I am sitting inside a silk sling suspended three feet off the floor, feeling like a caterpillar in a giant orange cocoon.
I’m trying out an anti-gravity yoga class, a type of body work that’s been gaining popularity since being featured in The New York Times and O Magazine, and showcased to the TV masses when Pink took to the air during her 2010 Grammy performance.
The instructor directs me and about a dozen other students to use our hands to draw back the edges of the colorful silk slings, which are 9 feet wide and attached to pulleys bolted to the ceiling. We comply and end up sitting on the fabric like a swing — and then swinging. I’ve practiced yoga for years — and this is definitely not your traditional yoga class.
Hard-core yogis and yoginis would probably balk at even using the word “yoga” to describe this form of exercise, which combines modified yoga poses with movements from Pilates, acrobatics and core strength training.
Anti-gravity yoga was created by Christopher Harrison, a competitive gymnast turned professional dancer who worked on Broadway and in movies such as Footloose before running an aerial performance company in the 1990s. He discovered yoga while looking for relief for his ailing, aging joints and then started mixing it with dance and aerial movements to create what he refers to on his website as “suspension training.” His company, AntiGravity Inc., offered classes to the public for the first time in 2007, and he credits the regime with helping him through a 10-month recovery from Lyme disease the following year.
Since then, Harrison has helped several dozen anti-gravity yoga franchises open in U.S. cities such as New York, San Francisco and Salt Lake City, and internationally in places such as Mexico City, Montreal, Dublin and Phuket, Thailand.
My class is at Gravitas, a Portland studio that offers anti-gravity yoga along with other new forms of body work, including “hot” yoga, taught in an infrared room that heats the people but not the space, and gyrokinesis, a Pilates-type exercise system developed by an ex-ballet dancer that focuses on spinal movement.
The 75-minute anti-gravity yoga workout is equal parts disconcerting and fun. It’s disconcerting because the first time you walk into the studio, it’s easy to feel intimidated by those silk hammocks, which you spend most of the class sitting inside, grabbing onto or hanging upside down from. But it’s also fun, because once you get acquainted with the basics — and stop caring how you look — it’s a blast.
My anti-gravity class begins with a series of stretches inside silks meant to get students relaxed and ready for harder work. We move through a sequence of increasingly difficult poses, including variations of the classic yoga sun salutation, lunge, warrior and triangle poses, using the silk as a belt-type support to intensify the stretches.
Then it’s time to go upside-down. Remember the inversion racks and anti-gravity boots that were popular in the ’80s? I think of them as I pull myself into a monkey pose, hanging upside-down with my legs bent, ankles and feet wrapped tight around the silk and my head and the backs of my hands resting on the ground.
Anti-gravity yoga is touted as being beneficial for people with back issues because using the sling as a prop takes pressure off the spine. I’ll vouch for that, but that doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable or easy. The practice includes lots of challenging core strength work, including grabbing the silk between outstretched hands and pushing it out in front of me as I lean forward into a modified plank pose, then repeating it again and again.
After class, I’m slightly dizzy, a normal reaction for a beginner who’s not used to spending that much time upside-down, as the instructor explains. The dizziness wears off by the time I drive home, and I find myself plotting when I can squeeze in another class.
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