By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent

Fifteen years ago, Cypher Zero learned to fly: not in an airplane but on his own, as an aerial acrobat. Now he teaches others to discover the joy of being airborne.

“People ask me if that’s my real name,” the 35-year-old says. “Of course it’s my real name.” It may not be the name he was given at birth, but it’s the the one he feels suits who he is now.

“I loved doing it,” he says of aerial acrobatics. “It was a different kind of lifestyle: on the road, chaotic,” but it suited him – then.

Eventually  he grew tired of the work’s repetitive nature. “I had a lot of great experiences,” he says. “The pay was good, but you’re a product with a short shelf life. I saw contemporaries getting hurt – or worse.” It was time to transition.

What he’d observed was many of those he worked with didn’t share his joy. They’d learned under a repressive system where children were pushed to a breaking point, experiencing little except their work and, after their circus careers were over, untrained to do anything else.

He set out to develop new training concepts, “how to coach people in a way that was not so rough on their bodies, incorporate modern approaches to sports,” and in 2003 began what would become the New York Circus Academy four years later. In 2009, he was doing well enough to lease a 9,000-square-foot warehouse to develop a professional training program. But that year, “I was also diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.”

He had to sell the business, he says, “to keep myself going through the cancer treatment.” After recovering from the chemotherapy, “I wanted to go back to work, so I took a job with Cirque de Soleil in Montreal as a coach and creator, something not as rigorous.

“It was an eye-opening year. I saw the same thing I’d seen as a performer, the lack of joy.”

Cypher Zero at his Cirque Fly Aerial Acrobatics class in Petaluma. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

And the cancer had changed him. “I was trained to succeed by working harder, being smarter, doing what the next person isn’t willing to do – you outwork them, outhustle them.”

He learned that method didn’t always work when he met an elderly woman in chemotherapy. “She was more driven than I,” he says. “She had two children, three grandchildren, and she wanted to survive to be there for them.”

His voice softens. “But today, I’m standing here, and she’s in Greenwood Cemetery in New York. I realized sometimes you can’t win by being stronger, more capable, outhustling – some things come down to luck.”

With his cancer now in remission, Cypher took that luck and his memories of “that sweet woman” and recreated himself once again, to “take the humanized method I was working with and make it accessible for everybody – and every body.”

And thus was born CirqueFly, teaching the joy and fun of being airborne to anyone who wants to learn.

“People ask me sometimes,” he says, “what’s the best exercise? And I tell them it’s something you like to do. And this is not only fun, it’s unique.”

With CirqueFly, he says, “you develop confidence, discipline and focus. You take on the challenge and follow through. You learn teamwork. These things don’t require winning, but they do help make you a good person.”

Negative coaching doesn’t work: he learned that first hand. “So I tell my students I’m not proud of you because of what you just did, I’m proud of everything you do.”

Cypher works with people of different fitness types and walks of life. A current Petaluma class has members who range in age from children still in single digits to a 55-year-old.

“We focus on a supportive environment,” he says, and observing a class, it’s clearly working. Class members become friends: chatting, hugging, phone numbers swapped and rides shared.

Students “climb” the silks (ceiling-to-floor strips of fabric), their boneless, sinuous movements smooth and graceful, using the fabric as an impromptu ladder, creating the steps with hands and arms, legs and feet. Legs and feet circle in the air, wrapping the silks securely around calves and thighs to offer an anchor for acrobatic positions and movements.

It is, Cypher says, “a simplified form of dance – dancing with yourself.”

CirqueFly offers classes in Petaluma, Napa and San Rafael. Some people are so eager, he says, they takes classes in each location. The first class, which teaches the foundations of the movements, is four weeks long. Visit learn more or sign up.