After Ashlee Willaman's Yoga for Athletes class at JackRabbit Sports, Yoga Sleuth almost didn't recognize herself. For once, Sleuth slept the entire night without that literal pain in her butt, the result of sports injuries compounded by sitting time at her laptop.
Located in the basement of an Upper West Side sports store, this Thursday night class attracted a diverse crowd of 11 students from different cultural backgrounds, some of whom had just finished quick runs through Central Park. From students' chatter about marathons and gear, Sleuth gathered most were runners, equally interested in JackRabbit's CrossFit classes as its yoga programs.
"Any issues tonight?" Ashlee asked. She wore dark glasses and had a soft, deep voice. I felt safe enough with her to mention my nagging piraformis. No one else spoke. As someone who has run eight marathons and one ultra, Ashlee knew how to handle shy athletes. Wisely, she asked that everyone lie on their backs for Reclining Pigeons and hamstring, inner thigh, and IT band stretches using the strap. "Lengthen your right hip to the wall," she said, a cue that encouraged symmetry in the spine. She used limited Sanskrit and no music. I detected Iyengar training.
Opening moves included a "Bug," with knees over hips and shins parallel to the floor. From this supine position, we pressed our hands into our thighs to recruit the deep abdominal muscles. I've done this exercise before, but with Ashlee, it stood out because of its appropriateness to athletes. Right away, my body knew I would be recruiting core muscles throughout the workout.
Later, we did partner work in Down Dog which Ashlee first demonstrated with a student. "You put the strap across your partner's hips, not her lunch," she said, showing the difference between the boney pelvis versus the soft belly. "Then you will put your leg between your partner's feet and lean back. I know, I know, it's partner work. I don't like when my teacher wants me to do partner work either," she said, sympathizing, "but it's important to get traction in the spine."
I teamed up with a friendly runner named Marge. For about 10 minutes, Marge and I took turns Down Dog-ing, enjoying the freedom in the lower back and shoulders. From the conversations around me, I thought many people might be discovering true Down Dogs, which incorporate arms and legs. One man mentioned a calf stretch, which surprised him. "In pictures of Iyengar, he's more in his legs than his arms," Ashlee said.
(Iyengar! I knew it.)
After basic Sun Salutes, I felt even looser, but Ashlee used techniques new to me. In low lunge, she asked us to reach one arm and then two arms forward. Using long outstretched arms added weight to the pose, increasing core effort and improving stretch in the hips. "Don't let your face tell me how much you hate this pose," she joked.
In Shalabasana, she asked us to first interlace our hands at our back, lifting the upper body. Then we took our straight arms in front of our heads, Superman style, with linked fingers. This detail helped me find new strength in the traps.
Finally, she asked us to move to the walls for Warrior 3s, with one foot against the wall and our heads facing the middle of the room. We groaned when she asked us to reach our arms forward - her theme. "Yes, your body is always looking for the easiest way," she said. "The wall keeps you from cheating."
Then she added the best hip pose of the night, one this Sleuth has never seen. With one foot on a block and the other on the floor beside it, we did a forward bend and tried to straighten both legs. We walked our hands toward the foot on the floor. Ahhh. What a powerful glute stretch.
After Savasana, I felt complete, having addressed most of my own fitness issues: from ankle tendonitis to IT Band syndrome. Sometimes yoga can exacerbate sports injuries through over stretching, but her class acknowledged a runner's general stiffness, particularly in the legs. In forward bends, we could bend our knees or place blocks under our hands. (We didn't do Monkey Pose.)
Ashlee Willaman, who is an RRCA Certified Run Coach and 500-hour yoga teacher through YogaWorks, said yoga provides excellent cross over between disciplines. A former ballet dancer and runner since high school, Ashlee said yoga hones awareness between worrisome pain and discomfort. "It teaches discernment as to what's real and not," she said.
Ashlee teaches at various locations throughout NYC, including Samamkāya Back Care & Scoliosis Yoga Collective.
-Ann Vatow for Yoga Sleuth
Yoga for Athletes at JackRabbit Sports Upper West Side is part of a 12-week series, but drop-ins are encouraged and cost $10 with registration at runlikeayogi.com. Lockers and mats are free, but yogis may want to bring their own.