After a holiday season “relaxing” with family and friends, this Yoga Sleuth was ready for a vacation from her vacation. I joined the Urban Zen class at Yoga Shanti on a cold Friday night.
Yoga Shanti is hidden in plain sight, in an extravagant residential building near Madison Square Park. But once you step inside, it could easily be a yoga shala in Marrakesh. The walls are adorned in turquoise and jewel-toned tiles. Around the corner from the foyer are spacious changing rooms, bathrooms, and lockers with key codes included.
Restorative class is in the large main hall, with high ceilings and windows giving the aura of a church. Our leader for the evening, Gillian Cilibrasi, sits so calmly focused on greeting us while several assistants hand out props. We are given two bolsters, three blankets, two blocks, an eye pillow, a lavender scented pillow, and a strap; plenty of props to help us get zen, not to mention the oils and aromatherapy already in the space. Gillian is a relaxation expert as the head of the Urban Zen program at Yoga Shanti, and class with her is truly a treat.
All students must find a space along the wall, meaning the class is intimate in this big luxurious space. Once we’re sitting in an easy supported way, Gillian brings our focus inward. With our eyes closed, she begins to soothe our stress, slow down our breath, soften different parts of the face and body.
We open our eyes and find soft focus on one of the three candles in the center of the dimly lit hall. Gillian speaks about our drishti, our gaze, on the candle as a metaphor. She reminds us to consider where our gaze is for this coming year.
Each restorative pose of the class focuses on folding or twisting, bringing introspection and that inward gaze. From seated, we bring the two blocks stacked in front of us and fold forward so that our third eye rests on a block; it’s a divine release. I had no idea something so simple could be profoundly grounding.
We moved onto our stomachs, head down and to the side. At this point, Gillian and her assistants came around with reiki. She explained reiki as an “energy reminder” for those who didn’t know. After a long while lying with the combination of reiki and aromatherapy, we moved our legs up the wall, and Gillian again positioned props individually. This time, she came around placing a blanket across our bellies, a pillow on our eyes, and more lavender nearby. I was in heaven.
Until we moved to savasana, and I relaxed even more if that’s possible. Gillian urged us to use any props that felt good. I kept the pillow on my eyes. Then she dimmed the lights all the way, and the room was still and silent, except for deep breathing and very quiet instrumental music. Who knows how long we stayed there, but eventually Gillian brings us back, gently saying, “If you have more to do tonight and need some energy, roll onto your left side. If you can relax, roll onto your right side. Being aware your neighbor may turn the other way. Come up to seated.”
Grabbing a blanket, we return to seated meditation, focusing on the drishti of the candle and the gaze into the new year. And Gillian warns us to be aware that “not everyone is as relaxed as you” as we re-enter the real world. As you walk down the street, be extra aware —“If that car wants to go before you, let it.” She reminds us that we have allowed ourselves to become responsive instead of reactive, and that can only help the world, she says. Those words stick with me.
As I pack up and leave, Gillian is answering questions so students can position their own props at home. I walk outside onto W. 24th St. and realize how right she is. I’m more responsive and sensitive than before class, the air feels different, the city is loud. Yet, there’s an undeniable strength in this kind of defenselessness and openness that we simply don’t allow ourselves to feel enough, especially in NYC. That’s where Urban Zen comes in.
—Madeleine Kelsey for Yoga Sleuth
Drop-in classes are $25 with $2 mat rental. New student offer: one week unlimited for $30.