NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - An AntiGravity Yoga class looks more like circus play than an ancient practice, as people dangle head-first like bats or flip weightlessly through the air.
But if the anti-gravity component stands yoga on its head, as an exhilarating group fitness experience, it has legs.
"AntiGravity Yoga involves a mix of yoga, Pilates, calisthenics, aerial arts, dance," said Illaria Cutolo, AntiGravity Yoga coordinator for Crunch, the national chain of fitness centers. "People come for the flying effect, and the playground aspect."
The concept grew out of AntiGravity, an acrobatic performance troupe founded in 1990 by Christopher Harrison, an aficionado of yoga, who designed the fitness regimen around hammocks.
Suspended about three feet (one meter) off the floor and attached at two overhead points, the fabric hammocks act like a swing or soft trapeze.
"Christopher wanted the spirit of yoga to shine through," Cutolo said. "We remind students to come to place of presence in their breath, bodies and mind. A lot of the moves we do come from yoga."
Gentle warm-ups, sun salutations, breath awareness techniques and strength training comprise the pre-flight protocol of most classes.
Unlike traditional yoga the inversions, going upside in an AntiGravity class is weightless.
"There's zero compression of cervical spine, so it's very therapeutic," Cutolo said.
Floating through the air, said Cutolo, has informed her own yoga practice.
"I've gained a lot more balance in my handstand and in general. It's also a way for me to crosstrain by using muscles I don't normally use."
Jessica Matthews, spokesperson for the American Council of Exercise, sees AntiGravity Yoga differently.
"It is based first and foremost on love of acrobatics, fused with exercises and poses you see in yoga and Pilates," said Matthews. "As a yoga instructor myself, it's difficult for me to say it's a yoga class."
Matthews said the class can build core strength and improve flexibility, and is enthusiastic about the rewards of being upside down.
"Headstands, handstands, any inversion changes the way the blood flows through the body," she said, adding that AntiGravity might be just what the yogi ordered for the reluctant, the fearful and the averse.
"Having the support of a hammock is almost like having a safety net," she said. "It's a bit of comfort, knowing there's some support."
Above all, Matthews cautions that good instruction and safety are key.
"With anything suspended, safety is a big consideration because you'd be falling from a height."
On the plus side, there's the fun of flying, even if it's only a few feet above the ground.
"It's a new way to approach exercise, to try something outside the norm," she said. "Everyone's looking for that thing to spice up their workout routine. Here you get to do a bit of acrobatics."
Cutolo, a yoga teacher by training, said AntiGravity Yoga teachers can come from Pilates, dance or gymnastic backgrounds, each coloring the workout with their specialty.
As dedicated yogi, she is candid about the difference between these classes and her yoga.
"I take yoga practice," she said. "Yoga is a discipline. AntiGravity Yoga is playtime."