In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.
If working out Cirque-du-Soleil-style sounds enticing – and being upside down doesn't make you ill – aerial yoga might be for you.
At the Flying Yogi in Toronto, I swung from the ceiling with Jenn and Leanne, both 36. I dragged Josh, 34, to Fly Queen West. I wanted Josh's "odd man out" perspective as the only guy in the class. All three are fairly active and like to laugh – a plus when there is the potential to fall out of a hammock.
Fly bills its classes as space where newbies and seasoned yogis can increase strength and flexibility while unleashing their "inner acrobat." The Flying Yogi has grander promises, stating that aerial yoga delivers myriad health benefits including elevated mood and improved digestion, lymphatic drainage, brain function and back health.
What to expect
We were all varying degrees of nervous. Photos make the workout seem impossible. Josh said he was terrified. Leanne joked, "Do we need protective gear?" We all agreed the actual class was not that bad.
Picture a room with hammocks – or "silks" – hanging from the ceiling, each over a yoga mat.
I would categorize the class at the Flying Yogi as a "suspension-combo" workout: yoga- and Pilates-inspired moves and a few strength exercises. My favourite combo started while standing in front of the hammock in a suspended lunge, back foot resting in the fabric. After various suspended lunges and twists, we placed our hands on the ground for a single-leg plank, one foot "flying" beside the foot in the strap. We then had the option of piking our hips up in the air or holding a modified shoulder stand (hips up in an inverted V).
Fly had more of a pure yoga "vibe." We incorporated the silk into traditional yoga exercises (for example, for boat pose we sat in the hammock).
Both classes included inversions (hanging upside down). I hate inversions. Josh, half-jokingly, asked, "Do you think people throw up?"
Jenn summed up the experience as a "trust game": Take a leap of faith and say, "I probably won't fall, but if I do, the floor is not far."
Aerial yoga has a certain je ne sais quoi – where else can you hang like a bat and do a swinging shavasana? It is novel, yet fun, slightly gimmicky and potentially dangerous.
We were happy we went – once. We won't be regulars.
For people who typically find yoga boring (myself, Leanne and Josh included) but have a hankering for mobility work, aerial yoga offers an enjoyable alternative. As Leanne said, "The newness was exciting. I was absolutely not bored."
Novelty aside, the class was mediocre over all. Josh summed it up nicely: "Do aerial over traditional yoga for strength-based exercise. Lifting and manoeuvring one's body takes strength (especially for a 200-plus-pound guy). For stretching and relaxation, do restorative or hatha-based classes."
I can see the benefit of using the silk to build upper-body strength or as a stepping stone into more advanced strength-based yoga poses – especially in private sessions. Jenn, for example, appreciated how the hammock allowed her to perform a shoulder stand, a move she typically finds challenging.
The main problem is the potential for injury. Josh joked that the least-fit person in the class should be him, by which he meant that participants should at worst be reasonably fit without pre-existing health concerns. I agree.
Too often yoga, aerial included, is billed as a panacea. Promises like elevated mood and improved digestion, lymphatic drainage and brain function are fine – those are simply the benefits of moving. With aerial yoga, the potentially problematic assertion is that traction produced during inversions decompresses vertebrae and improves spinal pathologies like herniated discs, spondylolisthesis, lumbar osteoarthritis, sciatica and paralytic scoliosis.
If you are managing one of these conditions or live with contraindications like osteoporosis, blood-pressure irregularities or hypermobility, work with a knowledgeable health practitioner to understand your appropriate parameters. Your local yoga instructor is not usually a physiotherapist.
Dosage is key. The same body that benefits from moderate traction (a therapist pulling slightly on your leg) could be injured through aggressive traction. Plus, what typically accompanies lower-back issues is an unstable core; even if your body could benefit from "hammock" traction, you risk injury manoeuvring in and out of positions.
If you meet Josh's barometer and want something new, by all means, try aerial yoga. Just – as always – ensure the instructor is knowledgeable, patient and allows participants to dictate their pace. Also, heed Jenn's advice and be mindful: "As in hot yoga, don't overstretch. The strap and heat give the illusion you can stretch farther." Contrary to popular belief, more stretching is not always beneficial.
On the sillier side, consider asking how often the silks are washed. Josh said he felt as if he were sharing an unwashed towel with past and future students.
Aerial yoga is absolutely a fitness adventure, but adventures are only positive if you survive injury-free. If you hate having your head below your heart or the thought of rocking makes you nauseated, run, don't walk, away from the class.