The students are lying snug in their black hammocks, swaying slightly as the aerial yoga class winds down in Buffalo Grove.
Bulging a bit at the bottom with a person inside, the aerial silks hanging from the ceiling look a bit like pods in a science fiction movie, says Nickie Silk, group exercise director at Sky Fitness, 1501 Busch Parkway in Buffalo Grove. Sky Fitness began offering aerial yoga in April. The classes have been a hit, Silk says.
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"It just stands out. Nobody else offers aerial around here. It's just a fun thing … a fun thing for girlfriends to do together … whether you do it on a regular basis or it's something you just want to drop in and experience," Silk says. "After class, people are always grabbing their cameras and asking 'Will you take a picture of me on here?'"
The material for the yoga hammock (also called the yoga silk) is made of a non-stretch nylon that has been tested to a load rating of over 2,000 lbs., says Silk. The material hangs from beams in the ceiling and can support 450 pounds. At Sky Fitness, the ceiling is 15 feet high, so they use two different kinds of connecting straps from the beam to the carabineer that is connected to the fabric so they can access the unit to be moved up or down. The yoga hammock is hung close enough to the floor so that students can use the prop to either partially or fully support the weight of the body.
Using the yoga hammock, participants can get into positions, like hanging upside down, that are "a little Cirque du Soleil-ish," Silk says.
"There's a really playful energy to it, being able to swing, spin and float above the ground," says Sarah Starnes of Naperville, who teaches aerial yoga at both Sky Fitness and at Flying Buddha Fitness in Wheaton. "Students can access a deep sense of upper body and core strengthening that is unique because of the pulling down action we make when we lift ourselves up into the hammock. There is also the natural traction the spine receives while hanging upside down. The cocoon-like hugging the fabric provides during the relaxation at the end is also very special."
"It's freeing," says fellow Sky Fitness aerial yoga teacher Mary Aulbach. "Being off the ground, it's like almost floating."
But while there are cool "tricks" to be done with the aerial silks, many people like the classes because of the benefits of having support in the yoga poses.
Susan Taylor, who has taken aerial yoga classes with teacher Jessi Rae in McHenry County says it has provided therapeutic stretches. "I have arthritis in my knees. Aerial yoga provides a pain-free, aligned and controlled stretch for my hamstrings, quadriceps and psoas."
"We've had people with disabilities try the class," Silk says. "One lady was on a walker with limited mobility. It was inspiring to see what she could do."
Trying the class
To learn about this unique yoga practice, I decide to try the beginning aerial class at Sky Fitness. Now, I've been practicing yoga for years and, in fact, teach yoga classes. So, even though I am a newcomer, I guess I thought I would take to aerial yoga like a fish to water. Well, let's just say I wasn't a natural at it.
Behind me stands Sylvia Kainuma of Arlington Heights -- taking not just her first aerial yoga class, but her first yoga class ever. Her face is a mixture of curiosity, excitement and terror as she contemplates the hammock. I'm pretty sure my face mirrors hers. She smiles and shoots a look over to her friend, Karen Schroll of Prospect Heights, that says "What have you that that says "What have you gotten me into?"
Teacher Aulbach helps each student find a silk that is hip height, making sure when the students put the silks along their hip bones and fold forward, that their heads don't hit the ground. She advises everyone to take off any bling -- rings or other jewelry. And then, we're off.
We start by wrapping the silk across our upper backs and under our arms and lean back a bit. Then, we keep the silk where it is and come more upright. Aulbach cautions us to not let the silk ride up too much, so our underarms are pinched. I realize I probably should have worn a T-shirt instead of a tank top, to have a little something between my skin and the silk.
We bend our knees and sway a bit from side-to-side. I find it a bit odd to release into the silk and let it support my weight. If we're feeling comfortable, Aulbach tells us we can lift our legs up and hang. Hmm … my body doesn't seem to want to do that. Am I afraid the silk won't hold me up?
We go through other positions. We stand with the silk in front of us and put one ankle in it, the other foot firmly on the ground. I realize having one foot on the ground is reassuring. We move the elevated foot a little to one side and then to the other side with Aulbach cautioning us to move slowly, so we don't lose our balance. Then, we stretch our leg, leaning forward into a split-like position, as much as our hamstrings will allow. Next, we bend the knee and put the silk under the knee and stretch out into a supported lunge.
Standing in front of the silk, we put it under our hip bones and fold forward. With hands and feet on the ground, we do a supported down dog. Aulbach encourages us to walk our hands forward a bit and let our feet come off the ground. Feeling a bit like Bambi taking his first tentative steps, I start to lift my legs. I realize the silk is pushing a bit uncomfortably into my hip bone. So, I come up, adjust the silk and try it again. Better.
Learning to fly
We try "flying." Hammock around our hips, holding onto the silk, we rock forward and back, stretching out through the head and the toes. That feels pretty good. Coming back up, it's time to stand on the silk.
Now, I have a little fear of heights and even though we're not very far off the ground, I feel my body tense and realize I am gripping the silk so tightly that my hands hurt. I try to relax and focus on being balanced and grounded. Soon, we're twisting and reaching one arm out. Aulbach encourages us to reach the other arm out. At first, I can't bring myself to try. I gather my courage and stretch both arms out, one shoulder in front of the silk, the other behind. By George, I think I've got it.
It is definitely hit or miss for me with some of the poses. We twist our way down to where the silk is under our hips again and we're folded forward. Then, we are supposed to twist and climb our way back up to where we started. Hmm … I can sort of come down, but can't seem to get back up.
We come back to standing on the floor and fan the silk out, so it looks more like a hammock. We do several poses in the hammock. I realize I am more comfortable sitting than standing. In one pose we sit back, pike our legs to the ceiling, flip over with the silk supporting us -- we kind of look like bats -- and then flip back over. Wow -- love that one. Let's do that again!
Finally, it's time for final relaxation -- savasana. As I snuggle in my hammock cocoon, it is swaying a bit too much and I realize I am getting a little bit motion sick. Aulbach offers to come around and stop anyone who is moving excessively. Behind me, Kainuma gets out of her hammock and goes to her yoga mat instead.
After class, I talk with my fellow students to get their reviews of the class.
"It's very different," says Joe Kurczadyna of Lake Forest. "I like being elevated and having the support of the hammock. I think it's more strength-oriented than people think."
"I thought it was so freeing," Schroll says. "And you find different balances that you wouldn't normally seek because of the drapery. So, I thought that was pretty cool."
Kainuma says she suffers from vertigo and was getting dizzy at the end of class. "It was fun, challenging," she says, but adds that because of her vertigo she doesn't think she'll do the class again.
While Kainuma likely won't be back, Ruth Ann Grant is a regular. Grant of Libertyville tried aerial yoga this summer with her college-age daughter, and they were both converts. She's been coming regularly since.
"I like classic yoga and at first I thought aerial yoga was just going to be another fad," Grant says, but she discovered it wasn't just a novelty. "I love that you feel so empowered and the balance is so different … this challenges your balance in such an unusual way."
Ready to try?
People of all ages can try aerial yoga, Silk says. But, those prone to motion sickness or vertigo should be cautious. If you start to feel queasy or lightheaded, you can get off the silk and sit or lie down on a mat. Advice to consider before your first class: Don't eat right before class; preferably wear a tightfitting T-shirt to cover your underarms. Also, teachers advise you to keep an open mind and heart.
"It's definitely different from yoga on a mat ... and can be challenging. If you keep practicing it, it gets easier ... just like anything in life," Starnes says. "Like regular yoga, consistent practice continues to offer the practitioner more and more. I plan to use this method of practice long term ... I can't imagine my life without it."