"You know that this is a different style of yoga from what's out there, right?" asked Melissa French. I did, but I wasn't quite prepared for how different. The next 90-minutes were challenging, perspective-changing, and fun.
The class was filled with boisterous regulars, chatting away, and “practicing for practice”—assisting each other in supported poses, playing with blocks and straps.
"Enough socializing!" grinned the equally boisterous and dynamic French, and she asked us to come to a Down Dog. "Bend your knees, stick your butt way, way up, and use the backs of the legs to get into the hip joint. Rotate your armpits towards your heart. Think that you're plugging your palms in to lift up off of your wrists. Think that you're bending your knees to plug in your feet without letting your heels touch down, to lift off of your ankles.”
She had us bring our right palms onto our backs. “We're now in a dog with three points of contact instead of four, and if you're not in your legs, this is so demanding. We're doing this practice to frame up your organs and glands, because when you do, they have a better house, they have a better function, and you have more fun."
French is an inspiring teacher, always “on” and with notes of wisdom in every breath; her articulation of proper alignment is precise and, at times, even poetic.
“You were designed to fit yourself,” she reminded us. “Your torso is designed to fit your thighs, your tongue to fit your mouth. The torso touching your thighs is a dialogue between your capacity and your stability, your depths and your ability.”
French called out to all of us, by name, if she saw something in our postures that needed addressing, and whirled around the room with infectious energy, giving adjustments to everyone who needed an extra boost.
When she spied us "getting it," she gave us a cheerful shout-out. She helped me go deeper in my uttanasana by setting a blanket under my heels and practically folding me like a laundered shirt. She put blocks under my shoulders and head for an extra restorative Pigeon, and made sure my hips were at 3 and 9 o’clock (i.e. square). She grabbed sandbags from the prop box—new prop alert!—and placed them on another student’s feet to help him ground into his standing pose.
"Joints hold your crap," French said, "and when you have a little too much 'fun' in life, all that reflects in your joints. I have you work immediately in joint space...to bend your knees, to drop the back of your neck, and lift up through the backs of your legs."
Melissa asked us to head to the wall, where we placed the calf of the right leg flat up against it while lunging with the left knee for an intense hip-flexor opening. She called out to me to get my left leg to a true right angle, and then we twisted over the bent leg. "A twist is designed to open us up 180 degrees to everything that is all around us," she noted, and she came over to help me open up as far as she knew my body could go.
"What's the point in suffering in these poses?" she asked. "Instead, work differently."
As Katonah classes generally don’t include Savasana, French had us finish with a climactic backbend that was the very definition of heart opening. A fellow student grabbed some folding chairs and set them around the room. We were to place a strap around our legs, then bend back over the chair to touch our hands to the wall as French, or another spotter, placed their feet into the student’s lower back and cradled their head. It took some time and class ran over a bit, but every yogi had a chance to reap the benefits of this juicy posture.
As French reminded: "You came here not to stay you, but to change! A backbend is not meant to bring you into the past. The past does not give you power. What gives you power is a glimpse into your future. And all futures always become present."
—Jim Catapano for Yoga Sleuth
One-hour drop-in classes at Katonah are $16, and 90-minute classes are $20. New student special: 3 classes for $30. Mats are provided for free.