Aerial yoga uses gravity, slings to achieve deep stretches

It looks like Cirque du Soleil meets yoga, but it certainly doesn't require the acrobatic athleticism of a circus performer, or even that one be a seasoned yogi, to get the hang of it.

Aerial yoga uses soft fabric slings to suspend practitioners while they do yoga poses. It appealed to Charleston yoga instructor Jordan Anderson for several reasons, one being that it's suitable for yoga beginners and veterans.

Anderson completed the first certification course over the summer and started teaching it last month.

"I'm a little bit of a yoga nerd," said the 10-year yoga practitioner, "so anything that's different about yoga or helps me learn more about yoga intrigues me."

She doesn't remember exactly how she first came across aerial yoga, developed in 2006 by yoga instructor and aerial acrobat Michelle Dortignac, but Anderson, a native New Yorker, took her first class two years ago and started experimenting with her home practice before taking the certification course. (A check with several Midlands studios didn't find any local aerial yoga classes.)

"A lot of people who come into it who don't have yoga experience are surprised at how easy it is because it helps you stretch," Anderson said.

"In regular yoga, you're always fighting gravity . . . and you're trying to lift up out of gravity. In aerial yoga, we use the pull of gravity to help you achieve a deeper stretch. So instead of fighting gravity, you're working with it."

Similarly, it helps lift people's attitudes about yoga.

"Yoga is a very serious practice, and this just adds some fun to it. This is a little more silly and playful," she said. "A lot of us take ourselves too seriously. This practice makes you feel like a kid again. . . . It's very freeing."

Yet Anderson says aerial yoga is not meant to supplant a regular yoga practice, just complement it.

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Professional ice skater Windy Rohde, who lives in Charleston, said she does yoga six times a week while in season but is always looking for new ways to improve flexibility. She was looking for acrobatic yoga classes when she stumbled across the aerial classes offered by Anderson.

"(Now) I am addicted!," said the 26-year-old Rohde. "Being suspended in the air creates a different dynamic to the normal yoga poses on the mat. Some poses are easier, some harder, but all of them are definitely more fun."

Jody Stebben, 55, since 1990 has tried all kinds of yoga - Ashtanga, tri, flow, Jivamukti, Kundalini, Anusara and taken classes with well-known instructors, including Rodney Yee.

"In my early Iyengar yoga practice, which uses a variety of props to allow you to go deeper into a pose, I worked with wall-hung straps that allow you to do some poses similar to aerial yoga," said Stebben. The Isle of Palms resident added that a car wreck in 2006 strained her neck and prevents her from doing traditional yoga poses such as head and shoulder stands.

"I wanted to hang upside down again. . . . It allows one to take the compression off the vertebrae and free the spine," she said, adding, however, that it's important to know your physical limits.

"I think that with aerial yoga, as with any type of yoga, you need to know your physical limits. The stretches can be very deep, so any student should be careful not to overdo it."