For many of us, ages have passed since we last felt the thrill of being suspended in mid-air. That fluttery sensation one experiences upon reaching new heights on a playground swing is a relic of childhood – but not for these four women. These aerialists and aerial yogis routinely defy gravity for the sake of fitness, artistic expression, or just plain ole fun.
By Olivia Halverson | Photography by Sarah Unger
With origins in dance and acrobatics, aerial silks make for a beautiful spectacle. Seasoned aerialists demonstrate climbs, spins, and drops with an air of effortlessness. In reality, these are skills that require an extraordinary level of strength and body awareness. It’s an art as much as it is a testament to fitness.
Cameron Moreland, an adult fitness instructor at Modern Play, first became inspired to pursue aerial silks after seeing an aerial performance as a child. “It was like dancing in the air,” she explains. Last year, when Modern Play offered beginner aerials for kids and private classes for adults, Moreland jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it.
Christie Burns has been practicing aerial silks since 2016. She started “from scratch” with a four-week beginner’s course. Burns was initially drawn to aerial arts by a desire to seek community and spend a little more time upside down. Her aerial journey has satisfied both of those goals and more, and she remains a passionate aerialist to this day.
Both Moreland and Burns share that prior to taking on aerial silks, neither could successfully execute a single pull-up. “Now I can do multiple in a row,” says Moreland. “I’m able to hold and lift my own body weight and more,” says Burns. Moreland also mentions that her grip is significantly stronger. “I can now open stubborn jars without asking for help or running them under hot water.”
In addition to being physically advantageous in the way of building strength, aerials can also be an empowering and mentally gratifying sport. “Aerials is a time where I am fully focused on the present,” says Moreland. “I am not distracted by the frustrations of life or worries for the future. It is an escape, and I feel empowered by what my body is able to accomplish.”
For Burns, training in aerial silks has provided her with a strong sense of pride and accomplishment. “I’m so proud of how much strength and body awareness I have gained through practicing on the aerial silks. I’ve also gained a greater appreciation for more experienced aerialists who can move slowly through the air with the utmost control.”
Photo by Rich Smith
As Moreland and Burns can attest, there are many tricks and moves within the aerial arts, but some are more fun than others. “My favorite thing to work up to is a drop,” says Moreland. “It’s intimidating to trust the silks but invigorating when you do. It’s the closest to flying I can imagine.”
Burns, on the other hand, finds the most joy in any position where she’s upside down. “I also really like a pose in which I’m in a prone position, as if lying flat on the ground but levitating,” she adds. “This takes a lot of core strength and control, but the goal is to make it look effortless.”
Giving the illusion of effortlessness is key in aerial performance. It’s a skill that must be worked up to over time. And, according to Moreland and Burns, the sense of accomplishment that’s on the other side of that challenge is more than worth it. After a full and productive training session, you’ll undoubtedly experience soreness and fatigue in the body. But, as Burns puts it, “that makes everything – food, water, stretching, a hot shower, and sleep – feel extra good.”
Aerial yoga is a hybrid type of yoga that incorporates the use of hammocks in traditional asanas or poses. The practice is gaining popularity worldwide, and it provides many health benefits in addition to being a fun, gravity-defying alternative to more conventional yoga practices.
Rebecca Balch is an aerial yoga instructor at THRIVE Yoga & Wellness. She has practiced yoga for more than 24 years, but her aerial journey began in 2012 when she took a class in aerial circus arts. “Despite being over 40, I suddenly felt like a child playing in the air,” she says. In 2013, Balch earned her aerial yoga instructor certification.
Vitatherese LoFria is an E-RYT 500 yoga educator and certified health coach. She first tried aerials in 2009 at a yoga conference where she was drawn to the aerial yoga hammock. “It offered me a sense of freedom and alignment in asanas that were elusive on a mat,” she explains. “The hammock challenged me to be completely present and vulnerable in my practice.”
As instructors, Balch and LoFria have seen many students come to aerial yoga looking for a variety of things – exercise, adventure, tranquility, or even a really cool Instagram photo. While this practice is no doubt picturesque, it’s important for newcomers to proceed with caution.
“Safety is always the most important aspect of aerial yoga,” says Balch. “We must always be aware of our bodies and the risks as we move.” It’s also important that newcomers learn to trust the hammock, LoFria explains. “In an aerial hammock, students are only three feet off the ground. Even with the slight elevation, there’s a natural fear of falling.” Of course, with time and practice, these feelings eventually subside.
Once a student has established a safe and trusting relationship with the hammock, the real fun begins. LoFria’s favorite poses are backbends. “The hammock gives me the support and freedom to explore backbends fully with confidence,” she explains. As for Balch, it’s the inversions that bring her the most joy. “Something about being upside down just makes me happy,” she says. “Most students are amazed at what they can do after an aerial yoga class,” Balch adds. Even the simplest poses impart feelings of grace and beauty upon students.
As with traditional yoga, the more you practice, the more you’re able to push yourself. “The progress is not only beneficial for your physical health; it increases your mental health by building self-confidence, inner peace, and a complete sense of satisfaction,” says Balch. Echoing similar sentiments, LoFria touts the many physical benefits she has gained from her aerial yoga practice, including an increased range of motion, relief from back pain, and an overall openness across the body. “Mentally,” she adds, “the cocoon-like feeling of the hammock offers me a sense of peace and tranquility. It has allowed me to show myself grace and resilience through some challenging times.”
Aerial yoga has a little something for everyone. As LoFria explains, classes can be designed as relaxing and restorative or super challenging. “The beauty of aerial yoga is that what you really need seems to find you!”