When I entered the almost full room at Kula Yoga Project in Tribeca, it looked as if a freestyle restorative class was in session. Yogis, lying on mats, were propped up with blankets and blocks in a variety of relaxation poses. It was 10 minutes before the 12:15 class was set to start, making it incredibly clear that an early arrival for class with Annie Piper, who has been teaching yoga since 1997, was the norm.
“We’ve got one hour and five so there’s no dawdling today,” she said, and went right into an instruction to lie on our backs with knees into the chest, creating a tight ball with our bodies - actively - to deepen into our bellies, and start building heat.
As we lifted our heads to the knees, Annie spoke about holiday stress and the tension it can create in our bodies, specifically the lower back.
I asked Annie after class about the relationship to holiday stress and our lower backs. “Back problems are the new (not so new!) ulcer. The psoas muscle functions in conjunction with the autonomic nervous system, and family time is stressful for many (most) of us. The fight or flight response kicks in from tight psoas translating to lower back pain. Also, statistically, people's backs tend to 'go out' more on vacation,” she told me.
After some supine stretches followed by a more vigorous roll to and fro - from Plow pose to Squat - we exhaled all the air out into a Standing Forward Bend. Annie asked us to bend the knees, and roll up slowly to stand, ending with arms in prayer overhead. When we exhaled, we rolled our bodies back down to the floor, and repeated the sequence using the same breath retention.
Annie’s class is driven both anatomically and spiritually. She was very precise with her descriptions on body parts and bones all the while encouraging a deeper connection to the more subtle, or inner parts of our being. There was an inside out approach to her teaching that emphasized finding the stability from within.
Several times through class she had us close our eyes, and trace awareness through the body starting in the mind, moving down to the throat, the chest, heart, solar plexus, sex organs and ending in Mula Bandha – where she said all of our movements should originate from. It was an interesting way to do a scan, and it definitely brought me more into my body.
In our post class chat, she said this:
“People tend to over identify with the external body when they practice. I'm trying to get them closer to a deeper source so the physical practice becomes a manifestation of intention rather than exercises, or just shapes that you make with your body.”
Her creative sequencing included Warrior 1 and 2, Reverse Warrior, Extended Side Angle, Half Moon and Prasarita Padottanasana (with the option to lift into Headstand) for the standing portions.
There were several opportunities within the sequencing for core strengthening, or deepening from the belly. One example was in Down Dog Split, we brought our knees into the nose, and held it there a few breaths before stepping into High Lunge. She did this type of core movement many times, in varying degrees. Navasana was also part of the sequence. And in Savasana, she took a few minutes to have us consciously release from our bellies.
After class, Annie explained her intention for including core work.
“Core muscles are important in asana practice. But people - especially women - tend to hold onto their bellies. This dams up energy and makes it hard to release at the end of practice. I like to remind people to release their bellies at the end of class so that the letting go comes from inside.”
When we came to the floor, Pigeon and Ankle to Knee were lengthened out for 8 – 10 breaths on each side. In Seated Spinal Twist, I received an invigorating assist as Annie asked us to lift from our lungs and twist. She said that in the winter our lungs can get dark, and we could use the twist to brighten and open up. This was followed with some chest openers – Tabletop and Inclined Plane. And a little later came Bridge and Wheel.
To wind down, Annie said she would give a long Savasana, (“Because it’s this time of year”) but suggested taking an inversion practice – Shoulderstand or Headstand – if we felt inclined to do so.
During Savasana, she played excerpts from interviews with Russell Brand on yoga and meditation. “I love his vernacular, his passion and his strong political views,” she told me after class.
As we concluded our rest, Annie asked us go back into the tight ball we started class – knees to chest. When we came to sit, she said that there’s no secret to happiness or enlightenment, and that it comes simply from acting out of love.
-Elysha Lenkin for Yoga Sleuth
Drop-in classes are $16, with mat and towel rental $2 each. New student special: 3 Classes for $30.