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Aerial Yoga provides uplifting experience

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Aerial Yoga student Lucy Davis performs the Upavista Konasana position at the Chapel Hill, N.C. studio. (Courtesy of Triangle Yoga)

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Aerial Yoga instructor Michelle Dortignac performs a position on the fabric trapeze at the Brooklyn studio where she teaches. Dortignac hopes to spread the classes to other areas in the near future. (Aaron Cahall/CNS)

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Aerial Yoga instructor Michelle Dortignac performs a position on the fabric trapeze at the Brooklyn studio where she teaches. (Aaron Cahall/CNS)

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Aerial Yoga student Elizabeth Motyka performs the Dhanurasana position at the Chapel Hill, N.C. studio. (Courtesy of Triangle Yoga)

Michelle Dortignac sits quietly in the Baddha Konasana position in a large, quiet Brooklyn studio. A yoga teacher for almost 10 years, she knows what to look for, adjusting her body, putting pressure on various muscle groups.

Dortignac’s legs are crossed under her, her arms resting at her thighs. She touches her thumb and forefinger together, assuming a classic yoga position. But under her legs is a thick loop of fabric, its ends attached more than 10 feet above her head to a large metal truss suspended from two mechanical pillars.

She relaxes, and focuses, hovering 6 inches above the mat below her.

Dortignac, 37, is one of the first instructors of aerial yoga, a new variation on the ancient practice. Its students use a fabric trapeze, similar to what circus aerialists use, to suspend themselves several inches above the floor as they perform a variety of positions, both upright and upside down.

Classes and workshop in aerial yoga are still few and far between, but practitioners hope to attract new converts who are looking for an uplifting experience, in more ways than one.

“In most of daily life, all the gravity pushes down and compresses your spine,” said Joshua Dean, 28, a Brooklyn resident who has taken Dortignac’s classes for the last year. “When you’re hanging from something, it releases that pressure. It uses gravity in a different way.”

Rebecca Drake, 30, has been practicing yoga for the last eight years, and has been teaching aerial yoga at Triangle Yoga in Chapel Hill, N.C., since 2005. Drake began doing aerial yoga after combining yoga positions with aerial dance movements on the long fabric strands known as silks made popular by circus shows.

“I think it makes sense,” Drake said. “It’s the real, natural, organic direction of moving. It’s just natural that they start to combine.”

Dortignac developed her form of aerial yoga the same way as Drake did, by combining her existing yoga abilities with her ongoing education as a circus aerialist.

As she continued her aerialist training, Dortignac began incorporating yoga positions and slowly realized she was onto something new.

“I think it was more of a gradual thing,” she said. “It wasn’t like a eureka moment, it kind of crept up on me. I realized that, wow, I’m much stronger in my abs than I used to be."

In January of last year, Dortignac began teaching weekly classes in what she calls Unnata Aerial Yoga, which incorporates the Sanskrit word for “elevated.” She holds her classes at the Streb Laboratory for Action Mechanics in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

Aerial yoga classes combine the familiar and the new. Students begin with standard yoga positions on the floor before using the trapeze to suspend individual body parts while still standing on the floor. Finally, students move fully onto the trapezes, suspended several inches off the mat.

The class provides the physical benefits one would expect from any yoga session, Dortignac says, but the aerial form works complementary muscles that “terrestrial yoga” doesn’t involve.

“Everything in yoga is pushing down to the ground," she said. "Everything in aerial yoga is pulling up from the floor. So it’s [using] the complementary muscles.”

Both Dortignac and Drake say they’ve had students overcome their trepidation about being elevated.

“People think that it’s only for young people, or people in really good shape, or people who’ve done aerialism before,” Drake said. “It’s not like that. In the beginning people feel really intimidated, but after a few sessions they’re excited and looking forward to it.”

Dortignac’s classes each average between eight to 12 students, and as the classes have gained in popularity, she’s begun training former students as instructors to expand the program.

Dortignac says she hopes to one day develop a home course on aerial yoga, and she believes this new variation will become more widespread.

Drake, who keeps her weekly classes to about six students, says she hopes one day to travel around the country and present workshops to demonstrate aerial yoga to other yogis.

While it may look complex or difficult, the basics of aerial yoga are simple enough for almost anyone, Dortignac says, and the uniqueness and enjoyment of the new variation have kept students coming back.

“At the core of it, it’s just sit-ups and pull-ups,” Dortignac said. “If I did a class of just sit-ups and pull-ups, who would come? This is fun.”

E-mail: aac2127@columbia.edu