Or, What happened when I tried Aerial Yoga
30 New Road is a narrow, unremarkable terraced house in Whitechapel, a stone’s throw from the Royal London Hospital and the bustle of the street market on the Whitechapel Road. To ring the doorbell marked “Aerial Yoga London” seems fanciful. You could imagine coming here to visit your accountant, perhaps, or to rent a bedsit. But sure enough, the door is answered by a welcoming presence in bare feet: Richard Holroyd, former Buddhist monk and now chief flying instructor at Aerial Yoga London.
Pick your way down a narrow staircase onto the lower ground floor level, and the gloom suddenly gives way to flooding sunlight. There’s a Victorian workshop tucked away behind the building, a double-height room topped with generous skylights that might once have been an artist’s studio. Ivy trails up warm orange and white walls, and a mural depicting a chubby elephant-headed Lord Ganesha squints inscrutably at four bright loops of fabric, hanging from the beams that criss-cross the soaring space.
“I was teaching yoga for years and I just couldn’t get my students to understand that this is supposed to be fun,” says Richard. “Then I discovered the swings: now it’s instant.” Swings awaken the child in all of us. If you don’t want to play when you catch sight of the colourful nylon contraptions in Richard’s studio, then you are more grown up than I will ever be. I couldn’t wait to get flying. “Yes, people can get a bit overexcited,” Richard told me. It’s a good thing, then, that he’s so grounded and down-to-earth, because this is seriously mood-altering stuff. “At the end of the class no-one wants to leave. It gets to be a little bit addictive.”
Aerial yoga is a very recent addition to the panoply of styles on offer in the UK. A simple swing, like a mini-hammock, made of parachute material and suspended from the ceiling, allows students to defy gravity, turning familiar poses upside-down and giving yoga veterans like me a whole new perspective. It’s not just about acrobatic inversions: the swing makes a soothing cocoon for relaxation, and a useful support for all sorts of warm-up and cool-down exercises. It’s also much safer than it might sound: the swings in Richard’s studio are not very high, and they are easily adjustable so you’re never more than a few inches off the ground. Three straps on each side, of varying lengths but each with a foam-wrapped handgrip, allow you to stretch arms and legs out to make familiar yoga shapes in mid air. Anyone can do the basics, but it takes strength, coordination and lots of body awareness to get really skilful.
Yet contrary to what you might think, aerial yoga doesn’t necessarily favour small, athletic bodies. According to Richard, it’s brilliant for people carrying extra weight who might not feel confident about attending a regular mat-based class. I could feel right away how it changed my relationship with gravity, lending a sensation not exactly of weightlessness, but of lightness and an extra source of support. And with just four swings in the room, every class has the cosy feel of a private session.
It’s sometimes said that there are only 14 yoga postures, but they can all be performed on a number of different planes – standing, sitting, inverted, prone, supine, reversed. Now we have to add another: mid air. For example, normally a backbend like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-facing Bow/Wheel pose) means strong contact between hands-and-feet and mat, with the rest of the body held up in the air. Here, the whole pelvis is supported and there’s no weight on my hands and feet – and suddenly it’s purely about my spine extending and extending, pouring easily towards the ground. It’s not only exhilarating, it also shakes up your notions of what each posture could be. I finished the class feeling high as a kite, light and strong and fired up about the creative possibilities of yoga.
Richard told me, “At this stage, it’s not well known among the yoga community; I think most yoga teachers, if they’ve heard of it at all, would probably dismiss it as a bit of a gimmick. But that’s not the case; it has real potential as a therapeutic form and I think yoga teachers see that as soon as they try it out.” This one certainly did. But I also felt very glad the studio was in the hands of someone like Richard, who is both evangelical about its potential to heal, and refreshingly open about sharing the benefits with others. His simple, welcoming studio is no cynical franchise-in-waiting, but the heart of a collective of like-minded flyers.
In the wrong hands, this form does have the potential to be just a gimmick, so beware of gyms and studios jumping on the bandwagon. If you find a class near you, make sure it has small group sizes and a teacher with their head screwed on; doing yoga poses upside-down, in midair, without the supervision of an experienced teacher is surely an accident waiting to happen. But if you’re feeling in need of an injection of play and creativity in your yoga practice and your life in general, I highly recommend you seek out a good class and give it a try. I’ll watch the future of aerial yoga with interest – and I might just invest in a swing of my own.
Richard’s classes are fully booked up to two weeks in advance, so be sure to check before you go. You’ll find details at http://www.aerialyogalondon.co.uk
Yoga swings are available from http://www.yogamatters.com or http://www.yogaswinguk.co.uk/
What is Aerial Yoga: A yoga class with the addition of specially designed nylon swings – like a cross between a hammock and a trapeze.
What happens in class: The teacher leads a small group of students through a range of floor and swing-assisted movements, building strength and confidence as well as flexibility.
Who will love it: Experienced yogis who have trouble with inversions for any reason, or who are just looking for a refreshing change; newbies with a sense of adventure and good body-awareness. In Ayurvedic parlance, the practice ramps up your Vata so it best suits individuals with a good dose of Kapha in their constitutions.
Who should avoid it: Flighty, hyperactive types may find it just too stimulating, and have trouble “coming down” afterwards. Students with hyper-mobile joints and low strength or poor to average body awareness should proceed with great caution, as it’s easy to overstretch. I’d advise against it for pregnant or post-natal women, except possibly in a one-to-one setting.
Where to try it: Aerial Yoga London, 30 New Road, Whitechapel, London E1 2AX
Email: Richard Holroyd at DandelionYoga@gmail.com
How much does it cost: Group class £12 for one, £50 for five. Private lessons can be arranged.
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(A version of this article appeared at welldoing.org)