I’ve been a beginning yoga student off and on for almost 30 years. I’ve seen aerial acrobats perform their strong and graceful routines at the Bellingham Circus Guild many times. But it never occurred to me that you could combine the two until I tried aerial yoga at Sienna Marie Aerial Yoga Studios. Conveniently located in downtown Bellingham, this new approach to yoga is fun, challenging and exhilarating all at the same time.
I took a class last week with Sienna Marie owner and instructor Heather McAbee and learned more about the history of her family-owned business, her practice and how to fly—both inside and out—with aerial yoga.
Benefits of Aerial Yoga
Heather sees the biggest benefit to students as the elongation of the spine and how that contributes to an improved lifestyle. Many students have indicated they found relief from spinal compression from previous trauma. Hanging upside down can release lots of low back tension.
Aerial yoga also challenges your propioception, your position and awareness of your body in space, in part the communication between your brain, your eyes and your inner ear. Aerial yoga challenges propioception in a good way, keeping your body and mind in tune and contributing to controlled balance. But of course, the biggest benefit is the fun.
Although I still consider myself a beginner, yoga has made a huge impact on my life. My first experience was as a college student in the university P.E. department. I loved it then as a way to balance flexibility with the extra-curricular soccer and volleyball I was playing. After graduation I took a class at the local community college as a stress reliever while working too hard at my first big job. That’s where I discovered the value of meditation and how yoga can help calm tense, aching muscles of the face, neck, shoulders and back.
Years later I took a pre-natal yoga class while I was pregnant with my twins. I did as much as I could while also being the size of the Hindenburg. I realize now that I’m still friends with several of the fellow moms-to-be I met there. Now our children attend high school together. After the kids were born, I took a class as a way to take care of myself—as me time—during the sleep-deprived early years of parenting. A couple of years ago, my husband tried Bikram (hot) yoga as a way to stay fit and flexible in his 50s. And next month, coming full circle, my son will get introduced to yoga in his high school P.E. department.
How Its Different and What I Love About It
Last week, I took the first class of Sienna Marie’s Introduction to Aerial Yoga. I hadn’t done yoga since my knee surgery several years ago so I was a little apprehensive going into it. Would everyone be stronger and more flexible than me? Would I be coordinated enough not to make a spectacle of myself? Then I read this on Heather’s blog:
The yoga pose is not the goal of yoga. Becoming flexible or standing on your hands is not the goal. The goal is to create space where you once were stuck. To unveil layers of protection you’ve built around your heart. To appreciate your body and become aware of the mind and the noise it creates. To make peace with who you are. The goal is to love… well, you. Shift your focus and your heart will grow.
Sienna Marie Owner Heather McAbee
I decided to let go of how others might see me and find out exactly what was different and special about aerial yoga.
After a brief bout of introductory paperwork, I was on my mat in a class with 12 other beginners. A few of them had never tried yoga of any kind, so my initial worries were for naught. We were in this boat together. Next to my mat and blanket, a luxurious silk hammock hung from the high ceilings of this beautiful studio. The silks were dutifully placed before class by Heather’s husband Adam McAbee, who does lots of support work for the studio in addition to his day job as an electrician.
In the soft, warm light of the studio, we were introduced to how to safely incorporate the hammock into traditional yoga poses. At first, as I’d expected, I felt pretty clumsy. I had a hard time not disrupting class as I laughed at my own awkward movements while I got my bearings. But Heather was wonderful at making everyone feel accepted at their own level. As I looked around, I found that everyone else was flopping willy nilly too. Heather alternated between demonstrating and walking around to give some one-on-one support to those of us who were temporarily struggling. We moved slowly from one pose to the next, stopping to rest or go deeper into the stretch.
By the middle of the class, both my awkwardness and that of my classmates had waned. I got the hang of it and started to have fun playing with the motion, enjoying the sway of the hammock. I could feel my spine lengthening and by the end, we were all flying, on our stomachs in the silk hammocks in a Superman pose, swinging like a pendulum forward and back. It was freeing, and added another level to the standard yoga poses I’d practiced in years past. Before I realized, the hour-long class was over. It went by too fast. I was ready to try more.
