Suspension Yoga: Learning To Fly

Jul 6, 2014

The Wanderlust yoga festival wrapped up in Snowmass Village on Sunday, with everything from conventional classes to rafting and biking. There was a newer kind of yoga, too. APR's Elise Thatcher went to check out what’s being called suspension yoga. 

Gabriel Axel is getting his class ready...the students are lined up next to colorful fabric sheets suspended from tent poles. 

“So, welcome everybody. This is suspension yoga, your brain on suspension yoga. I’ll be leading you through the class.”

Axel has a masters degree in neuroscience and was getting ready to apply for PhD programs when he started doing more and more yoga. He decided to meld the two, and this class is a result. 

“The vestibular system is essentially part of your neurological system, your nervous system, that begins in the ear, with the endolymph fluid, as you tilt your head from one side to the next,  the fluid moves around and triggers hair cells in the inner ear, and that sends off…”

He says by doing yoga poses that are upside down, like handstands, a person’s thoughts and emotions can be reset. Now, there’s limited scientific research proving this. We’ll get to that in a bit. 

First, long time yogis are familiar with the benefits of doing upside down poses, called inversions. The positions require strength and balance not everyone has. So Axel is teaching a class where recycled parachute cloth is used to hold someone up... allowing that person to get upside down more easily.

“So that’s the kind of nerd introduction to the practice, very rooted in our brain and our nervous system, and our evolution, which I’m very passionate about. Now on to the technical details of this equipment…”

There's eleven participants in this class, mostly women of all ages. They start doing regular poses, leaning on the suspended fabric sling. As the positions continue, they balance more and more.

"... inhaling, lengthening, exhaling, folding. You should feel a nice support from the sling. If it’s not feel free to adjust your cushion. Inhaling lengthening, exhaling folding. Interlacing fingers behind the back, squeezing the arms and upper back in...Bend the right knee, and take the right shoulder towards the right knee…”

You've probably noticed the DJ in the background, pulsing out music from a huge tent put up by a festival sponsor. It’s a steady reminder of the larger feel of the event--which, to the outside observer, is a confluence of gorgeous people, free health food samples, and a slight undertone of, well, being sexy. But in this class, everyone is very focused on yoga.

“And then from here, bring your hands down one at a time, and start to walk back away from the point of suspension, with your feet together. You’re kind of going to be in an inversion here.” 

Research on meditation has shown a possible connection with alleviating anxiety, asthma, depression, and a variety of other ailments. After the class, Axel describes whether we know if that’s true for yoga as well.

“Many of the basic benefits of meditation are also found, parallel in yoga. Meditation may go more deeply into subtle aspects of awareness and attention and mind, whereas in yoga there is more of a mishmash with movement, and dynamic breathing in that moment.”

But Axel hopes to pinpoint that more clearly with additional research... and getting more academics to join in those studies as well.