By Alison Vincitore
Today The Three Magazine is excited to feature the first part in an essay series by guest contributor Alison.
I’ve always had a tough relationship with physical activity. Generally speaking, it makes my perfectionist, overachieving, decidedly unathletic brain squirm with a self-conscious sense of failure and negative body image. I played baseball and softball until high school, but also once had a full breakdown caused by a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory DVD special feature of Oompa Loompa choreography.
I’ve always wished I was more athletic, that I could be a gymnast or dancer or figure skater or acrobat. I wish I could be great (the best) at a sport or physical event. Instead, I’m a couch potato with no body awareness who thought high school marching band was a good workout. It’s not not a workout—try holding your arms and a hunk of metal above parallel to the ground for like 11 minutes while modifying your breathing, sustaining a high note, staying in step and in line, and running backwards on your tiptoes at 140 beats per minute.
Obviously, I’ve cried in marching band.
I’d been wanting to do aerial yoga for years. It looked fun and I thought being upside-down might relieve a nagging upper back pain. I’d tried something similar before: a Groupon for a class while studying abroad in London. Why wouldn’t I take a £10 trapeze and aerial silks trial class? Well, I’ll tell you why I shouldn’t have: I missed half the class because it took three modes of transportation and twice the amount of time it was supposed to take to get there and I apparently have absolutely zero upper body or core strength.
I’d heard that with exercise like that or pole dancing, you develop the muscles you need as you go, but I learned there’s for sure a base level of fitness required. I did not meet that level. I’ve never climbed a rope or anything, so I don’t even understand what I need to do with my body to move higher than four inches off the ground. Also, the thing they don’t tell you is it’s very painful.
You’d look at these soft, stretchy pieces of fabric draped from the ceiling and think, “Wow, I’m about to be so comfortable,” but as it turns out, having a 9-foot-wide piece of nylon tightly bunched up around your upper thigh holding most of your weight is uniquely painful. Anyway, at the end of the class I was happy I tried it and vowed to gain some strength and try again. I have these well-meaning phases of motivation to exercise and be active and become the figure skating gymnast I wish I could be each time the Olympics roll around, and they really never pan out.
During the summer of 2018, I finally signed up for a restorative aerial yoga class. It was incredible. The teacher was wonderful, and having fabric gently hold me up while doing equally gentle exercise tricked my brain into thinking I wasn’t exercising at all. Because I wasn’t. Anyway, I enjoyed the class so much that I took advantage of a slight discount and signed up for a month-long unlimited aerial yoga membership.
A month. A full month. Like thirty days. Maybe even thirty-one.
It wasn’t the only option. I could have done a week, given it more of a chance to see if I actually liked it, but I didn’t. We’re talking over $100 for a college student working for $15 an hour over summer break. But I was committed to a lifestyle change. I was going to take at least five classes per week and become a strong, graceful, acrobatic aerialist ready to be shipped off to the circus. All of my problems were going to fade away.
My first class with my very reasonable, life-changing, not at all delusional membership was a level 1 aerial yoga class. I’m sure I was 3-5 minutes late (which was probably actually 10-15 minutes, who am I kidding). I remember having to start with no mat or other equipment because the teacher had already started the class and was like “just go to that open spot”. It wasn’t the most basic class, but I wasn’t new to this—I was basically an expert at this point with 1.5 classes in my back pocket. Turns out it was really hard, and a full reminder how painful that soft, stretchy fabric can be. Also, I was directly next to a third-floor open window, so I was dealing with a life or death situation.
And that’s not even the class I cried in.
A few days later, I signed up for two classes in one day since I was a real Sporty Spice on my way to Cirque du Soleil. The first class was a flexibility workshop, and the second was a basic aerial yoga class, the description of which was something like this: The most basic class we offer. You don’t have to have known aerial yoga existed. Really easy and introductory. You could have been sitting on a couch your whole life, never done any kind of exercise, and still perform incredibly in this class because it’s so easy. I thought this was appropriate since I’d struggled in the level 1 class. Baby steps, you know?
Flexibility was a bit more tiring than I expected, but I was a high-caliber, high-intensity athlete, so I was excited for the next class. I mean, two classes in one day, back-to-back? I could win an Ironman. People streamed in and warmed up. It became clear that nearly everyone there was advanced to the point of having a full routine.
