Jennifer Hebert frequently hits the gym. She lifts weights. She runs marathons. But lately, the Toronto resident has been mixing up her routine with something entirely different: exercises befitting circus acrobats.
Ms. Hebert is learning aerial silks, the kind of gravity-defying gymnastics made famous by the Quebec performance company Cirque du Soleil. Until her personal fitness trainer encouraged her to try it this past fall, Ms. Hebert never imagined herself attempting backbends, inversions and splits while suspended in mid-air.
"It's actually really, really, really fun. It's so different from anything I've ever done," Ms. Hebert says, adding that unlike her regular gym routine, "there's this very pretty factor. … You get to point your toes and you get to do all these pretty things."
Though it may be pretty, she still works up a sweat. Ms. Hebert has noticed a definite change in her physique since she began taking lessons. "It's made a huge difference on my posture. I'm so much more aware of my back now and not slumping over."
Aerial silks are no longer just for circus acts and performance artists. Increasingly, gyms, fitness clubs and dance studios across Canada and the United States are introducing classes in silks training for those looking for a new way to work out.
The activity involves climbing two long ribbons of fabric (which, despite the name, is usually made of polyester), secured with a carabinerfrom a high ceiling , and performing tricks while off the ground. Although many beginner moves needn't involve hovering more than about 30 centimetres above the floor, advanced aerialists can practise at heights of six metres or more. It requires a considerable amount of strength, co-ordination and balance to hold up one's body weight, let alone move around while doing so. Many manoeuvres require a fair degree of flexibility as well.
Unlike working out on terra firma, the act of moving in the air forces people to become aware of their bodies very quickly, says Delphine Shortill, Ms. Hebert's fitness trainer and silks instructor, who teaches at Totum Performance fitness studio.
"You have no choice," she says, noting that once you're suspended, you can't cheat by practising improper form to compensate for weaker muscles. "You have to use those muscles in synergy to achieve anything. When you're on the ground, gravity … doesn't challenge people the same way."
Ms. Shortill adds that silks training can be mentally demanding, too. Students must be focused and can't let their minds wander. "You can't talk to me about what you're doing on the weekend," she says. With fluid movements, she demonstrates by climbing up the fabric, wrapping one length around her hips as she scissors one leg over the other, and tips her body until she's horizontal. She then whips the fabric below her to create momentum, and slowly, gracefully spins.
But even basic moves, like flipping upside down, look impressive. And since students can see improvement very quickly, it's easy to get hooked, says instructor Jamie Holmes, who teaches aerial silks at Toronto's City Dance Corps.
Ms. Holmes credits aerial silks' entry into the mainstream to the rise of other forms of gruelling exercise programs, like Crossfit and fitness boot camps.
"As opposed to doing the typical concentration bicep curls, people are doing all-out, complete-body activities," she says, adding, "even if you don't want to become an aerialist and work for Cirque or anything like that, [aerial training]s pretty hard-core."
Although some men do participate, aerial silks classes tend to draw predominantly women, particularly those wanting a fun alternative to doing chin-ups and push-ups to gain upper-body strength, Ms. Holmes says.
At the pole-dancing centre Ottawa Pole Fitness Studio, owner and instructor Li Hewitt began offering aerial silks workshops about a year ago. Ms. Hewitt says she suspects the growing popularity of aerial yoga has contributed to people's interest in aerial silks, but emphasizes the two are not the same.
With aerial yoga, people practise adaptations of traditional yoga postures while suspended by a loop of fabric, which acts as a hammock, instead of the loose, rope-like strands of aerial silks. Using the latter is more akin to gymnastics.
Despite providing a rigorous workout, aerial silks are suitable for people of all ages and practically all body types, says Rachel Friedman, owner of Motion In Balance Studio in Olympia, Wash. Her studio's aerial silks sessions draw everyone from teenagers to people in their late 50s.
There are some limitations, however. Aerial silks may not be recommended for individuals with shoulder injuries. Ms. Friedman says it can be also be a struggle for anyone who is very overweight,and there is a risk of shoulder injuries, bruising and rope burn.
"You're hanging from joints in your body that are not used to necessarily carrying you, like your knees or your elbows or the tops of your feet," she says, but adds that a good teacher will train students to avoid such problems.
Back in Toronto, Ms. Hebert says she still has a long way to go before she can emulate the acrobats of Cirque du Soleil; she's more interested in challenging herself than performing for anyone.
"I'm not going to run off and join the circus – nothing like that," she says. "It's just a fun way to work out."