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Aerial yoga embraces inner child while hanging upside down

Reshma Kirpalani

Lydia Michelson-Maverick hangs upside down from a purple hammock, her compact body folding into a traditional yoga pose that has been spun on its head. Her black mass of hair grazes the yoga mat below as she teaches her Austin Aerial Yoga students how to invert the traditional ground yoga pose, Baddha Konasana, and hang loose from their own hammocks. Later, Michelson-Maverick will describe inverted postures as inner-child work in action. "It feels good. I'm decompressing my spine," she says. "It's like being a 5-year-old again, kind of like being on monkey bars."

On a blistering Thursday afternoon in Dane's Body Shop, I cling to my right-side-up view of the world; I'm not quite ready to shake hands with my inner child. Meanwhile, the six students to the left and right of me each get ready to take the plunge and hang from their respective hammocks, which are attached by hardware to the ceiling. Across from me, student Elizabeth Hamilton gazes at the student to my right, Angela Sparks, who I can only imagine looks as flushed as I do after 45 minutes of "monkey-barring" our way through the class. Hamilton leaves us with encouraging words before inverting her Baddha Konasana pose. "If I can do it, you can do it." Then, she flips over, suspending herself from her hammock. Within minutes, Sparks does the same. I decide to cut myself some slack with the inverted Baddha Konasana pose, considering that this is my first aerial yoga class.

Aerial yoga is a version of ground yoga that includes the use of fabric hammocks to help intensify and sometimes invert poses. Practitioners benefit from these postures by relieving tension in their muscles, elongating their spines and increasing their overall flexibility. Michelson-Maverick describes aerial yoga as "more intense" than other forms of yoga. She says, "It forces you even more to be present because you're in the air, doing movements you never experienced before, having fabric press on you in different ways. It really makes you feel and makes your mind aware of what's going on in your body."

Although Austin is a breeding ground for yoga studios, aerial yoga remains relatively new to this fit-minded city. Among the few studios that offer varying styles of aerial yoga is Fit to the Core from the AntiGravity Yoga global franchise, which started offering aerial yoga classes to Austinites in February 2011, but temporarily suspended them while it searches for a new studio space. Austin Aerial Yoga, co-owned by Michelson-Maverick and her husband, John Maverick, started offering classes in October after Michelson-Maverick became certified as a registered yoga teacher by the international Yoga Alliance and received a certification of completion from an aerial yoga teacher training program in Boulder, Colo., by Aircat Aerial Arts.

Michelson-Maverick describes herself as a "new teacher who is still in the process of figuring out what my style is as I continue to do more training, learn more, and grow more." The 30-year-old New York native, who is positively origamilike in her flexibility, rekindled her childhood passion for dance and fused it with the practice of yoga more than five years ago after watching an aerial dance segment in a Cirque du Soleil show in Austin. The stunning performance by acrobatic dancers "just spoke to me," she says. Countless Google searches and aerial dance classes later, a nylon hammock was suspended from the ceiling of Michelson-Maverick's home, where she started her own gentle, aerial yoga practice.

She admits that in the beginning, she was scared. "Over time, I think you learn to breathe there and realize it's not scary and relax into it," Michelson-Maverick says.

Her students agree. After her fourth class, Sparks admits that the first class might feel "weird." "You have to give it more than one try," she says. "The second time, you learn how the fabric works and you can really get into it."

Hamilton, who has been taking Austin Aerial Yoga classes for four months, says, "I feel 10-times stronger now and far more flexible." The evidence lives in the ease of her inversions, at one point, hanging upside down and wrapping the hammock around her, turning into a human cocoon.

In the class I took, fans were blowing loudly in Dane's Body Shop in the un-air-conditioned space. The structure of the class seemed loose, with pauses for instructions about how to use the fabric rather than seamless transitions between poses. Positions were held for a long time while Michelson-Maverick checked on each of her seven students. Michelson-Maverick says small aerial yoga classes are essential to giving individual attention to students and prioritizing safety. "I really want to make sure that each student is feeling the stretches in the right place and is using correct alignment because each body is so different," she says.

Currently, the Mavericks are setting up their own aerial yoga studio, Four Elements Yoga and Fitness, which is due to open by the end of this month. The downtown studio space is being structurally outfitted with reinforced beams to hold the weight of people in the hammocks. In addition to the classes that she teaches now, Michelson-Maverick plans to offer aerial yoga classes for couples, as well as more traditional ground yoga classes. The goal of all these yoga forms is to create an experience in which the practitioners learn what their perfectly imperfect bodies are truly capable of. With aerial yoga in particular, Michelson-Maverick says, "I think in the fabric, there is something that happens very naturally ... it forces you to be present and experience your body and I think that being in a moment is a very spiritual thing."

Being in the moment. The image draws me back to my favorite part of the aerial yoga class, bending over the nylon fabric in a down-dog pose, walking myself up to the front edge of the mat. Using my body as a spring, I lift up, clasp the nylon fabric and fly back into a swan pose. And for a moment, whisking through the air, I am free.

Contact Reshma Kirpalani at 445-1789.

Austin Aerial Yoga