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Letting go: Fit Columbia offers unique twist on yoga and fitness

            I’ll be honest.  When my alarm went off at 7:30 a.m. this Sunday morning, I really, really did not want to get out of bed.  After working very late the night before, I groggily arose, tugged on a yoga outfit that, although well-worn, had yet to actually be seen in a yoga class, and headed out the door to visit Fit Columbia for the first time.

            Fit Columbia is a personal training studio nestled at the tail of Five Points on Blossom Street.  It has been open for a year, but its owner, Angela Yong Sellers, has been in business as a yoga and fitness instructor for seven years.  What initially caught my eye about this studio was the unique array of classes and programs, including aerial yoga, wall yoga, stretch therapy, and even a yoga with puppies class.  Okay, truthfully, they had me at “puppies.”

            I knew there had to be something special about this studio, because I have never seen people look as joyful while working out as Fit Columbia’s clients do on the studio’s Instagram account.  Fit Columbia’s various social media pages are filled with photographs of sports teams, families, groups of friends, and coworkers exercising together and grinning wildly while doing so, as if all the people in those pictures are all enjoying some incredibly relaxing vacation together—even though they seem to be in the middle of what looks to be some particularly challenging exercise routines.

Fit Columbia offers unique alternatives to traditional stretches and exercise.

            On the drive over, I mentally scrolled through a personal “to do” list that felt never-ending; between graduate school, household responsibilities, and multiple jobs, my brain was heavy and overwhelmed.  I passed by restaurants and couldn’t help but to think, Forget working out.  What would really make me happy right now is finding some biscuits and gravy and a strong mimosa.

            After practicing restorative and yin yoga for several years, I let myself get out of practice and very much out of shape.  Yoga once kept me feeling balanced and calmed.  Years ago, being a student of yoga taught me to block out stressful noise and situations and focus truly on my inner self, centering on what I could actually accomplish day to day.  But as the pressures of my busy life increased, yoga unfortunately became less and less of a priority—and both my body and my mind have certainly reaped the consequences of letting go of something that once was such an integral part of my health.

            I anticipated Fit Columbia would be like many other yoga studios I’d visited—dimly lit with some New Age music playing quietly, featuring an instructor who only spoke in a stage whisper, while everyone else was tucked away in their own poses, avoiding eye contact with each other.  I was very, very wrong.

            As soon as I walked into the studio, I was greeted with bright, happy colors—pops of pink, purple, bright blue, and searing red.  A variety of workout equipment was in the room, including a heavy bag, kettlebells, balance balls, and bosu balls.  Heavy harnesses for seated wall yoga hung from the walls, and there was cheerful Motown music playing while a young woman hung upside down from a silk trapeze that was suspended from the ceiling.  This was nothing like any other yoga studio I had ever visited.

            The owner of Fit Columbia, Angela Yong Sellers, had a warmly ecstatic smile on her face as she watched me enter.  I told her, with great apprehension, that I had never tried aerial yoga and was very out of shape.  Sellers grinned at me happily and said, “Okay, then.  Let’s play!”

            It was hard to think about biscuits and gravy or going back home for more snoozing with someone as sincerely encouraging as Sellers telling me how happy she was to have me visit her studio.  She led me to my own silk trapeze and began a few warm-up exercises with me, where we used the silks for some resistance and Pilates-like stretches.  “This is great for runners—it helps with hip-hinging,” Sellers explained.  “You’re doing a lot of the same exact stretches you normally would, but you’re challenging the norm and it’s not even forced.  You end up with a more relaxing, bigger stretch.”

Angie Sellers instructs a Sunday morning yoga class using aerial silks.

            That I understood, and I followed her directions without questioning—until she encouraged me to get more comfortable with the silks by sitting in one.

            I looked at her incredulously.  I’m not a small woman by any means.  In my head, I briefly pictured myself sitting in one of the hanging aerial silks and my weight causing it to crash down on the floor, taking a dusty chunk of the ceiling down with me, perhaps breaking a bone or two.

            In spite of my hesitations, Sellers never lost a beat; she kept her genuine, enthusiastic smile the entire time.  She explained to me that the aerial silks are connected to the ceiling with rock climbing gear—each one can hold 800 pounds.  Encouraged but still uncertain, I gave in and gingerly lowered myself into the suspended silk trapeze.  Sellers guided me to lift my legs into the silks with me, so that I was completely in the air.  I held my breath and prepared for a huge crash.

            But there was no crash; I hung, suspended from the ceiling, and was shockingly comfortable. 

            “Now, lift one leg straight up in the air, so that your leg stands higher than your head,” Sellers coached me.

            I tried not to laugh at her request.  My flexibility, I thought, was long gone—I’m not capable of completely stretching my leg out, and certainly can’t put my legs over my head.  I complied, though—and I was astonished when my body actually followed along with Sellers’s coaching.  I could feel an intense but rewarding stretch in my hamstring, and realized in awe that my body was doing something I didn’t think it could.

Yoga student Marnie Bailey uses aerial silks to enhance her practice.

            “Aerial yoga allows you to stretch your hips and joints in ways that your body normally wouldn’t allow,” Sellers explained.  “That’s why it is so useful for people with severe limitations like rheumatoid arthritis or Parkinson’s…it helps with super rigid muscles.”

            So there I sat, about three feet off the ground in a giant piece of silk, my leg over my head, slowly spinning.  “Your spine enjoys rocking, rhythmic movements like this,” Sellers told me.  “It calms the nerves and is very relaxing.”

            When Sellers prodded me to change positions, it felt like I had been interrupted from a daydream.  Something about stretching in the aerial silk had been so mentally and physically relaxing that my mind had completely turned off for a moment, and I had felt calm, dreamy, rested—or at least I felt that way, until she asked me if I was ready to hang upside down.

