October 23, 2013—the first time I ever did a set of crunches while hanging upside down. The woman responsible for getting me in such a precarious position? Nicole, an instructor at Lincoln Park’s AIR. The newly opened aerial fitness studio was founded by Shama Patel, a former Chicago corporate attorney who debuted her first AIR location in Charlotte in 2011. But before I found myself in that unexpected inversion, I met with Shama, who showed me some moves before my beginner AIR Foundations class. In the studio, long loops of blue silk (the same used by Cirque du Soleil, according to Shama) hung from sturdy wooden beams on the ceiling. I stepped up into one and we launched into a few inversions, some stretches, and my favorite position: lying down. Shama taught me how to spread out the silk hammock and stretch out inside of it as if in a cocoon. But as Shama explained, AIR doesn’t offer your typical aerial yoga classes. The workouts also incorporate Pilates, cardio, and some strength work on the ballet barre. When Shama handed me over to instructor Nicole for AIR Foundations, I learned firsthand just how grueling (and fun) their airborne workout can be. Nicole pumped up the music. We started out simple, with a few stretches and warmups like I’d expected, but it wasn’t long before Nicole surprised me with some trickier moves. One of my favorites: 10 jumping jacks on the floor, then taking a fistful of silk in either hand and pulling myself straight upwards into a hybrid pull-up/jump. And then it happened. The inverted crunches. Once Nicole helped me wrap the loop around my back for ample support, I leaned back and pushed my feet over my head, wrapping my legs around the hanging silks. I then did two sets of crunches, curling my head and chest toward the ceiling. Oddly enough, this move came more naturally to me than the others—perhaps because I spent my childhood hanging from monkey bars and tree branches. By the time we made it over to the ballet barre, I was sweating and shaky from exertion; I barely made it through a few sets of yoga-inspired squats. But things quickly eased up, as we wound down with a few bridge-like pelvic lifts and a soothing back stretch. Lastly, a familiar cooldown: I laid flat on my back, palms up, while Nicole massaged some delightfully tingly eucalyptus oil into my temples. When I walked out of the studio, I felt a mixture of exhaustion and elation flowing through my veins—and a swell of pride over those crunches that has yet to dissipate. Try it if: You want an extra kick of cardio and strength in your yoga or Pilates routine Don’t go if: You’re looking for a workout where you can phone it in—this class is tougher than it looks Beware of: Claiming a silk loop that’s too high for you; it should hit you right around the hips Invite a friend who: Will join you for Pequod’s Pizza after class, since it’s right next door Come prepared with: Just yourself—the studio provides all necessary equipment Wear: Long, form-fitting workout pants or leggings and a form-fitting top that will stay put no matter how you move, plus bare feet Intensity level: Give it a few days before you go back for a full-blown AIR class—your sore muscles will thank you Photo: © Stephanie Bassos, GrouponRead More
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Kurt Gowan is basically a pair of web shooters away from being Spider-Man. As an advanced practitioner of parkour, he’s able to rapidly scale buildings, slip through obstacles, and execute impressive aerial maneuvers. And though he might not be an actual superhero, his talents did land him in an actual movie: he was a stuntman in Divergent, the dystopian novel-turned-movie that was recently shot here in Chicago. Film sets aren’t his usual stomping grounds, however. Kurt is the owner and head trainer of Parkour Ways, an all-ages instructional studio he invited me to for a private lesson. As we got started, Kurt asked me why I wanted to learn parkour. I immediately had flashbacks of YouTube videos I obsessed over in college, the mind-blowing Madagascar sequence of Casino Royale, and a daydream I’d had that very morning about climbing into the L station instead of battling with my Ventra card. (Incidentally, Kurt lived out my daydream for a stunt in Divergent.) He took what I thought were grandiose ideas in stride. “Cool, so you want to learn the movements,” Kurt said. “I just wanted to make sure the lesson steered toward your goals.” We warmed up with a series of low-to-the-ground movements, crawling, bunny-hopping, and sidestepping in laps around the gym. It sounded easy in theory, but after a few minutes of constant squatting my thighs started to burn. Kurt, for his part, was on his seventh round of warm-ups for the day—earlier he had been teaching parkour to middle schoolers in the suburbs. Even so, he was much faster and quieter than me. After our joints were limber and my quads were on fire, we started with an actual parkour move: the safety vault. “It’s the safest way to vault a wall,” Kurt said as he demonstrated on an approximately 4-foot-high homemade wall. Instead of jumping cleanly over the wall, he alighted atop it briefly, placing one foot and his opposite hand on top of the wall as he leapt. He then threaded his trailing leg through the gap between the two limbs and pushed off, landing safely on one leg on the other side. As I followed hesitantly in his footsteps, Kurt explained mental tricks he used to keep himself from tripping mid-jump. “Think of it just like walking,” he recommended. “Whatever foot you happen to be standing on [before you jump], you know that the other one is going on top of the wall, like taking a big step.” My technique improved after each pointer, and eventually I was able to leap over the wall at will. We then practiced the