Because of the intimate, individualized nature of this studio, Sleuth had to register and pay for class in advance (by 10 p.m. the night before). Heart and Soul of Yoga classes are held in the basement of a cozy Astoria neighborhood house with warm salmon-colored walls. Sleuth was first to arrive to this gentle, all-level class.
Vanessa Francis was quick to ask me several questions about my background. What kind of yoga did I like, and why? What drew me to gentle yoga that day, especially considering that I normally liked Kundalini and Vinyasa? How long had I been practicing?
She told me that her passion was for alignment, breath and exploring the why behind the way our individual bodies move. The "slogan" for the studio is "Honoring the Individual" and Vanessa told me she likes to keep classes small so students can ask questions and have more room to explore their practice. The final student arrived, and Vanessa seemed to already be aware of the her needs and body quirks. She made sure both of us had two blocks, a bolster and a blanket handy.
Vanessa began class in a seated position, then instructed us to open our arms out to the side with a slight back bend before rounding our spines and bringing our hands to the floor. She then had us side stretch, and taking note of my love of moving around, brought a little subtle movement to the pose, turning the chest towards the floor, then up to the sky. Vanessa had us observe how there is always movement happening even when we appear to be static. With each side, we had to switch the crossing of our legs. After taking the side twists, Vanessa instructed us to fold forward at the hinge of the hips but not to push ourselves.
Coming onto all fours, we took a round of Cat/Cow, gently undulating the spine, and then balanced on the left hand with the right leg lifted. Here, Vanessa encouraged us to pull the navel toward the spine and to keep the hip square. We then had the option of bending the right leg and taking hold of the foot with the left leg while breathing through it. We were able to be absolutely focused on the sound of the breath in this class which had no music.
Coming up to standing, we took a forward fold to flat back and back to forward fold before gently making our way to Downward Dog. Here, Vanessa also gave the option of Puppy Pose if it was too early for Downward Dog. She noted that we could create some movement in the pose by pedaling out the feet. From there, we came into a lunge with blocks, and Vanessa reminded us to deepen and focus on the breath while holding the pose.
On the next round of lunges, she added in a prayer twist. Parsvottanasana was added into the mix with Vanessa offering us the option of blocks and varying heights. With each new poses, she gave us options to explore in our own practice.
Moving onto Trikonasana, Vanessa suggested putting my hand a little higher up on my shin to give me more space in my chest. She then checked in with me and asked if I felt the difference. I did and I retained her suggestion for the other side. We moved onto a supported Ardha Chandrasana with a block on the floor and Vanessa gave us both personalized variations.
Focusing on opening up the hips, we then took Lizard Pose. Noting Sleuth's flexibility, Vanessa encouraged me, instead of bringing elbows to the floor, to bring my hands onto blocks in order to give space to the pose. She asked me where the challenges were for me in Lizard Pose and I told her my IT band. She nodded and asked if adding height to the pose made my IT band feel less tight. It did.
Vanessa then allowed her other student to rest in Child's Pose then took me through a couple of rounds of Vinyasas.
It was time for Hanumanasana and Vanessa gave us options for props which included using the bolster and blocks. After holding this on both sides for several breaths we moved onto Baddha Konasana. Vanessa gave us the option of sitting on a blanket before folding forward. Again, she reminded us not to push ourselves in the pose.
Our final pose before Savasana was Supta Baddha Konasana with props. The bolster was propped up by a block and we rolled up the mat into a sausage shape and wound it around feet with the ends propping up our knees. We lay back and Vanessa brought us each an eye pillow. She then put blocks underneath our hands and elbows for added support. After holding the pose, she gave us the option of staying in the pose or rolling to the right, pushing the props out of the way and making our way into a traditional Savasana.
Class ended in a seated position with a Namaste. Sleuth made her final request for the class: to meet the resident cats. Vanessa obliged bringing them out of the bedroom and it turned out the cats were every bit as mellow and friendly as Vanessa herself.
-Marie Carter for Yoga Sleuth
Drop-in classes at Heart and Soul of Yoga are $25.
Pre-registration is required via the website or by calling. Mats are available to rent for $2.