October 20, 2014
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Upside down is latest yoga rage
Jessica Botelho

“I have back issues and knee problems and there’s nothing that takes the pressure off my back like AntiGravity Yoga,” says Gail Ruggieri, former fitness teacher and member of Raffa Yoga. “When I leave, I feel good. I feel like singing.”

According to their website at raffayoga.com, AntiGravity Yoga is a fitness regimen that incorporates components from dance, Pilates and calisthenics. It aims to get people in shape, as well as increase overall health and physical agility while realigning them from the compression of gravity, as they perform the exercise in a silk hammock that hangs from the ceiling.

It is used in at least 23 centers in the United States and 44 worldwide.

The concept was founded and created by New Yorker Christopher Harrison, a former Broadway dancer and world-class competitive gymnastics specialist, who visited Raffa Yoga at 19 Sharpe Drive in Cranston Thursday evening to conduct a teacher-training program and run a few classes.

“Taking this class with him was absolutely amazing,” said Amanda Dinger, who has traveled 45 minutes from New Bedford to the center at least once a week for the last few months because she enjoys the “suspension training” exercise. “I love the feeling of being upside-down. If I tried to do a flip on the ground I’d break my neck.”

She described the classes as much different than regular yoga. This, she said, is much more relaxing. At first, the hammock intimidated her, but once she opened up to it, she found her new favorite method of exercising.

“Once you know it’s going to hold you and you get oriented in the hammock, you begin to trust it,” Dinger said.

Ruggieri, who lives in Warwick but grew up in Cranston and graduated from Cranston West High School in 1971, has been taking classes since July. She, too, visits once per week and said AntiGravity Yoga reduces pain she experiences in her rotator cuffs, as well as other parts of her body.

“It takes the pressure off your joints, feet and wrists,” said Ruggieri. “I tell people it’s easier than regular yoga. Someone has to spot you doing a handstand in regular yoga, but with this, you can do it on your own. I saw someone on ‘The View’ do it and I said, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”

Her friend, Janine Calise of Cranston, agreed. Like Ruggieri, she began visiting the center in July and takes the class once a week.

“I love the way my back and joints feel when I leave,” she said. “I’m a fitness instructor and I do a lot of hardcore boot camps so when I come to this class everything just feels better. It’s a big release. I’ve never done a handstand in my life until coming here and doing this.”

Men also enjoy it. Jon Garamolini of Cumberland, as well as Kevin Wyman of Warwick, took the class for the first time Thursday evening. Both said they would take it again.

“I thought it was great,” said Garamolini, a chiropractor who plans on recommending it to his clients. “I feel really loose, a little taller and straighter and like I can move better.”

For Wyman, it served as a confidence builder that promoted fun, while reducing body pain.

“When’s the last time you hung upside down by your feet?” he said. “I have arthritis, pain in my shoulders, lower back pain, herniated disks, and bad knees. It really opens it all up.”

Before inventing the hammock, Harrison formed an aerial performance company, AntiGravity, which was founded in 1991 and is made up of gymnasts and dancers whose daily workouts now use the hammock.

They took part in the inaugural ceremony for Barrack Obama, past Olympic Games Ceremonies, as well as the Video Music Awards on MTV.

They started as tumblers and in the late 1990s he suggested literally taking their act to a higher level, as they perform in the hammocks at 20 feet in the air.

By that time, circuses were starting to use pieces of silk in their shows. However, Harrison said, no one ever looped it to create a hammock. Little did he know his invention would have so many uses.

He spent 12 years developing the technique, which is certified by the Aerobatics and Fitness Association of America and the American Council of Exercise. More than 380 trainers are licensed throughout the world.

“Yoga is so good for your body and AntiGravity Yoga makes it easier for people who haven’t done yoga before because the hammock helps suspend you and helps to pull you into proper alignment,” Harrison said.

Further, Harrison said people who are new with yoga often struggle with inversions, or poses, the most important part of yoga. AntiGravity Yoga allows everyone to do inversions in class, even difficult types.

“To do a headstand or handstand in yoga is an advanced skill, but in AntiGravity Yoga, everyone in the room can do one during their first class,” said Harrison. “You will leave the class happier, healthier and taller.”

Taller? In fact, Harrison said, when a person tips upside down to do a zero compression inversion, it allows spinal fluid to hydrate the discs that are between vertebrae located in the spine. As people age, the discs become dry.

“We compress all day long and when we hang upside down, we decompress and allow that fluid to dehydrate those discs,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s not cumulative, or I’d be six-foot-four.”

As a fitness device and a yoga tool, Harrison said it allows anyone to be successful because the tension a person gives in the hammock pulls them in it. The “special” fabric holds exactly 3,346 pounds.

“If it can hold a small cow, it can hold us,” Ruggieri said with a smile.

Smiling and laughing, Harrison said, is a big part of the exercise. In addition to hydrating vertebrae discs, being upside-down also allows the pituitary gland to release serotonin, and other “feel good” hormones.

“People leave with an AntiGravity high,” he said. “We want people to have fun and stay lighthearted.”

Raffa Yoga owner Christine Raffa agreed.

“Turning upside down is one of the only known ways to stimulate that gland,” said Raffa. “It’s the come on and get happy yoga.”

Raffa Yoga also incorporates Urban Sweat, a series of sauna and spa treatments that help people relax and allow their bodies to experience detoxification. Together, the two concepts create an active relaxation facility, Raffa said. More than 1,000 yoga members visit the facility, plus additional people use its spas and saunas.

“The concept is based on a point where old world wisdom meets new world self care,” said Raffa of the 15,000 square foot facility. “This is the first of its kind.”

AntiGravity Yoga is priced at $15 per class. Members have unlimited access to all yoga classes offered at the center, as they pay $99 per month.

The center also offers other services, which are available a la cart, including therapeutic massages, hot stone therapy treatments and reflexology. Urban Sweat is $40 per day.

The point of Urban Sweat, Raffa said, is to “relax, refresh and renew.” For February, they are holding a Valentine’s promotion.

“We feel like our community is our Valentine, so we’re giving them a special for two deep tissue massages and two entrances into Urban Sweat for $199,” said Raffa.

Moreover, two relaxation massages and two admissions to Urban Sweat are available for $149.

They also have a full-service juice bar. Drinks, as well as light eats, are made from fresh ingredients. Raffa said she is pleased she can share her knowledge with the state.

“I’ve been able to travel all over the world and I’ve always sought out places for self healing,” she said. “I feel like I’ve brought the best of the best and offer it to the community in Rhode Island. I’m so grateful.”

To anyone who is hesitant to try AntiGravity Yoga, Harrison gave a few words of advice. He said, “You are only as young as your spine is flexible and your mind is open. Open your mind, increase the flexibility of your spine and enjoy a taste from the fountain of youth.”

For more information, as well as a list of class schedules, contact Raffa Yoga at 401-463-6335 or log onto www.raffayoga.com.


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