Rachel Higley, Circus Aerialist, Artist & Practicing Yogi

Not every day do you meet people whose feet are the happiest closer to the ceiling than the floor. Rachel is an aerialist, circus performer, yoga teacher, and artist. She shares intimate details of her father, the emotional toll of his death, and how it leads her to soar higher and blossom.  

What inspired you to become an aerialist and furthermore a circus performer and instructor? 

I first saw aerialists performing at Summer Camp Music Festival in the Red Barn in 2013. I will never forget looking up from the music to see aerialists performing above the audience. In that moment, I knew I wanted to be where they were. My journey didn't start in that moment. It took time, loss, and utter defeat before I took the first step.

September 2013 to September 2014 was the hardest time of my life. I moved from a small town to the City of Portland. I started college at Maine College of Art (MECA), and I lived off-campus with upperclassmen from the University of Southern Maine. I moved four times that year, all while trying to process the shock that my father was terminally ill. Six months after his diagnosis, he died.

It was an absolutely horrible year. There were classes I stopped attending altogether; my grades slipped; and I found myself on academic probation, losing all my scholarships. Returning to MECA was not an option. I had no idea how to share the loss of my father with members of the MECA community, as I had no idea how to deal with the enormity of the loss within myself. I began to feel hopeless, alone, and depressed. The best thing I did for myself that year was buy an aerial silk and manual and teach myself on the days I had the will to get up and try.

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It took a year to build the strength to feel confident enough to start private lessons at NECCA. This was a big move for me, driving a total of six hours alone to go somewhere I've never been and start an unfamiliar journey. 

I knew after the first lesson that I had found a lifelong love. It was a distraction from my grief, and it gave me new purpose. I had a long road ahead and looked forward to every minute of it. I practiced at GreenWave Studios, where I shared my space with bands. Sometimes we would have joint practices, and it is thanks to their encouragement and constantly being asked if and when I could teach, that I sought out my next goal.

Starting in 2015, I enrolled in several teacher trainings and certifications. From Intro-Aerials to Advanced; Antigravity Yoga to Restorative; and Yoga to Yin. I was obsessed with movement and the escape one can experience during practice. Performances varied during that time, as I was juggling my aerial journey and GreenWave. I performed during GreenWave gatherings and with Circus Maine while enrolled in their Professional Program, where I did acts like Chinese Pole.

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Are you ever nervous? Do you consider yourself to be fearless?  

Of course I have moments of fear, and my nerves can jazz me up before a performance. As a means of coping with nerves, I have learned to harness the feelings and utilize the energy. I will never perform something I am not fully prepared in, and I never practice something without a complete understanding of every aspect of a move. Aerials takes trust and confidence. Confidence should not be confused with cockiness. Confidence comes from knowing I have practiced to the point that my body knows the move as well as my mind. Trusting myself and confidence are the same in aerials. I don't research a new move and think I can just hop on an apparatus and do it. Trust is created from drills and a training regiment and understanding how something works and why, as well as what one has to do to continue to achieve the performance.

In your opinion, what is one characteristic someone needs to possess to pursue a career as an aerialist?  

I think we all have the strength within us, but I believe it is drive. It’s one thing to want to try aerials or do it as a form of fitness - which is fun and challenging in its own way. However, to want a career, you need drive. You can’t just practice here and there, as you won’t keep the strength or flexibility you are aiming to develop. It takes commitment, dedication, and drive.

Can you take us into the moment while you are performing? What thoughts are running through your mind?  

The only thoughts running through my mind are my next move. My mind is rather still, before a show- it’s waiting for the music, waiting for that lyric that’s my cue to go on. Once in the air, I’m not thinking anymore, I’m simply doing. It’s the most mindless and mindful experience at the same time. That feeling is why I fell in love with aerials; I train all year, every year for these short, but oh so fulfilling, moments of escape.

 "It's not easy proving to the world you're worth something... It's even harder realizing you must first recognize that worth within yourself. But that power lies within you, I promise." ❤️ -Rachel Higley

"It's not easy proving to the world you're worth something... It's even harder realizing you must first recognize that worth within yourself. But that power lies within you, I promise." ❤️ -Rachel Higley

Your mom introduced you to yoga as a child. How old were you, and how many certifications have you earned along the way?  

