Attending one’s first aerial yoga class is a little like agreeing to appear in an unscripted movie without taking the precaution of agreeing in advance on what kind of movie it should be.
I personally hoped for something in the riotous, acrobatic, adventure vein. Yoga has admittedly never exactly been my natural calling – with limbs this long the simplest position either leaves me looking like a knotted spider stuffed into a box too small for it or a T-Rex desperately struggling to pick something off the ground (you try touching your fingers to your toes when your legs reach up to your armpits). However, when scrolling through a list of fitness classes last week, it was not the word ‘yoga’ that caught my eye, but ‘aerial’.
Now ‘aerial’ is a most intoxicating adjective. If you bung ‘aerial’ in front of an activity that is ordinarily ground-based then that activity automatically becomes exciting or even extreme (just imagine how much more enjoyable cleaning, accounting or even stamp collecting would be if done while swinging from the ceiling). The word ‘aerial’ is so powerful indeed that it’s appearance on said list last week persuaded me to cast aside my aversion to yoga; it is powerful enough even to belie the slightly dull definition of aerial yoga as simply “yoga supported by a fabric hammock”; and powerful enough to send my imagination souring to the point where I harboured hopes of spending my afternoon swooping around a hall as though in a Peter Pan-cum-Tarzan-cum-Chinese Circus romp.
Yet barely had the figurative stage curtains (that is: the community centre door) been drawn back before the quite different, and quite grand, ambition of our flying instructress – the director of our piece – for a restrained performance of elegant lines and graceful flowing movements revealed itself. For beyond that door there awaited a screenshot of a low-budget production of Swan Lake: five women strung upside down in a row, suspended in perfect stillness, each with one leg sticking straight up into the air, like so many candles on a cake. Or so many chickens in a butcher’s window.
The consequence of this conflict of artistic interests between myself and the instructress was inevitable. Over the course of the lesson, her demands exceeded my talents and disappointed my expectations, and we were left therefore with neither hearty romp nor sumptuous ballet, but a clumsy comedic farce.
It started easily enough. Our first airborne exercise was to simply sit in our hammocks with legs crossed, entirely enveloped by the fabric. And so I swayed gently for a good ten minutes, bulging against my dark cocoon like a chubby pupa, happily thinking to myself that this ‘aerial yoga’ lark was a darned relaxing business. It wasn’t until after I had wrestled myself sideways and popped my head outside, sharing as I did so an upside-down grimace of commiserate understanding with my neighbouring pupa, that I realised quite how impossible it is to manoeuvre your body easily, let alone gracefully, when enfolded inside a giant tortilla wrap.
The class from thereon followed a steady projectory of increasing difficulty matched by decreasing dignity, beginning with having to extend my legs out upwards, downwards, sideways and back and culminating in me hanging upside down, my legs entwined in the hammock, my hands dragging across the floor and all the blood in my body rushing down fast to meet it. In between I hopped about trying to achieve a wobbly warrior pose with one foot trapped aloft, swung backwards and forwards from my ankles like an out-of-control metronome with the fabric digging painfully into my armpits, was manhandled into doing a backwards roly-poly, and was repeatedly required between exercises to dangle my torso limply over the side of my hammock in a pose I found far too corpse-esque to be relaxing.
The greatest challenge, the climax of our show as it were, was to attempt the butterfly position, in which your torso looms arched and proud out of the opening of the hammock while your legs extend the fabric behind you to create your wings. If done correctly it does, in the words of a fellow pupa, “really make you look like a butterfly”.
After watching the demonstration, I was determined to get this position right. I had fluffed everything else so far, even the on-the-ground warm up routines, but I owed the butterfly to my five-year-old self who had spent far too little time playing with princesses and other fluffy things and far too much time mucking about as a pirate. The problem is, transforming from a squidgy pupa to a beautiful butterfly requires a surprising amount of strength. You need to simultaneously turn and push yourself up on one leg against the unresisting fabric beneath you whilst forcing your other leg back and upwards against the dense mass of fabric behind you; and all this without being allowed to use your arms.
None of us achieved metamorphosis. For five minutes we struggled against our hammocks, grunting and grumbling and occasionally collapsing onto our bottoms with exasperated exhalations while our instructress looked on, perplexed at our incompetence. In the end I did get as far as heaving myself upwards, an achievement which sent the instructress barrelling towards me screaming “THAT’S IT! THAT’S IT!!”. But it wasn’t it. The effort was simply too great, I had no energy left to complete the manoeuvre, and I shrank back ashamed inside my cocoon.
Despite this catalogue of misattempts and my utter failure to achieve even a semblance of gracefulness, aerial yoga was not a complete failure, nor was it entirely without transformative effect. At the beginning of the class when asked to do a backwards roly-poly I reacted like Robin Williams at the start of Hook. I was too nervous to believe myself capable of pulling off such a stupidly brazen defiance of gravity without ending up with at least one broken bone, and besides, I can’t remember the last time I managed even a forwards roly-poly. By the end of the class however, whether because of a rise in confidence or sheer impatience, I had become a veritable Peter Pan, and somersaulted backwards out of my sling for a triumphant finish. So I got my adventure romp of sorts after all.