Turn Your Fitness Routine Upside Down

Aerial yoga a gentle way to stretch deeply
November 23, 2013 Updated: November 21, 2013

Aerial yoga is the newest sensation sweeping the yoga world. At the center of this sensation is the colorful, low-hanging aerial fabric that is suspended from the ceiling like a hammock and aids traditional yoga postures by supporting your body weight.

The nylon fabric hammock supports the body, making upside-down poses a lot easier and helping the spine to decompress. It also helps avoid pulling and straining muscles, which occur more easily without the aid of the fabric.

I have been practicing yoga for 15 years, with the last five focused on vigorous ashtanga yoga, so I was eager to try the gentler, restorative aerial yoga and to see if it would help loosen my tight hamstrings. My back is naturally bendy, but my hamstrings are relatively tighter and prevent me from achieving a number of deep forward bends and stretches. 

I arrived for an evening class at Sacred Sounds yoga studio in Greenwich Village and found the newly renovated, dimly lit studio had a very calming atmosphere.

Before the class started, I had a hammock fitted for my height by instructor Cynthia Bettis who is trained in the unnata approach of aerial yoga. 

In the unnata approach, the purpose of the hammock is to help students go more deeply into traditional yoga poses and practice poses that may otherwise be unattainable due to muscle tightness and/or lack of optimal flexibility. 

Other forms of aerial yoga focus more on “flying” and “acrobatics,” with yoga stretches as a secondary part of the practice.

There were around 12 students at the 75-minute class that began by us lying supine, feet in the hammock. After we became comfortable with this position, we did some curl-ups and hip-lifts for a gentle core warm-up, and throughout these poses we worked on our breath, and I really felt the workout in my core, hamstrings, and glutes. 

Next we warmed up our spines and then did hanging downward dog, with our hands and feet on the floor and the hammock supporting our hips. The benefits of doing downward dog with the hammock are great decompression and lengthening of the spine, which I could definitely feel.

After we were completely warm, we learned how to achieve the “ribs hang” posture, arching backward with the hammock looped around our upper backs for support. This pose is an excellent shoulder opener as well as a hip muscle stretcher, and anyone with tight hips would really enjoy and benefit from it.

My favorite pose was the inverted straddle, which came toward the end of the class. The straddle involves hanging upside down with the hammock looped around your lower back and inside of the thighs and your legs spread wide apart. 

There are so many benefits to this pose, including decompressing the spine, as well as serving as a hip and shoulder opener. But what really impressed me was how my hamstrings felt while in the pose—the standard tightness slowly began releasing. To enjoy this feeling I usually have to endure a stretching sensation that borders on painful.

Throughout the class, Cynthia did a great job modeling the poses and walking around to assist students. The body’s spatial awareness may need some time to adjust to hanging in space, especially in inverted poses; however, once you are comfortable upside-down, the possibilities for stretching your body in new ways are immense.

The purpose of the class was to rejuvenate and restore, and upon finishing the class I felt restored and rejuvenated. I would recommend unnata aerial yoga to anyone, from the beginner yogi to the more advanced student who wants to stretch very deeply. Even someone who has never taken a standard mat yoga class can benefit from it and could find a passion for yoga through it.

Elena Marks is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, fashion, and adventure travel. She is based in Port Washington, N.Y.