The latest yoga trend defies gravity.
AntiGravity Yoga is a fitness practice that uses a silk hammock as a soft trapeze for resistance and support as participants hang upside down and are suspended in the air. They say it makes them feel airy and light while helping to relieve compressed joints and align the body from head to toe. Trainers say it provides the benefits of yoga without straining muscles.
Founder Christopher Harrison, a Broadway aerial choreographer and former world-class gymnastics specialist, began incorporating the aerial technique in 1999 during his own training.
"Let's take it up into the air," he recalled saying the first time he hung the material from the ceiling. "Thus the silk hammock was born."
The hammock, which is lowered to waist height, is connected from two overhead points. It acts like a swing or trapeze and can hold up to 2,000 pounds.
It is manipulated several ways during a class, as participants hold onto the fabric to move into a sitting position and the hammock wraps around the body to form a cocoon. Legs are stretched out to a restful position. Feet are looped around the hammock for support before participants turn upside down, allowing their hands to drop and softly graze the floor.
Workouts in the hammock blend traditional yoga poses and principles with elements from aerial arts, dance, gymnastics, Pilates and calisthenics. But mastering the positions, as with any new fitness routine, takes some work.
"It was something new," said David Gaffney of Manhattan after his first AntiGravity Yoga class at Harrison's studio in New York City. "It was a real challenge, too."
Harrison says that in addition to the physical aspects, being inside the hammock cocoon can also lead to a meditative state similar to yoga.
"It's almost this thing that happens when you're inside and it lets you close out the rest of the world and be still," Harrison said, saying that some participants report leaving class with "an antigravity high."
Originally launched at Crunch Fitness clubs in 2008, AntiGravity Yoga will be available in more than 50 locations by the end of the year, half in the U.S. and the others around the world, from Italy to South Korea. The AntiGravity hammock is trademarked — though a few other companies now offer similar programs and products — and trainers must go through a certification process to ensure safety for participants.
"I would call it a revolution more than a trend," said Aileen Febles, one of the 265 instructors certified to teach it. She said her all-ages class in Key Biscayne, Fla., makes her students feel safe off the ground.
"It's different. It makes it a little bit easier to do it while you're holding onto a prop, like the hammock," she said.
Anette Alonso, 12, was one of several girls in a recent class Febles offered in a strip-mall studio. She closed her eyes during one routine, placed her arms behind her head and took deep breaths as she rested on the hammock — feet stretched out — as if she were laying on her own bed. She giggled at times with a friend on the hammock next to her, and said the class was a challenge at first.
"I was a little bit wobbly and out there but usually by the second day, it's super, super fun. And you're not that frustrated anymore," she said as she cheerfully swung on the hammock at the end of class.
The AntiGravity hammock has made its way into numerous award shows and rock tours. Pink sang while flying on the hammock during the 2010 Grammy awards. Even President Obama's inauguration featured performers on the hammock.
In Kennesaw, Ga., about 25 miles north of Atlanta, Mardeene Mitchell, 69, was among nearly a dozen participants of a Friday morning class. Watching the instructor from the back of the class, Mitchell struggled with some moves such as the upside-down inversion and received a helpful push from the trainer.
Still, Mitchell attempted every pose, and after the class, she emphasized one of the program's biggest selling points.
"It's the kind of thing you look forward to instead of some workouts you dread and you think of it as work and this is just fun," she said. "It really makes you feel like a kid again."