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Around Town: Living Beyond Limits

Aug 17, 2017 11:55AM ● Published by Randy Robinson

She’s dangling from a golden hoop, seven feet high. With her head pointed to the floor, gravity causes brunette strands of hair to cascade over her determined face. She’s held in place by only her legs, which braid in a criss-cross fashion across the hoop’s curvature, locked at the ankles. If she bends up, she could fold herself around the circumference of the hoop. If she dips back, she becomes a teardrop suspended in time, as if a swollen bead of dew froze along its path from petal to earth. 

It’s hard to believe that, just five years ago, the woman performing this aerial maneuver could barely walk. In 2012, when she was still an undergrad, Stephanie Morphet suffered severe spinal injuries from a car accident. 

“It left me close to immobile,” says Morphet. “It destroyed my back. I went from being a really active 20- year-old to spending my days laying on ice packs.” Turning her head hurt. Walking hurt. Sitting hurt, too. 

It took three years of intense physical therapy to get Morphet back on her feet, to feel functional again. A former cheerleader and gymnast, she wanted to return to a physically active lifestyle, but she felt she was too old to pursue gymnastics. That’s how she ended up at Live Beyond Limit, a yoga studio and holistic wellness center in Fort Collins that combines aerial acrobatics, dance, and yoga.

Today, Morphet is one of Live Beyond Limit’s advanced professional performers. Nearly three years ago, she started with the hoop, but since then has graduated to the trapeze, chains, and swings. Her performances with the studio’s circus incorporate pyrotechnics, because—well—fire looks really, really cool.

“Just going out in the street and spinning fire adds more magic to life,” she muses. “The reason I love the circus, besides being great exercise, is because it’s something that makes people happy. How great is it that I can now do something with my body that can bring other people joy?” 

Morphet credits her current-day abilities to her past athleticism, but she encourages those with no acrobatic experience to try it, too. “Some people come up to me and say, ‘Oh my god, I could never do that,’” she says. “They think the only way you can do it is if you’re part of Cirque du Soleil. But anyone can do it. It just requires training and dedication.”

Live Beyond Limit was founded by Kate Wrightson, a former bioresearcher, in 2014. Wrightson, like many of her students, suffered for years from debilitating back injuries. She tried everything Western medicine could offer, but conventional therapies and pharmaceuticals never brought her full, long-lasting relief. 

Wrightston eventually discovered yoga and energy work, which, she says, restored her body and transformed her life. After nine years of practicing various forms of yoga, she started fusing the ancient Indian practice with acrobatics, challenging her body and her mind to push toward levels of healing doctors told her were impossible.

For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of yoga—or, in this case, acroyoga—the idea of mixing the physical dynamics of tumbling or twirling with quiet meditative yoga poses may seem contradictory. Not so, says Wrightson.

“Our view of yoga in this country, personally, I feel is adulterated,” says Wrightston. “Yoga means ‘to combine,’ ‘to bring together.’ It translates literally to ‘yolk.’ Yoga is all about awareness, and to combine yoga with acrobactics, you have to be 100 percent aware of your mind, body, and spirit. When you’re working with somebody else or with an apparatus, you have to be aware of that as well. You have to learn how to communicate with yourself.”

Wrightson’s approach to corrective exercise was recently supported by science. In June, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that yoga could be just as effective as any other physical therapy program for treating chronic back pain caused by stress or trauma. The study, however, only recommended the gentler aspects of yoga, and advised against more strenuous activities such as inversions.

Live Beyond Limit offers traditional, low stress yoga to its students, but it offers more challenging yoga alternatives, too. Wrightson believes both types of yoga can be effective, depending on the student.

Mark Lewis is a 59-year-old photographer, and he’s a student of Wrightson’s. Unlike Morphet, he has no background in gymnastics. Known as “G Mark” to his friends, he worked as a construction worker for much of his life. The wear-and-tear from the daily grind on his back finally caught up to him as he grew older. Chronic inflammation in his sciatic nerve compromised his ability to walk and diminished his quality of life, and he underwent two surgeries to control the pain. 

“I’ve worked with her now for two years,” Lewis says. “She’s now got me doing aerial silks. She’s got me doing things I would’ve never dreamed about doing.”

Lewis notes that although he, and many other students at Live Beyond Limit, dealt with spinal damage and other neurological issues, not all of the studio’s students do. His wife, for example, is perfectly healthy, but she attends regular lessons with him once a week. 

He also recognizes that the brand of aerial yoga he practices is much more advanced than the ones recommended by the recent Annals study, and newer students may feel intimidated by the skill levels of the advanced students. 

“Kate had some back trauma,” Lewis says of Wrightson, “so she’s acutely aware of what goes on with that. She’s very conscientious. She has an acute ability to understand limitations and not to push things. Flipping upside down on silks never would have crossed my mind, but we spent plenty of time getting there.”

“A lot of people beat themselves up because they can’t do something,” says Wrightson. “My mentality is, ‘Have you ever done this before? Why would you be able to do this now? That’s why you’re here: to learn.’”

Lewis says he’s been liberated, that he no longer experiences pain in his back or legs. He’s not entirely sure how much of this is due to the surgeries and how much is a result of the aerial yoga, but he insists the yoga definitely has not been a disadvantage. “What I tell people is just try it,” he says. “Just see how it goes, then make your own choice. But I would certainly recommend anyone to try it, just to get in there and let her do her magic.”

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