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Aerial Hoop: Instagram's Favorite Extreme Workout

Aerial hoop instructor Elaina Royter shows us how it's done. All photos by Driely S. for Racked
Aerial hoop instructor Elaina Royter shows us how it's done. All photos by Driely S. for Racked

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Now, before we get into it, I'm going to say this: I hung upside down in a hoop for this story, so you better damn like it.

I've been obsessed with gymnastics for forever, but a condition sidelined me when I was very young. It wasn't a torn meniscus or a traumatic trampoline accident or anything, I've just always had a crippling fear of going upside down. My brain doesn't understand it, my delicate stomach can't handle it, and to me, it's the scariest thing a human can do.

But years of sitting out when girls were flipping over uneven bars and eating soft pretzels while classmates rode the grown-up roller coasters were erased within minutes of stepping into lyra class.

Lyra, which is also known as aerial hoop, is the art of performing acrobatics using a single hoop connected to the ceiling. In my terms, though, it's the ability to squeeze your muscles tightly and look elegant while sitting in the sky and trying not to panic about how you're going to get down. (This fear allegedly goes away over time—after four or five classes, students are typically able to master the first set of skills.)

New York's Body & Pole studio.

Lyra is like the lovechild of gymnastics and Pilates, perfect for both mat class obsessives and the girl pounding pull-ups at CrossFit. It brings together an interesting cross-section of people—former dancers, gymnast types, terrified Racked writers (hi!), and people who are simply curious enough to attend.

Out of New York's many aerial studios, I wound up settling on two to tickle my hoop fancy: the cozy, yoga-centric Om Factory and the massive, glitzy Body & Pole and its 10,000-square-foot facility.

Lyra is like the lovechild of gymnastics and Pilates.

The practice requires a certain level of what I like to call "farm strength": all-over, full body muscles developed from a life spent living off the land or preparing to be an American Ninja Warrior contestant. I, on the other hand, clocked in at :02 on the flexed-arm hang in middle school, so to call lyra a challenge for me is an extreme understatement.

It looks easy enough, but the trouble is in the details—extreme shoulder, arm, and core strength is required to make it actually look good. The hoop is made of steel or aluminum and covered in athletic tape, which requires a heretofore unknown amount of hand strength to grip. My hands were so blistered and sore after my first class that I texted my editor a photo and told her I quit, hoping she'd take the joke seriously so I wouldn't have to attend again. She did not.

In a typical lyra class, warm-ups consist of shoulder-based preparation that's followed by a round of conditioning with shoulder- and arm-strengthening exercises. This section is terribly difficult, but necessary in order to the build up to the fun stuff.

Extreme shoulder, arm, and core strength is required to make it actually look good.

Getting into the hoop is taught a few different ways, though it essentially involves a hang-tuck-curl or hang-tuck-pike motion. It takes a few maneuvers (that soon become familiar, promise) to get into the hoop, but once you're up, you are UP! And that's where the real magic—and picture-perfect Instagram—begins.

The truth is, I didn't take to all this very quickly, and the first time I went to Om Factory, I actually almost faked sick and left because I was so freaked out. My second class, at Body & Pole, was totally different. The class was more streamlined and the space felt more like an exercise studio than an aerial facility. While the Om Factory class had me wondering why I even bothered to attend, Body & Pole made me feel totally comfortable thanks to its attentive instructors and multi-level programming that ensure students aren't in over their heads.

Elaina: Master tush pusher.

Under the guidance of the super strong, super impressive Elaina Royter, who hoisted my tush into the sky, I was still nervous, but confident. With aerial hoop, it's easy to see results. (Go to 1:44 in this video—I did that!) It's not like squatting with a kettlebell and wondering when you'll have Nicki Minaj's ass cheeks. You actually see yourself (sometimes upside down, sometimes with most limbs hanging off a hoop) getting better in real time.

There are seemingly endless tricks and poses one can accomplish on the hoop, which means you don't have to keep up with the pace of people around you and can instead conquer little goals on your own. The class typically ends with you hanging from the hoop and spinning—kind of a downer after the impressiveness of "Hey! I'm up here!"—but a proper bookend to the conditioning warm-ups earlier in the session.

With aerial hoop, it's easy to see results.

If you don't think aerial exercise exists in your town, you're probably wrong, and someone just a few blocks away may be flipping through a hoop instead of holding a plank at a sweaty gym at this very moment. Lyra is a welcome substitute for classes that have you repeating the same motion over and over again, and of course, it's way more fun than swiping pedals back and forth on an elliptical. And while Gwyneth is all about antigravity yoga, lyra is the unexpectedly cool alternative (hey, Demi Moore's kids are obsessed).

Hey! I did it!

Lyra isn't for wimps or for people who are unable to admit their faults. You need to be open-minded and also accept that you may be terribly, truly terrible at something that looks relatively easy. I can kill it in a cardio class, but by the end of my lyra session, surrounded by classmates perfecting a lying-outside-the-hoop move, my upper body was so tired I could barely even grip the hoop.

(I later fell into a K-hole of aerial videos post-class and stumbled upon Elaina's U.S. Aerial Championship submission tape. I am now her #1 fan.)

Lyra isn't for wimps or for people who are unable to admit their faults.

I've never accomplished so much in an exercise class. Yesterday I almost gave up because I couldn't do a weird oblique exercise correctly, but at lyra, no matter how sloppy it looked, I got into the hoop. I got myself from down on the ground to up in the sky at a speed I had never progressed at before. Granted, if you're a n00b, the teacher will pretty much force your body into a backwards somersault, but the more you get used it it, the less heavy lifting they do.

And that's precisely what's so incredible about this practice—even my little-noodle-armed self got her butt up into a hoop and floated through the air within the first 40 minutes. It's a weird workout, to be sure, but the ratio of frustration to success is low and the fun stuff is fun.