The ethereal image in my head when I think of aerial yoga is that of perfectly petite ladies striking graceful postures mid-air. I am neither perfect nor petite. So when I arrived at YogaOne, which has secured exclusive rights to host aerial yoga programmes planned and conducted by a Cirque du Soleil trainer at its recently opened studio in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, I did so with an open heart, but also a long list of insecurities.
It was my first time trying aerial yoga and I knew nothing about the practice. I wouldn’t describe myself as flexible, and my weight is north of where it should be, so I was worried that contorting myself in a swing would be impossible and, worse, embarrassing.
Even though the staff assured me the class is suitable for beginners, I did panic a bit when I was being sized for the swing – the ones here are imported from Las Vegas and come in shades of gold and silver. I tugged on my swing a bit, wondering if this piece of fabric suspended from the ceiling could bear my weight.
Enter Hellen Zabal, a certified AntiGravity and fitness instructor who has trained with Christopher Harrison in New York, Mark Wildman in Los Angeles and the National Circus School in Montreal, as well as organised advanced workshops for Cirque du Soleil. Zabal informed me each swing can hold up to 1,500 kilograms, so that was comforting.
The session began with a series of light stretches, with moves such as the crescent lunge where one leg is planted on the floor and the other is extended across the swing.
Aerial yoga is a blend of acrobatics and traditional yoga, so I knew what to do when I heard “downward dog”. There I was bent over the swing with my hands and feet on the floor. Lifting and wrapping my legs around the sides of the swing was no problem, but lifting my hands off the ground at the same time is what gave me pause. Maintaining a connection to the floor made me feel safe and grounded – and the purpose of this class is “to fly”.
I stayed rooted to the spot with my hands on the floor until Zabal came over and gave me a pep talk. “Lift your hands,” she said. “It’s all in your mind. You have to free your mind. Let go of the fear.”
I took a shot and trusted her, which enabled me to trust myself, and just like that I lifted my hands and sailed through the air. The swing gained momentum with each sway imbuing me with a sense of accomplishment that I thought was impossible.
Next, we transitioned into a basic inversion. I gripped the sides of the swing tightly and leaned backwards, tilting my pelvis forward while hooking my ankles around the fabric. Fifteen minutes into the session, I was hanging upside down. I could feel my body temperature rising as beads of sweat formed on my forehead. This pose, commonly known as the inverted butterfly, boosts circulation and decompresses the spine, but it wasn’t a pose I could hold for long.
Zabal, who was keeping a watchful eye, advised me to come out of the inversion ahead of the other participants since it was my first time. Even so, I felt great – physically and mentally – for having attained the posture in the first place, and aim to hold it for longer on my next visit.
The class came to an end with savasana, the resting pose often used for relaxation at the end of a yoga session, but this was special. The swing served as a soft, silky cocoon around my body. I slowly swayed to a stop as a cover of Fly Me to the Moon played in the background, and the feeling of poise and power stayed with me long after I stepped down.
YogaOne UAE offers aerial yoga classes for children (from the age of 6 and above) and adults for Dh80 for a drop-in. Bookings can be made at yogaone.ae or 050 950 8864