It’s a few minutes before noon on a Wednesday, and women are stationing themselves in front of bright orange hammocks hanging from the ceiling. Some of them pull themselves into relaxed, seated positions in the U-shaped fabric, while others tug at the drapings and skeptically eye their surroundings. FlyDog Yoga co-owner Eliza Whiteman takes her place at the front-and-center black hammock, and welcomes me and the rest of the class to aerial yoga.
“People love the sensation of being light again,” Whiteman tells me before the class. “It’s play for grown-ups.”
Aerial yoga is, on the surface, exactly what it sounds like: the practice of classic yoga poses in the air, with the support of a hammock secured to the ceiling. It’s an excuse for adults to channel their inner acrobats and spend part of their lunch hour hanging and stretching, but it’s more than that—it’s also a way to, quite literally, turn your traditional yoga practice upside down.
“It changes your perspective on the poses,” Whiteman says. “You can use this to do more than you do on the mat.”
And she’s right. The first pose she guides us through on the hammocks is downward-facing dog, a position that, on the mat, often serves as a home base of strength and stability. But bent over the hammock in an inverted letter V, with the dangling fabric pulling my weight up, my hands and feet barely touch the floor. It’s a basics class, so we spend a good portion of the hour learning how to adapt simple poses and stretches to the hammock. Several basic standing poses, like the warrior variations, become more challenging with the added element of dangling a few inches off the floor, while others, particularly balancing poses, are suddenly easier to hold without the burden of gravity.
The last part of the class is what everyone’s there for: inversions (read: hanging upside down like a kid on the monkey bars). Whiteman talks us through the steps of wrapping the hammock around our limbs for support, reminds us to come up slowly if we begin feeling dizzy or faint, and we’re off. Aerial veterans swoosh into their dangling positions with ease and gently swing upside down peacefully, while the other newbies and I move a little more tentatively, slowly testing the strength of the hammocks and our own bravery. Even a klutz like me can manage to look graceful in an aerial yoga class, and I can’t help but grin when I see my reflection in the mirror, ponytail touching the floor, legs in a split, hands in prayer position (not to mention blood rushing to my face, eyes wide open, nostrils flaring).
Class sizes are intentionally small, and Whiteman walks around giving individual attention and pointers to those who need it as we’re contorting ourselves and holding our feet over our heads. And while the aerial classes may be the most playful options for adult members, it’s certainly not the only thing Whiteman and her husband and co-owner, Brad, are doing at FlyDog.
Whiteman, a lifelong athlete and mother of four, has been teaching yoga for about nine years. She and Brad, who manages the business side, opened the studio at 1039 Millmont St. (after a short stint in Stonefield) in July. The couple had a few goals in mind: offer several workout options under one roof, foster a sense of community among members and teachers and provide childcare, something they saw a dire need for in Charlottesville.
“When we first moved here, there were gyms and studios,” she says. “I can’t go to the studios because I have kids, and the gyms just aren’t the same experience.”
In an effort to make fitness classes more accessible to parents, FlyDog offers childcare during certain classes throughout the week for children ages 8 weeks and up. And if your kids are at least 3, you can enroll them in their own yoga classes—instructors at the studio are trained to teach yoga to kids of all ages, including teenagers.
As for other classes available to adults, Whiteman’s goal is to make FlyDog your one-stop yoga shop. The schedule includes power vinyasa, heated vinyasa, barre and yin, plus acroyoga, “where acrobatics meets therapeutic partner yoga.” A membership gives you access to the entire yoga menu, which means you can sweat it out during an intense, almost cardio-like heated vinyasa class on Monday, get your thigh shake on at the barre on Tuesday and relax and focus on your breath during yin on Wednesday.
Whiteman also plans to bring her recent Baptiste training to the studio, plus classes that incorporate cardio, weights and interval training.
“People like having a variety,” she says. “That way you don’t have to go to different studios for different workouts.”
Whichever style of yoga strikes your fancy, you’ve got to try the aerial class at least once. Even if hanging upside down doesn’t appeal to you, there is something truly magical about closing your eyes and allowing the silk cocoon enveloping your entire body to gently sway during the well-earned end-of-class savasana.