Jivamukti is one of this Sleuth’s top choices for a spiritually transformative yoga class, and this past April they stepped it up a notch with the monthly theme of inversions. “Yogis strive to free themselves from old habits. By contorting themselves into strange postures they change their thoughts and gain a new perspective,” Michael Reynolds told us as we strapped ourselves in (literally) for a yogic adventure. Being somewhat mechanically challenged, I was relieved when he deposited an already-looped strap by each of our mats.
We started class in restorative Supta Baddha Konasana with the strap around our upper pelvis and ankles. The strap gently grounded my sacrum and comfortably cradled my legs while blocks under my upper back and head created an invigorating mini-inversion and backbend. “When we lift our heart above our head it helps us shift our perspective,” Michael commented.
Warmed up from this initial spinal extension, bow turned up earlier than usual in our sequence, portending more backbends to come. Our standing flow prepared us well, with deep lunges to release the hip flexors and quads, and plenty of standing backbends.
“The key is to keep the breath the same, even though each pose is very different,” Michael said. “Rather than responding to the external world, you’re training yourself to feel strong and complete from within. We don’t need to rely on external circumstances to make us feel good. Through this practice we come to realize that we create the external world from inside.”
This idea resounded refreshingly in my consciousness as the soothing sound of Ujjayi breathing ushered me into Sun Salutations and a variety of standing poses including Standing Split and Triangle. Michael led us through an abbreviated version of the usual seated twists and forward bends to leave ample time for inversions at the wall. We would hold these, as Michael put it bluntly, “for a long time.”
A typical Jivamukti class uses props sparingly, so I was taken aback when Michael told us to take six blocks and two blankets along with our strap. We used these props to give us a new outlook on inversions. We practiced Forearm Stand in the center of the room and then went to the wall for Handstand and other inversions.
During a long Shoulderstand with our upper arms held by the strap we were treated to a brief excerpt from an interview with Jivamukti founder David Life. “You are not a puppet of God being moved. Your essence is the Holy One,” he said. “Steady breathing in difficult postures teaches us to respond to stress with greater ease.” The emphasis on steady breathing throughout this demanding class helped me to stay grounded in my Ujjayi practice amidst the physical challenges, which is a great metaphor for life in the city.
Next Michael showed us how to create two “towers” with our blocks and blankets. With one under each shoulder we turned upside down in a Headstand at the wall. It felt like powerful medicine to be in this healing pose for so long without any pressure on my neck and head, and free from the usual demands of staying upright.
Following this transformative experience we looped a strap around our upper arms and walked forearms up the wall to prepare for a vigorous and invigorating backbend sequence at the wall which included Camel, Half and Full Wheel, and Tiptoe Fish.
“You might want to move your head to the floor and walk your hands toward your knees,” Michael told the more flexible among us as we reached Full Wheel. From there he directed us to create a Headstand base and walk our legs up the wall. “Now you can move into Headstand,” he told us calmly. His presence reassured me as I attempted the feat. With his help I made it to a wobbly Headstand that tipped, regained its composure, and then retreated back to Full Wheel, my legs walking tentatively down the wall as Michael’s strong arm supported me.
“You’re forgetting to breathe!” he told me as I made my way down. Ah, yes, that. I returned to my Ujjayi breathing as we revisited Full Wheel for a few additional variations.
As I recovered in Paschimottanasana from this excitement Michael shifted my torso to create more evenness. I felt a sense of lopsidedness as I tried to release the habitual tensions that draw me away from my true center.
After class Michael chanted devotional mantras along with the harmonium, providing us a serene ambience as we packed up the multitude of props. Time seemed to linger as I strapped myself back into pedestrian attire, feeling more ready to create the world around me than the short lady in jeans who had been tossed around by it in Union Square several hours before.
-Lauren Tepper for Yoga Sleuth
Single class $22; discounted class cards available.