Ten years ago, if you’d told the less playful, strictly occupational therapist version of myself that I’d someday be teaching an elevated yoga with a dash of Cirque du Soleil, I would have thought it sounded like a lot of goofing off. But go 30 years back to tell me the same, and you’d make a little girl pretty darn delighted. Which brings me to aerial yoga: play matters to our health and happiness, but often, we forget its value.
My introduction to aerial yoga came when I stumbled upon a photograph of someone cocooned in the silky loop of a yoga hammock. I was immediately struck by the resemblance to the unique combination of yoga, a circus act and my decade of work in neurological and orthopedic therapy. Intrigued, I did a little research and concluded that hanging my down dog over some fabric might soothe my old back injury, so I set out to try.
I hooked a yoga hammock on our backyard swing set in plain sight of our neighbors, hoped they wouldn’t question my sanity, and literally hung out. Sure enough, the pain in my back dissipated and the inversions were gentle on my wrists, shoulders and neck. What’s more is that I learned a few poses I couldn’t do on the floor, held supported handstands for as long as I liked and felt a boost of adventure and playfulness injected into my practice, which spilled over into my life.
My daughters took note of my enjoyment and pleaded for their turn in the fabric. Their interest and attention span for yoga actually skyrocketed in response to the hammock as their confidence and self-regulation grew. Their gains paired with mine inspired me to offer an accessible, playful practice to others. Now, I observe daily that anyone can do aerial yoga, and there are many advantages to it.
For starters, here’s a handful:
1. Increased pose access and improved balance.
The hammock unloads some or all of your weight, qualifying it as an inclusive prop for any ability; and it increases pose access when full weight bearing on certain joints is contraindicated or uncomfortable. The hammock is also used as a support prop in a balance pose and in navigating a safe approach to gradually building strength and balance.
2. Improved alignment and pain relief.
You can practice and traditional yoga poses in the hammock, such as downward dog, with a lift that allows postural refinement. When inverted, the combination of the hammock and gravity can allow therapeutic respite from spinal compression and a chance at relief to those experiencing back pain. While being inverted isn’t medically appropriate for everyone, I’ve found that some modified or gentle use of the hammock as the prop generally is, no matter the ability level.
3. Encourages body awareness, focus and a meditative practice.
The mobility of the hammock and change in spatial orientation of poses encourages individuals to focus on the present moment. When taking a pose in an aerial yoga hammock, one might find it difficult to allow the mind to wander as the aerial version of the pose raises the requisite of focus, balance, coordination and recalibration of the body positioning.
4. Increases adventure and playfulness.
In his book, Play, clinical researcher Stuart Brown, MD demonstrates that play is integral to our health and wellness. Brown says, “The beneficial effects of getting just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do.” The aerial hammock added to a yoga practice can create a sense of adventure, cultivate self-trust and add playfulness to life for better mind and body health and life quality.
5. Inspires positive life changes.
There are students who struggle with the perceived vulnerability of letting go and placing full trust into the hammock. But such effort is the work of life. Opening to the experience in yoga class can teach the ability to access an even keel and steady breath if life itself turns you on your head. Brene Brown, Ph.D., says her research indicates that “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” I wholeheartedly agree. Allowing vulnerability into your yoga practice as a learning platform can inspire your life in the best of ways.
6. Calms the nervous system and offers support.
The hammock can have such a profound calming effect on the nervous system I’ve joked about installing them in my kids’ room in lieu of beds. The suspension offers the option to gently rock while the fabric provides soothing compression to the skin, which stimulates circulation and encourages the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Lying within the welcoming fold of the hammock, one is able to rest full awareness on the sensory delight of the experience. You are literally lifted upward, held close, and fully accepted amidst free space for flight. I truly believe the world would be changed for the better if each and every one of us had the opportunity to feel such a positive and playful experience, even if only for the length of an aerial yoga class.