Challenging your practice to new heights

I’ve heard many stories of how people find yoga, and my story seems predictably similar.  I was a new mom.  My need for ways to de-stress, decompress, find happiness, and discover myself brought me to the mat.  Like many others, it took several years of “doing Yoga” before I found that one teacher who really made a difference, the one teacher who changed my “practice.”  But as my Yoga life evolved, so did my desire to grow.

For several years, I had been performing and teaching aerial pole (an acrobatic practice where the practitioner executes moves off the ground using strength and flexibility) and began to notice that the more advanced my pole practice became, the more necessary it was for me to return to Yoga to find access to muscles and the space that I didn’t already have. My physical practice led to a new community of flow artists and aerial artists, and I felt myself playfully challenged and inspired. I admired their grace and strength, but never thought it was something I could ever aspire to become.

Friends encouraged me to try classes in different arts.  I took classes in Hoop Dance, Aerial Silks, Aerial Hoop, Flying Trapeze, Aerial Yoga, and AcroYoga.  I dove in headfirst, feeling full of life, full of adventure, and full of peace.  My life as a suburban mom was far beneath my feet, which often were a frightening number of feet above the ground.  My mind was calm, serene, and electric all at once.  I had felt a similar bliss while in savasana, after a focused and challenging sequence in yoga class.  I realized that this source of my vitality, my passion, my bliss, was also my Yoga.

While, at first glance, aerial arts are not what people would describe as relaxing, restorative, or calm-inducing, these are actually several benefits of this practice.  Christopher Harrison, Creator of AntiGravity® Yoga shares, ”The most obvious benefit of AGY is the ability to easily do zero-compression inversions. Rather than reversing the compression of the spine, in AntiGravity® Yoga we hang upside down from the base of the spine and hips.”  I can wholeheartedly attest to feeling both relaxation and peace in several of these poses.

While taking an AntiGravity® class at CoolHotYoga in Calabasas, I observed a few students who would not have been able to invert fully on the ground.  In the safety of a hammock and with the guidance of the teacher, they were able to receive the benefit of this inversion.  I personally felt the difference between practicing a shoulderstand that was rooted into the ground, and one floating in the air.  The joy of weightlessness and release is liberating, and something that can only be experienced to be understood.

According to AntiGravity® Instructor Salina Andrews, the mission of this practice is to “elongate and strengthen the spine, while getting more synovial fluids to the joints, all while students bodies release happy hormones to the brain.”  With the help of this apparatus, even those who are fearful of inversions can choose to live in the space of freedom.

Jehan Izhar, Director of Education and Training for FlyGym Aerial Fitness, has a similar philosophy, “This element of suspension and full or partial inversion helps you to achieve deeper, more relaxing stretches (without strain on the joints), improves circulation, and is a wonderful method for spinal decompression.”

The FlyGym is similar to an aerial hammock, but also includes six other slings that allow the user to incorporate athletic movements like conditioning, yoga, and Pilates.  It’s portable so you can set it up in any room in your home or take it with you.  It begs to be played with as it hangs in the branches of a strong oak tree, or on play equipment at the park.  Jehan shares, “The biggest benefit of the FlyGym ‘workout’ is that it doesn’t feel like a workout at all; instead it’s like having a day at the playground! The opportunity to suspend your body (or just parts of your body) allows you to explore deeper range of motion in poses and to achieve body positions you never thought were possible.”

As a fitness instructor teaching aerial pole, I find that many of my students are disabled more by fear than by ability.  When I help them into a position they don’t think they can achieve on their own, there is a moment of magic.  Their bodies feel the pose, so they can learn to recreate it.  They are empowered through physical support to do things outside of their comfort zone.  As they learn to lift their bodies up into the air, they are no longer confined by gravity.  I found that by using the FlyGym in my pole studio, students become more aware of where they are, making inverted moves more accessible.”  Jehan agrees, “Not only is this great for your self-confidence but it is a wonderful tool for learning balance, body awareness, and core control.”

In both the FlyGym and AntiGravity® systems, stretching and decompression are delicious benefits of the practice.  For many, cultivating a flexibility practice can be difficult.  The use of an aerial apparatus cradles users so they expand and breathe into areas where they may normally hold tension.  Unique stretches that lift a limb or torso create new stretches to open up the body.  The sling or hammock takes the pressure out of the wrists during back bends, takes the weight out of the legs during upright poses.  The practitioner can hold poses longer, without discomfort, while still receiving the benefits.

