For decades the props used in yoga asana practice have been evolving from their humble beginnings. From simple “bricks” like the ones of stone first used by B.K.S. Iyengar, to walls that resemble a torture chamber with ropes and pulleys, the art of the prop can be sometimes be more complex than the asana that it is designed to enhance. Now throw anti-gravity yoga and aerial yoga into the mix, and you have a whole new approach to the experience of asana. These “slings” that hang from the ceiling, suspend the practitioner in mid-air for what becomes an acrobatic approach to asana.
The anti-gravity style of yoga was created by gymnast and yogi Christopher Harrison for the nationwide chain of gyms called Crunch, and approaches asana from a playful point of view. Participants are encouraged to stay “lighthearted” while manipulating the “laws of physics” as they hang suspended in the air exploring back bends and inversions or wrapping up cocoon-like for a unique expression of savasana. The soft fabric hammock is utilized to change one’s dynamic relationship to the ground, allowing the participant to better understand their body and its relationship to physics. The effects of this experiment claim to make inversions more accessible by alleviating back and neck compression and to align the spine and decompress the joints of the body.
Aerial and anti-gravity yoga originate with creators who have backgrounds dance, gymnastics and acrobatics. The yoga swing concept has been utilized by gymnasts for the sake of exploring the air for a while, and some found that many of the movements were similar to yoga asana. So the concept was molded and enhanced to fit into the practice of asana within a yoga class. The practice combines elements of yoga, aerobics, pilates, and acrobatics to produce an entirely new spin on the physical aspects of yoga asana and its popularity in urban yoga circles is growing.
The fabric hammock differs from traditionally utilized props in several ways, one of which is that the entire class is practiced in tandem with the swing. From the beginning to savasana, the hammocks are props that are never put away, all of the asanas in an aerial yoga class are modified to include the support of the swing. Some classes make use of the swings throughout the entire class, while others use it as more of a prop to assist specific asanas. Samadhi Yoga Institute in Puerto Rico has developed a whole system using the swing. Owner Lizelle Arzuaga has developed a program that integrates the format of traditional Samadhi yoga classes to the swing with a combination of of vinyasa like floor exercises, modified sun salutes and even savasana.
Whether or not one can find the deeper aspects of yoga from a swing above the ground is an individual determination, but as a committed yoga practitioner myself, I would revel in the chance to explore asana while hanging suspended from the ceiling. What an authentic exploration of Leela this practice could be! In Sanskrit, Leela is the universal play of consciousness, that aspect of joyful abandon that lies in each and every situation, the game of life. In fact, Leela is life itself free of all constraints, limitations and illusions. It is the field in which we play out our roles in life to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our purpose. Sometimes we struggle to find the freedom and fun in our everyday situations. Even in our yoga practice, we can become so serious and determined that we miss the bigger picture of joy that is the gift of the practice.
Lizelle began using the swings for therapeutic purposes only, but she found as she worked with them more and more, that they brought her students a playfulness and joy that they weren’t always finding in traditional asana classes, so she began creating whole classes with the swing. “I haven’t taught a single aerial yoga class yet where someone doesn’t laugh. We shout, we scream and we have a lot of fun.” “In contrast to a traditional asana class where we use strength to hold our asana,” says Lizelle, “aerial yoga is about learning how to let go within the asana.”
There are a few contraindications to aerial yoga, similar to those of inversions, people who suffer from uncontrolled high blood pressure or glaucoma shouldn’t practice it. But for all of the many people who suffer from neck or back problems that have prevented them from pursuing a yoga practice in the past, aerial yoga or anti-gravity yoga might be the answer. The traction that this practice provides allows freedom of center, and eliminates the spinal compression that can occur in a traditional asana class.
Aerial yoga may not take the place of traditional asana classes, but it can bring balance to your practice. The principles of balance and core integration that are the major focuses of this style of yoga can help to develop deeper strength and balance that you can apply to a more traditional practice. So find an aerial yoga class near you, and tell us all about it!