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Hanging around at anti-gravity suspension yoga class

Yoga Instructor Beatrix Montanile works with her OmGym class at Hands On You in Toronto.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

"It's good to address trust issues and step outside your comfort zone," instructor Beatrix Montanile tells our anti-gravity suspension yoga class as we prepare to dangle like bats.

"I'm outside my comfort zone the minute I step through the door," one participant exclaims, suggesting some anxiety.

But I've noticed, even if temporarily, that life feels less complicated when you're hanging upside down.

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At least that was my experience when taking classes using the OmGym, a piece of equipment that draws from yoga poses and circus arts without requiring much advanced technique.

The primary prerequisite is being open to exercises that will feel unfamiliar before they feel fantastic.

Made from recycled nylon parachute fabric, the OmGym consists of a colourful sling and a set of handle grips that hook into two straps suspended from ceiling support beams, doorframes or even a sturdy tree.

As its name suggests, OmGym is a hybrid. It leans heavily toward yoga, but it can also be used for more conventional exercises such as bicep curls, hamstring extensions and push-ups.

For now, Hands On You, a boutique gym in Toronto, is the only place in Canada that offers OmGym as a class (you can purchase the equipment for home use through the OmGym website).

Before we assume any suspended scorpions, starfishes, locusts, peaceful warriors or plows, we learn the starting position. Sitting in the sling, we lean back until our shoulders touch the ground, then wrap our legs around the sides so that they're in a diamond shape. This is what creates the lock that secures and prepares us for inversions.

Hanging upside down is supposed to be good for the body; it can help improve sleep, mood, back pain, digestion, circulation, posture and mental acuity. The problem is that yoga inversions such as shoulder stands and headstands involve a steep learning curve. OmGym is not necessarily a cheat - you still need to focus on body alignment and core engagement - but it sidesteps some of the micro corrections that allow you to balance in challenging positions.

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Ms. Montanile tells me not to worry about looking like a pretzel wrapped around a hammock. "Allow yourself to relax so you can let the stretch do its thing. If you're trying too hard, you will not get the full, delicious benefits."

The class is the very opposite of competitive. "Always take a time out," she says reassuringly. "You are not under any obligation to keep at any pace. I'm navigating here, but you're commanding your own ship."

She's right. It's up to us to decide how gentle or deep we want the release to feel. This even applies to the latter part of the class, in which we focus on conditioning exercises almost identical to those used with a TRX suspension system.

Although it was developed in 2005 by California-based Sarah Kellett, whose background includes personal training, sports therapy and rehabilitation, the OmGym is still very niche and Ms. Montanile is among the first instructors to use the equipment in a group setting. As such, she had no template for the sequence of exercises, so after introducing the equipment last September she soon realized she needed to dial things back.

"I was having people do things that were way too outrageous. People were dizzy and nauseous," she says. "I slowed it down and everything started to fall into place."

Midway through the six-week program, one participant who suffers from fibromyalgia and arthritis announced that her doctor said she had grown taller from all the spine stretching and postural work. But for those without chronic ailments or injuries, the biggest bonus is the release of inhibitions.

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As with any yoga class, Ms. Montanile's ends with savasana (a.k.a. corpse pose), although in this case we incorporate the OmGym by cocooning in it with our legs extended and our feet through the handles like stirrups. We're literally floating above the ground in our slings, all blissed out, frowns turned upside down.

What is it?

A form of suspended yoga and strength conditioning that uses a sling and handgrips to bend, twist, stretch and hang. It's low-impact, high-flying.

How hard is it?

Beatrix Montanile has designed her classes to move slowly through brief sets of exercises that rarely raise the heart rate. But holding the inversions and mastering the co-ordination takes effort. Head rushes are common.

What does it work?

The spine is the biggest beneficiary of OmGym work, thanks to all the decompression and inversion work. The core must always be engaged to keep stable. Ms. Montanile also devotes time to arm and leg exercises.

What are classes like?

Small and personal. Some flow smoothly; others are choppy. Ms. Montanile plays Cirque du Soleil's Alegria music, which sounds like a ring show at times.

Who's taking it?

The workshop consisted of middle-aged women who knew their downward dog from their peaceful warrior and had come to stretch out their creaks and reconnect with their inner child.

Sign me up!

The next 90-minute introduction class ($35) takes place April 9 at Hands On You, www.handsonyou.ca, in Toronto's Leslieville. Or visit www.omgym.com for purchasing information.

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