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Why upside-down yoga is catching on in Australia

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Media captionPhil Mercer visits a Sydney studio to give aerial yoga a go

Vampires, chandeliers and the pop queen Pink have been the inspirations for an unusual airborne workout that revolves around a hammock hanging from the ceiling.

Aerial yoga, also known as anti-gravity yoga, has its roots in performance art, melding traditional techniques with acrobatics, dance and Pilates.

At a studio on Sydney's northern beaches, slumbering, inert shapes gently sway as they prepare to emerge from their fabric skin and burst into life.

A platoon of feet is first to appear, followed by a tangle of limbs and then entire bodies.

This type of suspended exercise arrived in Australia about five years ago, and practitioners say its popularity down under is skyrocketing.

'A marvellous thing'

"The hammock is holding me from the hips and gravity is tractioning my spine, opening up the space between my vertebrae," explains fitness entrepreneur Sharee Wilson, as she dangles serenely upside down.

She pays a one-off licence fee to use the official AntiGravity trademark and marketing, which were developed in the United States. For safety, hammocks are fitted by certified and qualified engineers.

"I opened Life of Flight studio two years ago with anti-gravity yoga. I first saw it on TV and I was just amazed at it and thought it would be a marvellous thing for the general public," she says.

"I thought it would be providing a lot of health benefits and a fun way to stay fit.

"I do five-week beginner courses, so I see lots of people almost hyperventilating at the thought of hanging upside down, and by lesson two they are telling me how much more confident they feel," she adds.

Image caption Practitioners of aerial yoga believe the feeling of weightlessness relieves pressure on the joints

There are 10 official AntiGravity franchises, or affiliates, across Australia that pay a one-time licence fee of around A$1,000 (£534; $807).

At Ms Wilson's Life of Flight studio, classes cost between A$20-25.

For punters, a big attraction is a feeling of weightlessness, which relieves pressure on the joints, plus the novelty of something completely different. On top of that, instructors insist that it releases happy hormones.

'Natural high'

"When you invert yourself and go upside down it produces a serotonin, a natural happy hormone that the body produces, so you get that natural high feeling," says US-born Evangeline Yeun, who owns House of Yoga in the Redfern district of Sydney, the city's first anti-gravity franchise.

Business is good, and her classes often attract people who would not usually attend regular yoga sessions.

"It is a good draw card because people who would not normally practice yoga are coming in, or people who have injuries and can't do normal yoga classes. People are going to want more variety and something different," she explains.

Image copyright AntiGravity
Image caption AntiGravity founder and creator Christopher Harrison

AntiGravity yoga: Key facts

  • Established in 1991 in the United States by founder and creator Christopher Harrison
  • Mr Harrison's invention of the 'silk hammock' was incorporated into a Broadway production
  • Pop artists including Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Pink use AntiGravity equipment in their concert choreographies
  • Mr Harrison also trademarked 'AntiGravity Yoga & Fitness' techniques which have been adopted in workout studios in over 30 countries
  • Actress Gwyneth Paltrow has endorsed the yoga routine as the secret to her health and fitness

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Pop star Pink dazzles concert audiences with aerial stunts

The signature open hammock pose is known as the Vampire, while the Chandelier was created for the singer Pink to use in her live shows.

"It looks graceful and effortless but it isn't. It takes quite a lot of strength," says Alana Chan, director and founder of Yoga Pavilion in Sydney.

"It is really beautiful, really ethereal," she adds. "I've got plenty of people who just want to feel like they are on holidays and swing around in a hammock."

There are different types of anti-gravity yoga. A restorative class is relatively easy, slow in pace and is said to be therapeutic for sore legs and creaky knees. Then there is the higher tempo suspension variety that gives a thorough workout.

Cautious doctors

While doctors in Australia encourage regular exercise to help beat the nation's obesity epidemic, they do caution that the health benefits of yoga do have their limits.

"People have to be a bit cautious of some of the health gains that they might promote. For example, getting you to grow taller, or other things like cleaning or refreshing your lymphatic, circulatory or digestive systems, which some of these things claim to do," says Nick Wood, a doctor in Sydney.

Image caption There are various types of anti-gravity yoga sessions across Australia

"You do have to be a bit cautious if you have a medical problem, and like, for example, in the aerial yoga if you are pregnant or have heart disease or suffer from vertigo then you probably shouldn't be doing it," he says.

Back at Sharee Wilson's studio, an evening class is drawing to a sedate close. Backs have been stretched, and muscles put to the test.

"I post a lot of photos on social media and I get a lot of crazy comments and people are really curious and interested in joining but a lot of people are scared to take that initial step," says Holly Azzapardi.

"It is so much fun and almost becomes addictive."

Simon Ibbetson and his wife, Suzie, who are both in their fifties, are also converts to yoga in a hammock.

"It is really stretching me out," explains Simon, while Suzie, too, was glad of the workout. "You feel just ironed out and fantastic afterwards," she says.

At the end of the session there is a retreat back into the tranquillity of the swinging cocoon. Tired bodies are at rest.

Instructors insist that this is no fad, but a growing and profitable, business - all achieved with barely a foot on the floor.

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