Week 43: Aerial Arts
Minnesota autumns usher in weather too cold for a West Coaster to exercise outside in. While still back in warm California, I had decided to run every day the three miles from my midtown Minneapolis accomodation to my downtown coding boot camp venue. In the evenings, I would take the bus back.
I knew it was going to be cold. But after I land, I realize that, having been out of the Midwest winter for two years, I have become the person who thinks she can take on the cold and then…
Actually arrives in it and changes her mind.
So I spend double the amount of time on the bus, and grumble about the temporary shift to indoor exercise.
At home, I run a tree-laden trail around the Rose Bowl stadium most days of the week. I also ride horses most days of the week at a ranch held like a womb between the mountains of the Angeles National Forest. I haven’t had a gym membership since…I was in the Midwest. When it comes to moving my body, I like spacious, open, expanse.
But I still need to exercise. So for my 12 day stay I sign up for six classes in a running gym (and I gotta say…I’ve never enjoyed any fitness classes more than the ones at Fly Feet) plus three classes at an aerial arts studio.
I’ve never been to running class, but I do run. In terms of the aerial arts, though, I have no idea what to expect.
Of those three aerial classes, one is a flexibility class, one is a beginner’s class on aerial silks, and the last is a beginner’s class on the aerial hoop, or lyra.
At 6:50 p.m. on a blistery October evening, the temperature is 19°F. The 4-block walk to the aerial arts studio from my coding boot camp is gruesome for my California-oriented body. Not a minute too early, I arrive at an old building smushed between two other old buildings. I step inside a tiny landing that smells like old building. I climb three flights of stairs.
A lofty apartment that takes up the whole third floor is on the other side of the studio door. I realize that, not only is this a studio, but someone lives here. That someone is the instructor, Kristen.
Although I only see the foyer, the living room, and the studio, the feel of the space reminds me a of a place I used to live in in 2015, and Kristen reminds me of a woman who also lived there.
The studio is incredible. In the silks class, Kristen releases three sets of ribbon from the ceiling. In the lyra class, three hoops and one cube hang suspended from above.
In both classes, we start with warm up exercises, and soon move onto the apparatuses. There are about five to seven people in each class, and I’m relieved to find that several are also beginner-beginners.
In the silks class, which I take first, Kristen shows us how to loop a basic knot around our foot in a way that makes us become air-bound. She ties it, using only her feet, in two seconds. It take me about 30 seconds and both hands to get it, but then I’m airbound! I’m only actually suspended a foot above the ground, but it doesn’t matter. I’m flying!
In the lyra class, though, things get intense. Our first exercise is hooking one knee onto the decidedly high suspended hoop, a swift move that takes agility and confidence.
The other beginner-beginners get it on their first tries. I don’t, and neither do I on the fourth or fifth tries. Kristen comes by to help our group when it’s someone else’s turn, and in any case, I don’t want her to see me unable to grasp this basic motion.
And then it’s time to move on: Kristen directs us to try lifting both legs at once onto the lyra, pulling ourselves up to sit in it, and then letting go with our arms and hanging, from our knees, upside down.
It looks just like the process in this video, but first we are to sit on the lyra in a leg-hook more basic than the flip she demonstrates, and then fall backwards in a hang. (Our lyra is at least 25% lower than the one in the video.)
OK, there are several problems here. First, I can’t even lift one leg onto the lyra. Two, I don’t have the upper body strength it takes to pull my torso up, even if I could lift both knees up. Three, going upside down is not a forté of mine.
Still stuck on the last move, I panic. But I know that I do better while no eyes are on me, at least when I’m struggling. Maybe I can actually do this move, but I’m allowing the attention of others to inhibit me.
So while Kristen is busy attending to the advanced-beginner students and the two other basic-beginner students are taking turns on another lyra, I take advantage of the no-eyes-on-me situation and attempt the one-leg hook one more time.
And I get it. It’s interesting how, when a future task is harder, the previous one takes on a more basic status in the mind, and becomes much easier to accomplish. The mind!
I practice the one-leg hook a few times. Now, for the second move. Being able to hook one leg up makes it much easier to hook both legs: I realize that, while body strength is required, having the positioning and mental ability to accomplish the one-leg hook leads to ease in bringing up the second leg together with its twin.
Pulling my upper body up to be able to sit on the lyra is another matter.
That move is deceptive — it looks simple but, I find out, takes serious arm strength. As I’m flailing like a fish, half-upside down, Kristen comes over and responds to my pleas for help. Asking for upper body help doesn’t bother me.
It’s interesting — when we have not practiced the skill to do something, asking for helping is shameless.
On the other hand, when we think we should be able to do something and are not able to — in other words, when we have skill in something but are not able to meet our expectations — we tend to become all flustered. We have more trouble asking for help.
I read a book called Mindset early this year, and my experience in the class reminds me of a main point author Carol Dweck made: if we try, try, try…and fail, it’s painful. In fact, it’s much easier to never try at all.
That way we have an excuse when something doesn’t work out. “Oh, I didn’t try.”
If we work out but it does not reflect physically, it’s harder to admit that we work out. But if we don’t work out and are fat, it’s an easier dismissal. “Yes, I’m fat, but I don’t work out.” Implied: if I tried, I would succeed.
