From Earth to Seas and Sky:
Everything You Need to Float and Fly
A Blog on Aerial Yoga and Stand Up Paddleboard Yoga
Contributed to this community by: Marinda Stopforth of Illinois
I have been curious about aerial yoga since I was introduced to it by a fellow yoga anatomy student in NYC. We were attending an in-depth study course when we met and I learned of her aerial practice. Her excitement sparked my curiosity and I was delighted to find an aerial yoga class offered at the arboretum near my home.
I am familiar with the use of props in my yoga practice as I practice in the Iyengar tradition and also teach yoga from this model. The props I use regularly include: blocks, belts, bolsters, blankets, weights (sandbags) chairs and the rope wall. To use a prop is part of my vocabulary….. then I met the hammock!
The aerial hammock brought a sense of freedom to my practice that made me aware of my need to release: in thought, mind, body and spirit. With the support of the hammock, I felt that I can remain in control of the release process and experience the freedom that my body and spirit wanted. I felt an opening in my body tissues and in the fabric of my mind…. I certainly realized the physical benefit of the practice, but what surprised me more was the opening and release I felt in my mind and spirit.
"The aerial hammock brought a sense of freedom to my practice that made me aware of my need to release: in thought, mind, body and spirit."
I will explore briefly some of the benefits of aerial yoga on the lymphatic system and how the practice of inversions can affect the physical body and the psychology of the practitioner.
The mechanisms of the transportation of fluids in our body depends on 2 major systems: blood circulation system and the lymphatic system. Blood, arterial and venous, is circulated or driven throughout the body by the pump action of the heart. The lymphatic system does not have a “pump” to support circulation; lymphatic fluid is dependent on small valves and muscles in the walls of lymphatic vessels/pathways to move the fluid in one direction through the body toward the heart where it joins the general blood circulation. The movement of the diaphragm, muscle contraction, stretching of the skin, the pulsing of the arteries and pressure from outside the body also help lymph fluid circulate. As lymph fluid (also referred to as lymph) moves through your body, it passes through lymph nodes that act as filters to assist in the removal of substances such as dead cells, bacteria, and viruses that could be dangerous to the body – these nodes are found everywhere in your body, but large clusters of nodes are located in your armpits, groins, neck, abdomen and in the crook of your elbows and behind your knees. Some are superficially located and others are deeply embedded in the tissues and organs of your body.
A healthy lymphatic system is crucial for a healthy body. The main task of the lymphatic system is 3-fold:
Lymphoid organs that aid in the immune response are the tonsils, thymus and spleen. They release lymphocytes to support the fight against foreign substances in the blood and lymph.
Through the practice of aerial yoga, we enhance the flow of lymph through the contraction of large muscle groups in arms, legs, and the trunk. In addition to the “squeeze and soak” principle (contract and release of the myofascial fabric of the body that promotes blood and lymph flow) the compression of the hammock fabric against the skin supports the absorption of the lymph collectors in the skin and superficial tissues. The positioning of the hammock fabric at the groins (Baddhakonasana 2, Adho Mukha Svanasana, hip hang) facilitate the lymphatic flow and the function of the lymph nodes in this area (amongst other benefits such as myofascial release). Other poses which involve placing the hammock fabric at and around the shoulders/armpits (Plank pose, Virabhadrasana 1 and 2, with shoulder support, Pele’s Power, chair pose) can activate the lymphatic function in the upper back, chest and arms. Twists and abdominal contractions (Navasana, Angel Abs, seated and standing twists) coupled with mindful breathing can increase the lymphatic flow from the deeper abdominal lymphatic ducts to return lymph to the general circulation in the neck region.
Inversions also support the flow of lymph throughout your body. The lymphatic system and the venous system (return of blood to the heart) have a close connection, so that, when you turn your body upside down in gravity, the return of blood and lymph to the heart flows “with gravity”. As the chambers of your heart fill with returned blood from the body and lower extremities, it leads to increased cardiac output (to the lungs and aorta) and the opportunity to regulate blood pressure more affectively. The action of the diaphragm is slightly different when we’re upside down… thus supporting further benefits to the lymphatic return to the subclavian veins at the base of the neck, behind the collarbones, from where lymph re-joins the general circulation once more.
