Photo by: Ooh Saucy

Flying Through The Air: Arial Fitness Conditioning

by Jenny Heitz of "Find a Toad"
Photo by: Ooh Saucy

It’s the time of year for all those annoying “get rid of your holiday bloat and get in shape, Fatty” articles. I was a gym rat for years, and the density on the gym floor right after the new year rivaled an 80 percent off sale at Filene’s Basement: crowded. Of course, the crowds never lasted. They thinned out and were pretty much nonexistent by March. And then, as the beach months approached, the bodies would appear again, running to nowhere, pumping frantically, and disappearing by July. Because, let’s face it: if exercise isn’t part of your routine all year, a couple of desperate annual stabs at it are not going to get you anywhere.

After I became a mom, I gave up the gym. I was always an exerciser with purpose, and the gym was deathly dull. I didn’t want to read on the treadmill, or listen to music to distract me from the cacophony of crashing weights. My initial answer, I found, was pilates. I first started training once a week when my daughter was two, but I quickly grew so interested (and frustrated by the high costs) that I enrolled in a nine month long pilates instructor training program. I really loved it. The program immersed me completely in pilates, with exams, teaching hours and training hours. I worked my way through all five levels of classical pilates in the nine months (not necessarily recommended; I got injured).

After the program, I was in the best shape of my life and enjoying teaching. But that was about five years ago. Since then, I opened a studio, closed a studio, opened a home studio, and became tired of training alone. Because I’d worked through all the levels already, pilates felt a bit limiting. The rather acrobatic aspects of level 5 pilates intrigued me, but there wasn’t much of it left to master. And then I remembered the four or five aerial classes I’d taken at the studio where I’d trained. Taught by an actual Cirque de Soleil aerialist, the classes on the stationary trapeze and tissue had been the toughest workout I’d ever done, yet I hadn’t even noticed how hard I was working because it was so much fun.

About ten months ago, I found out that that very same Cirque de Soleil performer had opened her own circus arts studio in Hollywood. Curious, I signed up for the Aerial Fitness and Conditioning class. The first couple of classes were really, really hard. Climbing ropes, doing sit ups while hanging upside down on the trapeze, and just hanging onto the tissue was murder. Aerial arts is a bit like rock climbing: you’re pulling your own body weight with no assistance. Although I was sore all over after, the hour flew by and I felt a real sense of exhilaration at the close of every class; probably what some people feel in yoga (but I never did). I admit wholeheartedly that the pilates training helped immeasurably.

Everyone at the school seems to choose an apparatus, and I chose trapeze. I now do two 90 minute dedicated trapeze classes and one hour long Aerial Fitness class per week. What I love so much about it is the challenge. There’s always more to learn. You can always improve (since I don’t have a dance background, I’m particularly challenged in the grace department. Like a hippo moving through jello, I am). There’s always another trick to master, so the trick that last week I watched in disbelief suddenly becomes doable. The concentration necessary to perform a trick sequence is akin to meditation; I lose myself in the moment.

None of my friends are interested in aerial arts. Most of them think I’m crazy for being so extreme. But it doesn’t feel extreme to me. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, and more flexible, too. At the ripe old age of 42, I can do five overhand pull ups from a dead hang. The physical benefits, though, seem almost beside the point; this stuff is good for my head. Even when my head feels like it’s coming off and my stomach is churning from spinning the trap, or I have to force myself to dive into space, trusting that my legs or ankles will catch me safely. This makes me face fear in a very real way, and I feel emotionally stronger for it. Besides, when a muscled all business Cirque performer who used to be in the Israeli army tells you to “just do the trick,” you do it, and quick.

I’ve made some friends, or am at least friendly, with a number of regulars in the class. Most are women between ten and twenty years younger, and I feel both affectionately bemused toward them and happy I’m not that age anymore. There are a couple of women older than myself who are wonderful aerialists, and give me plenty of advice on technique and injury avoidance.

My advice to women over 30 or moms trying to get in shape is not necessarily to join the circus like I did. That’s what works for me. But, finding a form of exercise that raises your spirits as well as your heart rate is key to sticking with a fitness routine. It doesn’t really matter what it is: walking, running (I have a friend from college who does 50K trail runs), weight lifting, pilates, softball, soccer, tennis, or even hockey would all work. Anything that you can do a few times a week (indeed, that you look forward to doing), is what will keep you in shape and in a good emotional space.

As for my next goal, I guess it’s the student showcase. A whole trapeze routine, set to music, with makeup and costumes and everything. Yeah, I’ll probably feel like an idiot, especially if I mess up, but it’s the work and time I’ve put into it that makes the whole thing worthwhile, not the performance. And then it will start all over again, with new tricks and harder routines. Soon, I’m going to make a pilgrimage out to Woodland Hills to a flying trapeze facility. Now that my mild acrophobia has been banished, I’m ready to fly. I’ve been told it helps you learn how to fall, a good skill for life.

Jenny Heitz is a mom of a 9-year old daughter. She trains at Cirque School LA in Hollywood, CA. When she’s not hanging like a bat, she writes her gift blog, Find a Toad), guest blogs on the private schools blog, Beyond The Brochure, and writes op-ed pieces on education for The Daily News.

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