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I hovered 30 feet off the ground, trying not to look down, a long loop of fabric my only support.
How did I get here?
My heart rate increased before I went to complete the drop—the most complicated trick I’d ever done, which involved flipping through the sling from high in the air. (Did I mention I was—and still am—afraid of heights?) I had made my way up the sling at circus school, located in the building of a former Catholic church, crocheting my legs through the fabric.
Nervous as I was, I felt anything but helpless as I waited, wrapped up and eye level with the choir loft, my coach shouting encouragements from below.
“Remember to bring your arms down!” she called. “Do you want me to count?”
I nodded, adrenaline coursing through my veins, anxiety the furthest thing from my mind.
I arched my back.
I clung to the fabric in each hand.
I let go and somersaulted forward, untangling on my way down, until I felt the loop of fabric under my arms.
“You did it!” my coach cheered.
My heart was pounding, but I didn’t panic. Instead, I cheered too.
Specifically, by practicing aerial sling (picture the apparatus used in an aerial yoga class, but higher off the ground) and flexibility training (which I affectionately call “baby contortion”). But there I was, in another circus class, hanging high above the ground, reflecting on when and why my circus training began—and anxiety was at the root of it.
I’ve dealt with anxiety for as long as I can remember. I had crying fits in college when I got a B on an assignment. I can’t do confined spaces. I know I’m about to have a bad spell when I start losing sleep. Once I got an official anxiety diagnosis, I set out to find ways to make myself feel better. Traditional anxiety management tools were part of that—working with a mental health professional, meds, things like that. But putting my mind and body through circus tricks was the outlet I never knew I needed.
One night in 2015, I followed a good friend to a warehouse building on Chicago’s West Side. In the year since we met, she’d described hanging in the air on a trapeze as well as her flexibility classes “like yoga but way harder.” The whole hanging in the air thing sounded way too terrifying for me, but I was intrigued by the latter and was feeling impulsive for once, so I tagged along one Tuesday evening.
The warehouse’s third floor, just above a bread factory, housed a circus training facility with drop-in classes. I somewhat anticipated that first class to be like an advanced yoga session. But this definitely wasn’t yoga: We held right and left splits for a minute each (60 seconds never felt so long), kicked our legs in the air and tried to touch our faces, and circled our arms like little kids playing airplane for what felt like eternity. After an hour and a half of unconventional stretching and flexibility, I had trouble walking for three days.
I wasn’t a stranger to intense physical activity; I’d studied dance since age 4. But after that class, I felt something beyond just soreness. I was calm.