Imagine: Cirque du Soleil meets total body workout.
The novel concept might seem like a fantasy, but people at Aerial Fitness & Natural Wellness Center in Riverhead prove that you don't have to be an acrobat to fly high and get in shape at the same time.
It's called aerial fitness, a class where participants use billows of silk fabric suspended about 16 feet from the ground and their own body weight to perform strengthening and flexibility exercises -- sometimes in jaw-dropping positions.
"If you feel like you're bored with your workouts and you need a challenge, this is definitely for you," says owner April Yakaboski, 28, of Riverhead.
Aerial fitness classes are open to beginners, says Yakaboski, who founded the center two years ago.
"The most challenging aspects for beginners are acquiring more upper body strength and becoming aware of the body-mind connection," she says. "It takes a couple classes to become comfortable and familiar with the different moves."
Most moves start with a "wrist key" or a "foot key," which essentially involves wrapping the silk fabric around the wrist or ankle to provide extra support.
Positions run the gamut, from a front hang and knee hook to V-inversions -- all call for various contortions of the hips, arms and legs.
To keep classes safe, students must be able to hold themselves up for about 15 seconds before they can advance to flips at more elevated heights. "True beginners may only get up to one or two seconds," Yakaboski says. "But the repetition is key. It brings muscle memory."
GETTING A WORKOUT
On a recent Thursday evening, six women and one man grasp pink, purple and pale blue silks dangling from a metal A-frame.
"Make your wrist keys," Yakaboski instructs. "Let's start with bringing in the elbows hard to the rib cage and lift up."
With that, participants clench fabric wrapped around their wrists, bring their hands to their shoulders and use their biceps to lift their bare feet off the wooden floor. Staring stoically at the mirrored wall, most look determined to hold the suspended pose and crunch their abs as long as possible.
The warm-up moves may look easy, but 71-year-old Marcia Littenberg, of Aquebogue, describes it as "an incredible workout."
"I thought I was doing nothing, and I set up the next day and I was like, 'oh, my abs!' " says the English professor and former gymnast about her first time trying the class.
Using the core is a key component to the next part of the class, where participants show off new positions they've mastered -- one by one -- while others periodically shout words of encouragement.
"It's a moving target, because once you conquer one thing, then there's the next thing you want to learn," says 37-year-old Nora Catlin, of Mount Sinai, who has been taking the class for a year.
Candyce Paparo agrees. "It takes a lot of strength to do the different moves on the silks," says the 34-year-old of Calverton. At first, she says, she could barely do anything. "I maybe stayed up for a half a second, and then I'd drop."
But that learning curve wasn't obvious when she performed an X-inversion -- one of the most difficult moves that created an X on her back with two crisscrossed silks, as she suspended with her head toward the floor. Her legs stretched into a midair split, her arms extended outward.
For Chris Picarello, of Ridge, the experience has been "thrilling."
"It's addicting. I'm never going to be a Cirque du Soleil performer, but I want to be close," says Picarello, 30. I feel empowered. I feel beautiful when I do it."