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It worked wonders for my back pain. Aerial Yoga Hammock
As WH’s Fitness Editor and a part-time yoga teacher, I know my downward dogs from my dancers, and I’m well-versed in the link between my breath and my body, but I’m an aerial yoga amateur. It hasn’t reached peak popularity like, say, reformer Pilates or weightlifting have (both of which I am huge proponents of, FYI), so there aren’t many studios that offer it, but leading the charge is Repose.
Located in Kensington, it’s easily one of the most luxurious gyms in London I’ve ever come across, and aerial yoga is one of its biggest fitness offerings. So, keen to switch up my usual practice and see how it differs from the standard floor flow, I decided to give it a go. Here’s what happened.
Nuno Cumpos, Head of Fitness at Repose, explains: 'Aerial yoga involves using hammocks which allow you to be suspended in the air. As a novice, using the hammock can assist you in performing postures that are usually challenging in a traditional yoga practice. For those who are more experienced, the hammock can provide a challenge to take your practice further.'
Cumpos says the following are all big benefits of aerial yoga:
'Anyone who suffers from any major, bones or musculoskeletal injuries, disorders or diseases should see a doctor or physio first. And sadly, aerial yoga isn't something that can be done while pregnant,' says Cumpos.
I was unashamedly apprehensive at stepping (or should I say, swinging) out of my comfort zone for the class. I made it crystal clear I was ‘new’ as soon as I’d secured the hammock furthest from the front, and I’m not sure the other students appreciated the incessant squeals that followed for the next 60 mins, particularly during inversions. For the uninitiated, an inversion is a pose that requires your head to sit below your heart and hips; your body is ‘inverted’, and the upside-down nature is something I’ve never quite got to grips with.
A shoulder stand is as good as it gets for me, so, when roughly five minutes into the class, the teacher announced, ‘Right, time for inversion one!’, I felt the panic. ‘I think I might need some help,’ I called from the back. He helped me in and, once positioned, the security of the hammock did put me at ease (every class starts with ‘trust exercises’ whereby you quite literally swing forwards and backwards on your front), but after holding the pose for another three minutes, the panic returned.
'It is natural and very common for beginners to be nervous or panicky during their first class. How many times do you let yourself swing upside down in general life? You probably haven't since you were a kid in a swing, so naturally, you're nervous because you don't know what to expect and the panic comes from the fear of falling, as you assume being suspended comes with a fall. You have to build trust in the hammock, your body and your teacher,' says Cumpos.
I can see what he’s saying. It’s no secret that fears subside after you’ve faced them once or twice, and perhaps after a few sessions I could let myself relax into the feeling of being upside down. But what's the point?
'Inversions release muscular tension, decompress and hydrate the vertebral discs in your spin, strengthen your core muscles, and increase your mobility and flexibility,' Cumpos tells me. Plenty, then.
As much as I love savasana, almost every time I finish a flow, my lower back cramps up and I’m forced to find the foetal position instead of lying prone. I couldn’t tell you the last time I spent an entire savasana on my back, so I was overjoyed when, after five minutes of swinging in my silk cocoon, I realised my lower back had lived to tell the tale. Exaggerate? Me? It was a breakthrough akin to the end of Covid, and I’m hell-bent that I’ll never go back to *the dark side*.
'With classic yoga, there is more force going through the joints of your body. Being suspended in the hammocks supports your body,' says Cumpos. He gives downward dogs as an example: 'In aerial yoga, the hammock wraps around your hips, providing height and support, which allows you to keep your back straight and supported, whereas in classic yoga, your back may be rounded and your shoulders are holding a lot of your body weight.'
The benefits of aerial yoga for back pain have been scientifically proven. The Journal of Chiropractic Humanities studied one 65-year-old man who had suffered 15 years of chronic lower back pain, and found that aerial yoga reduced his pain by 50%, while his range of motion and mobility increased by 20-40%. Go figure.
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I adore fitness. Trying new classes, learning about the benefits, hearing other women’s experiences; I’m forever grateful to say that it’s my job, too, but when it comes to my personal exercise habits, I know my limits. I’ve written off doing a marathon after previously sustaining a pelvic stress fracture, and I know that HIIT and CrossFit workouts do little more than send my cortisol through the roof, but if there’s something I know would benefit me that I can’t yet do, I’ll stick at it until I can. Right now, said thing is headstands.
