Image Credit: Jennifer Ruggiero
It was kind of a fluke when I first took Joe Kara’s class two years ago. A friend of mine and I were planning to do a yoga class followed by dinner – Joe’s class just happened to be the last one of the day, so it made sense time wise that we ended up there. Cut to two years later, you’ll find me in Joe’s class at least twice (if not four) times a week.
I had become quite fond of my Sunday evening vinyasa flow class – it does such a lovely job of not only wrapping up the weekend energy but also sets the tone for the coming week – so when Sarah Ezrin departed LA for San Francisco earlier this year (I’m still in mourning), I was curious as to which teacher would take that time slot. It was right after Sarah’s last class, as we all hung around in the lobby wishing her well, that I looked over at Joe – with the studio manager in the [overhearing] vicinity – kindly mentioning, “Why don’t you take this time slot? You’d be perfect for it!” Joe said, “I would be honored if it’s available.”
Cut to the following Sunday, Joe was on the schedule. He thanked me later for planting that seed as it had created an abundant snowball effect with his other classes. I said, “You’re welcome, but honestly – who else would have taken over that class?!” He really was the best option for my beloved Sunday evenings.
When I started creating this yoga series and began to think of teachers to speak with, Joe was the first teacher who popped in my mind. His classes are subtly intense and his demeanor is humble AF, so he was a perfect choice to interview. So perfect of a choice that he turned the questions back around on me!
Heather Reinhardt: What was your “aha” moment on deciding to pursue the yoga teacher path?
Joe Kara: The “aha” moment wasn’t necessarily about teaching, so much as an “aha” about yoga itself. There are a few powerful memories. The first was when I went to my first class – an Intro to Kundalini Yoga Workshop – at the Hollywood YMCA. I didn’t know anything about different styles or the approaches, I just knew that I’d had a curiosity for years about yoga and I was FINALLY checking out a class. Afterwards, I felt good in a way that I couldn’t describe that was curiously both light and grounded. As I walked to my car, in the middle of the street, without warning, I burst out laughing. Uncontrollably. I was a bit embarrassed by it – looking left and right – but no one was around me. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I knew it couldn’t be a bad thing! I started practicing one, occasionally two times a week both hatha and Kundalini.
Another “aha” moment was when I decided to commit to getting to the mat at least three times week, which was tough as I was working long hours. I made that commitment, and almost instantly everything changed – my stress level dramatically lowered, my quality of sleep improved, and I lost twenty pounds – not necessarily because of sweat, but because I was also making different choices as to what went into my body. Although my job was still long hours, I seemed to have more time in my day. During this time I would joke to my friends that I was “going to teach this stuff someday.” We all, myself included, thought I was joking. That was all in early-to-mid-2003. In 2006, I enrolled in the first of what has gone on to be several teacher trainings: Hatha, Kundalini, Yoga Therapy, Subtle Body, 200 hour, 300 hour, and more. I’m grateful they’ve provided countless “aha” moments.
HR: I can completely relate to all of what you said, especially the laughter. What is the biggest impact that your yoga practice has created in your own life?
JK: It’s had enormous impact. Overall quality of life would be high on the list. Yoga has helped me see a few things in my life more clearly. Therefore I’m able to choose where I put my precious energy. I stopped letting some things that were of little importance bother or trigger me. Instead, yoga helped me focus and clarify the things that are truly important. Yoga has had a way of helping me tap into and acknowledge my capacity, abilities, and strengths.
It has offered me authentic connection with others and it continues to enrich my life.
Speaking of connecting with others, just a couple weeks ago I came back from my annual yoga retreat in Tuscany. It is always a really special experience and I’ve watched lifelong friendships be born by people who were complete strangers beforehand. This year while on the retreat, a lovely young couple got engaged. They decided they wanted to get married while in Tuscany – and they gave me the great honor of asking me to marry them. And spontaneous as it was, everyone on the retreat came together to support them and we had a real wedding. One person took photos, another spearheaded the flower mission, someone did hair, another made a cake, and so much more. And this all happened with about two days notice. It was incredibly special and was truly something I’ll never forget.
HR: That has to be one of the best yoga retreat stories of all time – thank you for sharing that! I may or may not have just added a photo that represents “spontaneous Italian yoga retreat wedding” to my vision board… One of my favorite aspects of your class is the “yogi’s choice” moment – where you offer child’s pose or forearm plank – totally different poses for totally different energy levels. In fact, sometimes I come specifically to your class because I crave the yin/yang balance of a hearty, sweaty flow (forearm plank) and the surrendering to self-care (child’s pose) all in the same 90-minute time frame. Tell us more about your philosophy for/or reasons behind offering “yogi’s choice.”
