In traditional yoga, savasana invites the body to lie flat with the back against the mat. Every Thursday night, however, I am invited to take my final relaxation in the air. At the end of Swing Yoga, the tool used to twist and transform becomes a place of rest. The swing is stretched out into a hammock, and the body is gently rocked back and forth. In that moment, I am weightless. I am safe. I reach santosha, contentment, and am grateful for all that I have.
Aerial Yoga, also called Anti-Gravity Yoga, or Swing, combines aerial silk work with traditional yoga. The practice uses only one silk or ‘swing,’ similar to a hammock, and can be raised or lowered depending on the pose. Physically, it increases the levels of strength and flexibility that can be achieved in traditional yoga, and requires a strong sense of balance. Spiritually, yoga is about awareness. The practice allows us to enjoy the present moment and let go. In Swing, the practitioner is able to feel the bliss of mid-air suspension and experience a sense of swadhyaya, self-discovery. It allows us to bring our own self-expression into the practice and ultimately find what feels good.
I had never given much thought to yoga before, having ruled it out as an option after my surgery. At sixteen, I underwent spinal fusion, a procedure in which titanium rods are welded to either side of the spine. The procedure corrected my scoliosis, but destroyed my flexibility. Still, I wanted to fly. After the woman who privately taught me aerial silk had moved away, the instructor that followed told me I didn’t have the strength or flexibility needed to continue. I poked around online and found a pole-fitness studio in Hollywood, FL, that offered aerial yoga. I figured I would use the classes for conditioning, something to build me up before I went back into silk. For the last few weeks of summer, I took Beginner Aerial Yoga with Nanette Weston, an aerialist, contortionist and pole-fitness instructor. While we used the silk to stretch into yoga poses like pigeon and scorpion, the class mainly centered on strength. She took my bionic back into consideration, modified the moves when needed and whipped me into shape. I would later learn that Nanette’s class was more hammock silk work, a variation of traditional aerial silk, than actual aerial yoga.
I was lying in savasana for the first time when I realized that a rebirth was taking place. A Sanskrit mantra was playing on loop, and Monica, the instructor, was talking about new beginnings. I had just completed Swing 101, my first class at Yoga Downtown Tampa. In Monica’s class, we used the silk to come into belly hangs, modified handstands and back straddles – things I had already learned from Nanette. Unlike the pole-fitness studio, however, there was no mirror in front of me. I panicked. How was I supposed to become airborne if I couldn’t see what I was doing? This was my first lesson in yoga – self-trust. I inhaled, held the silk to my tailbone and jumped back into a straddle, hanging upside down with both legs pointed towards the sky.
My posture could have been incorrect, the person next to me may have had better form, but I couldn’t tell. I had only the white wall in front of me. A woman shouted that she felt weightless. I closed my eyes and nodded. On the ground, we stretched into basic postures like cat-cow and downward facing dog. We stood tall in tadasana and sat with legs folded in sukhasana. We moved through an easy vinyasa flow. We focused on the breath, deepening the inhale and lengthening the exhale. At the end of class, she instructed us to stretch out our silks and lie back inside them. As I closed my eyes in final relaxation, a wave of euphoria washed over me – I had managed to stay present throughout the entire class. I went sixty minutes without a stray thought or daydream. I focused on the journey between each movement and the flow of my own breath. For the first time in my life, I was able to get out of my head and fully enjoy an experience. This was the start of a new path.
Having completed Swing 101 & 102, I signed up for Flying Asana. On the first day of class, I learned my second lesson in yoga – self-expression. Because yoga joins spirituality with wellness, the practice is often seen as serious, and even strict. Before we began, Francine introduced herself. She talked about how she came to yoga, and explained why YDT advertises these classes as Swing, rather than aerial. “I had a hard time dealing with how serious everyone in the yoga community was. I believe we can approach our practice with joy, exuberance, and a little laughter. Swing brings your mind back to your childhood and the moment when you discover the joy of flying on a swing.”
During Swing 101 & 102, Monica had played soft, meditative music, recited a mantra and talked about Ganesha, the Hindu god of wisdom and learning. Francine, however, put on electronic dance music, dimmed the lights, and turned on a black light. The silks glowed. Our shirts glowed. It felt like a rave. When we came into our belly hangs, the class broke loose. In a belly hang, the arms and legs are straight and the body swings back and forth, supported by the silk. Instead of keeping the movement slow and methodical, we pushed off the ground and picked up speed. Francine yelled, “Wheeeee!” and everyone joined her. I felt like Superman. Moreover, I felt free. It dawned on me that we are allowed to bring our own self-expression to the mat because it is our practice. Yoga has no uniform.
Within that same week, I began Winged Warriors. This is where I would spend nearly every Thursday night for the next three months. I was told that Debbie’s Flying Asana was strength-based, and that Jenna’s Winged Warriors focused more on flexibility. The word made me nervous. What if my metal back gave out in the middle of class? The room was divided. The advanced yogis bunched up into one side of the room, while the beginners took the other side. Jenna, tiny and fierce, directed us from the center of the room. Just as I suspected, my body refused most of the poses that required a spinal twist.
I watched the advanced girls take each move a step farther and contort in a way I’d never seen before. I was grateful that I had enough upper-body strength to climb up the silk and pull myself into diaper, a hip-opener that takes the body higher off the ground. From there, Jenna added another move, one that involved a fully body twist. The back leg is raised behind, the chest opens and the arms outstretched like wings. It was graceful, and I couldn’t do it. I sat in diaper and watched the rest of the class. Jenna walked over.
“I don’t think my back will let me,” I said. Carefully, she twisted me up and over into the posture. I couldn’t straighten my back leg, open my chest much, or let go of both hands – but I could hold the pose, and I wasn’t in pain. I wanted to cry. It was a tiny victory. I wasn’t as stiff or immobile as I thought, or as that silk instructor had made me feel. Jenna smiled. “It’s just a matter of building muscle in the lower back. You’ll get there.”
My third lesson – self-compassion. How can we progress if we keep beating ourselves up about things beyond our control? We all possess the capability to achieve goals or dreams, no matter how small they might be. It’s a matter of letting go of self-doubt and quieting the inner critic. We have to nurture the self.
My journey has only just begun. This practice has allowed me to transform, physically and spiritually and become my best self. Each week I am surrounded by incredible women whose journeys inspire my own. I have a greater sense of self-awareness. I am stronger in all aspects. I am kinder to my body by way of self-love and nourishment. I approach new challenges with confidence. I am no longer operating on autopilot. I am able to stay present and enjoy the ride. I have learned how to want what I already have, and realize that what I need is right in front of me. Om namah shivaya gurave. I bow to the goodness within myself, the true Eternal Teacher.
Lauren Milici can be reached at Lauren.milici@spartans..ut.edu.