Christopher Harrison is a man whose feet rarely touch the ground.
A world-class gymnast and Broadway dancer, he founded the entertainment brand AntiGravity® in New York in 1991. Since then, he’s designed over 400 aerial productions in settings as diverse as Broadway, Olympic stadiums and the inauguration of President Obama.
Harrison is also the creator of AntiGravity® Aerial Yoga, one of the seven techniques which sit under the umbrella of AntiGravity® Fitness. The restorative form of yoga has become famous for its zero-compression inversions using a silk hammock and has gained a huge following from celebrities like Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow to martial arts athletes and professional skiers. His mission is to spread health and happiness through movement and spas are very much on his radar – in fact, the spa-like discipline of yoga is really where it all started.
Inspiration from India
Harrison began practising yoga after visiting India in the mid-90s. It helped him to become more mindful and present in his life and movement. “I gained a meditation practice and discovered that things started to flow easier because I could let go of the frantic energy of living in New York City,” he says. “As a gymnast and a dancer who’d performed in Cats, I’d pushed my body so hard it was so beat up by [the time I was] 33. I discovered the best way to deal with compression injuries is decompression. The one way to decompress in our society is through practising yoga.”
To help eliminate compression on the spine even further, Harrison began experimenting with a hammock he’d originally created for stage performances which has been used by artists such as Britney Spears and Mariah Carey. The silk fabric of the Harrison AntiGravity® Hammock, acted like a soft trapeze to suspend the body during yoga and help with alignment.
It also had health and fitness benefits as an exercise device. By putting the hammock at the same height as a ballet barre, he started adapting different moves from other disciplines such as pilates, aerial arts, gymnastics and dance. He realised that by using its support, he could also go deeper into a pose and the possibilities were endless.
Two decades on, AntiGravity® Fitness has, for want of a better saying, really taken off. It’s approved by numerous safety and fitness organisations and includes seven programmes ranging from suspension fitness and pilates to those for children. It’s available in over 400 facilities, including 20 high-end spas, in 50 countries.
The AntiGravity ®Aerial Yoga and Restorative Yoga are particularly popular with spas such as those at the Four Seasons in Bahrain, Bali, Sayan and the Maldives. It’s a natural fit for wellness operators says Harrison: “The feeling of being suspended somehow allows you to no longer feel the gravity of life. A meditation can really soar and a floating shavasana is so peaceful.”
Harrison refers to aerial yoga as his baby because it’s the first technique that evolved out of AntiGravity® Fitness. To take part in a class, the user sits in the hammock, which can be height-adjusted. They balance between the hammock and the floor for 80 per cent of positions, using both to move in different directions and to change the relationship with gravity.
A typical class, which anyone can do, is low impact with a focus on mobility and agility. For the more advanced, there are a number of challenging poses that work the cardiovascular system and build strength. A session lasts 60-90 minutes and can include crunches, squats, push-ups and jumping jacks. The hammock acts as a support for other moves such as inversions, handstands and front flips.
One of the main benefits this form of yoga brings over traditional practices is the ability for users to go into a zero-compression inversion. “When you’re hanging upside down, it takes away all the stress that’s been pushing on the discs of your spine,” explains Harrison. “You’re creating space, which allows the discs to hydrate and very often helps relieve back pain from the first session.
“It also releases serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine; happy hormones, which make it easier for you to cope with life, lose weight and refresh the digestive system.” He adds that other positive side effects include improvement in flexibility, alignment, balance, joint mobility and muscular strength.
An average class has between eight to 16 pupils, although some studios offer private spaces for two or three pupils. Harrison recommends more than one person per class, as it’s easier to learn from watching someone else.
Harrison says that spas are very much a focus for him in the future: “People come to the spa for the sake of decompression – of their mind and their bodies through relaxation and massage. One of the things that we’re very excited about is the launch of AntiGravity® 1on1.”
AntiGravity® 1on1 is a new programme for personal fitness trainers which debuted in 15 countries in late February. Harrison feels the person-centric approach will work particularly well in spas, especially its 30-minute current session design called ‘D-kink.’ Incorporating the hammock, the D-kink sequence enables personal trainers to add a variety of moves to fitness regimes such as enhanced stretching, spinal traction, the zero-compression inversion and a floating rest, to provide a balanced workout. It’s also effective as a workout cool-down he says – instead of instructors stretching or massaging clients on a mat or table, they can use D-kink to decompress the spine and elevate the moves. D-kink is the first of many 1on1 therapeutic sessions Harrison is designing for personal trainers.
Something that’s even more suited to spas, however, is a specialist treatment called AntiGravity® Floating Massage, which Harrison’s currently developing. As it’s still being created, he’s reluctant to share too many details, but he describes it as a complex technique which will allow a licensed therapist to manipulate the client into a weightless state (presumably using the silk hammock somehow) in combination with massage therapy.
He adds: “All I can say is that once suspended in mid-air, the body reacts to manipulation very differently. The therapist has leverage that he/she would not be able to attain if the body was lying on a hard surface. The resulting benefits to the recipient are truly amazing.”
Expect to see Floating Massage rolling out in high-end spas by the end of the year, with Four Seasons already signed up. “I showed their [a Four Seasons] spa director what I had and she was very enthusiastic,” says Harrison. “She gave me the encouragement to proceed with the development of the technique.”
So what does the master of antigravity do to come back down to earth? He laughs and says, “I use my practices to relax. I go into the hammock every morning and start with restorative postures to open space in my back and my neck followed by suspension moves.”
He concludes: “It’s like giving yourself an amazing refresher. You find balance in your workout; between compression and decompression, strength and flexibility, agility and mobility and between body and mind. You are in greater flow, in less pain and things become a little bit easier because of it.”