I'm hanging completely upside down, my toes pointed above my head, my hair sweeping the floor, my arms at my sides. The only thing keeping me from crashing down onto the polished wood floor is a strange contraption that, until about an hour ago, I'd never seen before in my life.
The technical name for said contraption is an AntiGravity hammock, which is essentially a billowing piece of soft, stretchy fabric bolted to the ceiling by two ropes. The inventor of the thing is standing right in front of me, smiling widely. "You're doing it!" he says. "How does it feel?"
It feels… well, pretty awesome, actually.
This is my first time trying out what's becoming one of the world's hottest new fitness trends, and the unprecedentedly pleasant sensation of stretching and loosening that is currently moving up and down my spine is proof enough for why it's grown so popular. It's called AntiGravity Fitness, and I'm being coached by the master and creator himself: Christopher Harrison.
Harrison is an American aerialist who has been performing and choreographing Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics shows for over 20 years. He has worked with Kanye West, Mariah Carey, and Britney Spears. His choreography has been featured at Olympic ceremonies, Victoria's Secret Fashion shows, Tony award-winning Broadway musicals and even the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama - over 400 productions in total.
Six years ago, Harrison realised that his methodologies could be used for more than just entertainment and spectacle: they could birth an entirely new genre of fitness, accessible even to those who struggle with basic yoga moves. And so, under the moniker of AntiGravity Fitness, he invented a hammock that allows anyone to learn the surprisingly simple methods of suspension fitness and aerial yoga, a series of over 1,000 low-impact poses designed to increase fitness and balance, great for adults, children, elderly people and even those recovering from serious injuries.
"Regular yoga can actually compress your spine," Harrison told me. "AntiGravity fitness does the opposite - it reduces spine compression to zero, meaning after just one session you'll feel taller, leaner and more limber."
Today, we are practicing at the newly opened AntiGravity Advanced Training Institute and Retreat. It is only the second such centre in the world (the first being Harrison's flagship location in New York City) and it just so happens to be new facility at the Tharnthong Lodges in Mae On district. Having lived in Northern Thailand awhile now, I've grown used to the natural beauty that suffuses the area, but this place truly took my breath away. Dotted with babbling brooks, lush gardens and stunning architectural flourishes, Tharnthong is a true valley paradise, complete with bunnies hopping around and wooden swings beckoning for you to relive your childhood.
The goal of the AntiGravity institute is to establish an epicentre for AntiGravity Fitness in Asia, which will provide support and training for potential instructors throughout the Eastern hemisphere. "We could have built the training institute anywhere in Asia," said Guy Beckerlegge, the Chiang Mai-based Managing Partner for the Advanced Training Institute. "I picked Chiang Mai partly because of Tharnthong and the vision of its owner, Pichien. Together we built the AntiGravity pavilion."
The pavilion fits well into the environment, all mirrors and windows and polished wood, a bright and cosy place to centre yourself, surrounded by nature and the calming sounds of moving water just outside. The workshop I joined was part of a master class, where several AntiGravity trainers from all over the world received various levels of certification under the watchful eye of Harrison, who will be returning often to continue training. Currently, the institute hosts only scheduled retreats and advanced trainings rather than drop-in classes, but starting this spring, they will also begin offering parents and kids' retreats and even special workshops for local orphanages through the up-and-coming AntiGravity Foundation for Orphaned Kids.
The AntiGravity movement is spreading like wildfire across North America, Europe, Australia and Asia, now with 140 locations in 36 countries. There are currently 26 certified locations in Asia, including three in Bangkok via the Wings Aerial Club and We Fitness studios, with an expected 12 total locations in Thailand by the end of 2014. For now, there are no drop-in AntiGravity classes available in Chiang Mai, but Beckerlegge is actively looking for a partner to license here, and hopes to have one by the end of the year.
As we finish our second AntiGravity session of the day, I realise that unlike pretty much every other fitness trend I have tried, this one feels like something I would happily do every day. We conclude with the cocoon pose, completely enveloped in the silky hammock, swinging slightly side to side, eyes closed and arms crossed on our chests, before emerging like reluctant butterflies, sorry to leave the warm serenity but buzzing with energy after a day well-spent.
"I feel giddy!" one of my fellow newbies says as we exit the pavilion, echoing my thoughts exactly. "It's like a drug, except it's actually good for me."
For more information, visit www.antigravityatiasia.com.
Photos by Tamer Begum and Hilary Cadigan