INTERVIEW by SAMANTHA OLTMAN | BR!NK PHOTOGRAPHY by ZACK DeZON
It’s not just for hippies and spiritual gurus anymore. Yoga has gone mainstream in America, and its many forms—Bikram, Prenatal, and Ashtanga, to name a few—have all been embraced. But if sweating in a 105 degree sauna while twisting yourself into poses that would daunt a pretzel doesn’t sound like your kind of exercise, maybe you should try yoga instructor Michelle Dortignac’s new method: Unnata Aerial Yoga. Using the fabric hammocks favored by trapeze artists, Unnata Aerial Yoga combines traditional yoga floor moves–for example, the downward facing dog–and aerial acrobatics. Feeling intimidated? You shouldn’t be. Michelle’s aerial yoga classes bring out the fun side of yoga, attracting people who may have been turned off by the intensity of many traditional yoga practices. But the benefits of aerial yoga are the same–you might be having fun dangling from hammocks in yoga poses, but you’re also finding your spiritual balance and releasing pent-up stress tension.
What exactly is aerial yoga?
Hmm. That’s a difficult question to answer because there are so many people who are doing what they would call aerial yoga since I started. But to me, aerial yoga is using a hammock apparatus to elongate the spine to help students understand proper alignment that they can then use in their traditional yoga asanas.
I’ve seen some photos of your aerial yoga classes—it looks a little intense. Is it difficult to do?
It’s not difficult to do… Most of the photos you see make it look more extreme because when the media comes to take pictures, they ignore all the stuff we do on the floor because it doesn’t look dynamic. So when I teach a class, we use the floor and hammock as a prop. Anyone who’s a beginner is not overwhelmed because I introduce things slowly. We’re very close to the floor—you can always touch it.
I know that traditional yoga is a form of exercise that everyone, even the elderly and pregnant women, can do. What about aerial yoga — can people with physical limitations do it?
Well even with traditional yoga, you have to adjust the practice based on your own physical limitations. For example, pregnant women won’t be doing poses that put pressure on their stomachs. With aerial yoga, it’s the same. We just make adjustments to your practice based on your physical limitations.
Many traditional yoga practices have a strong spiritual and meditative element to them. Is your aerial yoga method a spiritual practice as well?
Well, not all yoga practices, even tradtional ones, are spiritually motivated. Our bodies are hard-wired to hold tension due to stress. It’s based on our nervous systems. You’ll recognize it when you see it—for example, shrugging your shoulders and lifting them up. It’s a common thing that we do when we’re nervous or afraid—you’re protecting your neck and head. Everyone does the same thing. Let’s say you’re in a situation where you almost got hit by a car and jumped back onto the sidewalk and you shrugged your shoulders for that moment. Most of us don’t fully relax again after we’ve had that situation happen. Or let’s say you went to work and you had a lot of stress going on… A lot of times, you come back home and you don’t totally relax. You let go mostly, but not completely. And we always hold a little bit of tension in some of these trigger points, like the shoulders, hip flexers, and the stomach… Everybody’s got the same places.
When you’re a yoga instructor and you have scores of people come up to you, and they say, “Oh yeah, I have lower back issues”—it’s always in the same place. You start to see patterns. Now that I’ve been a teacher for so long and started using these props, I see how great they are. Because I can really use them as tools to help people who have been turned off by traditional yoga, for whatever reason, to embrace a different form of yoga. When you start to alleviate that stress, you start to see things differently. And that’s the main thing; that’s what we’re trying to teach people is all forms of yoga, whether it’s Hatha yoga or Bikram yoga or whatever it is—it doesn’t matter. It’s about releasing stress and finding your balance.
How did you become involved in the brave new world of aerial yoga?
I’ve been a student of yoga for years and a yoga instructor for around five to six years. I saw aerial yoga somewhere and I became curious. It looked cool, so I checked it out. The Iyengar style of yoga uses a lot of props, including something called a rope wall. I knew it was a possibility, so I thought, “Well, let’s make a whole class around that.”
No one had done that before?
A few people had… there were some aerial yoga classes around. But no one was doing it in New York. So I was like, “All right, I’ll just create my own aerial yoga class.”
So how did you develop your aerial yoga class?
Because I had the training of aerial acrobatics, I knew as a teacher what I wanted to teach people—where to release, what the alignment should be, what students could do, and what would be easier for them to learn with the hammock. I’ll tell you, there are a lot things you teach on the floor that are a little esoteric, and the use of the hammock actually makes those complicated poses a lot easier to understand. Downward facing dog is one — a lot of beginner students have a hard time understanding where to fold from, so they bend from their waist. But one way we can use the hammock is to put it right below the hip bones, where they’re supposed to bend. They can feel where the hammock is, and so they know where to bend.
What kind of people are attracted to your aerial yoga classes?
I actually get a lot of people who have been turned off for some reason by traditional yoga forms. They come to my class because it looks fun and they want to do something different. It’s great, too, because I’ve even had some people who start doing my aerial classes who then discover they also love doing traditional yoga. But it took taking my class for them to start their yoga practices.
I also get a lot of people who want me to teach private classes for their bachelorette parties… It looks like fun, and a lot of women practice yoga. It’s a common thing for women getting married because of all the stress–they have a yoga classes with their bridal parties on the days leading up to the big day.
Do you find you have many men taking your classes?
As with most yoga styles, the men shy away—there’s something intimidating about being the only guy in the room. But there tend to be yoga styles more male-dominated, such as astanga yoga. The cool thing about aerial yoga, though, is it can help you get into stretches you can’t get on the floor. I have to go with stereotypes, which I hate to do, but guys tend to be more muscularly developed and therefore are a little tighter. For these guys, there are stretches the hammock helps you get that are almost impossible to get on the floor. I’ve had guys in the class, and they really enjoy it.
So besides getting men to realize aerial yoga is something they should try, what can Daily BR!NK readers do to contribute to your success?
Do something new and try an aerial yoga class.