How Training with an Acrobat Helped Me Face My Fear of Heights
The trapeze was good for more than just my triceps.
Ever since I've been able to climb things, I've had a deathly fear of heights. But as a person who loves an adventure, I always want to try fun new fitness activities (especially as a journalist who writes about health and wellness). Kayaking in the Gulf of Mexico? Check. Paddleboarding into the Bermuda Triangle? Done. But whenever said cool new activity involves heights, forget it. Ropes courses, rock climbing, even hiking too high freaks me out.
I don't want to be afraid of heights. Logically, I know I shouldn't be. Every time I face a rock climbing wall, I know I'm strapped into a harness. I know my arms aren't going to suddenly give out once I pass the five-foot mark. And I know that even if they did, the rope would catch me. But I have a totally uncontrollable physical reaction to heights. My body seems to have a sixth sense for altitude. I'll be climbing along just fine and like a switch flipping, my muscles will tense up, my hands will start sweating, and I'll get a paralyzing sense of tightness in my chest. I've never made it to the top.
So when I got an invitation to check out the new Club Med Creactive by Cirque du Soleil experience at Club Med Opio in Provence, I was torn. It was a trip to the South of France-I mean come on. Plus it was a chance to train with real Cirque du Soleil acrobats and have an IRL Carrie Bradshaw moment on the flying trapeze. How could I possibly pass that up? Still, just thinking about the idea of climbing up the ladder made me want to stay in the safety of my own trapeze-less home.
I hated the idea of saying no out of fear-staying home meant not only that the phobia had won but that I'd be missing the coolest workout opportunity ever. I had to go.
Active vacations are part of Club Med's DNA, which was apparent from the moment I arrived-from the pools to the gym, to the straight-out-of-a-storybook hiking trails in the olive groves, I was tempted to turn this trip into a luxury wellness retreat and skip the whole flying trapeze thing entirely. Training with Cirque du Soleil isn't really that cool, right?
Because I was feeling nervous as hell, I went down to the Creactive grounds a day before my training was scheduled, just to scope the place out. It was like the world's coolest playground for adults. Taking advantage of their break, some of the fittest athletes I've ever seen in person were spiraling around in aerial silks, swinging between ropes like Tarzan, and in the case of one particularly buff Hungarian, doing single-arm handstand push-ups. Seriously.
"A lot of people come in saying they're never going to do it. But there are levels for everything. Last week we had an 85-year-old woman do the bungee harness," Diogo Faria, lead artistic director of Creactive at Club Med told me. On the Creactive grounds, Diogo sees a lot of his guests find a more intrinsic motivation for fitness. Despite their motto that anyone can try, let's be real-you gotta have some solid abs to be able to fling your body around on a flying trapeze. In the span of a weeklong stay, Diogo says he regularly sees clients tweaking their fitness routines so they'll be able to handle more advanced tricks.
When it came time for my session with the Creactive crew, I was feeling optimistic about my gymnastic abilities, so I started with a confidence-boosting session in the bungee harness (hey, if an 85-year-old can do it so can I!). After I was strapped in, the trainers hoisted me up a few feet and taught me how to do a front flip and a backflip, the first of which involves a graceful flinging of your body (kind of like an in-air locust pose), and the latter of which requires a more athletic tuck and push off the bungee cords. Easy-peasy.
Now it was time to do the tricks like a real acrobat-about 25 feet higher. Immediately, I understood where the workout came in: To help hoist your body up, you have to create a bounce by engaging your core in a tuck jump and alternately showing off your guns by using the cords to do a pull-up. "You have fun, but you also have to have a real workout," says Diogo. Most people don't realize that while they're doing it, but afterward, it's 'Oh my God my abs.'"
The second I reached the top, panic set in. Even though I was doing the exact same moves I'd done 60 seconds ago, my body fought me every step of the way. While I was able to finally nail the backflip (although significantly less athletically than the few I'd nailed closer to the ground), the front flip was a no go. Even though I knew my body was totally capable, my brain just wasn't giving the green light.
Next, it was time for the trapeze. The trainers took me to a training bar, where just like before, I learned the moves closer to the ground. Grab the bar, swing, whip out that lower ab strength to pull your legs up and hook your knees onto the bar. If you get good at that, you can even do a "catch," flying through the air and swinging into the strong grasp of a Creactive member.
By the time I climbed up the ladder to the insanely high platform, I knew I was in trouble. Despite being harnessed and in good hands (Victor, the ridiculously muscular Hungarian met me on top of the platform for a pep talk) I was ready to back out. To grab the trapeze, you have to lean out over the edge of the platform and then jump, while your body is still hanging in the balance. "Okay on three, you're going to jump," Victor said. One. Nope, nope can't do this. Two. How many times have you bent your knees, pushed off the ground and jumped before? You can do this. Three. Oh f*ck.
I managed to do three whole swings (go me!) but when it came time to try to hook my knees for an upside-down hang, or do the fancy backflip dismount into the safety net, I realized I'd reached my limit. "If you're not having fun, why are you doing it?" Diogo told me when I asked him about what role fun should play in your fitness routine. I'm all for pushing yourself-just not to the point of a total breakdown.
So did I completely conquer my fear of heights? Not exactly. But I did walk away with a newfound appreciation for trying new things in my fitness routine. When you're having fun, sometimes the bragging rights (and killer Instagram photos) are enough to trump your fear.