But what if we don’t succeed? What if we study so hard, and still fail the exam? In the book, Carol explains the differences between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. Although each of us are geared towards one or the other, we all have some of both. And yes, we can change.
The main difference between the two? Growth-oriented folks see opportunity for growth at every step and do not link their worth as people to the outcomes of what they do.
Fixed-mindset people are less secure in themselves, and place their value in what they achieve, what they have, what they can do, and their ‘inherent talent.’
A growth-oriented mindset loves a challenge it can learn from. A fixed mindset loves a challenge it knows it can succeed in.
So, back to aerial arts: in class, I notice the interplay between these two mindsets. Because I’m a beginner-beginner, it’s easy to ask for help, especially when upper body strength is involved. But I balk at asking for help in a task that requires leg strength. I mean, I’m a runner and a rider. Even though I’m new to aerial arts, I have LEGS!
And yes, those legs do work when I stop being sidetracked by the attention of others and let them do their work. Still, it proves a point: asking for help is harder when we think we’re competent.
Now comes the last part: hanging upside down. This is my weakness in yoga, too. Achieving the ‘final position’ of being upside down is fine, but the process of moving that way is not.
From my sitting position, I slide my center of gravity backwards — hands still grasping to the hoop — so that my knees are now linked over it. Then, I inch my hands down the lyra until they arrive on either side of my knee. Now, there’s nothing to do but let go and trust where my body takes me. There are no atheists in the trenches, and in that moment it’s hard for me to imagine that there could be atheists on lyras.
When I was around three, I used to hold my mother’s hands and walk my legs up her legs until I was perpendicular. Then, I’d flip backwards and land on the ground. As I’m hanging on the lyra, it’s hard to believe that child and I are the same person. When did I become an adult?
Kristen is still there, encouraging me to let go, and I don’t have time to think too much.
I let go. It’s very scary. It lasts about a second, and it’s one of those slow moments in time that, like falling off a horse, make me feel like a leaf in the wind, completely dependent on a force beyond myself.
Then it’s over, and I’m hanging upside down. Like a bat. It’s fine. I’m fine.
As the hour moves on, the seriousness in the room dissipates, and I begin to take myself less seriously. It begins to become fun. By the end, I’m able to laugh at my ungraceful landings and efforted launches off the ground. Still, I don’t try to go upside down again.
When the hour is over, I say goodbye to Kristen and my co-beginner-aerialists. I walk down three flights of stairs and out into the evening again, this time looking for a number 5 bus to take me to my Airbnb.
I’ve spent some time reflecting on this experience and what lessons I could possibly derive from these three classes — after all, they’re just three beginner aerial classes, right? But as with all things, deeper reflection can offer insight in some way. Here are three takeaways:
It seems like there’s an implicit link, at least for me, between physically going upside down and the process of life turning upside down. In both 180s, the reorientation process is way more loaded than the end result of being upside down! Letting go of (the illusion of) control ain’t easy.
Soooo, a body-centered goal for my 2019 is to play with going upside down more. Even as I write this, I feel totally nervous about it…but it’ll be good for me.
After choosing images for this post, I realize that others — especially men — can easily see this art form in a sexual way, and I have a comment to make about that.
Obviously, the aerials arts do not include practices that hide, or apologise for, the human body. And, as you can see, those bodies are mostly female.
I asked a male if these images — the ones in this post — either invoke sexuality or human expression as an art, and if those concepts are even separate for him. He said art (maybe in an attempt to tell me what I wanted to hear, LOL!). Even though not every man would make a this practice about sexuality or a women’s “boldness,” it’s sad that because of male gaze and its complications, female flesh is often only associated with sexuality.
Yes, the aerial arts do bring an appreciation of the human body and its artistry. They do invoke an awe of the human form — and its powerful grace — in a way that say, horseback riding, does not. But can an aerial performance be about art — the art of the human body and a creative form of its expression — and that’s it? Does it need to go further…and if some people say yes, why?
Being graceful looks easy, but this class pushes the realization that it takes a hell of a lot of strength to embody grace.
Kristen looks the epitome of aerial grace: she alights so fluidly, moves so flowingly, lands so lightly. But she’s really strong, I remind myself, and really practised.
As with going physically upside down can reflect an emotional state, the process of becoming physically graceful has an emotional parallel: on an internal level, the people who live with grace have usually walked through fire. Yes, some peeps are physically strong without being graceful, and yes, in life some folks go through a lot and never learn grace.
But in all cases, grace takes strength. In my own sport too, the most accomplished dressage riders look like they’re doing nothing, and yet that level of finesse takes a long, long time to master. Grace takes practice and the willingness to go through it all.
I’ve spent the last few years interested in body work, learning how our bodies carry the tensions we refuse to deal with emotionally. I like the aerial arts not only for the creative expression they afford, but also because I can see how a practice like this could, like yoga, help us move into tending to our emotional ‘sore spots’ by opening up and stretching our tender and tense areas on a physical level.
If my life had the room for it, I would be signing up for classes back in LA right now. I have other priorities at the moment, but the aerial arts pose an artistic challenge I would be happy to explore again.