Over the next day or two I could feel the muscles of my core had gotten a good workout. But I wasn’t sore. Just more alive.
When we were through, Heather’s adorable 3rd grade daughter Eliza showed me some of the more advanced moves I could learn in later classes. Moves with names like the Vampire, the Butterfly and the Chicken. You could tell she’d spent some significant time in the studio along with her brother Kye. Seeing her demonstrate the moves made me think that if a third grader could do them, I probably could too eventually.
A Name and a Business Full of Heart
When I asked Heather about the origin of the name of her business, I was surprised by her answer. Sienna Marie is the name of her daughter that passed away. “Its a pretty personal name. At first I had trouble saying the name of the business out loud. Some people assume that it might be the name of a franchise, but we wanted a name that had deeper meaning and was connected to our family business,” explains Heather. “The dragonfly has always been a symbol for Sienna Marie and so we chose to adopt that for our website and logo.”
Heather grew up in Sedro Woolley, WA and moved to Bellingham in her early 20s. She’d been practicing yoga on and off in the Bellingham area since 1996 but never ventured into instruction. In 2014, Heather decided to commit more time to her practice. A couple of years later, she and her family moved to Montana for over a year temporarily for Adam’s job. It was in Billings that she discovered an aerial yoga class by Limber Tree Yoga Studio. She enjoyed classes as a student so much she decided to train to become an instructor. Her own instructor told her she was a natural and should pursue it. With no other aerial yoga studios in Bellingham, Heather excitedly launched her new business within a couple of months of her return to Bellingham. Years of past experience as a controller helped her business get off the ground quickly and successfully.
What to Expect
There are several levels of classes to choose from. I took the Introductory class for people with no experience with more time spent on posture and safety. For this class, the hammock is lower to the ground, positioned over a mat on the floor. For Level 1 and Level 2 class, the hammock is slightly higher above the floor for more freedom of movement allowing for more advanced poses and inversions which are great for circulation. There’s also a Flow Class open to all levels with multiple options for each pose so that you can work at your own level.
The Aerial Fit class is taught by aerial artist, Scarlet Breakspear-Knott. Her class is focused less on yoga and more on building the fitness of the muscles used to climb the silks. It can help get your body in better shape with more of a circuit-based approach incorporating body weight exercises, cardio and stretching to help students increase total body strength and performance. Heather also offers private parties for groups and businesses. Maybe I can convince my book club to arrange our own class?
Yoga classes begin with positive meditation and breath work with a focus on grounding. Then students are guided to move with the breath through asanas with the support of the hammock, always mindful of posture. The class ends as you relax deeply inside the hammock for savasana (my favorite part!), allowing the body to gently float in the air. Their aim is to be safe, have a lot of fun and walk away feeling refreshed and rejuvenated through the whole body-mind system.
There are several pricing plans that include a new student discount, 10- and 20-class passes and an unlimited monthly package. New students can get about 2 classes per week for the first month for just $90. Heather also offers a 10% discount to students and military personnel with I.D. If you just want to try it once to see if its your thing, you can drop in for just $25. But because each class is limited to 14 students, its a good idea to register in advance to hold your spot.
But is it Safe?
At Sienna Marie, safety is a top priority. During class Heather monitors each student to ensure that they have correct positioning of the hammock on their body to ensure safety and prevent injury. The hammocks are hung using redundant equipment used for rock climbing, so some gear has been rated to hold more than 25,000 pounds. I noticed the carabiners and nylon ropes that held the silk hammocks were quite similar to the gear I used in my rock climbing days. Hooks are embedded in the solid steel beams of the ceiling and the beams themselves are connected to additional support on the roof of the building.
If you haven’t yet tried aerial yoga, I highly recommend it. The challenge is not too great, you can work at your own pace with lots of room to grow, and it will reduce stress, improve strength, flexibility and balance. The best part is, its a whole lot of safe, flying fun.