It was already a full house for Harlem Yoga Studio co-owner Erica Barth’s Saturday morning class, but she found a way to make room for Yoga Sleuth and a few more eager students. We immediately placed a block between the shoulder blades and another under the head, then wrapped a rolled-up blanket around our cobbler’s-posed ankles. Erica called it “heart bench,” and with Valentine’s Day approaching, the theme would indeed be heart-opening.
“My favorite definition of Bhakti is ‘the art of worship,’” said Erica. “It’s about devotion to light, or god, or whatever you want to call this greater thing. It’s all about the heart space, the fourth chakra, and leading with our heart rather than our minds.”
Erica then read a quote to illustrate the power of the heart:
“The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body. The magnetic component of the heart’s field, which is around 100 times stronger than that produced by the brain...can be measured several feet away from the body.”—Rollin McCraty
We began to engage our core muscles, imagining a gentle wave pouring up and in towards the crown of the head on each exhale, tucking the tailbone and engaging in a little bandha work. “Can you do the core work while keeping your heart open?” asked Erica.
We came to hands and knees, with blocks between the latter to squeeze, for a core-focused cat and cow. “On the inhale, think about lengthening the tailbone away from the crown of the head, opening the heart-space, and on the exhale pull the pelvic floor in and let that be the action that helps to round the spine,” said Erica.
We kept squeezing the block for our first down dog, then put it aside. “But see if you can imagine that same feeling of the pelvic floor lifting up and in.”
We raised a leg, opened the hip and slowly circled it. “I did it this morning and my hip was making so much noise!” admitted Erica. “Sometimes it’s just crunchy!”
We flipped our wrists to face the back of the room and made hip circles, then did a kundalini kriya, switching up cat/cow with an inhale and round, exhale and lift. We sped this up so the breath was fast, generating a lot of heat to take us through the high-energy portion of class.
This consisted of sun salutations with blocks under the hands for forward folds and lunges, forearm planks, modified side planks, warrior two, and triangle, with many visits to vinyasa flow with optional modifications as needed. Erica reminded us to keep our chins up, literally. “Show the world your face!” she encouraged. We workshopped chaturanga, trying it with knees on the ground in order to concentrate on elbow placement, and, of course, keeping that heart open.
As fitting for a bhakti class, there were a lot of backbends, including versions of dhanurasana where we reached for the ankles rather than grabbing them; then the traditional ankle-grabbing version, followed by several spells in camel, and finally navasana.
Cooling down, we did some supine twists before a truly blissful savasana. Erica treated us to the classic “progressive relaxation” technique, taking us from toes to crown until every inch of us was divinely sedate. Erica treated our open hearts to a final heartfelt quote as we rolled into a fetal position:
“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” —Max Ehrmann
—Jim Catapano for Yoga Sleuth
Drop-in classes at Harlem Yoga Studio are $14 with a $1 mat rental. New students can try three classes for $25.