I was maybe four or five, and my mom used yoga as a TV-babysitter. She popped in a VHS of Kids Yoga, and I’d sit in front of the TV and follow along. I also did gymnastics for a very short time as a kid. Whether or not my childhood fitness is a contributing factor to where I am now is unclear, but one thing is certain: I loved it then, and I love it now.

I currently have six certifications and further experience from informative workshops. I will be traveling to LA this summer for another aerial teacher training and couldn’t be happier about it. You need to continue educating yourself as an instructor as information changes and skills and trainings are adapted to protect future students. My current certifications include: the Introductory Aerial Teacher Training and Foundation Aerial Fabric Teacher Training from NECCA;  the 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training and 18 hour Yin Yoga Teacher Training from Yoga Alliance With Travis Eliot at Panacea Yoga Studios; the Anti Gravity 1 & 2 Teacher Training; and the Anti Gravity Restorative Aerial Yoga Teacher Training.

Where are you currently teaching?

I teach at Evo Rock and Fitness in Portland, Maine. This fall we are hoping to launch a full-time Circus Program - including kids classes! Currently, I teach an Adult Aerial Class Mondays from 5-6:30 pm and Introductory Workshops twice a month on Sundays. I also teach private lessons both at Evo and off my personal Aerial Rig.

What are you the most passionate about today, and do you have a future goal you hope to accomplish? 

I love inspiring people to step out of their comfort zone. The mentality that many people who are learning aerials often share is they don't feel strong enough or flexible enough, and they think they could never do what I do. This is just a barrier- a wall holding them back. Any healthy person can try aerials. Typically, the person may not feel graceful at first, but that’s part of the journey! I wasn’t the strongest or most flexible in the beginning either, but I developed over time, and one day I saw my progress and couldn’t have been happier!

As far as my future, one goal right now is the relaunch of GreenWave as we include arts, entertainment, and live performances. My future goal is to find GreenWave a new headquarters where we can do it all and offer those who can’t afford to try something new a chance to do so.

Outside of work what do you enjoy doing the most? 

A typical day off probably includes a hike with my two dogs, making art, or training for aerials. I do love going to shows and festivals and seeing all the work performers have put into making these events as enjoyable as possible. When you’ve been on both sides of the curtain, it really changes how you see a show.

 "A perfect day must have three things: nature, dogs & yoga. 💕" via  Instagram

"A perfect day must have three things: nature, dogs & yoga. 💕" via Instagram

What is one thing not many people know about you?  

I think people who know me forget that I’m just like them. Sometimes it seems they think my skin is made of steel, and I never have off days. There’s a level of expectation I am faced with, and I love the challenge, believe me. Just like anyone, I have days when everything feels harder, I’m too tired to train, and nothing goes my way. I keep my struggles to myself. I’m very quiet when it comes to hardships. On days like that, I tend to rest and write poetry, which sometimes reveals the core of my problem. I like to think if I focus my attention away from my troubles, they fade away and clear the path for positive thinking and success.

What is your favorite inspirational/motivational quote? 

It is a line from a poem I read during an AP English Exam in high school. The poem is called “A Blessing” by James Wright. It is the last three lines of the poem that hold tremendous power for me. They shake my soul and awaken something. 

After my Dad passed, I felt myself closing up - as if I was being sucked into a black hole within myself. I wrote and rewrote those lines in every journal and sketchbook until they finally became a truth for me.
“Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.”

While my dad was still alive and I was struggling to accept the fate he’d been given, struggling to see the good in a world where he could be taken from me, I got my first tattoo. I did the first half of the tattoo while he was alive and finished the coloring in the tattoo after he passed. It was hard going back to finish it, as the quote was losing its power while I was grieving. After finishing the tattoo, I had this reminder of everything I’d been through. That quote is my reminder we all have the ability to blossom in this life, if only we can step away from it all and step out of ourselves.

In one word describe yourself:

Persistent
 
Why? 
Because I've failed, I've tried, and I've tried again. When something doesn't work out, I step back and regroup. I don't think of mistakes as losses, but rather as chances to come back stronger. That doesn’t mean I enjoy failing by any means, but I do think success feels twice as great when it didn’t come easily. Failure is my greatest teacher.

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Please share Rachel's story. We can use technology and social media for greater good and make a positive difference in the world we coexist. Thank you for reading. -Jessica


To Connect w/ Rachel

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