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Not Just A Class...

“Hey, I’m here for ‘The Class!’ I smiled to the first person I saw, making air quotations.

I had arrived at the Tribeca Studio at 291 Broadway with few details of this mysterious new workout. This was deliberate; I wanted to be surprised, and hopefully challenged. All I knew was the website promise of “a unique mind-body workout.” Would it be a “Fight Club” scenario in both intensity and secrecy? I would soon find out, and hope that I’d be allowed to share!

The Class was created by Taryn Toomey, a former Dior and Lauren Executive and Yoga Union-trained teacher of ten years, as a method of “changing the body and clearing the mind.” So I knew there was a Yogic intent to The Class, but what would we be doing with our bodies? I was practically shivering with anticipation.

The waiting area was brimming with enthusiastic, mostly female, classmates. In fact, the only other guy was also a newbie; we smiled and widened our eyes at each other with a hint of trepidation. Some students were barefoot but most wore sneakers (or “trainers” for you UK readers). I found this odd, but went with the majority and laced up my New Balances.

Luckily the first person I’d spoken to was actually tonight’s teacher: Natalie Kuhn. Natalie is also a dancer and actor who has toured with David Byrne and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

She greeted me warmly and asked about what my body was currently going through. I told her about my sore right hip and knee. Rather than just suggesting I go easy, she took me aside and told me exactly what to do to protect myself, even demoing.

“One thing we’re going to do is lie on our backs, pressing into one heel,” she said. She demonstrated with one knee bent and the other leg in the air. “But you want to be mindful. Don’t bring the heel too close to the knee because then you’re loading the knee joint. Keep the heel underneath the knee or slightly in front of it, bend in and press up, the hips going with it. Sometimes people really jam on their knee, and you don’t really need to. Just be conscious of it.”

“I’ll keep an eye on that,” I promised.

“No,” grinned Natalie, “I’LL keep an eye on it!”

And with that we were off, to the tune of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling,” which was very fitting!

It was probably the most physically intense hour I’d spent in some time, even as a regular student of 105-degree hot vinyasa. It had the feel of boot camp, mixing cardio, kickboxing and yoga planks and down dogs and a lot of deep breathing.

We started off with squat thrusts, which I probably haven’t done since a one-and-done stint with a personal trainer. Natalie danced and raced around the room like a whirlwind, giving kudos through a wireless mic and spurring us to push through the pain—not so much the physical kind, but the emotional. Throughout class she ran to every corner of the room and back, becoming a personal cheerleader for each of us, joining us as we lunged, thrusted, kick-boxed, bicycle-kicked and jump-squatted. As we threw air punches left and right Natalie had us shout a cathartic “Ha!” (I interpreted that as laughing through the burn.) She counted down the last five bursts of one sequence, and then we leapt right into the next. The music was high-energy, from Guns and Roses to Beyonce. Each sequence basically lasted a song, building intensity throughout, and allowing Natalie a few seconds to cue us into the next burst.

“The Class is not just about the body,” asserts Natalie. “In fact getting a strong toned, lean physique is a by-product of the real work, which is using the body to acknowledge your habitual response to intensity. Once you acknowledge it, you can move through it and it can change, into something more supportive, and ultimately healing. It’s not just about a tight little butt! It’s about a clear, connected self.”

We came into plank, hopped our legs back parallel to each other, hopped them closed, and then brought them in between our hands, more times than I care to count without fainting from the memory! After only 15 minutes I was soaked. I took water breaks whenever I needed them with no judgment from anyone. I spotted many of my colleagues doing the same, taking a moment in child’s pose, and then leaping right back into the breach.

“There are multiple ways of entry,” suggests Natalie about how she motivates students. “Some people need the reminder to come back into the body, to press into the heel, to lift the hips. And some people need the point of entry of, that email you got today (that upset you), that caused that reaction. What side are you coming out of? Can you marry the two? And can the breath be the knit that brings the two together? Dig into the heel, feel breath move up the midline—what changes, what unlocks in the chest? It’s all a deeply connected fabric.”

A few times in class Natalie stopped the music and had us just stand and breathe, reaffirming the importance of the thing we most quickly forget to do in a workout. Then we hit the mat for down dog, toggling rapidly between that and plank pose and adding leg sprints to both. I found myself fully releasing everything that was weighing on me from the day, maybe even the week. I went from grunting to shouting to tearing up to laughing, all in the course of an hour—the physical healing the emotional, in turn strengthening the mental to drive on the physical.

Natalie notes that The Class brings together the best of two worlds and two modalities. “In yoga you find you’re in a pose, and these thoughts are coming up, and you have that impulse that you'd rather yell! And scream! AND MOVE IT!” she says, doing all three. But then, in a kickboxing class, you have that moment of thinking, ‘What is it that I’m actually kicking? What is fueling this physical release?”

Natalie dimmed the lights and invited us to do either a seated or lying down meditation to end the class, further reinforcing the spiritual intent of what we had just accomplished. “Thanks for trying this crazy thing!” she smiled as I packed up, dreams of my couch and TV dancing in my head.

“This is the most alive I’ve felt all day!” I gushed, with genuine pride (and a touch of surprise) that I’d tackled The Class and made it through. Get in on the action by clicking here.

--Jim Catapano

--All photos by Jaimie Baird

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