The practice of yoga has taken off again — this time, literally.
Yes, it’s been a popular mode of spiritual awakening and fitness since it first caught on in the U.S. during the 1970s. In recent years, though, instructors have taken to developing unique twists on traditional styles, testing the boundaries of “what is yoga.” Classes have combined the tried-and-true poses with everything from wine to acrobatics to heavy metal music. Many of these variations have blasted onto the scene only to fizzle out a few years later. (Remember naked yoga? We’d rather not, either.) Others, however, have proven to have greater staying power.
“Aerial silks yoga is just starting to show up on the east coast,” says Chrissy Shortess-Fulciniti, co-owner of Flexibility in Flight in Chester. She launched the new studio with business partner Michael Farrow in October, becoming Orange County’s first aerial silks yoga instructor. “It’s yoga and acrobatics done with a silk hammock, which gives your body support and allows you to go deeper into your posture. The silks help to elongate the spine and create more space in your body for energy to flow.”
On a recent Monday night I set out to see for myself if aerial yoga is bound to be a fade-away fad or the next great thing. I arrived at the studio and found myself immediately intimidated by the rows of 12-foot-long silk loops (they’re rigged to hold 3,000 pounds), hanging at about waist height. After all, I’m a beginner yogini and a complete novice to acrobatics; What if I fall? What if I don’t have enough physical strength?
Shortess-Fulciniti, who has been teaching yoga for about 10 years, says her current students range from teenagers to seniors. “I have one 60-year-old student who came to the first class and couldn’t lift her leg high enough to step into the hammock,” she says. “After a few classes she started to get the hang of it, and one day she invited her daughters to watch her twist up and flip over. The girls were like, ‘Whoa, Mom! Yeah!’”
When you see Cirque de Soleil performers navigate the silks, it evokes awe. I didn’t feel quite as whimsical as I hopped into my hammock. It’s the “leap of faith,” according to Shortess-Fulciniti: you stand in front of the loop and hop backwards, hoping your rear end lands in the silk and not on the floor. Since this was a mixed-level class, the other moves weren’t all that complex. We were taught foot locks — in which the silk is wrapped around your feet to help the body stay suspended — and also how to climb.
At times, the session felt almost like a dance class, with the instructor encouraging us to add a little “style” to our poses while pop tunes played in the background. But I kept an open mind and tried to find my inner peace — which is much more difficult to do midair. Done on the floor, the Warrior I pose (a sort of forward lunge) is grounding — you feel the mat beneath you with all parts of your foot. Doing this move with the front leg on the silk deepened the pose, but once that back leg lifted, I couldn’t find that grounded feeling — although I was swinging (fun) and getting a great stretch (ahh).
Aerial yoga practitioners (from left) Juliana Vanderleaf, Traci Garlette, Shortess-Fulciniti, and Brad Noflaes
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To be honest, I ended up clinging to the silk for dear life at times, which made my entire body rigid. But after doing a few stretches, getting used to the feel of the fabric, and enduring a couple of gentle kicks to the head from leggy neighbors, I felt my confidence grow. About halfway through the class I was able to let go of the kung fu grip I had on the harness and allow it to become an extension of my body. With it wrapped around my leg, I could let my hands go and hang upside down, even swing a little.
The Sanskrit translation of yoga is “union.” Feeling at one with the silk — trusting that it would support me just as well as my own legs could — gave me a sense of empowerment that I didn’t have when I walked in. Eventually, my body was able to relax and benefit from the increased flexibility that silk suspension provided. It was at times exhausting, at times exciting, but overall fulfilling.
“It’s still so new that a lot of yoga people don’t accept it as a form of yoga practice,” says Shortess-Fulciniti. “I’ve heard someone say it’s just dumbed-down yoga. But ask my students how they feel after a class: confident, lighter, stronger, happy. It’s different because while it’s solo work — it’s you and the silk — there’s also a group support. The community vibe is encouraging without feeding ego. It’s not just a workout, it’s an experience.”
Flexibility in Flight
3 Center St. & 55 Main St., Chester. 845-545-5050
All classes are $20 and range from beginner to mixed level; they run from 75-90 minutes. For more info: www.facebook.com/pages/Aerial-Yoga-SilksFlexibility-in-Flight