The MisFits: Sky-High Yoga, With a Dash of Adrenaline

By Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

This job can be such a pain. Literally. In the line of duty, I've been bruised, blistered, scratched, scraped and generally beaten up. But of all the times I've whined the morning after an assignment, I've never actually felt like I might not make it out of bed. That is, until I flew through the air with the greatest of ease.

Yep, Trapeze School New York set up a rig in downtown Washington last month, and I was one of the first to get to test the 23-foot-high contraption. My class had a few veterans who tried to warn me. "Your calves are going to be mooing tomorrow," promised 44-year-old Sarah Cuneo of Bethesda, who picked up the sport at Club Med last year. Another woman urged me to buy Advil on my way home.

But I had other things to think about, namely the fact that I was hopping off a platform, hooking my legs over a swinging bar, letting go with my hands and grabbing onto another person's arms as he flew in the opposite direction. The whole process was safe -- I was hooked into a harness guided by skilled instructors, and there's a springy net ready to catch you -- but adrenaline totally took over. I didn't feel a thing in midair other than an adrenaline rush. Besides, over the course of five turns, I was only on the darn thing for a little over 10 minutes. How much damage could I really do?

Which brings us back to my aching body, and my pre-breakfast snack of a couple of Advil.

"People wake up hating us," says school manager Caryn "CJ" Jaffe. "That's why when newcomers say they want to take three classes in a weekend, we tell them their bodies aren't conditioned to do that."

The height and the flight distract you entirely from the fact that you're holding your body weight by your arms or knees, adding force to your swing by activating your core and using gravity to stretch in ways you never could on the ground. Beginners are hit with a double whammy: Not only is this a new activity that recruits muscles used to chilling out, but because you're still learning the ropes, your timing is off. So you have to fight to hoist yourself around the bar instead of relying mostly on momentum.

"What it won't give you is good cardio," says Jaffe, who's also a triathlon coach. But otherwise it's a pretty complete total-body workout plan, which is why she insists her triathletes take to the air to build strength, develop flexibility and improve their mental focus. (One of the first rules of trapeze: Focus on the instructors and stay in the moment. Or you risk going splat on the net.)

If all this concentration, stretching and holding your own weight sounds similar to yoga, in a 23-foot-high sort of way, that's because it is.

"The physical poses are the same," points out Katja Brandis, owner of Studio Serenity in Adams Morgan, who's organized several trips for her students to try out the rig. That knee drop I learned at trapeze school would be called camel pose, a standard back bend, on a mat. "But work in the air engages more muscles," Brandis adds. Plus, there's a feeling of liberation and accomplishment you get from taking to the skies.

That feeling may be coming to a gym near you. Reebok and Cirque du Soleil have just partnered up to transform several circus arts into doable and safe group fitness classes.

First up is "Jukari: Fit to Fly," a new take on trapeze that's being rolled out at health clubs in 14 cities around the globe. Unfortunately, Washington isn't on the list, but it's not too far to the Equinox near New York's Union Square, where it debuted last month. Jukari, derived from the Sicilian word for "play," relies on the FlySet, a strap that hangs from the ceiling and splits into two ends so you can slip in a padded bar for swinging. The idea dovetails with suspension training, which uses a similar strap (without a bar) that allows for strength exercises such as pull-ups at an angle. The farther your feet are walked out in front of you, the more of your weight you're working with, so it's customizable for anyone of any size and ability.

The Jukari class combines traditional strength moves with interval bursts of cardio that take advantage of the FlySet's 360-degree rotation. Holding the bar, you run backward before leaping and taking a ride. With the bar over your head, you twist your torso to one side, then quickly snap your body in the opposite direction while tucking in your knees for a dizzying "carousel."


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