I’ve always been fairly active; though I’m definitely fitter now than I was in my teens or early twenties. I think I expect more from myself now…perhaps in an attempt to ward off the creeping effects of aging.
I started taking fitness more seriously when I began pilates classes about seven years ago in Canada. With pilates I learned that our bodies are not designed to move just one hour, two or three times a week. I came to understand we should be moving every day with purpose, consistency and to never ignore weak spots. Just as I was gaining momentum, I suffered a massive spontaneous bleed into my abdomen that required emergency surgery. Decorated with a midline incision stretching from my sternum down to my pubic bone cutting through all layers of abdominal muscle, I had to start all over again. There were many learning curves here – the first one being patience, the second being that cuts are very sore!
Finally after two years of commitment to the discipline, I became a fully qualified pilates instructor. The strength and flexibility I’ve gained from this process keeps my back pain free, core strong (could always be stronger though!) and joints more stable. I feel everything else I do has benefited from the fact I train in pilates.
These days I keep variety in my fitness routine. I train at MaD Crossfit in Wellington. I like to go minimum three times a week, ideally five. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive gym; they also allow me to hang my circus aerial equipment from their ceiling. I like to do a couple of aerial sessions a week and perhaps some hand balance training too. I also stretch most evenings for around an hour. I’m not naturally bendy so I like to try bend more when I can.
I started learning circus aerials about 5 years ago in Christchurch. Like many others, I was inspired by the incredible performers of Cirque du Soleil. I actively sought out local performers to learn from and it wasn’t long before this became an obsession.
My first experience was the corde lisse - a single rope suspended from the ceiling. It was hard, painful, tiring and somewhat daunting in the beginning (still is at times to be honest!). It quickly became apparent exactly how demanding and difficult it is to haul your way up a rope, let alone make it look remotely graceful. Every training session left me with forearms and shoulders so spent it was hard to grip the wheel on the drive home. The proceeding days were spent stretching and massaging my muscles just in time to do it all over again. I’d say that circus performers would rank among the fittest people I have ever met. Fortunately they tend to be the most exuberant so every training session is assured to be as entertaining as it is painful.
Since then, I have trained in flying trapeze, pole and aerial hoop, however my main flavour of apparatus is tissu, otherwise known as the “silks”. It consists of one single piece of fabric doubled over and hung from a single point – simple and elegant. I find aerial silks (or any climbing sport for that matter) a very ‘organic’ form of movement that provides numerous unique benefits.
First and foremost, I love the fact that circus arts has zero emphasis on body image. Training to “look good naked” or whatever other catch-phrases gyms are throwing around these days only serves to limit your progress in my experience. Body shape pales in significance to learning what your body is capable of doing. Inevitably, you will be so distracted with the having of excellent fun, building strength and learning new moves that classical reasons for begrudging gym attendance, to “get the perfect bikini body”, fall by the way side...like so many preconceptions that exercise is choresome, expensive and an act of vanity. When you finally get comfortable hanging upside down by your ankles, do your first drop or get to a point where climbing 8 meters to the top isn’t an issue any more, you feel so great in yourself that you will walk away feeling satisfied and self-confident, mentally high-fiving yourself for the rest of the day.
Secondly, I love that no matter what fitness background someone comes from, you always end up bothering dormant muscles that have most likely never been targeted before. It improves back, shoulder, leg, grip and abdominal strength. Gravity is also an excellent tool for helping to increase flexibility whilst hanging up-side-down is a great way to decompress the spine and fill the brain with its daily dose of blood.
Prior to entering the world of fitness, I spent 6 years in the skydiving industry. I got my first licence to skydive solo straight out of school, another moment I never looked back on. Although I don’t jump anymore, my closest friendships were forged from this past life; a lot of them still skydive for a sport while others have moved on to base jumping. I have never lost my desire to be in the air. I love the freedom and feeling of flying, so when I started learning circus aerials, it seemed natural to want to take it as high as I could. Thankfully I have so many friends who think the same way I do. So when I messaged a good friend of mine who works as a paraglider, taking tandem flights in Queenstown, a plan started to form from our fidgeting desire for altitude and hanging off contraptions.
For around nine months, I traded my aerials silks for an aerial hoop that was shipped from the UK. I had dabbled in hoop before but this period has been, unquestionably, the most bruised I have ever been in my life! Unsurprising, seen as you are bending yourself around a steel bar. It was a very painful training experience until my body became more accustomed to it.
While a trapeze artist had accomplished a similar aerial stunt once before in France, hanging an aerial hoop below a paraglider was a world first. My act was also to be the highest circus aerial performance in the world, reaching a height of 3,000 feet. Just high enough to make a decent human pancake, as one friend eloquently put it.
A project like this involves calculated risks. I wanted to make something fun for everyone involved and entertaining for spectators. Particular thought went into how long the connecting lines would be between myself and the glider, how we would launch the glider as a tandem, how I would get down to the hoop, g-forces I may encounter and whether I would have any effect on how the glider flew in the air. While I did feel very vulnerable on the hoop due to not being directly attached to a parachute, I had trust in the people involved, my ability on the hoop and in my pilot. It gradually became a mind-over-matter situation, where I was quite capable of performing the feat, but had to overcome the intimidation of performing it in an untested situation. As we counted down to the launch, it became increasingly difficult to control my nerves. I have a theory about these types of things though; if you’re not nervous beforehand (in my case feeling like I wanted to vomit), then it’s probably not worth doing. It’s the lead up where you learn the most about yourself. We managed to fly twice. Aside from experiencing some crossed lines between the hoop and the paraglider in the first flight, both flights went smoothly.
I’m very environmentally conscious so this became an ideal opportunity to raise money for two of my favourite charities; Paw Justice and Sea Shepherd. Sea Shepherd is particularly close to my heart. They work tirelessly, without pay, to protect the world’s oceans from poachers and illegal fishing operations.
Now it’s back to normality. I’m currently a student paramedic so I have a busy schedule of school work, ambulance shifts, teaching pilates and keeping fit. I have a tendency to try cram as much living into life as possible so no doubt there will be some more high flying action soon enough. There’s a few ideas floating around (excuse the pun!). In the meantime, check out our Circus in the Sky video now online at http://vimeo.com/101836416.
Donations can be made via http://www.givealittle.co.nz/cause/paraglidingcircus .