Aerial exercise routines take yoga classes to new heights

Aerial yoga is a new fitness trend that will literally sweep you off your feet. But is this new fad right for you? What are its health benefits and who should consider taking part? 
AerialYoga.com / SHINE

Michelle Dortignac (right) corrects the posture of a student in an aerial yoga class.

AerialYoga.com / SHINE

Students in the reclining angel pose 

Aerial yoga is a new fitness trend that will literally sweep you off your feet. But is this new fad right for you? What are its health benefits and who should consider taking part? Shanghai Daily recently interviewed aerial yoga instructors Michelle Dortignac and Nico Chng to give you an insight of this fascinating program.

What is aerial yoga?

The frenzy of aerial yoga has swept the world over the past decade. It is a fun new way to practice traditional yoga using a soft fabric hammock or silk to support the weight (up to 200 pounds or more) of a practitioner (or yogi) during a routine.

If you research online, you will soon realize how many different styles and brands of aerial yoga/fitness exist across the globe.

“Many other aerial yoga styles/brands do not have yoga as their main knowledge base,” introduced Michelle Dortignac, founder of Unnata Aerial Yoga in the US. As a pioneer in the aerial yoga movement, Dortignac has been teaching and practicing this discipline for 11 years alone. She is also a professional aerial acrobatic performer.

“When I first started working with an aerial apparatus, I could feel how it was helping support my yoga training,” recalled Dortignac. The discovery inspired and led her to create Unnata Aerial Yoga back in 2006. Now, Unnata Aerial Yoga certified instructors are teaching all around the world.

If you are an experienced yogi, you may find the fitness regime very similar to yin yoga. As Dortignac explains, “many Unnata Aerial Yoga teachers do have education and experience in yin yoga and the pace of their classes can be more like yin classes.”

Many aerial instructors weave dance elements from ballet or other performing arts into their routines on the hammock. Thus, aerial fitness has become a collection of courses with different focuses. For example, AntiGravity AIRbarre is an aerial dance conditioning program introduced by award-winning Broadway aerial choreography Christopher Harrison, under his brand AntiGravity Fitness.

Health benefits

First of all, it can be great fun to practice aerial yoga as you explore the potential of your body in various poses. The practice also has numerous health advantages as well. Having your body fully or partially supported by a hammock “allows you to expand flexibility, increase range of motion, build strength, lengthen the spine, and relax the nervous system,” according to Dortignac.

As you start to practice aerial yoga, you will find it requiring more core strength than other types of yoga. The flips, rotations and tricks on hammocks may be fancy, but they can also help you to achieve certain difficult positions, like the headstand, even as a beginner. “Aerial yoga can help a student develop what is necessary to eventually be able to do a headstand without the hammock assisting them,” explained Dortignac. “I think of the hammock as I do other tools used in yoga classes such as bolsters, blocks and belts.”

The physical and mental release experienced during practice will help you to gain strength, and be more aware of your breath, body and mind. If you are new to yoga in general, you can learn postural fundamentals through aerial yoga as well. According to Dortignac, you may experience a so-called “yoga high” by deepening your practice in aerial yoga.

For yoga instructors like Nico Chng from Malaysia, who used to train as a professional gymnast, aerial fitness programs have benefited her in many ways. They have not only expanded her view of yoga as a career but also help her stretch gaps between her spinal discs caused by tough gymnastic training.

Certified by Yoga Alliance US, Chng has completed her first stage of training in the VYA Aerial Yoga Instructor Training Course created by Australian Holly Coles. Chng now teaches the aerial fitness course at SuperModelFit, a local studio providing fitness solutions to women in Shanghai.

“The practice of aerial fitness can actually boost your confidence when you see yourself work on the hammock elegantly in the mirror,” shared Chng. “It also strengthens your core and arms, while your blood circulation will improve gradually due to a lot of upside-down positions.”

As Dortignac says, “students of all experience levels can gain the benefits of inversions (for circulation, digestion, and mental clarity) without the potential side-effects of throwing one’s posture out of balance or straining the neck and back.” Remember this next time you’ve got stiff shoulders or an aching neck.

Who should try?

Everyone can enjoy aerial yoga equally, as Dortignac indicates, whether you are an experienced yogi or a novice. However, certain groups of people should be more careful. “People who have medical conditions such as high/low blood pressure are advised not to practice aerial yoga,” explained Chng. In some extreme cases, she explained, “it may cause strokes when they do upside-down positions.”

Those with back problems or injuries, especially lower back issues, will need to alert their instructor before the class begins and be careful during practice. The hammock may have a negative impact on these problems.

Tips to share

Apart from physical and medical conditions, first-time participants should remember to wear a relatively tighter outfit for aerial yoga than they might with traditional yoga.

The clothes should be able to “cover the backs of the knees, the armpits, the lower back and over the top of the breasts even when clothing is squeezed and pulled in many directions,” advised Dortignac.

“Such outfits will also save you from distraction during the practice, if your loosely fit clothes get tangled up,” Chng added.

Also important is to eat wisely before class. It is strongly suggested not to consume food for at least two hours before the class.

The right credentials

“Students interested in taking aerial yoga should first double-check the credentials of the teacher or studio,” stressed Dortignac. For example, even though the industry is largely unregulated by the local government, teachers at Unnata Aerial Yoga are required to gain certificates from Yoga Alliance or International Yoga Alliance. This means normally at least 260 hours of professional training before teaching aerial yoga. Many branded aerial yoga have their certified instructors’ information posted online as well. So don’t be afraid to shop around and educate yourself before you sign up for classes.

Classroom

Michelle Dortignac

Founder of Unnata Aerial Yoga

Dortignac has been a certified yoga instructor since 1998. She is also a professional aerial acrobatics performer. She taught at the OM Yoga Center before she established her own hybrid style — Unnata Aerial Yoga. Apart from weekly classes teaching at a studio in New York, Dortignac also leads specialty workshops and training courses around the world.

Nico Chng

Resident yoga instructor at SuperModelFit

Chng was a professional gymnast before becoming a yoga instructor. She has been teaching classes on different yoga styles over the past eight years. As a certified aerial fitness instructor, Chng now teaches at Supermodelfit in Shanghai.Michelle Dortignac and Nico Chng share four aerial yoga poses, as well as handy tips for each.

AerialYoga.com / SHINE

(A) One-legged pigeon pose

Benefits: To balance the pelvic tilt and achieve spinal flexibility.

Tips: Using the hammock with the arms gives yogis a tool for helping to rise the chest up and back without straining lower back muscles. Remember to engage your core, which will help the pelvis tilt into a position that helps you energetically connect to the floor.

AerialYoga.com / SHINE

(B) Splits

Benefits: To stretch the hamstring and work on balancing the pelvic tilt in a different way from the one-legged pigeon.

Tips: Move the hips forward in space to allow for more of a split/hamstring stretch while strongly and energetically connecting to the floor with the standing leg.

Zhu Jing / SHINE

(C) Splits (Deepening version)

Benefits: To deepen the hamstring stretch and achieve a proper split.

Tips: Use the arms to pull the foot in the hammock further from the floor from Position (B).

Zhu Jing / SHINE

(D) Reclining angel pose

Benefits: To release tension in the neck and shoulders. Improve your balance and blood circulation while increasing your core strength.

Tips: Spread your arms wide on the floor/mat. Engage your lower abdominals to lengthen the lumbar spine and keep balance.

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