If you're dropping into Roosevelt Island by tram, expect a glamorous arrival. The tram takes you up and over the Queensboro Bridge and affords spectacular views of the City. For those feeling a little queasy about heights, there's always the F train, which drops you off about a five-minute walk from the studio. Roosevelt Island is a splinter of an island situated between Queens and Manhattan, and is only two miles long, so, either way, you don't have a long walk to your yoga destination. Today, mine was the aptly titled Roosevelt Island Yoga.
Classes take place at Main Street Theater & Dance Alliance at 548 Main Street, however, yogis take note: You have to enter through the alleyway to the side of the building, stay to the left, and head down the stairs with the red door. Also, bring a mat if you need one. They only have a small handful of mats to hand out at the studio.
Roosevelt Island has a dark history. Formally known as Blackwell's Island, it has over the years housed an insane asylum, a small pox hospital, and a penitentiary, but it has since been renamed Roosevelt Island and has become quite gentrified. Even the former insane asylum has been converted into expensive luxury apartments. And now, of course, the island has yoga bringing light to its former darkness.
Keren Messer's class also attracts a refreshingly wide age demographic, with some students who looked as though they were in their twenties and some who looked to be in their fifties. Most seemed to be locals with a few newbies straggling in. It's refreshing to see a wide range of ages in class. Keren played "Ra Ma Da Sa" on her iPod as we entered, and, in fact, played various other kundalini chants as well as other yoga music during class.
As well as teaching at Roosevelt Island Yoga, Keren also offers outdoor yoga classes at the Louis Kahn-designed Four Freedoms Park, which is a gorgeous, airy park that opened in 2012 on the island to honor the Four Freedoms speech made by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941.
Before we began, Keren briefly checked in with the new people, enquiring about injuries and yoga backgrounds, then started us in Easy Pose, instructing us to cross our legs at the shin bones. After taking us through a few gentle rounds of "Om," Keren walked us through some easy Cat/Cows and then eased us into Downward Dog, instructing us not to let our heels touch the floor, otherwise there would be nowhere else for them to go.
She then commenced on a theme that she would return to several times during class to build our strength: that of Downward Dog to Plank to Upward Dog with the toes tucked, while keeping the core engaged. The class seemed to be aimed at a beginner's level for those somewhat newish to yoga, and Keren kept the poses simple. Yet we didn't have to hold poses for too long, which can be extraordinarily challenging in a beginner's class.
Keren also kept the movement flowing. For example, we did a variation of Thread-the-Needle, in which we were on all fours. We lifted one arm up to the ceiling, then threaded it down and under the other arm. We didn't come all the way to the floor, as we would normally, but, instead, continued the movement back and forth several times, without bringing the shoulder all the way to the floor.
We also practiced a half Ardha Chandrasana on the floor, turning to the side, and extending the back leg. But we didn't bring the leg up off of the floor; we kept the stretch simple.
Other standing poses in the offering included Warrior 1, Warrior 2, and an Extended Side Angle with the variation of keeping the hand half way up the shin bone. We also held Chair Pose painfully for five breaths. Practicing our balance, we held Warrior 3 for several breaths, but Keren instructed us to not lift the leg all the way up to hip height. We simply kept it hovering off of the ground.
On the floor, we worked on Puppy Pose. Here, Keren encouraged me to engage my abdominal muscles rather than slipping into my arch-y backbend. We also worked on Boat Pose, but kept the legs bent and then extended one leg at a time to see if we could stretch our legs out all the way.
Staying seated, we practiced a variation of Janu Sirsasana and a Pigeon reparation. One leg was bent in a half Pigeon, and the other leg was back behind us, but also bent. From here, we folded forwards towards our knee. With the back leg still bent, we folded forwards into an easier version of Pigeon, and Keren walked around the room giving sage adjustments. Following this, Keren coached us into a Seated Spinal Twist.
Our backbends for the evening were a Low Cobra, Superman, or Shalabhasana followed by Bridge, but Keren added a slight variation. In this Bridge, we rocked back and forth between a super backbend-y version, and then tilted our hips and pelvises down a little to neutralize our spines while pushing the knees slightly forward over the ankles. We rocked back and forth in this position, then came up to sit for some hip openers and forward bends.
Easing our way out of backbend mode, we took up Happy Baby, then brought our feet about mat's width apart and swayed our knees from side to side.
Class ended with a short Savasana and chanting of “Om Shanti” several times.
It was dark by the time I exited the class, but a nice breeze came in from the water, offering relief from the stuffy summer heat. Both the views of Queens and Manhattan were breathtaking, with all the lights of the City winking at me, bringing light to the darkness.