Assuming yoga poses while hanging from slings is adding new appeal to the classes taught by Joann DeMerit—even for high school boys
Since she started the Yoga and More program at the Port Washington Parks and Recreation Department eight years ago, Joann DeMerit has searched for a discipline that would appeal to teenagers — especially boys, who often lose flexibility as they build muscle but think yoga is for girls.
She found it — aerial yoga.
Participants do a variety of yoga poses and moves while suspended in air on nylon fabric called silks or hammocks.
Yoga is now among the alternative physical education programs offered to Port Washington High School students during a two-hour block period once a week and a 40-minute activity period.
Sixteen students, the majority of them boys, came to the park and rec center last week to learn yoga from DeMerit. She put them through a traditional hatha yoga class and added aerial yoga this week.
“They’re very chit-chatty and there isn’t a lot of breathing going on, but that will come. They’ll find if they concentrate on their breathing more, they will be able to get into poses easier,” DeMerit said.
“The guys were saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize yoga was so hard’ and ‘I enjoyed this more than I thought I would.’”
When she put them into savasana, the final pose in yoga when participants lie still for five to 10 minutes, calming the mind and body, DeMerit said there was total silence.
“They were really into it. I think some fell asleep,” she said.
There are eight bright blue hammocks, so DeMerit plans to teach aerial yoga to half the students for the first hour while phy-ed teacher Kris Nonn teaches indoor cycling to the others and vice versa the second hour.
If students react to the high-flying exercise the way most people do, they’ll love it and beg for more.
DeMerit took her first aerial yoga class about two years ago in Kohler and instantly knew she wanted to teach it.
“It was really neat. It took stretches into a deeper form and it was out of the box,” she said. “You felt like you were flying, and you felt graceful.”
Her four children — 11-year-old twins Josie and Stuart, who are sixth-graders at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and 15-year-old twins Charles and Elliot, who are sophomores at Port High — wanted to experience aerial yoga, so she took them and two friends to a class. They all loved it. For about a year, she took the class on Friday mornings and her children and their friends came when they didn’t have school.
“One of the boys, who was a real chatterbox and talked almost all the time, when he sat in the hammock, he would get real quiet and calm and just liked swinging,” DeMerit said.
When she initially checked into becoming an aerial yoga instructor, the only classes were in other states. Last year, Reaching Tree Tops Yoga in Wauwatosa offered a certification class and DeMerit signed up. She completed 32 hours of training over a long weekend to obtain certification last November.
Parks and Recreation Department officials decided the best place to offer aerial yoga was at the center next to the outdoor swimming pool, where they could control how the equipment was installed.
A structural engineer figured out how to reinforce the room’s support system and oversaw installation. Steel I-beams were added and large eyebolts attached to them through the drop ceiling. Clamps similar to those used by mountain climbers attach the hammocks to the bolts.
The hammock, which is made of 40-denier nylon, can hold 2,000 pounds and the bolt system will hold 5,000 pounds, DeMerit said.
“The guys said we could lift a pickup truck,” she said. “That was important to me. I’ve been in places where the hooks started coming out because of all the twisting and turning.
“No one has to be afraid of falling because of the equipment failing.”
Aerial yoga, she said, builds upper arm strength, improves balance and flexibility and can be adapted to any fitness level.
When DeMerit introduced aerial yoga to several women last week, everyone was hesitant at first and most were convinced they could never do the poses that DeMerit and Josie demonstrated.
“There is a lot of fear at first,” DeMerit said. “You have to trust your equipment, and you have to trust yourself. But once you find out you can do it, you lose the fear and it’s fun. It’s like being a kid again.”
The women surprised themselves and several signed up for the class that meets Monday nights. They worked up a sweat, but relaxed at the end, wrapped up in the hammock like a cocoon. For those who wanted it, DeMerit gave the hammock a gentle swing as she talked them through a relaxation exercise.
On Saturday morning, Josie, Elliot and two friends who are new to the aerial sport demonstrated their abilities.
Josie can do almost any move flawlessly and fearlessly, making it look easy.
Hockey player Taylor Snider was eager to try aerial yoga after doing hatha yoga last week.
“I like the stretches. As an athlete, you have to be working on your flexibility, and I realized that my flexibility is not what I thought it was,” he said. “It relaxes you, but at the same time you feel energized.”
After hanging upside down, lanky Tristan Shafer, a lacrosse player, said, “It’s really, really fun. It’s a workout, but relaxing at the same time. Everything is better in the air.”
To which Elliot commented, “How can I top that? It’s definitely challenging, but it’s relaxing. It’s nice to sit up there and think.”
More information on aerial yoga can be found at www.portparkandrec.com or by calling 284-5881.
Image information: TURNED UPSIDE DOWN, Tristan Shafer was flanked by Joann DeMerit (left) and her daughter Josie. In the back row, Elliot DeMerit relaxed in his hammock. Photo by Sam Arendt