            If you have ever tried rollerblading as an adult after not doing it for several years, you understand the tension and fear you feel approaching something that once seemed so harmless.  As an adult, you are so much more aware of your body’s limitations and the possible repercussions of physical activity.  Seven-year-old me would have gleefully jumped into the aerial silks and recklessly flipped myself upside down, and I also probably would have laughed the entire time and chided someone else into joining me.  However, I can tell you with absolute certainty that at 29 years old, I’m not spending any of my free time hanging from monkey bars or climbing trees or dangling off a jungle gym.

Angie Sellers instructs a Sunday morning yoga class using aerial silks.

            For everyone else’s sake, I am glad that the 9 a.m. class’s students had yet to arrive, because there is no way that my shrieks and  protests would have been at all conducive to a relaxing yoga session for anyone near me.  In spite of my self-doubting, terrified ramblings, Sellers remained upbeat.  She coached me on how to lift myself up into the silks and stand.  I suddenly realized I was in tree pose, with one of my feet pressed at the inner thigh of my other leg, standing tall, several feet above ground—and I felt relaxed.  I felt safe.  I trusted, from the way she had coached me into the silks, that I was not going to fall.

            It took quite a bit of yelping and protesting before I finally let myself fall forward.  I ended up face down, in a sort of seated handstand, my knees bent and my palms on the floor.  “Now let go,” Sellers said.

            There was no way I was letting go.  I felt my palms pressing firmly into the floor of the studio and thought, I will fall.  If I don’t have something to support myself on…I will fall.

            “I can’t—I’m sorry!  I can’t,” I kept repeating.

            Sellers did not seem disappointed; she laughed softly and said, “Yes, you can.” She knelt beside the silk and offered me her hand.  Hesitantly, I finally gave in and gave her one of my palms, which she directed to my feet.  “Now let the other one go,” she instructed.

            “I’m going to fall.  I can’t let go.  I can’t let go!” I kept repeating.

            Sellers offered me her hand again, but I was too afraid to take it.  I kept imagining myself tumbling out of the silk, crashing down.

            Then I suddenly realized—what if I did crash down?  I wasn’t that high up.  I wasn’t really capable of falling too hard.  I could faintly hear her offering me her hand again, but suddenly, without another thought or word, I picked my palm off the floor and gripped my other ankle.  There, I dangled in the air, completely off ground, not holding onto anything but my own feet.  I closed my eyes and realized, I did it.

            It sounds like a small feat, sure—but for a first time aerial yoga student, it was a massive relief to finally trust my body and my mind enough to just let go.  I suddenly realized the value of aerial yoga went far beyond the increased flexibility and stretching positions—it yields a sense of self, and grounding, and bravery, and trust that many other forms of yoga cannot provide.

            Sellers could not have looked more pleased.  “For me, this is the best part of teaching with the silks,” she said.  “In five seconds, I watch you go from feeling legitimate fear to realizing, ‘Holy crap, I’m awesome!’ I saw your entire expression and mood change, from your face to your body—it was childlike joy.”

            As other, more seasoned yoga students came in, I was taken aback by the energy of the group.  They were friendly, talkative, even helping each other achieve positions in the silks.  I commented to Sellers on what a positive, unique environment this was, and she smiled knowingly.

Fit Columbia students help each other during an aerial yoga class.

            “There are a lot of great yoga studios in Columbia, and they’re all really good at what they do.  So when I went into [opening Fit Columbia], I thought, what can I do that is different from everyone else?” she explained.  “Everyone’s first few times are always like this—fun, interactive.  Once you get comfortable with the wall harnesses or the aerial silks, then we can go further in your yoga journey.”

            Fit Columbia has not only been a place where local residents have regained physical and mental wellness in the last year; it has also been a place where many people have found new friendships.  I spoke with a few of the yoga students, including Marnie Bailey, who is currently enrolled in Sakhi Yoga’s yoga teacher training program.  Bailey said she has made friends through taking yoga classes, and calls Fit Columbia “an amazing, present way to get to know people.”

            Bailey told me that after her husband ended their marriage, she was a graduate student battling depression, until she found yoga.  “In addition to the physical benefits, yoga taught me to balance my mind and not take everything so seriously,” she explained.  “When you’re in a very difficult pose, for example—you just have to accept where you’re at, and do what you can.  Yoga taught me to apply that to everything in my life.”

            For Bailey, aerial yoga was appealing for many reasons. She looked forward to the challenge of “working against gravity,” and also said the different dynamics of aerial yoga “keeps you focused on what you’re doing.”  “More than anything though, there’s an element of whimsy to aerial yoga,” said Bailey.  “It’s playful, and it’s fun, and that’s really what yoga is all about.”

            As I slipped out of the studio, Bailey’s words hung in my mind.  The laughter of the yoga students, the kind way in which they helped position each other in the silks, and the incessantly warm, sincere encouragement of Sellers had left a lasting impression on me.  It wasn’t until a few hours later that I even remembered I had woken up that morning groggy, exhausted, and stressed.  With just a glimpse into the world of aerial yoga, I achieved not only the balance and centering that hatha yoga normally gave me, but I also felt this incredible release of tension.  I had laughed, I had faced a fear, I had hung upside down like a child on a playground, and I had forgotten all of my cares.  That never-ending “to do” list suddenly did not seem so overwhelming and daunting at all.  I had let go.

Walk-ins are welcome to attend aerial yoga class at 7 p.m. every Thursday at Fit Columbia.  For more information on Fit Columbia’s available classes and programs, visit www.fitcolumbia.com.

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