It was a rainy morning loaded with humidity when Yoga Sleuth decided to check out Emily Bielagus’ class at Shambhala Yoga & Dance. It was the kind of day when everything felt heavy - the weather, the energy around the city, and my rain boots as I trekked out to Shambhala East on an industrial block of Prospect Heights.
Emily, clearly tuned in to the overall mood of the situation, started class with a visual that brought our awareness to the heaviness within us.
She asked us to imagine our bodies without any muscles or flesh—just skeleton. She then guided us towards the weight of our bones, and how it can be supportive in our practice. After inviting us to visualize the muscles wrapping around our bones, she stated her intention, “Today I want you to use the muscles to find lightness and lift as the bones ground us into the Earth. “
After class, I asked Emily to elaborate on the relationship between the muscles and bones. “For me, that relationship really highlights the practice of yoga as a joining together of two opposing forces. The currency our muscles use to keep them easefully engaged, relaxed yet alert, is the breath. And in that way the breath is what really connects the opposing forces of the practice. It's the thread sewn throughout the whole practice; without it the practice falls apart.”
For the warm up, we went into a gentle yet heat-inducing sequence. It included several standing forward fold variations that transitioned to muscle strengtheners. In Plank, she had us lift our back (as in Cat Pose), pull in our belly and then slowly lower down to Chaturanga keeping our chests reaching beyond our fingers.
In a Warrior 3 variation, we bent the standing leg to gradually lengthen the other leg back to lunge (at a snails pace!). We repeated this sequence several times on both sides which had sufficiently heated my body enough to remove my sweatshirt.
It was during our five rounds of Sun Salutations when I received my first assist from Emily. With a skillful touch, she firmly guided my heels towards the floor while externally rotating my shoulders for a deeper opening – it felt massage-like amazing!
She explained her approach on assists after class. “My assists are intuitive. I am a very visual, very tactile learner, so I apply that to my teaching. It's easy to say - melt your back ribs and front ribs inward during Down Dog - but it's a whole other thing to manually hug my student's ribcage and show them what that directive feels like. I also take mental notes during class with teachers I admire (like Nikki Costello at Kula and Sheri Celentano at Laughing Lotus) and when something feels exceptionally great, I log it and vow to use it on my students in class. Like, who doesn't love getting a bonus shoulder massage in Pigeon? I just do to my students what I would love to have done to me.”
Throughout the 90 minutes, Emily’s sequencing was fluid, even graceful. At times I felt like I was part of a beautiful choreography when Emily was moving through the vinyasas with us – which she sometimes did.
Though her sequencing was well planned, there was still room for improvisation. On the way to Triangle, Emily had us wiggle our hips in a circle to free up any old habits that may misinform our alignment.
After watching the class try Handstand in the middle of the room from Standing Split, she had us go to the wall (“because you’re all so close to balancing!”) rather than continue along her regularly scheduled sequence.
“You have to be flexible as a teacher (pun intended!). If I come to class and right off the bat I see that no one in the class knows what a safe Chaturanga is, then I can't move very far along with anything else - we're going to just delve deep into breaking down the vinyasa so no one pulls a rotator cuff or strains their lower back,” said Emily in our post class chat.
The spontaneous Handstand lesson was incredibly informative. Emily demonstrated the difference in bringing our shoulders over our fingertips to encourage balance, and instructed us to use the wall, “not as a crutch, but to help get that moving forward sensation.”
Next we took Pigeon. And then in preparation for Savasana, Emily had us roll up a blanket, the long way, and place it under our spine to relax.
As we took Corpse, Emily called upon the visual that started class - our bodies as just skeletons. She asked us to sink heavily into the Earth, and to invite more gravity to help us further release into our final rest.
Upon awaking from Savasana, Emily played the serene sound of Tibetan Singing Bowls. (“It preps the room for the closing OM.”)
When I left the studio, the sun was shining, and my heavy bones had found the space to lighten up, and move more easily into the day.
-Elysha Lenkin for Yoga Sleuth
Single drop-in classes are $16. New Student Special $30 for 3 classes.