With gentle guitar music playing in the background, seven woman and an instructor begin their class. Grabbing the red hammocks in front of them, the women begin breathing exercises. First they go into downward dog position with the hammock holding their midsections up. Then they move to a warrior pose using the hammock to help stretch their legs.


These ladies are attending the aerial yoga class held at 11 a.m. Thursdays at Lift, Dance, and Fitness in Van Alstyne. The studio has been holding the yoga based class that uses hammocks made of thick silk ribbons to help individuals stretch beyond normal limitations for two years.


“Half of the reason that I want to have aerial yoga classes available at this studio was for my ballet dancers,” studio owner Irina Cowles said. “About 7-10 years ago, I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal. There was a woman in an inverted position being held up by a hammock. She was using her core muscles to get that pose. It was a studio in California. I just thought, ‘Those crazy Californians. What are they going to come up with next?’”


Cowles said that after she saw that article, a seed was planted in her mind. She filed it away for seven years.


“Three years ago when we moved here, I wanted to bring a dance studio into this area,” she said. “My background is in ballet, but I wanted to incorporate aerial yoga into our stretching and help my dancers become more flexible. Some people can naturally bring their legs all the way up. Most of us cannot.”


Lift, Dance and Fitness also has cheer, tumbling, ballet and tap dancing classes.


“We are more than yoga,” Cowles said. “We have fitness classes, but we also have dance classes here. I have seen beautifully crafted videos of people doing aerial yoga and dance. That is what appealed to me because it is multiple disciplines. That is what we are as a studio. We have to be more than one thing.”


Since Cowles introduced her ballet students to aerial yoga, the studio has held classes for summer campers as young as age 6.


“We do birthday parties,” Cowles said. “We have done bachelorette parties as well as girls night out parties. It is a wonderful tool. We have developed it over time and have also created an aerial Pilates.”


There are some acrobatic components that people cannot do on the first day, Cowles said, but depending on where an individual’s fitness level is, most people can do this within a week or two.


“It is something you have to experience because when you see it, it just looks so easy and beautiful,” she said. “But, there are so many muscles being worked when you do this.”


One of the benefits is the spinal decompression, Cowles said.


“Just like the inversion table that you see people using on television, this is a natural way to get the same benefits,” she said. “We have people with scoliosis and spinal disc issues that come to this class to help with that. We also have a local chiropractor that recommends us for pain management. It is amazing that exercise can do that.”


Because it helps to elongate the back, Cowles said that aerial yoga can even help the person that sits at a desk all day.


“There is also a playful element to it,” she said. “I remember being seven on the playground. There was a bar that I used to swing on and do flips over. This kind of feels like that.”


The only people that Cowles thinks may not benefit as much from the class are people that experience motion sickness.


“That may prevent you from enjoying the class,” she said. “We have men, pilots, police officers and they just love the benefit of being able to stretch their hips.”


Different from regular yoga


The class at Lift, Dance, and Fitness differs from other yoga classes because it is more fit based than Hindu yoga based.


“It is a nice change because it is an accent to regular yoga,” class instructor Jenny McQuirk said. “So people that have concerns or physical constraints can do these same exercises in a modified way. There is little pressure of gravity on the joints when we are doing downward positions. You can just open up your spine and that helps you breath.”


McQuirk is recovering from a recent spinal surgery.


“This is a therapeutic class,” she said. “It is not a hard core work out. It is a more gentle approach to exercise.”


The hammocks allow the student to get into positions that allow the muscles to stretch more than traditional yoga, McQuick said.


“The inversion where we did candlestick, that is something we cannot do with regular yoga,” she said. “We want the tension on purpose. So instead of having to pull your self up. In regular yoga you are dealing with the muscle tension that you have within yourself. In aerial yoga, we are doing a deeper stretch in this class.


So stretches like the standing split people allow individuals to stretch more than 180 degrees.


“When you are holding a position with muscle tension, it can cause an increase of blood pressure,” she said. “It is very important to understand how breathing plays a role in exercise. People can use and understand how important breathing is throughout their day after taking this class. Its a blessing to watch how strong people become.”


People who attend aerial yoga


After attending the class for more than six months, Dacia Hatch and Lila Morisee say that people of all body types and all ages can benefit from this type of exercise.


“I had a girls night and we are of all shapes and sizes and by the end of the night, all of us we like, this is amazing,” Hatch said. “I have lost a lot of weight on my hips since I started doing this. I attribute it to the inversions that we do. The ribbon hugs your waist and helps tone that area.”


Morisee believes that yoga has helped her spine.


“I am 70 years old and I suspect that I am shrinking as I get older,” she said. “So I feel like doing this is helping my spine elongate more. I really like the hanging locust where we are in the air laying flat. I put my arms up behind me and stretch back.”


Learning how to trust the hammock to hold her weight was hard for Hatch.


“The fabric is just like a partner,” Hatch said. “It helps you like when you are in soccer and you have a teammate that helps you score. The fabric helps you do just a little more.”


For both Hatch and Morisee, the class is relaxing.


“The instructors ensured us that the ribbons are able to hold our weight and that helped a lot with being able to trust them,” Hatch said. “I am not a small girl so I was a little worried about whether I could let go.”


Morisee said that yoga is a little more intense and learning how not to force her body to do anything was a challenge for her.


“When I first started, I noticed the places where I would tense up and was not breathing correctly,” she said. “Relaxing and taking my time, easing into it was very important for me.”


The people that enjoy aerial yoga, Hatch said, are not fitness experts.


“When we get into the more acrobatic stretches, it definitely gets harder,” she said. “We also become more vocal during that part because it is more playful. There are so really cool poses that you can do up in the air. We get to play with that and do some cool things inverted towards the end of each class. We are just a group of people that are trying to make each day better than the last.”