Inverted Yoga Turns Traditional Asanas on Their Head

By Sheryl Dluginski on February 18, 2013 6:58am | Updated on February 18, 2013 4:47pm

NEW YORK — Inverted yoga is turning traditional asanas on their head.

As the popularity of yoga has soared in the last decade, a popular yoga hybrid of inverted, or "flying" yoga has sprung up. 

Yoga hybrids that aim to teach you how to "fly" aim to change our relationship with the force of gravity — by teaching yoga practices that get you comfortable with turning yourself upside down.

Inverted yoga follows the same goals of any class that calls itself yoga, a Sanskrit term for union — which is to unite the mind, spirit and body. But the forms of the asanas, or poses, may take place inside a gravity-defying harness hooked to the ceiling.

But before you sign up for a class, you might ask yourself why would you would want to do yoga upside down in the first place?

The long list of health benefits attributed to inverting your body include relief from back pain, better posture and greater spinal mobility. The inverted poses also increase blood flow to the brain, nourishing brain cells with more oxygen and sharpening concentration, memory, awareness and thinking.

Inversions are believed to help digestion and elimination, boost the lymphatic system, and can even improve physical appearance.

"I've noticed that my skin is healthier and smoother from all the hanging upside down," said Helene White, an AntiGravity instructor at Asphalt Green. She added that the increased blood flow to the head makes our faces "glow" and gives more oxygen to hair follicles and scalp.

Ready to try a yoga world spin-off to get yourself some of these amazing benefits? Here's two choices:

AntiGravity Yoga is probably the most familiar of the gravity-defying yoga forms, thanks to high level displays in music videos and Grammy performances by Pink, Mariah Carey and Madonna. But don't be fooled. AntiGravity Yoga is not just for women. My husband, Steven, who is not even a singer, much less a pop star, is an enthusiastic, twice-per-week practitioner. AntiGravity yoga is for anyone who wants to experience the exhilarating effects of inversions, without the requisite strength, skill and courage.

 Sheryl and Steven Dluginski in AntiGravity Skydiver pose
Sheryl and Steven Dluginski in AntiGravity Skydiver pose
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Sheryl Dluginski

Christopher Harrison originally created AntiGravity Yoga in 1990 for the athletes and gymnasts in his AntiGravity acrobatic dance performance group. Before long, he realized that hanging, swinging and flipping around in a cushiony, supportive hammock could be an "entre to yoga" for people who otherwise would never consider it, and opened it up to the public in 2007.

"Everyone should be doing yoga," says Harrison, who offers classes at his AntiGravity Lab in Midtown, "and AntiGravity bridges that gap to non-yogi athletes because of the fun factor." My husband, Steven, who previously stuck to frisbee and volleyball, will vouch for that, as he now also takes traditional yoga once a week in addition to his AntiGravity practice.

Like most yoga classes, an AntiGravity class starts with a calming meditation to still the mind and focus the practitioner inward. Only here, it is done while cocooned in super-strong, soft fabric suspended from the ceiling. Then the typical yoga format is literally flipped on its head.

The first inversion, usually a simple one, is introduced almost immediately. In traditional yoga classes, inversions typically come toward the end of class, when the body is fully warmed-up and ready to support itself using the muscles of the shoulders and arms. But in AntiGravity the arms, shoulders and entire body are supported by the hammock, so the inversion safely becomes part of the warm-up.

"For newbies it's important to overcome the fear of hanging upside down right away, then the mind is open to enjoy the rest of the class," explains Harrison.

Once that first inversion is out of the way, a unique combination of low impact, circular and swinging movements follow to loosen up the joints and get the heart pumping. Then a second, usually more elaborate inversion happens, followed by "levitations," strength-building moves using the practitioner's own body weight or a deep stretch to improve flexibility. As in traditional yoga, AntiGravity wraps up with shavasana, or corpse pose, a chance to return to the stillness experienced at the beginning of class and reconnect with the inner self. Of course, the pose is taken cradled in the specially designed hammock.

Another way yogis from novice to advanced learn to "fly" is with AcroYoga. Adam Rinder, has studied extensively with creators Jason Nemer and Jenny Sauer Klein, since the beginning eight years ago in San Francisco.

With amazing grace and skill, Rinder took me through some mind and body bending poses recently at OmFactory's Flight School near Union Square. Rinder says the most important benefits of AcroYoga go far beyond the inversions to the human connection inherent in the partner poses.

"Exploring physical contact in a playful way builds a strong community because of the trust that builds when we're weight sharing," he explained. There's a positive self-feeding loop that occurs he added. "When we overcome fear we build confidence and become more trustworthy and empowered, which helps us overcome more fears."

I experienced this firsthand when after being "flown" by Rinder for several poses, I unexpectedly heard myself offering to "base" him.

The grace, trust and confidence displayed by his assent surely required some sort of spiritual connection. If you think AcroYoga is just for dancer types or overgrown gymnasts like me, think again. Rinder told me he has flown people as heavy as 300 pounds, starting them out as the "base" but eventually supporting them when their courage to fly took hold.

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