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Dancing on the ceiling
A firsthand aerial yoga experience

Photos by Matt Haas

October 2016

Studio owner Thérèse Bailey

I’m hanging upside down in a blue yoga hammock, and I’m in a bit of a conundrum. Not just because the fabric has my legs and wrists bound in such a way as to force challenging, spine-lengthening positions, but because I thought that this — an hourlong aerial yoga class at ZenZen Yoga Arts — was going to be easy.

After a few minutes of trying to untangle my limbs, ZenZen owner Thérèse Bailey bails me out. "Slow and steady," she reminds me. My movements are too ballistic. Slightly embarrassed, I stretch out my taxed muscles on the floor mat and bow my head, trying to regulate my breathing as I silently pray my fellow aerialists don’t notice what sounds like a beleaguered dragon.

This is exactly what I came here for.

Over the past few years, I’ve been a somewhat passive participant on my journey to weight loss. Despite shedding 30 pounds off my 5’ 2" frame, I’ve yet to find a consistent fitness regime to reach my goal weight, which sits a mere 12 pounds away. Following some reflection, I came to realize that I’d plateaued because I was bored, and I went in search of igniting the fire to help me cross the finish line.

I don’t remember exactly when I was first introduced to aerial arts — it may have been taking my son to the circus, or P!NK’s spellbinding 2014 Grammy performance — but I do remember feeling instantly mesmerized. As a former all-around gymnast, its mix of yoga, aerobics, pilates and acrobatics — not to mention its strong, sexy appeal — seemed the perfect grown-up substitute for my beloved sport (which you gracefully exit at age 18). After an ad for ZenZen popped up in my inbox, I took that as a sign and decided to give it a try.

I had the pleasure of visiting the ZenZen studio at 900 S. 5th St., Suite 305, one Saturday afternoon, where Bailey was teaching a basic aerial yoga class. If I had any reservations about hanging from the ceiling, they were quickly extinguished by Bailey’s commanding, yet empowering, demeanor.

She jumps right in, warming us up with stretches and aerial lunges, and getting us familiar with the fabric. She encourages us to lift our bodies into the loop and swing, and walks us through a half boat pose, until we’re all inverted in a half angle, our weight supported only by the fabric on our lower backs.

We also spend several minutes trying to get the hang of one of aerial yoga’s key moves: a straddle, several feet off the ground, and it takes some finagling on my end. This is where I get caught up. But once I figure it out, it’s an emboldening feeling.

"There is a trust element that you find yourself working through," Bailey says. "There is streaming fabric hanging from the ceiling, and there is nothing but your body. You’re working

against gravity."

Besides providing a total body workout, aerial yoga increases flexibility, alleviates back and joint pain, and improves balance — not to mention offers the mindfulness signature to the yoga practice. It’s playful, creative and challenging, all at the same time.

That’s how Bailey got hooked. The Milwaukee transport and longtime yogi first took an aerial class at a gym in Chicago several years ago.

"For me, it was mind-blowing," she says, adding that for her traditional yoga had started to feel stale. "I wanted to be challenged. I took the class, and it took me to a whole other level. I couldn’t get enough of it."

After moving to Milwaukee, her passion for aerial yoga never waned. Following a breakup, Bailey found herself on a journey to spiritual renewal. She cast convention to the side and decided to leave her cushy job in corporate America to follow her dream of launching Milwaukee’s only aerial yoga studio in 2012.

"I was existing under the guise of how I ‘thought’ I should be living," explains Bailey. "I didn’t know I had a choice to live joyfully. I loved doing yoga, and the universe responded."

Today Bailey offers a full roster of aerial yoga, aerial silks and aerial hoop group and private classes in the diverse neighborhood of Walker’s Point. As a woman of color, Bailey hopes to encourage minorities and other city residents to get out of their comfort zone.

It certainly worked for me. At the end of the class, Bailey instructs each one of us to stretch out the aerial fabric to create a "cocoon." For several minutes, we are all swaddled and slowly swinging back and forth to TLC’s suave ballad "Digging on You" playing softly in the background. Despite being surrounded by a roomful of strangers, I feel completely still and at peace — a rare feat for this high-anxiety woman.

"Your body is a magnificent unit of energy," Bailey says as we all unravel. And like a butterfly, I feel transformed.

To learn more about aerial yoga classes, visit or call (414) 973-YOGA. m




This story ran in the October 2016 issue of: