Inwood's Bread and Yoga, perhaps Manhattan's northernmost Yoga spot, is a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow (or in this case, the A train express). Well worth the trip, particularly when the instructor is Lisa Benner, the vibrant and spirited guide to the inner journey that follows. Lisa provides equal parts sweat and spirituality in an invigorating Vinyasa flow, with plenty of alignment cues to ensure that your body is where it needs to be.
Gathering on green mats in the pristine white Asana room, we began in auspicious pose, letting the day melt away. Before long we were coming down on one knee and awakening the body by raising an arm over and back, the other at our waist, and then circling the yearning arm forward. "Lead with the heart," urged Lisa, and this would be our focus for class as we engaged in some deep back bending to open that crucial anahata chakra.
We had the choice of either focusing on the journey of our breath through the body, or putting our attention on the mantra "Om purnaye namaha." After repeating on the other side we came into Anahatasana, pulsating up to flatten our spines before melting deeper. Each time we repeated this sequence we had the option of going a little further; the second time around we put the resting hand to the sacrum and bent farther back, really expanding through the chest; and when returning to puppy pose we tented our fingertips for a deeper expression.
The vinyasas we played in perfectly complemented the theme of our practice. We came up into a full cobra, engaging in a Sahaja flow—moving fluidly in the backbend—and then folded into a parallel-legged child's pose. Lisa was there in the latter pose to press down on my mischievous calves as they threatened to go wandering out of alignment.
We continued to explore our backbends, placing our hands on either side of the sacrum and then to our heels for a few breaths in amel. Lisa had us squeeze a block between our thighs to keep the knees from spreading apart—as the chest opened, the thighs stayed contracted and engaged. Next we came down to an auspicious "sphinx", but that was just a quick rest-stop; we moved our left elbows parallel to the front of the mat, lifted our left knees and grabbed that foot, pressing it down over our hamstrings as our hearts opened skywards.
After a playful bow where we rolled up and down the front body, we gathered in pairs to workshop our ultimate backbend of the class, Urdvha Dhanurasana (wheel). We took turns with our partners, one standing with their feet at the other's ears so that the other could grab their ankles and pull themselves up into a deep and deft expression of the pose.
Lisa came around to assist, suggesting we straighten our arms and then our legs, so that we could energetically move our chests back and open our hearts even further. Before long every yogi in the room had a turn in wheel, and after partnering up everyone tried it on their own before relaxing with their knees at their chests or blossoming into happy babies.
To balance out all the back bending, we next engaged in some heavy-duty core work. Lying on our backs we brought our soles to greet the ceiling. "Imagine a rope in front of you," said Lisa. "Grab it with one hand and pull yourself up." And we did, repeating with the other hand back and forth, giving our abs a juicy workout.
Finally, we contracted into a ball and then melted for a long Savasana. "See the breath 12 inches in front of you," said Lisa. "Then watch it as it travels through the nostrils, to the back of the palate, and down to the body to pulsate at the heart." This meditation on the breath made for a truly deep and relaxing yogic sleep.
Lisa sang us out of Savasana with a beautiful chant of the Guyatri Mantra, the meaning of which is often translated as "May the divine light of the Supreme Being illuminate our intellect, to lead us along a path of righteousness". And with that we returned to auspicious pose, sealing our practice with chin mudra, the consciousness seal, palms down to ground us as the day came to a blissful close.
Lisa sent us on our way we this thought: when we take the journey to reach our most vibrant self, "commit to finding the joy along the way." And that journey, just like a trip to practice with Lisa at Bread and Yoga, is reward in itself.