At the end of a dreary May evening that was doing an uncanny impression of a cold and wet March night, Yoga Sleuth marched to YogaWorks Soho to find the sun (salutations). The studio's modern aesthetic and multiple amenities were bonus to my new, warm haven.
I was there just in time for an hour on the mat with rock star teacher Mel Russo. Mel is known to lead a challenging class, but she's also known for ensuring her students always learn something new, stay safe, and have some fun, too. Her vibrant personality and great sense of humor have become Mel's trademarks, as well as her creative sequencing, which I soon came to discover firsthand this Monday eve.
As I entered, the studio was packed, and Mel was dashing about, greeting newbies and making sure everyone was properly propped.
“Lie on your back and take this time to notice what you’ve brought to the table,” said Mel. “What you're still hanging on to from the day or weekend.” We used this moment to fill up with breath and let it all go with a long exhale. Mel had us scan our bodies and notice any areas that can use a little extra softening, like the eyes, the hands, the jaw, the shoulders. "Be mindful of these things as you move through your practice,” Mel advised us.
We took the legs to the left side, then the right, for a post-weekend detoxifying twist. “This is a vinyasa class, about the movement and the breath,” reminded Mel. “We go from one pose to the next, using a different breath for each pose, and, hopefully, using the entire breath for the entire movement, to get from pose to pose." Attention to the breath is what sets yoga apart from other modalities, Mel says.
We grounded our sacrums for a few breaths in Happy Baby. “Hold onto your thighs and rock and roll along the spine,” suggested Mel. We rolled up to sit straight and tall in sukhasana.
“Every time you inhale, feel as if there’s a balloon pulling you up head towards the ceiling,” said Mel as we imagined our inherent lightness. “And when you exhale it’s as if there are weights on your hips grounding your down. Let that be the theme of your asana practice—moving in opposite directions but still feeling like you have your feet on the ground.”
With lead in our feet and light in our hearts, we began to flow on the breath, Mel guiding us for the first few, then three rounds on our own. The music, at first subtle, began to pick up energy to match our effort. "Groove Is in the Heart" (chakra?) appropriately accompanied our most intense flowing. (If you frequent Mel's class, you'll quickly learn her playlists are top notch.)
Mel invited us to take a full breath in our down dog and find stillness there. We crept to the top of the mat and swayed in a forward fold. "Feel a lift in the sit bones and let the head be heavy," said Mel. "Use the whole breath to lift to tadasana."
We sent the left leg back for a lunge. Mel, with her consistently spot-on alignment cues, reminded us to lift our back leg and reach our heel even further, to feel "nice and connected in the front foot." We lowered the back knee for a bigger stretch in the psoas and raised arms over the head, then lifted both legs and straightened the front knee to come into pyramid pose. Mel spied that I only had one block and brought me another so i could explore my best expression of the posture with a block for each of my hands.
We progressed to the standing sequence, coming to high lunge and then peeling open for warrior two. Mel asked us to hug everything into the midline by feeling of all ten fingers pulling away from each other and keeping the back leg nice and straight, front knee over the ankle.
Lowering for a quick cool-down, we took a bridge pose with arms lifted over the head. Mel then invited us to try a different perspective with a fold into paschimottanasana. I was the beneficiary of one of her expert adjustments as she coaxed my torso over my slightly bent knees, easing me towards my personal edge. We came full circle with another spell in happy baby and supine twists, then let it all go in savasana to the sounds of a gentle acoustic guitar version of "Just What I Needed." Fitting, because Mel was just what we needed on a Manic Monday.
—Jim Catapano for Yoga Sleuth
Drop-in classes are $28 with $2 mat rental. New students can try one free week.