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Aerial yoga gives fitness and profits a lift

When you first see the brightly colored scarves hanging in U shapes from the ceiling, you ask yourself, "Why can't I just do a few vinyasas on the floor, stand in a tree pose for a minute and call it a day?"

And then you find yourself hanging upside down, wrapped around one of these loopy "hammocks," with the soles of your feet pressed together and your hands in prayer at your heart, and you say, "More please!"

This is aerial yoga, one of the newest competitors in an increasingly competitive fitness space. The idea is to take yoga to the next level, literally, allowing gravity to work for you, not against you.

By taking the centuries-old practice off the floor and into the air, it works the body in a whole new way, strengthening both core and grip, which are essential to maintain as the body ages. More importantly for the companies involved, it tweaks the interest of potentially bored floor yoga followers at the studio across the street.

CNBC's Diana Olick doing aerial yoga.
CNBC
CNBC's Diana Olick doing aerial yoga.

"I think nowadays the students are getting much smarter, they're getting much more educated about fitness and wellness and all the different offerings, so it's always important as a business to constantly innovate and find different offerings that people will be interested in and that will complement whatever they're doing during their everyday activities," said Susan Park, founder and co-owner of Spark Yoga in Arlington, Virginia.

Park had been practicing and teaching yoga for over a decade, before she first saw the aerial version in a video online. She tried it and was immediately hooked.

"I like to say aerial yoga is the workout for people that don't like working out. It's fantastic for decompressing the spine. It's like the 1980s inversion board, where you give a little bit of space to your spine by hanging upside down," said Park.

When it came to outfitting her Arlington studio for aerial three years ago, though, that was the real workout. She had to bring in structural engineers and investigate insurance and liability coverage. That meant talking to companies that specialized in covering circuses. Regular gym insurers didn't know what to make of aerial yoga.

"It is a little bit expensive, but we think it's worth the investment because it really is a great offering that we have," said Park.


It definitely intrigued Kelsey Ohleger, who spoke with CNBC just before a recent evening class.

"I don't know what to expect really," said the novice millennial, who came with friends. "We like to do things in the evenings different from happy hour, and aerial yoga sounded fun. We said let's all get together and try it together!"

Ohleger said that with all the other fitness offerings — cycle, barre, hot yoga, Cross Fit — she likes to keep switching it up.

"To stay active and not get bored with everything," she added.


CNBC's Diana Olick doing aerial yoga.
CNBC
CNBC's Diana Olick doing aerial yoga.

A drop-in aerial class at Spark Yoga is $30, and then there are package deals. While most aerial sessions are offered in smaller "boutique" studios, big chains, like Crunch Gyms, are now offering it as well. They have to, in order to keep up with the competition.

As for what sets Park and her business apart? She said it's excellence in construction and instruction. And as a half-dozen women in bright-colored yoga pants swing from her ceiling, she still aims higher. In today's fitness business, you have to.

"How far is too far? Hmm ... I think that depends on the person, but as a business owner you always want to meet that challenge and always want to provide that challenge for your students," Park said.