the end of each aerial session is the ultimate reward after an hour of stretching, holding certain poses, and playing with inversions. It’s analogous, she says, to the good feeling you have at the conclusion of a challenging day at work or home.  

Asked what he would say to someone who might be intimidated to “hang” with Vero’s aerial yogis, David Madrid doesn’t miss a beat in answering, “Come play with us and find out what you’re capable of and more.”

Benefits of Aerial Yoga

  • Low impact on joints
  • Burns calories
  • Improves core strength, circulation, and digestion
  • Increases flexibility
  • Decompresses the spine and neck
  • Relieves stress
  • Boosts confidence and mood
  • Accessible to all ages and fitness levels
  • High fun factor

Before You Fly:

  • Don’t eat a big meal
  • Wear athletic tights rather than loose pants
  • Wear a sports bra and top that stay in place
  • Wear long sleeves if you are prone to perspiration or have sensitive skin
  • Bring water
  • Remove rings, watches, and jewelry that could tear silks
  • Trust the silk to support you

Caution: Aerial yoga is not recommended for those with glaucoma, heart disease, vertigo, very high or low blood pressure, recent concussion or head injury, bone or joint disorders, sinusitis, or those who are pregnant or for whom hanging upside down could cause discomfort or medical complications.

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