Originally published on Yoganonymous (2015) by Dr. Jamie Marich
Photography by Natalie Mancino
When the first aerial yoga studio opened up in my city in 2013, I wrote it off as just another fitness yoga fad. People seemed to be swarming to it because of the novelty, yet because I am large of stature, I knew it would never be for me. Two judgments right there—of others, and myself! A stroke of good timing, the universe conspiring to nudge me in the right direction, and the fruits of my existent yoga and mindfulness practices manifesting converged a few weeks before Christmas of 2014. I decided to give aerial yoga a try. A few months prior, the Facebooksphere connected me with Jennifer Neal, the visionary yogini and dancer who pioneered aerial yoga in our rust belt city of Youngstown, OH. There was something about her energy that resonated. When I finally made my way over to her beautiful studio, a true oasis in our often-bleak city, I told her that I was afraid. Jennifer, in her beautiful way, validated and normalized my fear as a newcomer. She also assured me that the fabric could likely hold a horse or a small car. While some might see that as condescending, I appreciated the humor of it. In realizing that truth, the life and recovery lessons began to flow…
1. The fabric, like the universe and my understanding of God/spirit, holds much more weight than I realize.
During my first few classes I was terrified to jump in the aerial fabric designed to support me. This fear was mostly due to the weight issue. However, even in poses that required me to spread the fabric out with some force, my trepidation still showed. When Jennifer noticed this she assured me, “The fabric can take a lot, it’s there to support you.” As soon as she said that I realized that, like the universe and the God of my understanding, I don’t give these vessels that exist to support me their proper credit. When I can practice the faith that they will hold me, I am not afraid to try new things.
2. I am stronger than I give myself credit for.
I remember the pose exactly: side plank. During a private aerial session with Jennifer, she instructed me, from a seated position in the swing, to grip the sides of the fabric and simultaneously pull-and-roll myself onto my right side. Even as I protested, “No way am I strong enough to do that,” I was doing it. We both laughed at the silliness. So as I flew above the studio floor in a side plank position, it clicked: Clearly I am way stronger than I think I am. My aerial journey continues to prove this to me with ever new pose and subtle variation that I learn. It’s made me notice just now natural it’s been for me to doubt my strength, even during those times when my strength is clearly working in my favor. No doubt I’ve done this on the mental/emotional plane as well, and aerial is helping me make a change towards claiming instead of doubting my own strength.
3. Comparison truly is the thief of joy.
Although I liked this well-known quote of inspirational living attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, practicing aerial yoga made forced me to truly work on it or practice it. Jennifer and other yoga teachers with whom I studied beautifully remind us that yoga is “not a competition.” Yet for me, a type-A overachiever in other areas of my life, it’s been difficult for me to put into practice. I’ve never been especially athletic. After a few classes of practicing aerial and seeing how much more naturally others were taking to the practice during their first class, the temptation to quit was strong. Old memories about being the last kid picked in gym class surfaced. Yet when I focused on the small steps of progress that I was taking in each class—holding poses a little longer, getting into poses that I couldn’t the class before, I truly felt happy. When I made a commitment to drown everyone else out and focus on my own practice, aerial yoga began to fill me with fierce joy.
4. Don’t leave before the miracle happens.
At least 10 times during my first 10 classes and lessons, I found myself saying, “I don’t need this!” I almost walked out of the first class, and at the end of it I even said to myself, “The injury risk is just too high and you need to be mobile to work, especially with all of the travel that you do!” I decided to give a private lesson a try before making a definitive conclusion. When I started the comparison games I almost quit again, and then when I hit another barrier when an old knee injury got agitated (more on why that happened in #9). Looking back at it now, had I left at any of those junctures—which could have happened considering my history with some physical activities—I would have missed out on all of the strength, joy, and benefits to myself that I’ve accessed.
5. When I Can’t Actually Ground, I Can Find Stability in My Breath
Many of my trauma therapist colleagues are mystified by my love for aerial yoga considering that in my teaching life, I promote the benefits of yoga and meditation for grounding. Very early in my practice it struck me that keeping my breath even and deep was the key to working through the fear and instability that I experienced on the fabric. Not having literal grounding prompts me to rely more on my breath. In doing so I’ve been able to recognize, in all areas of my life, just how much connection exists between my breath and the earth.
6. Anticipation causes me to lose my breath.
Staying in the moment and keeping by breath full and steady is paramount in aerial yoga. I usually end up falling out of a pose, or talk myself out of getting into a new and more challenging pose when I start anticipating the outcome—how it should look when I get into the full expression of the pose. Even though I’ve heard and fundamentally believed the logic of “it’s about the journey and not the destination” throughout my adult life, I never fully embraced its relevance until I began my aerial practice. When I catch myself not breathing fully in any area of life, it’s usually because I am anticipating. Thus, I can accept the challenge of returning to the present moment.
7. The body can learn new lessons.
My body is capable of so much more than I give it credit for, especially when I can celebrate the small victories. I can honestly say that my body, which I’d once written off as past her prime, feels stronger now after several months of aerial practice than it did when I figure skated in my early teens. Sure, things in aerial yoga freak me out, like have my feet—my vehicles for fleeing dangerous situations—bound in poses like inverted bound angle. Yet noticing this freak out, breathing through it, and realizing the danger it posed in my body challenged me to look at old fears and memories about not being able to escape. I’ve received so many different types of trauma therapy during my life yet nothing has quite yet helped with some of my old body stuff like working through my fears around the poses.
8. Most discomfort experience can be adapted to and accommodated.
In aerial yoga, it can take your body a few sessions to adapt to the pressure of the fabric digging into your body, especially in sensitive areas like the hip creases and below the arm pits. As someone who long accepted that I don’t have to do what doesn’t feel good to my body, I almost used the pressure as an excuse to bail out during the first ten sessions. Aerial challenges me, in a new way, to constantly listen to my body about the differences between pain and challenges that I can learn to navigate. During one of my first times attempting swing balance, I sat there with the fabric digging into my glutes, and I said to myself, “This is bullshit.” Yet I made a choice to keep breathing and after about thirty seconds or so, the annoying pressure passed. Truly, a lesson for me in distress tolerance…
9. Making an adjustment in one area of the body can transform pain and make all of the difference in another area of the body.
My friend Jessica also found herself inspired by Youngstown’s aerial yoga revolution and completed a teacher training herself. In working with her privately during her first few weeks as a teacher, she immediately diagnosed why I experienced so much knee pain during aerial bound angle. She noted, “You are dumping your core instead of engaging it. Try it again and be mindful to not let the core collapse.” Since that adjustment, I’ve been able to do the pose (and the inversion) without any knee pain. Like in life, sometimes when we beat ourselves up about one thing, the answer is to make an adjustment in another area, even if the connection isn’t immediately apparent.
10. Freedom is on the other side of fear.
When Jennifer first whipped this mantra out at me, I must admit, I did the internal eye roll. I’d always fancied myself as a person whose life in recovery set her free, yet those first few sessions of aerial practice revealed to me just how much I’d been holding back from living my life to the fullest. That restraint is all fear-related. In learning the aerial version of locust pose, there was a moment when I first took my hands off of the fabric to fully balance on my hips and I went “Weeee!” As Jennifer observed, as soon as I felt the freedom, I cowered back and freaked out. I will be honest: I am still working on fully living out this truth of freedom existing on the other side of fear. Yet I have strong faith that one day I will experience freedom in my life to an even greater degree, and that is why I keep coming back to the fabric.
Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity