New York Yoga is a subtle and straightforward yoga studio. Nestled on the edge of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, it’s a decent 10 minute stroll from the nearest subway on 86th and Lexington and its humble storefront reflects the comparatively laid back vibe of the neighborhood. But the modest exterior offers little indication of the layers and depths you’re capable of finding inside, which I was soon to discover at Nixa De Bellis’ Sunday evening open level vinyasa class.
Check-in is a simple process with minimal fuss, and once I was inside the practice room - the lights low and the yogis mellow - I had a feeling I was in for a relaxed and straightforward practice. Fortunately, Nixa would deliver in full effect, but not without digging a little deeper, guiding us to our boundaries, and then a little beyond in the friendliest way possible.
Nixa wasted no time in getting started and had us begin on hands and knees right off the bat. She instructed us through multiple rounds of Cat and Cow moving on the breath. For a pose combination that is typically used as a quick warm-up, taking time to pause and truly take notice of what happens in our bodies when we undulate through the arching and the rounding was welcomed change of pace.
As we moved on our breath, Nixa talked us through the curvature of our spine, beginning at our tailbone and hips and making her way all the way up to our cervical spine and the “top of our brains.” Along the way, she asked us to observe how our pelvis tilts, how far it would go in either direction, how our spine flexes and lengthens, how our organs are massaged through the movement, how our thoracic spine is confined by our ribs but can still find expansion, and how mobile our necks can be - “but think about elongation,” Nixa said, reminding us not to scrunch or create unnecessary tension.
We continued our Cat/Cow flow for several minutes, much longer than I’d experienced in any other class. Nixa commented on how she will often set the timer at home for four minutes and just practice these movements to awaken all the nerve endings and ganglia in her body. By the time we had finished our turn it felt like we had given our ganglia a healthy dose of wake-up energy for the week - look out Monday!
Next we moved into a shoulder-opening thread-the-needle on both sides, our hips high in this version, rather than sitting back towards or heels. This allowed for a long spine and a deeper twist.
Transitioning into a seated Hero's Pose with the option to use a block for a lift, we began a few rounds of Kapalabhati breath. With our arms outstretched and our fingers curled into our palms, thumbs extended out towards one another, we exhaled until our lungs had been "exquisitely" emptied of air. Inhaling half-way or three-quarters, we we took 21 short powerful breaths, finishing with an inhale retention for 10 seconds. We repeated the whole process three times and paused for reflection after each.
If our toes were getting numb, that was ok, Nixa explained, because our circulation was being affected in this exercise as well, and the blood rushing back through our legs, once we were finished, would bring new fresh oxygen.
As we moved into Downward Facing Dog to begin our flow, Nixa took the opportunity to turn on some grooving background music that had a soothing beat and a motivating rhythm, our movements and breathing sometimes in synch with the tempo.
Continuing with our warm-up, we flowed through Sun Salutations and took pauses in some standing poses to approach our boundaries, to sense our “edge” as its often referred to, but not to attack it with aggression. Instead, Nixa advised us to be aware of how our body responded to certain poses or positions, and to “feel what you are feeling.”
Nixa's teaching is very deliberate and very direct, but she allows space for her students to tune into their own bodies. She also makes a point to sprinkle in helpful information about the poses or the benefits we might be receiving from them. In this way, Nixa keeps a steady flow of instruction, leaving little silence, or the chance for our minds to begin to drift elsewhere.
“See what a difference a difference makes,” was one of my favorite quotes of the evening.
We shifted through a sequence of standing poses from Warrior 1 to Warrior 2, Reverse Warrior to an Extended Side Angle variation with our front forearm on our front thigh. A Half-Moon variation found us with the front leg bent as if we were in Chair Pose. Much harder than the normal straight-legged version, Nixa had us play with the strength of our leg muscles which had to engage much more since we could not rely on the stacking of our bones to balance.
Midway through class, Nixa warned us that she would be holding us in certain postures for a minute each, which, she noted, might seem like a long time in our "New York minute" lives, but cautioned might be difficult once we are in the thick of those 60 seconds. And she was right.
Some of the poses we held for our minute-long time-out included Prasarita Padottanasana, Horse Pose (aka Goddess Pose), and a variation on Skandasana. In each, Nixa reminded us that we need not feel frustrated or create tension, but to approach our boundaries, once again, as friendly allies, without aggression. And just as my brow began to furrow, Erykah Badu’s “On & On” chimed in to coax me into submission.
Our final sequence included Sphinx Pose, Bridge and one more pose which we would hold for a full five minutes - Savasana! Ah, Savasana.
We closed our practice by chanting “Sat Nam.” And as we sat in our stillness, Nixa asked us to let our experience sit on our palettes so we may taste the sweetness of our journey, the robust and the subdued, the vibrant and muted, the obvious edges and subtleties in between.
-Holly C. Sparrow for Yoga Sleuth
Drop-in classes are $28. Water is available for purchase and mats are available to rent for $2. Lockers are available in the dressing rooms.