Before the class even began, people were climbing, over 15 feet up to the top of the silks, and doing really impressive inversions and poses. Imagine what you think probably happens on America’s Got Talent. But it’s not uncommon in yoga classes for people to do their own thing, to modify a skill to be easier or harder based on their ability, so surely this wouldn’t be any different. Maybe it’s the only class that fit into their schedule today, or maybe they’re also dedicated athletes like me who take two classes in one day and this is just their warm up.
As it turns out, this was not exactly the case. I later found out, thanks to another Sporty Spice who took the same two classes as me, the teacher was a substitute. Clearly, the substitute wasn’t experienced nor interested in teaching an introductory class. She kept looking at me with a bit of a hopeless, annoyed expression and didn’t make any kind of effort to help or re-explain something in a way I or the other idiots who took an introductory class expecting it to actually be an introductory class would understand.
I genuinely cannot comprehend how gymnasts or any athletic person can get their bodies to twist while flipping, land in the right spot, jump at the right time, anything like that. I can barely control my body enough to do a proper lunge. Anyway, trying to keep any sort of bearing or control over your body gets about fifteen times harder when you are upside-down, trying to watch an instructor, and looking at yourself in the mirror.
At that point, there was truly no distinction between up and down, left and right, front and back. With blood rushing to my head and a huge amount of disorientation and general confusion, it became hard to know where the fabric was. At least once, I shifted my body weight the wrong way and almost fell. I remember the teacher yelling something useless like “Oh!” Really made it worth it that I chose a spot in the front to make sure I got help.
At some point, we were working on some kind of (advanced) skill where we were supposed to be somehow attached to the fabric by our legs, hanging upside down, then do a full 180-degree sit up and who knows what else. I think the goal was to be sitting as if we were on a chair high up on the silks. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now. I think the teacher said something like, “If you’ve got this part, you can try to do this too,” and it’s not totally impossible that I, being the delusional overachiever that I am, tried to do a more advanced skill than I was actually capable of—but I’d rather just keep blaming it on her.
I doubt I made it past step two anyway, because as we’ve established, I cannot do a full sit up while hanging by my knees. Sue me. I sort of angrily asked for her help and eventually, while I hung five feet in the air unable to sit up far enough to grab the silks, she tried to give me a push.
“Just sit up!” she said.
Clearly, I couldn’t.
I can only imagine I looked like some sort of injured beetle that couldn’t curl up, but kept trying and trying, only to twitch back to lying stretched out again.
If it didn’t look like I was trying, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t, it just means I’m truly, embarrassingly weak. I told her I felt unsafe. She tried to push me up again. I told her again that I didn’t feel safe and wanted to get down, and annoyed, she let me come out of it. At this point, I had really reached a peak level of frustration, fear, embarrassment, and overwhelmed-ness.
Finally, we came to the end and got to the best part of any yoga class: savasana. In aerial yoga, you have to option to lay on your mat and do it normal style or spread out the material of the silk (it’s also called a hammock because it’s actually one very long and very wide piece of fabric connected to a hook on the ceiling at both ends) and cocoon yourself in it, swinging gently. It’s so nice that it’s easy to overcome the intense smell of sweat stuck in the fabric.
This is when the crying began. They say yoga stirs up emotions, but I don’t think they mean like this. I sobbed involuntarily and uncontrollably. I tried to cry quietly, but apparently that didn’t work. To be fair, I was like two feet away from the instructor.
“Before we end the class, I just want to say that doing the best inversion or the best split doesn’t make you a good person. Trying and not giving up does,” she said righteously.
I think she kept going for a bit, but I was so angry that I stopped listening. I wanted to yell, “I’m not crying because I couldn’t do it, I’m crying because this is not what I signed up for, I didn’t feel safe, and you were not a good teacher!”
Instead of shouting I managed to stop crying for a few minutes while a classmate encouraged me to continue taking classes. She told me the instructor was filling in, was probably not prepared to teach an introductory class, and that the instructor who usually teaches the class is incredible. Then, I did what any Cirque-bound, motivated, independent, 20-year-old Olympian would do: I stood in a corner of the building lobby, called my mom, and sobbed some more.
I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop crying. Maybe it’s because I was overwhelmed and embarrassed. Maybe it’s because I was mad at the teacher. Maybe it’s because I was disappointed in myself because I knew that I had lost interest and wasn’t going to go back. Maybe it’s because I had to face the reality that the Tokyo Olympics weren’t going to happen for me.
I meant to email the office, explain my experience, and ask for a refund for the difference between the week and month trial, but I never did. To this day, I’m still kinda mad about those fifty eight dollars.