Aerial Yoga can be a tough workout, but it can also restore and heal the body.  OmGym Founder, Sarah Kellett, discovered the dynamic art of suspension and realized it to be crucial in her own path of recovery.  She had previously spent years exploring rehabilitation methods after a car accident left her with painful compression injuries and spinal misalignment.  Building on the old age practice of inversions, and B.K.S. Iyengar’s use of ropes and slings for supported poses, she combined traditional ideas and relied on them exclusively to catalyze her own rehabilitation program. Her rapid healing soon gave way to an even more amazing development: greater strength and flexibility than she’d ever had.

Miguel Latronica, creator of the Mighty Body Band (MBB) and the Latronica Method, spent many years in engineering and had a history of chronic back pain.  He began his yoga practice at the age of 26, and it changed his life so much that he left his career and devoted his work to helping others find the same healing.  As a yoga teacher and sculptor, it was a natural choice for him to create supportive products for his students who had pain or limiting conditions.  After designing several different products, he created the Mighty Body Band, which combined all of his products into one system.  He found that through dynamically stretching in bungee straps, users could actually retrain their nervous systems, finding more flexibility, mobility, and finding release from pain that they had previously suffered.

This is related to the aerial arts with the use of bungee, straps, and traction—yet can be used in both the studio and at home. He shares, “The MBB enables the body to safely compress and decompress many of the body’s organs. People suffering from conditions such as sciatica, compressed spinal discs, or piriformis syndrome will feel immediate results. ” Miguel receives frequent testimonials from users, who are surprised and ecstatic about their pain relief and new ability.  “It affects the way we feel, the way we move our body.  You can go deeper and further in your practice because you don’t have to worry about safety or falling out of poses.”

It’s easy to see where aerial arts, balance, and flexibility go together.  In the physical practice of yoga, we work to settle the chatter of the mind.  So where up in the air do you meditate?  My head has never been clearer than it was during an Aerial Fitness class at Cirque School LA.  While participating in wire walking practice, I used the drishti (a focused gaze) technique to walk from one end of the line to the other.  Keeping my gaze far ahead of where I was actually placing my feet helped me to find and maintain balance.  At first, I sat on a trapeze bar in a state of denial as the teacher asked us to let go of the ropes and find a balanced seated position.  I thought I would never be able to balance on such a small bar without holding on with my hands.  That’s when my mantra came in handy, “Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall.”  I tentatively released my grip on the ropes and was surprised to find myself perfectly perched on the trapeze bar!

During the handstand class, I had the same epiphany. As I focused on a spot on the plywood board beneath me, I experienced a free handstand for the first time in my life.  Years of yoga practice and the precise and encouraging instruction of my teacher brought me to a place I had not yet attained.  I was balanced, calm, and alive. Fully aware of my physical body, active and engaged, and yet completely peaceful, centered, and enlightened… it was a moment of samadhi—of single-pointed focus.

When speaking with Aloysia Gavre, founder of Cirque School LA and former Cirque du Soleil performer, I discovered that my experience wasn’t unusual. “There’s no time to think when you’re wire walking.   You’ve just got to put one foot in front of the other.  Balance is fragile.  A slight movement can put you off balance.  Like in life, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae.  Through extreme focus or meditation, you allow the body to be present, you find where your body is in space.”

Aloysia’s circus life began when she was only eight years old.  For her, even though moving through space and finding balance was just a normal day, she doesn’t take it for granted.  She sees the difference aerial arts inspires in everyday people and strives to share it with them.  Her passion for her art is obvious as she teaches students to move in ways they never thought possible.

I relate to AntiGravity® founder Christopher’s philosophy, “In life we constantly play within the fields of gravity and antigravity; it is the practice of living.  Therefore, it should be the same with your yoga practice.”  Whether you find your bliss on a mat, on a Slackline, on the feet of your AcroYoga partner, or on an aerial apparatus, we are all seeing our true selves and sharing it with others.

My yoga life is a journey that sometimes takes me high above the ground, and sometimes keeps me rooted to the earth.  But wherever I find my center, my yoga has no limits.

Miyoko Rifkin has been teaching pole fitness for the past ten years and is the owner of Domestic Goddess Studio in Agoura Hills.  She is currently enrolled in YogaWorks Teacher training, taking care of her family, and making sure to flip upside down at least once every day:

David Young-Wolff  is a storyteller with a camera, capturing and revealing the magic, essence, and beauty that exists within his subjects. At photo shoots, he can often be found working and collaborating with his wife, Pam Young-Wolf;