Fitness experts often recommend that you mix up your workouts frequently enough so that you don't get too used to one type of exercise—getting out of your comfort zone makes your body work harder. Recently I decided to test this theory by exercising six feet above the ground in a swinging metal hoop.
Body and Pole in New York City, where I tried aerial hooping, is not your average exercise studio. It offers pole dancing classes, aerial hoop classes, specialized flexibility classes, and aerial fabric (like what Pink did at the Grammys). The student body includes plenty of dancers, Broadway denizens, and Cirque du Soleil performers. After seeing collections of graceful, willowy women at the studio, including a group of visiting rhythmic gymnasts from Russia, I knew I was in big trouble.
A group of beginning hoopers met in a small studio with instructor Alex Apjarova, who was formerly a rhythmic gymnast in Slovakia and has performed with Cirque du Soleil. The class started out with a long, elaborate stretch sequence, and this is where the (possibly imagined) pitying glances started coming my way. I have the flexibility of a 65-year-old man. I hate yoga. I love kettlebells. I am like a bull in a China shop. While the other women in the class sank easily into full splits, Alex came to me and piled up a wobbly tower of yoga blocks for me to hold on to while I did a pseudo split. Humiliating.
After stretching, which was surprisingly vigorous and left me with a sheen of sweat, it was time to hop into the hoop. I'm making that sound really easy but it involves a mixture of strength, balance, and flexibility. We started on a lower hoop and did some exercises involving hanging leg lifts just to get the feeling of trying to stabilize yourself on a narrow hoop suspended from the ceiling. I redeemed myself during these, because while I'm not swan-like, I am pretty strong. Whatever credibility I gained was quickly lost when I whined about how much my hands hurt. "It's metal. It hurts!" Alex said of the tape-covered hoop. My hands weren't the only thing that hurt.
Sitting on a one-inch diameter metal hoop isn't exactly comfortable either. After we graduated from hanging, we hoisted ourselves up into the lower hoop to try some choreography, including a pretty stunning move called "man in the moon" (see it here). While you're moving through the motions, your core, arms and shoulders are working hard to stabilize in the hoop. I was surprised how shaky I felt afterwards.
The final challenge was to try the higher hoop, which requires you to invert and flip in order to get into it. I decided this was way beyond my skill set, but Alex and my fellow students hoop-shamed me (in the most encouraging way possible). And I did it! Swinging and flipping in the air—and knowing I had a big, cushy pad beneath me—was a pretty exhilarating feeling. I now get why Pink wants to be aerial-bound at all her big performances.
Photos: Courtesy Body & Pole