The room was near maximum capacity in Jamie Lugo’s 9am at Yoga Shanti when one more yogi popped her head in looking to join the class.
“Come in! There’s always space in yoga,” said Jamie while lifting the harmonium off her mat so the student still standing in the doorway could have her spot.
She then instructed us to roll our blankets the long way (into a “burrito”), and place them under our thighs for vajrasana. The harmonium chimed in as an accompaniment to our attunement.
“Meet your body where it is now,” Jamie suggested.
After several long, deep breaths she started speaking about how many people prefer to turn away from sadness and discomfort. And that sometimes, turning towards the discomfort is the best way to heal. She read a passage from Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, and explained afterwards that this book had been her saving grace for the past five years, but particularly the days since the Paris attacks.
“Many of us are feeling helpless, but there actually is something we can do. And we’re going to do it today. We’re going to practice Tonglen, the Buddhist meditation of loving kindness. But first, we need to move our bodies, and ground into our legs for a firm foundation.”
It was then our class focus was revealed: the legs.
We went to cat-cow where Jamie encouraged us to warm up the spine, and connect the movement to our breath. She emphasized the heart-opening of cow, urging us to reach our chests forward, slightly up.
The leg work began immediately while we were on all fours—she told us to wake up our feet and feel the power of our legs even though we weren’t yet standing on them.
Jamie's sequence included several hamstring lengtheners. Uttanasana was practiced in a few different variations from the traditional version (done multiple times throughout the class)—a cross-legged version, and a supported version, with the rolled up blanket underneath our toes, weight dropping into our heels.
There were also many leg strengtheners. Utkatasana came up often, along with a variation where we stood on our toes then slowly bent our knees, lowering them down to the floor.
And then there were the postures where the leg work wasn’t so obvious.
In a seated spinal twist, Jamie suggested we press firmly into the front toe to encourage the twist from the ground up. And in salabhasana she asked us to lift our chests from the strength of our legs pressing together and lengthening long.
She referenced B.K.S. Iyengar in revolved triangle, who’s been known to have called the back foot of this pose the “brain.” She then pointed out that the back foot is often the weakest part of this pose, and we can strengthen our weaknesses by bringing attention to them. In this case, it involved pressing firmly into the big toe mound and grounding into the back heel.
Blending a nice mix of anatomical direction with spiritual insights, Jamie spoke clearly while walking around the (packed) room, and frequently added lighthearted comments to the class. (There was a face-to-booty incident that Jamie noted, whch had everyone laughing.)
And though she had a lightness to her tone, her physical assists were deep. I received several, and each time my body was better off than it had been before she offered her hand to my practice.
In addition to focusing on the legs, Jamie often referred to the breath, particularly the giving and receiving aspect of each inhale and exhale—it was like a sub-theme for the class.
“Breathe in the discomfort you’re feeling from the pose. Breathe out gratitude for your practice.”
After savasana we came to sit for a few moments of “giving and receiving” Tonglen meditation.
We ended with a few rounds of “lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu” followed by an “om.”
When I went to exit the room, I felt a firm foundation from my legs, which would carry me solidly through the rest of my day.
—Elysha Lenkin for Yoga Sleuth
Drop-in classes at Yoga Shanti are $25, with mat rental available for $2. New student special: $30 for one week unlimited.
Yoga Shanti 46 W. 24th St. New York, NY 10010 212-255-9642