same move on metal railings, where the lesser surface area made finding footing a bit more challenging. Later on, Kurt constructed a miniature course for me to run, using all the walls and rails I’d practiced on so far. I ran and vaulted, chaining the move together in twos and threes, striving to flow “like that water you’re about to get,” Kurt joked. As we stretched out at the end of class, Kurt suggested I keep practicing by using the back of a sturdy couch or any stretch of pavement in the city with a low wall or railing. That’s when one of parkour’s greatest aspects clicked with me—it’s an exercise form you can take anywhere and do anytime without the need for a gym or special equipment. I plan on returning soon to perfect my moves so that I won’t be tempted to practice by illegally hopping an L turnstile. Try it if: Feeling like a superhero sounds cool to you. Beware of: Scaring yourself out of a jump. Invite a friend who: Has a great vertical. Come prepared with: A bottle of water. It’s thirsty work. Wear: Long, comfortable pants and good running shoes. Intensity level: Extremely beginner-friendly, though it’ll lead to soreness. Photo courtesy of Kurt GowanRead More
In addition to a killer hangover, each New Year’s Day brings a wealth of possibilities and promises of self-improvement. The problem is, actually going to the gym or making a home-cooked meal is a whole lot harder than just settling into the couch to binge-watch TED Talks on Netflix. This year, we’ve compiled a list of ways to make your New Year’s resolutions last longer than your leftover Christmas cookies. If your resolution is: “Get in shape.” If treadmills and yoga classes make you sleepy, parkour just might be the shot of adrenaline your muscles have been waiting for. Kurt Gowan, the founder of Parkour Ways and an erstwhile Divergent stuntman, leads beginner-friendly classes in the French art of freerunning, teaching the crawls, hops, and sidesteps needed to work your way up to high-intensity obstacle leaps and wall scales. Along the way, you’ll work every muscle in your body—especially the thighs, as one Groupon Guide writer noted. Classes at Parkour Ways (1750 N. Kingsbury St.) are $20 each—though this Groupon deal makes it easier to take the first flying leap. If your resolution is: “Meet somebody.” This year, skip the speed dating and get straight to the dance floor. Big City Swing starts a new round of beginners’ classes the week of Monday, January 6. Over the course of four weeks, students will get to know one another through a series of swingouts, lindy hops, and charlestons. No partner is needed, as the instructors like to mix couples up throughout the class, allowing students to test their skills (and their chemistry) with one another. A four-week session at Big City Swing (1012 W. Randolph St.) costs $65. If your resolution is: “Learn to cook like a real adult.” Cook Au Vin’s Vincent Colombet is serious about teaching the culinary arts—so much so that he tries not to even touch the food during his classes, preferring to let students take charge of the ladles, knives, and whisks. By the end of each lesson, students will have whipped up a four-course meal in the classic French style. As if adding ratatouille, boar sausage, and crème brûlée to your culinary repertoire wasn’t enticing enough, Chef Vincent lets his students uncork BYOB bottles of wine during the post-class feast. What does another night of Easy Mac have on that? Classes at Cook Au Vin (2256 N. Elston Ave.) start at $110, but check out this Groupon deal for an extra-privileged price. If your resolution is: “Fix my wardrobe.” If your New Year’s resolutions include upgrading your footwear or finally retiring a beloved pair of wooden clogs, the Chicago School of Shoemaking has you covered. The school’s master cobbler, who has more than 35 years of experience, teaches students to make their own sandals or boots from scratch during intensive one- and two-day classes. Sandal-making classes at the Chicago School of Shoemaking (4723 N. Winchester Ave. #G) cost $275 and boot-making classes cost $895, but this Groupon deal for a basic leather-working class will also get you started on the right foot. If your resolution is: “Finally write the Great American Novel.” Steve Martin once said, “Writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.” However, this is the same man who approved of the script for Bringing Down the House. You can take Martin’s advice with a grain of salt (and a tequila shot) at Both Sides Art’s BYOB creative-writing classes. Led by a writing professor at the American Academy of Art, the 90-minute sessions convene Wednesdays at 8 p.m. and offer a supportive environment for writers from all walks of life. The BYOB creative-writing classes at Both Sides Art (1840 S. Halsted St.) normally cost $40, but you can use this Groupon deal to score a special price for up to four Hemingways-in-training. If your resolution is: “Become an actual superhero.” You never know when you’ll be called upon to come to the rescue, but Chicago CPR Now ensures you’ll be prepared for any emergencies that come your way. Its instructors lead American Heart Association–approved classes in CPR for adults, infants, and children; automated external defibrillators; and general first aid. Classes at Chicago CPR Now (3717 N. Ravenswood Ave. Suite 209) start at $45. If your resolution is: “Get over this crippling glossophobia.” If you’re looking for more than a $5 improv education, you can try the Ultimate Beginner class at The Annoyance Theatre. The eight-week session begins Thursday, January 16, and covers such topics as long- and short-form improv, object work, and how to say “no” without offending Ryan Stiles. Beginning classes at The Annoyance Theatre (4830 N. Broadway) cost $225.Read More