Sahara Ali turns off the lights and begins the cool-down portion of an AntiGravity Yoga class at Crunch gym in West Hollywood.
In front of her, three rows of cloth hammocks hang from the ceiling like giant butterfly cocoons. Inside them, today's class of yogis are tucked into the pouches like gently swaddled babies.
"This must have been what it felt like to be in the womb," Ali says to the class as they swing gently back and forth, their bodies about 3 feet off the ground. "It's that feeling of being completely enveloped."
Clearly, this is no ordinary yoga class.
Designed by New York-based aerial acrobatic performance troupe AntiGravity and offered only at Crunch gyms in New York and Los Angeles, AntiGravity Yoga allows participants to swing, dangle and hang upside-down while doing modified yoga poses.
The specially designed hammocks (called "wings") are bolted to the ceiling and can hold more than 2,000 pounds. Aside from offering a more interesting workout, the hammocks also provide additional support for participants to do more advanced yoga poses such as handstands and headstands.
"Headstands are considered mastered poses in yoga," said Ali, who has taught yoga in Los Angeles for more than 15 years. "To be able to do them against gravity is like getting a workout without working out."
To understand the sensation of hanging from an AntiGravity hammock, you have to think back to childhood. It's not unlike that feeling of hanging from the monkey bars at the playground - you know, the blood rushing to your head, your arms outstretched toward the ground and the upside-down world around you resembling something out of "Alice in Wonderland."
"The only way to really enjoy this class is to remember what it was like to be 7," said Victoria Tilford, a Crunch yoga instructor who teaches the AntiGravity class alongside Ali.
"You get in touch with your inner child," Ali added. "Initially, there is a fear factor of being off the ground. People think they'll fall down. But it's like, `You won't fall. You just have to trust it."'
It's not strictly yoga. The hourlong class also combines elements of dance and Pilates to create a full-body workout.
"This class is a modification of yoga," Ali said. "I do feel that it gives you the similar mental and physical benefits yoga offers you - and then some."
Those benefits include improved flexibility, strength and balance. AntiGravity creators also say the practice can decompress tight joints, relieve spinal pressure and improve circulation.
"Our performers found that working this apparatus gave them a great core and upper-body workout - it shredded their abs," said founder Christopher Harrison in AntiGravity's inception statement. "We also found that there were other hidden benefits from hanging upside-down. We would relax inverted in between sets and discovered it would revitalize our entire body."
Doctors agree with the premise. According to Redondo Beach chiropractor Jeff Jordan, inversions (going upside-down) can be beneficial to the body when done properly.
"We certainly know that any form of traction is beneficial," Jordan said. "It stretches tight muscles, muscle spasms, it breaks adhesions - and those are all positive indications."
However, Jordan cautioned that people trying AntiGravity yoga should be careful.
"Any sudden rotation of the spine (while upside-down) can create some ligament problems," he said. "One of the things that you wouldn't want to do is rotate the spine from side to side."
There are also some restrictions. People with high blood pressure, glaucoma or who are pregnant, should not take the class. In addition, those who have recently received Botox injections should wait a week or two before trying it out, since the inverted positions could potentially move the Botox to other parts of the body.
"Our gym is in West Hollywood," Ali said. "There's a lot of that."
Recent first-time participants called the hourlong class more challenging than they expected.
"I thought I would just breeze through it because I've done yoga for 11 years," said Brentwood resident Betsy Mendel. "I didn't think it would be so challenging, but it was tough."
"There's this whole trust element to it," said Meredith Hoffa, 28, of West Hollywood. "When you're in the gym doing machines or whatever, you aren't thinking, `This equipment could fail me.' I had to make the conscious decision to just forget about it."
Melissa Heckscher (310) 540-5511, Ext. 329; firstname.lastname@example.org