JK: Hmmmm. There are a few answers imbedded in this one. First off, I have to admit that anything I may do or say as a teacher that has positive impact has been borrowed very liberally from my teacher, Jeanne Heileman. She drew a teacher out of me. With that said, I do have very specific reasons for offering a yin/yang choice. If there are thirty people in the class, then there are thirty different yoga practices in the room along with thirty different life experiences, considerations, injuries, etc. Hell, those thirty people had very different days at work that day. Or commutes. Everyone comes to the mat for different reasons. I try to honor who is in the class and not just show up and teach a sequence of poses I had planned. So usually, after we’ve warmed up, got the blood going, the breath moving, and the body open, some heat starts to build. Although yoga can help access great capacity and potential within us, and an energetic nudge in that direction is often helpful, there are times a practitioner needs to take some time to rest or practice a bit of self-care. Or perhaps needs to reconnect with or slow down the flow of their breath – so that they may ultimately find balance in their practice.
Balance looks different for each of us after a long day at work and navigating Los Angeles traffic just to get to yoga on time. For one person, finding balance as the heat and challenge start to increase may be to take a restful pose like child’s pose. For another, it’s an arm balance or forearm plank. There’s an important underlying yogic concept – called svadyhaya in Sanskrit. One of its meanings is self-study. “Yogi’s Choice” is ultimately my way of giving practitioners an opportunity to choose what they may need in the moment based on self-observation. We live in a society that elevates achievement, multi-tasking, and being busy to God-like status. Letting go of the expectations we tend put on ourselves can be incredibly challenging. Sometimes we just need to be given permission to take it easy. I try to offer a few specific choices so as to not disturb or distract anyone else in the class because it is clearly defined as a time when a few people may be choosing different poses.
HR: Thank you for this offering. It truly is a great way to listen to what my body needs at that given moment – which more often than not is child’s pose – and maybe an extra forearm plank when I’m over caffeinated! What is your top piece of advice about yoga, wellness and/or lifestyle?
JK: That advice really comes from the yogic texts. It’s all there -what to do and how to do it. You have to show up and practice – be it on the mat, the meditation cushion, your relationships, your goals, your self-inquiry. This practice requires clarity and focus. Discipline. Consistency. Enthusiasm. Faith. Effort. Surrender. And have a meditation practice. Make is simple and achievable. Start by sitting in bed for two minutes in the morning and watch the flow of your breath. It will subtly and powerfully affect your state of being and mindset. While we’re at it, I’d also love to know what led you to yoga.
HR: Oh, why certainly! I spent my youth as a competitive dancer until I was seventeen. Then I went to college and gained the freshman fifteen (more like fifty in my case). When I moved to LA, I took a job in the yoga world. Honestly, at that time it was just a job. I rarely made it to my mat; mostly because I typed up Sanskrit documents all day – the last thing I wanted to do was go listen to someone speak Sanskrit for 90-minutes. A few years later, I was in a different job, which required a lot out of me, and a relationship that was basically the definition of square peg trying to fit into a round hole. A friend of mine, knowing I was drained in both my professional and personal life, kept kindly nudging me, saying, “Let me know when you want to come back to yoga. I’ll go with you.” This went on for probably four or five months. Then one day, after a horrendous fight with that boyfriend and a huge miscommunication issue at work, I picked up the phone, called my friend and asked, “What time is class today?” That was over three years ago and I have not gone a week without a date with my mat since.
JK: That old adage “when the student is ready, the teacher appears” does seem to have real merit. In this case, the yoga itself is the teacher that showed up for you. I can certainly vouch for you as a very consistent practitioner. Where does the desire to keep coming back to your mat come from?
HR: Most days, I make making it to my mat a top priority because I respect and understand what a beneficial gift yoga is to my life. I do yoga as a full consciousness workout – I get to reset my body, mind and spirit all within 90-minutes. For body, I find vinyasa flow yoga to be the best physical workout for me. Having grown up in a dance studio, walking into a yoga studio feels familiar and cozy to me. Then once on my mat, I get to explorer my relationship with my flexibility. I did a lot of contortion in my dance days and my body still holds some of that muscle memory – well, on some days it does!