Ever since qualifying as a yoga teacher in 2019, I’ve practiced against a wall, but I still haven’t nailed the confidence to go without. Even my wall-assisted headstands are wobbly. I know fear is holding me back more than anything else (as mentioned, I’m not a fan of hanging out upside-down), but it’s also the lack of control. The ideal headstand is achieved by slowly lifting your legs up from tripod dolphin pose, using your core strength. If you, like I, don’t have that core stability, your only way of getting into position is by kicking up. In turn, you run the risk of injuring yourself/toppling over.
During my aerial yoga class, we did a series of inverted knee tucks, whereby you crunch your knees into your chest then release them so that they’re still bent, but at a right angle to your hips with your feet at your sit bones (whilst upside down). It’s this exact same movement that’s needed to come into your headstand safely, then extending your legs to the ceiling, so I was intrigued to learn whether practicing these could help me get there.
'Absolutely, hammocks aid headstand progress,' Cumpos says. 'In aerial yoga, the hammocks keep you aligned and straight, to get you into the correct alignment for a headstand, which is what most people struggle with, rather than the strength to be able to do it. The advantage of the hammock is it takes away the fear of falling, as your legs are wrapped around it to keep you straight. So, if you lose your balance, you don't fall down, you take your arms away and can swing. The hammock provides reassurance and support.'
#PanicGate aside, breathing felt much harder during aerial yoga than it does for me during standard yoga classes. Turns out, there’s a scientific reason.
When your diaphragm contracts and pulls down, it’s working with gravity. It pushes your abdominal muscles down and forward, which is why your belly fills out when you breathe in. When you’re upside down, your diaphragm is working against gravity, while pushing your abdominal organs up and out of the way so that air can get into your lungs.
'It takes time to get used to being upside down,' Cumpos explains. 'Being upside down means your diaphragm has to work harder and there is more pressure on your lungs. You train your diaphragm during aerial yoga, just like how you train your body, so the more you do it, the better you will become and the more comfortable you will feel.'
The anti-gravity yoga class was equal parts relaxing and resistance based. There were times when I felt like I was floating, and times when I could feel the sweat forming a solid SULA, but having to balance on a hammock meant I barely noticed the burn. During a standard yoga class, I often find myself counting down the breaths, but not once did I have time for that during aerial yoga.
We did a series of single-leg exercises (a.k.a. unilateral exercises), and I was so focussed on keeping my back foot hooked into the hammock without falling flat on my face that they were over before I knew it.
Naturally, the intensity of an aerial yoga class depends very much on the studio, teacher, and class emphasis. Some may well be a fully meditative, restorative experience, and others a faster flow, with a focus on strength training. Repose’s AntiGravity yoga class leans more towards the latter, but I attended a ‘Standard’ class, as opposed to a 'Beginner' session, which the studio also offers. These don’t involve as many inversions, flips (yes, we also did a flip), or strength sections, but I like a challenge.
For me, the class felt like a combination of yoga and reformer Pilates. In the same way that you need to control the springs on a reformer bed, you need to control your bodyweight within the hammock during aerial yoga. The upshot is that you isolate each and every muscle, and my arms and core were shot the next day (no doubt intensified by me gripping on for dear life). It went beyond the physical, though; not only did I finish with the strong, tightened feeling I love reformer Pilates for, I also had the sense of mental clarity that comes with my usual yoga practice. Potentially more so, given that I was able to enjoy savasana sans back ache.
Something else I noticed was that, once the class wound up, my skin was considerably less dull. According to Nunos, this is because anti-gravity workouts including aerial yoga flush the nutrients and oxygen to your face, while also increasing blood circulation to your facial capillaries and hair follicles. In turn, you finish up with a natural and healthy #glow.
Aerial Yoga Hammock Will I go again? Given the opportunity (and if I had the time), I’d use aerial yoga to complement my standard yoga practice. I held inversions I’ve never managed to do before, worked on my balance from start to finish, and my lower back is definitely a fan. With regular classes, I’d wager that aerial yoga may well be the key to me unlocking my full headstand potential. Flippin’ brilliant.