By Kate Haines

Aerial yoga is a recent fitness trend that provides a new and unique way to meet health goals, and one fitness center in Shreveport is offering a creative aerial yoga program that welcomes beginners to experience the benefits of this sport.

Aerial Expressions teaches aerial yoga classes, which is an activity that combines the poses of traditional floor yoga with another element: a long piece of cloth hung from the ceiling, called a loop or aerial hammock. Students of aerial yoga use the hammock to perform several different skills such as inversion (hanging upside down), drops (wrapping the material around the body and then releasing the material, allowing it to catch after falling a short time), as well as more common exercises such as lunges, pull-ups, and crunches.

While aerial yoga is often associated with acrobats and circus performers, it is now growing in popularity as both a hobby and form of exercise. Aerial yoga provides not only a fun, but beneficial way to develop lean muscle, core strength, flexibility, and balance. Aerial Expressions, located off of Shreveport Barksdale Highway, offers classes six evenings a week in addition to private lessons and provides a program that allows people of any skill level to learn aerial yoga.

Despite its seeming complexity, aerial yoga is an approachable sport for those of all different skills and levels. Susie Stevens, the head instructor and owner of Aerial Expressions, began her journey with aerial yoga, or aerial fitness, as she likes to call it, four years ago.

“I was a yoga teacher for years … I wanted something for that lay person. I wanted something for that person who has back issues or wrist issues,” Stevens said.

Since Stevens opened the studio two years ago, the sport has gained popularity and now approximately 100 students attend per week, ranging from age four to adults. She has developed her own programs with four different levels, from non-inversion beginner to advanced classes. Stevens believes in starting most people off in the low loop, or beginner class, which starts with basic stretching with a hammock one foot off the ground.

“You can walk in never having worked out in your life and you’re going to be okay,” she said.

Stevens does not push her students to invert, as some students may not be comfortable with it or may not be able to due to health reasons such as vertigo or uncontrolled high blood pressure. In fact, about 30 percent of Stevens’ students do not invert. Adjustments can be made to accommodate any physical conditions.

Megan Davis, an instructor at Aerial Expressions, said that aerial yoga is different from traditional yoga because the hammock allows you to develop flexibility through stretching without your body weight.

“You can use the material to keep some of your body weight off so you can ease into the pose,” Stevens adds. “It’s not going to feel like a traditional mat class … modifying or intensifying a yoga pose through a prop, the fabric.”

Davis suggests that aerial fitness has become so popular because it offers a different approach to exercising and strengthening your body. She began aerial yoga about two and a half years ago and said that she has already seen a huge difference in her flexibility and strength.

“When I first started … I was not that flexible. I came here, started doing this and after a couple of months, I noticed a drastic difference.” Davis said.

“It’s fun. It’s different. You don’t really feel like you’re working out,” Stevens said. “It’s such a strong, total body workout, there’s not a muscle in your body that you don’t use.”

Flexibility isn’t the only positive to aerial yoga. Stevens has seen many students’ medical issues improve, such as fibromyalgia, back pain, and sciatica. The physical benefits of aerial yoga are realigning the spine, lubricating the joints, increasing oxygen to the brain, and overall well-being. Davis also suffered from migraine headaches, but found considerable relief after practicing aerial yoga.

“Since I’ve been doing this I’ve literally had two or three [migraines]. At one point it was two or three a month or more,” she said.

Mike Cavel, who began taking classes five months ago, suffered from chronic back pain for 20 years, but after just three classes, his pain was gone.

There are mental benefits to aerial yoga as well. Many students have noticed increased focus and relaxation. Amber Hanegan, another instructor at Aerial Expressions, as well as a nursing student, said aerial yoga is soothing.

“We don’t get enough oxygen to the brain because we’re vertical all day. When you are upside down, you are extremely oxygenated, and it increases the blood flow to the brain.” Stevens said.

Stevens has seen significant improvements in children who struggle with ADHD, specifically in their attention span and focus, in a matter of months.

“We’re seeing behavioral changes, we’re seeing happy parents,” she said. “The kids love it because they need to move their bodies.”

While aerial yoga does not involve cardiovascular exercise, Stevens emphasizes the overall sense of well-being and the fact that aerial yoga is “user-friendly.”

“I don’t want people to be intimidated by it and think that they’ve got to do the big stuff. We take baby steps … You don’t have to be a flexible Gumby and you don’t have to wear tights,” she said.

Aerial Expressions is a small studio; each class has a limit of 10 students.

“Our classes are small. We have fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Stevens said. “It’s happy, very positive.”

To find out more about Aerial Expressions, visit AerialExpressions.com.