For mind, I find that while I’m on my mat I have two different conversations in my head going on. One conversation is the one that keeps me present – as in I can’t possibly be thinking of anything else other than being in Ardha Chandrasana at that very moment because I am balancing on one leg while twisting my chest open – there’s literally no space in my brain to be thinking of anything else – or else I’ll fall. The other conversation happens usually in a less intense pose and it’s actually more of a solution. I often times come to my mat with something difficult unfinished – an important aspect of a project or an unreturned email. I walk away from my unfinished business on purpose, to head to my mat to clear my head from it. Then during my practice, out of the blue – sometimes during Savasana – it never fails me, I’ll figure out the solution to my unfinished problem.
For spirit, yoga provides a clearing and a balance for my chakras. I can much more easier “hearticulate” – which is using both the heart and the head equally to communicate – when my chakras are balanced.
JK: And how about the “aha” moment? Did you have one?
HR: The first big realization I had was something similar to what you said about having more time. On the days I would practice, which at first was three times a week, I would spend three hours all together – 45-minute drive to the studio, 90-minute class, then another 45-minute commute back home. A few months into my consistent yoga practice, I realized I was getting more accomplished – both professionally and personally – than ever before. Like what the heck was I doing with those three hours before I went yoga?! Another “aha” was when I first “took flight” in crow pose – which took me about a year and half of consistent practice before I got both toes off the ground. I was able to look at it as a metaphor – sometimes things take time to build up to, but keep working at it and eventually you have no other option except to take flight.
JK: So nicely stated. The practice gathers, organizes, and redistributes your energy in more efficient and refined ways. And in the newly made space, there’s a well of possibility and inspiration. Taking flight is a great metaphor. To that point, what is your favorite aspect of the practice, and why?
HR: I love how I have gotten to know my body through my yoga practice. Not only while on the mat but actually even more so off the mat. I am able to listen to what my needs are – both physically and emotionally. BY (the time I refer to as Before Yoga was apart of my life), at the first sign of a headache I would pop a Tylenol. Now when I start to feel a headache coming on, I drink water and within a few minutes, it’s usually gone. For me, the sign of a headache is actually my body telling me it’s dehydrated – but I never knew that until I really started feeling and listening to myself, which came directly from my yoga practice. It’s hard to explain to someone who has never done yoga consistently – it can even sound a little hard to believe. But it really is true; a yoga practice will transform everything about your life. That’s hands down my favorite aspect. If you want to change your life, get to your mat.
JK: What do you look for in a teacher?
HR: A few things have to add up with my chosen teachers. First is a teacher who creates a sequence that is strong but also safe. About a year ago, I took a class while traveling and tweaked a muscle. I know the moment it happened – it was a tricky shift that was not a secure transition in the sequence. The second is music. I have to have music in class. Taking a class without music can be torturous for me – I come out irritated, which is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen in yoga! I think my incessant need for music relates to my dance days and wanting to flow with the rhythm. Also, music tends to help calm my [sometimes] racing mind. I become more present and more in the moment while flowing and connecting to the beat.
JK: Do you have a pranayama (breathing) meditation and/ or practice?
HR: I do – but I must confess, it’s not as consistent as my yoga practice! However, when I am having a tough moment or anxiety about something, I am able to drop into my breathing and close my eyes for a few minutes – reconnecting to my body. It never fails; I always immerge in a much calmer energy after those moments. It’s also when I say to myself “Oh right, I should do this more often!”
JK: I agree! Even a little consistent breath work can have enormous positive impact. Start small. Wake up and do 2 minutes of simply watching the breath. Or maybe, since you are so regular on your mat, just do it for a couple minutes while waiting for the class to start. You know, instead of being on your computer 😉
HR: Ohhhh! Busted! I do sometimes bring my laptop with me to my mat right before class starts. It’s usually when I’m flowing with a project and then I flow right into my practice. However, your words have been noted – I’ll use more of that time and space to sink into pranayama!
You can find Joe’s class at –
Yogaworks Larchmont and Tantris Center for Yogic Science
Follow Joe at –
Instagram – @joekarayoga
Facebook – Joe Kara Yoga
Website – www.joekarayoga.com
Meet Author Heather Reinhardt
Heather Reinhardt has her fingers in many pies (both metaphorically and IRL – she loves pastries). She is an author, speaker, make-up artist, Angeleno, yogi, yerba mate addict and expert manifestationalist.