Picture moving in-air with the greatest of ease, but in place of the trapeze is a silk hammock. That’s aerial yoga.
Bronwyn Sims, who teaches an aerial yoga class at Keene Yoga Center, has experience flying on a real trapeze thanks to a long career in performance and education that includes a decade of teaching at Brattleboro’s New England Center for Circus Arts. While she was earning her master’s in devised theater performance, Sims was acquiring teacher training in yoga to be able to offer classes — she is also an actor and choreographer as well as an acrobat.
When she came to Vermont from her native Pittsburgh, Pa., to teach three years ago, she’d heard about the Keene Yoga Center. She had taught an aerial yoga class in Philadelphia that she said was very popular. At the time, the local yoga center was offering a class in aerial yoga but the instructor had left.
“They said the beginner class was popular and they’d love to bring it back,” Sims said.
With the help of staff members, she put together a program and began offering the class for all skill levels.
“The people coming regularly were getting more advanced,” she said, “and the beginners weren’t getting enough instruction.” The center agreed to split it into two classes and then three.
“Classes had been full and then they started to get smaller,” she said. After a break over the summer of 2019, the class resumed — and then the arrival of COVID-19 meant the center had to close its doors.
The future of the class is under discussion. It can’t be taught virtually because the majority of students don’t have their own sling set up at home. If it were to continue, Sims envisions each class being limited to five students and slings would need to be washed after each class for re-use.
The hope is the class will return, as it offers all of the benefits of yoga on the floor, with added bonuses for improved wellness.
In an aerial yoga class, you perform the same poses you do on a regular yoga mat except you use a silk hammock that’s suspended from the ceiling as a prop to support you through the various flows. The purpose of the hammock is to help you improve flexibility and build strength, while allowing you to do more challenging poses without added pressure on your shoulders, spine or head. Plus, holding onto the silk hammock for support engages your arms, shoulders and abs.
For those suffering with chronic back pain or tension in the shoulders and neck, aerial yoga can help improve joint mobility by opening up tight areas. The inversions you do with the hammock can also increase blood flow to the back, as you open up your chest and put your heart above your head. Some students find that aerial classes help them improve their yoga practice overall, as it deepens their poses.
“You have to work with gravity. It makes you notice how strong your core and upper body is,” Sims said. “It may be more [tiring] than on the ground because your body is working in a different way.”
While the practice of aerial yoga magnifies the areas of the body that need strengthening and improved balance and coordination, because it’s done off the ground, the postures meant to relax and release the body are better,” she added. “When you hang upside-down, it lengthens the spine and helps cleanse and release toxins in the blood, brain and organs.”
Of course, there is a learning curve for beginners in aerial yoga.
“You might be dizzy or disoriented,” Sims said. “Once you get past the fear of being off the floor, the benefits are amazing. You have to allow yourself to move through that stage.”
She realizes every student is different. Some may return to a second class and others may quickly realize it’s not for them. Everyone’s fear level is different.
“In a beginner class there are people who are automatically comfy upside-down off the ground, and others go into a panic or ‘fight or flight’ state,” Sims said. “I try to encourage [the latter group] to stay in it. I won’t let them fall.”
New students will recognize traditional yoga positions in aerial yoga.
“The warrior pose, for instance, looks similar but the way you’re positioned in the sling is different,” she said. “I’ll always suggest another position or way to work with the fabric if a student isn’t comfortable.”
Another traditional pose, Konasana, is usually done in a seated position. In aerial yoga it’s done upside-down. Again, Sims will help students.
“You can do [the pose] inside the sling but you have to open it and sit inside,” she said.
Aerial yoga can be a different experience for students depending on the instructor’s background. Sims likes to incorporate her circus arts training into her classes.
“I include dance or fun circus tricks with strengthening, breath and meditation,” she said.
The class can be modified to suit any skill and comfort level too.
“Students work with their own bodies. I’m there to help,” Sims said. “I demonstrate all the moves first and I can repeat them, and people can ask questions. I also walk around the room during class and offer instruction [to each student].”
Sims greatly enjoys teaching beginning students in aerial yoga. “I love getting people to try something new,” she said.
For up-to-date information about Keene Yoga Center’s aerial yoga classes, visit keeneyogacenter.com.
Aerial yoga classes are offered in other regions in the state, including in Nashua at Aerial Moon Yoga (aerialmoon.com).