Her clothes are black, her voice is quiet, and in her clipped sentences the concept of “zen” goes completely unmentioned. In short, Sam Witala is not your mother’s yoga teacher. But then Levitas Yoga is no ordinary studio. And aerial yoga is no passing fad, even if the phrase sounds like something out of Portlandia.
For her and for many of her current students, aerial yoga is a necessity. “I have back problems,” she says. “I often would hang off the edge of the couch, just to try and release the spine. So my boyfriend and I traveled down to Portland—it was the closest studio we could find—to take a class. It was a lot of fun, I went back again, and then I was like, I don’t want to go back to Portland every time I want to do this!”
So Witala dove in headfirst, the same way she encourages new students. Her training started not in a candlelit studio or some far-flung retreat, but in one of the most competitive settings the U.S. has to offer: Broadway. Founded in 1991 by veteran aerial choreographer Christopher Harrison, AntiGravity Airbarre was the first company to bring aerial yoga to the masses, literally writing the book on safety standards and certification and rigging the equipment that makes flight possible.
“[Harrison] said a lot of the trapeze performers would just hang upside-down to relax and stretch. So he took it from there and created a program around that, rather than high-flying performing,” Witala explains. Since its near-accidental inception, the practice has helped people become more conscious of what their bodies need. The practice, built on stretching, is a great way to rehabilitate muscles while facilitating other fitness routines. Marathoners, cyclists, and yogis can all benefit–some even use the class to train for acrobatics.
She emphasizes it’s not just for performers or athletes—everyone can gain a deeper physical connection from the practice. With regulars from Amazon, Microsoft, and countless start-ups, Witala’s little Belltown studio is making a notable difference in Seattle’s professional community. “I get a lot of people who say they don’t think they’ve ever felt their spine lengthen like this before. A lot of people who sit at desks all day,” she laughs. “I’ve got a group of regular students who have no problem popping out of their spot and helping others. That helps build community as well.”
Far from cornering the market, her aim is to expand it. Levitas has trained most of its own teachers, and Witala seems relaxed about the possibility of competition, pointing to several former students who have gone on to open their own studios.
That said, Witala knows it can be hard to start. “I tell people ahead of time that the first class they take is going to feel awkward. Like a juice cleanse, you feel kind of icky going into it.” There’s also a fear aspect—even though the hammocks are built to hold thousands of pounds. “We usually do two inversions in each class, because every one gets easier, once you get more comfortable with it. And then it becomes a good experience versus a terrifying one.” Find Levitas Yoga classes at Connect2Classes.com.