In aerial yoga, the ability to turn your body upside down becomes much more available to students compared to the months and sometimes years of yoga mat practice. Through research we’ve learned that inversions bring multiple benefits to our physiology and psychology.
Benefits such as the decompression of the spine, rehydration of the intervertebral discs, relief of sciatica pain, lower back and neck pain, cleansing the body of impurities, building physical strength, detoxification, improved flexibility, improved joint health, strengthened ligaments and connective tissues (through gentle reverse loading on these structures), are listed.
The practice of inversions further offers reduction in muscle tension (with gravity stretching the tissue and myofascial release from the pressure of the hammock fabric), boosting the immune system (as the endocrine system is nourished and activated) and strengthening the muscles of the core as we use our own body weight as resistance in the hammock and in gravity.
The yogis teach that there is a “fire in the stomach” (metabolism, digestion, absorption) and the flames of the fire burn “up”….that is, towards the diaphragm and the heart and lungs. But when you turn your body upside down, the fire still burns “up”, only now, the flames will heat the abdomen, transverse, ascending and descending colon, where waste and toxins collect…therefore this “upside down” action in gravity facilitates the detoxification of the body.
“Inversions are the standard approach to relieving the pressure in varicose veins and hemorrhoids and are also effective in relieving constipation and promoting urination. Note that the abdominal viscera hang in part from the diaphragm and tend to sag into the pelvic cavity and can even herniate the abdominal tissues under the pull of gravity. Inversions reverse this tendency and so can be therapeutic.”
I enjoy inversions in my yoga mat practice, but I’ve come to love the practice of inversions in the hammock for how it literally changes my world view and perspective: on my physical body, my mental and emotional body and how it empowers me to feel as if I can take on anything that comes my way! When we practice inversions the adrenal glands are flushed and this stimulates the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins that support a feeling of wellness and happiness.
Physiotherapist LJ Nosse did a study titled ‘Inverted Spinal Traction’ published in Arch Phys. Medical Rehab 59: 367-370, Aug 78. The study confirmed that inverting decreased muscle tension by over 35% within the first 10 sec! When muscle pain is gone, stress reduces. As a result, the person feels lighter and happier, ready to face the challenges in life.
Not only do I feel better, happier, healthier, physically and mentally stronger and empowered through the practice of inversions, the hammock also offers me the ability to quiet my mind and retreat into the suspended silence inside the hammock cocoon. Poses such as Cocooned Contemplation, Supported Straddle, Cocooned Baddhakonasana and Savasana gently guides my awareness inward to a meditative state. It is in these silent moments, where I am suspended between heaven and earth that I connect to my inner wisdom and Divine Feminine energy. It is here where time and space dissolves and all potential rests. It is here where I taste my body-heart-mind connection. I can feel my own insecurities and vulnerabilities without judgement, yet, I know that I can trust my intuition and Higher Self to guide me in love and compassion on my path to freedom in Spirit.
“Lymphedema – understanding and managing Lymphedema after cancer treatment” – American cancer society,
“Yoga a Gem for Women” – Geeta Iyengar
“Health through Yoga” – Mira Metha
“Soaring with the Soul” – Holly Johnson
“The Handbook for Yogasana Teachers” – Mel Robin
Aerial Yoga Image 1: Holly Johnson
Aerial Yoga Image 2: Mitchell Manz Photography
Aerial Yoga Image 3: Jessica Rifis, Passions Photography
A blog to serve the aerial yoga and SUP yoga communities collaborated by Aviana Teachers in Training, Certified Aviana Instructors, and the founder of Aviana herself, Holly Johnson. May we aid in the creation of an aerial yoga and SUP yoga community that is mindful, compassionate, safe, and sacred! Blessings to the Sisters of the Silks and Seas!