Lately, the only thing bigger than yoga is combining other stuff with yoga. You can now do yoga while skiing (i.e. snowga), take a yoga hike, yoga break-dance and even do yoga with your dog (i.e. doga, TT, Nov. 25, 2011).
Personally, I like to hang my yoga from the ceiling.
Anti-gravity yoga, also referred to as aerial yoga, is a trendy new form involving a silk hammock suspended from above like a swinging trapeze. The hammock provides support for traditional stances on the ground, but practitioners also enter the hammock to stretch and dangle in hundreds of inverted poses.
Although aerial yoga has become wildly popular in the United States, Canada and Europe, there is only one certified aerial yoga instructor in Costa Rica. Her name is Hayley Macmillan-Ord, and if you guessed that she lives in Nosara – the unofficial yoga capital of the country – you are correct.
Recently, I traveled to this beach community on the Nicoya Peninsula and took my first aerial class with Macmillan-Ord, who teaches at Nosara Wellness and the Harmony Hotel. Six new students showed up at the hotel that day, and none of us had any idea what to expect. When we arrived at the open-air, jungle-side studio, Macmillan-Ord was perched on a ladder, fastening our blue, green and white silk hammocks to the ceiling with carabiners.
Originally from England, Macmillan-Ord is petite with a blond, pageboy hairstyle and a relaxed demeanor. She picked that up over the 20-plus years she spent living in the Cayman Islands, working as an acupuncturist, herbologist and yoga instructor. Macmillan-Ord and her husband are also the founders of Del Mar Academy, a bilingual Montessori school in Nosara, and they’ve lived in the area for eight years.
The reason Macmillan-Ord knows she’s the only aerial yoga instructor in Costa Rica is pretty straightforward: the guy who came up with it – who is personally responsible for training every instructor in the world – told her so. That would be Christopher Harrison, a former Broadway dancer in New York City and competitive gymnast who started using the hammocks for training purposes in 1991. Over the years, he noticed the therapeutic benefits of upside-down poses, and, in 2007, he taught the first-ever aerial yoga class in Midtown Manhattan.
The first aerial yoga class in Nosara took place in January 2011 at Jane Marchant’s home, which is also known as Nosara Wellness. A physical therapist from Switzerland, Marchant installed hooks in her concrete ceiling with a drill and some screws back in early 2010.
Now, Macmillan-Ord teaches aerial classes at Marchant’s place on Tuesday afternoons, and Marchant sometimes participates. “I practice yoga, but inversion poses have always been difficult for me because I’m not an acrobat,” she said. “I love the idea of doing inverted poses while being completely relaxed.”
On Wednesdays at noon, Macmillan-Ord teaches her more beginner-oriented class at the Harmony Hotel – that’s the one I got into. Glancing around the studio with big eyes, some of us aerial newbies were clearly a little apprehensive. What if we weren’t in shape for this? Were the hammocks strong enough to hold us?
“These hammocks are designed to hold 2,000 pounds,” Macmillan-Ord reassured us. “I’m pretty sure we’re all okay.”
She invited everyone to grab a hammock and make sure that, when pulled tight, it fell just below the hips. The class began with simple maneuvers like getting into the hammock, lying back and relaxing.
“Surrender your body to the hammock,” Macmillan-Ord suggested. She makes a point of emphasizing surrender, she said, because when people really release their tension, there’s a better chance of decompressing the vertebrae in the spine – a primary aim of aerial yoga. When done properly, aerial yoga will have its practitioners leaving the class a quarter of an inch taller than when they arrived, Macmillan-Ord said.
As the class continued, the poses became progressively more challenging. The first real test was the chandelier – an inverted (meaning upside-down) pose that actually brought aerial to the mainstream. At the 2010 Grammy Awards, Pink performed it while singing 40 feet above the audience.
The pose is essentially an upside-down arabesque that the hammock supports beneath the lower back and wrapped around one leg. The finishing touch involves reaching back to grab the free leg’s foot, and it is difficult.
After tough poses, Macmillan-Ord brought the class into “floating child pose,” a seated position in the hammock where the upper body hangs effortless over the lower. Eventually, she announced that we would attempt the “mosquito gargoyle vampire.” I am not even going to try to describe what that entailed, but trust me, finishing the class was an immensely satisfying feeling.
“This was great!” said Sarah Tidd, a 27-year-old from the U.S. state of Montana, who attended the class with her husband, Will. Tidd especially enjoyed stretching, inverting and swinging with a jungle backdrop, she said, and although she wasn’t sure if she walked out taller, she did feel “awesome.”
Macmillan-Ord has been teaching yoga for many years, but when she got into aerial just a year and a half ago, it quickly became her favorite. She loves how therapeutic it is, but she also likes showing people something different and exhilarating.
“Every time I teach this class, there’s always someone new,” she said. “And at the end, they’re always so happy.”
If only somebody in San José would equip a studio for aerial yoga, Macmillan-Ord said, she would gladly travel there once a week to hang out.