Yoga: Theory, Culture and Practice
Professor Laura Douglass
Project and Presentation
March 1, 2010
Karma Yoga Studio was an exciting and interesting place to try a new yoga class. After being unable to attend a class due to illness and conflicting schedules, Maggie Hall and I were able to attend a Forrest Yoga class on a Saturday. Karma is welcoming with both its staff and decor. Although we were running late, the other class attendants willingly made room, showing the friendly atmosphere Karma presents. After the intensive class in 80-degree temperature, Maggie and I reflected upon the differences between our class practice versus what we had just experienced. The following day, I returned to Karma to photograph the setting and to get more information about the studio, its history and mission. Both times I visited Karma, I left feeling peaceful in the crisp air of Harvard Square.
A man named Jesse Winder founded Karma in 2002. As stated on Karma’s website, Winder is a follower of the Ahimsa practice. Sri Swami Sivananda describes Ahimsa as, “In its comprehensive meaning, Ahimsa or non-injury means entire abstinence from causing any pain or harm whatsoever to any living creature, either by thought, word, or deed. Non-injury requires a harmless mind, mouth, and hand” (Sivananda, 2004). Winder follows a vegan diet, and teaches a “PhysioYoga” class (“Karma mind body spirit”). Found in their brochure, Karma is “founded on and committed to the belief that compassion and nonviolence are the indispensable components of progressive individual and social change.” The practice of ahimsa is seen throughout Karma.
Karma’s mission is “to create a better world through the support of human, animal and environmental welfare issues” (“Karma mind body spirit”). Karma has a clear mission and they describe themselves as “a socially and environmentally responsible organization committed to engaging progressive ideals in every aspect of conducting business” (“Karma mind body spirit”). Karma has been growing as the practice of yoga has become more popular in recent years in America. Teachers have come and gone, but currently there are 22 teachers at Karma. As discovered in a phone interview with one of the managers, Jessica told that the teachers are trained outside of Karma, although Karma does offer instructor training. Each teacher has a different style of yoga they practice, along with their own ideas and philosophies about yoga. She later stated that what Karma ideally wants is to have people come, practice yoga or enjoy the cafe, and to become aware of different causes.
When one walks through the door, there is a café that includes tea and snacks, which are all vegan. Jessica stated that Karma was founded on giving back. At Karma, they strive for selflessness. The motivation behind opening Karma was to help the animal shelter, C.A.R.E.. This animal shelter takes in stray pets and tries to find homes for them. This follows the Ahimsa practice, for it is helping animals from harm. Karma is the sole corporate sponsor for this organization, donating 5% of their profits. On February 28th, there was a three-hour class to benefit Haiti, which was sponsored by many local businesses. Karma donates the earnings from at least one week a class toward a cause; some of the past causes being a woman’s homeless shelter, Haiti, along with others.
Karma is a well-decorated studio and café. The inspiration draws from Zen ideas for it is very minimalist. There are dark wood floors throughout the café and studio. The studio draws from Eastern influences for the decorations, with a large, dark framed mirror and wall hangings. They also have large colorful mandala paintings. The café is decorated with stones and sticks and plants. Karma is a very comforting place to relax and practice.
Karma draws their practice from Eastern inspiration, offering yoga, Chi Kung, Nia and Pilates. Karma is also influenced by Western culture. They run on a schedule, where as other studios have a more open come and go as one pleases policy. It is a business, where other studios are free. Karma strives to build community, for their goal is to make people more aware of what is happening in their community, along with making connections and doing what they can for people in need. There is a large bulletin board for people to post about events happing in the area. Karma differs from most of the Western world by offering an animal product-free café. Karma balances the Eastern cultures they were influenced by with their Western clients well.
Karma offers a wide variety of services due to the number of teachers. There are fifteen different styles of yoga, three non-yoga classes, a newly opened gym, workshops, and teacher training. They have the intention of dedicating rooms to body therapies like acupuncture and massage. PhysioYoga was developed at Karma, and there are three different levels of intensity: gentle, moderate and core strength. This style of yoga was developed by the founder, and thus follows his practice of ahimsa. This class focuses on proper alignment along with understanding the science of the poses. Other classes include Ashtanga, Anusara-Inspired, Bring-Your-Own-Baby, Elemental, “Embodyoga”, Hatha, Kundalini, Pre-Baby/Pre-Natal, Power, Slow Flow Vinyasa, Vinyasa (Flow), and Forrest yoga. Some of the classes are heated, and others are not. Karma also offers Chi Kung, Nia, and Pilates. Their new gym offers personal training sessions. Along with personal training sessions, Karma states that their instructors are available for private instruction along with instruction in a private group. The wide range of levels and classes allows for accessibility for anyone, which is one of Karma’s beliefs, that yoga should be accessible to all.
I attended the Forrest Yoga class. Forest Yoga is described on Karma’s website as, “Forrest Yoga uses heat, deep breathing and vigorous sequences to sweat out toxins. The long holds in the pose progressions help you flush, oxygenate and rejuvenate every cell” (“Karma mind body spirit”). The class was heated to about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. There were a number of people in attendance. There were mostly women, from about 20 to 45, a few older in their mid sixties, and two or three men who were also older. The teacher is a woman named Amiko Hirao. According to her profile on Karma’s website, she has been doing yoga for about three years when she first attended a Forrest yoga class. A woman named Ana Forrest taught the class, and later became Hirao’s teacher. Hirao spoke with Maggie and me after our class and told us how she used to get terrible migraines and had significant back pain. After doing Forrest yoga, her pain went away. She said she is an illustrator, and became a yoga teacher as “plan B” because illustrating does not make a lot of money, especially in this economy. Since she became a teacher, yoga has become very prevalent in her life. She lives by the motto, "creative energy flows from the core - not from the head” (“Karma mind body spirit”). She believes in the healing power of yoga, for it helped to solve her back and migraine problems.
The Forrest yoga was much different from our class practice. After arriving, I was feeling apprehensive because I at times get anxiety when in groups of people I do not know, and the only room in the class was directly in front of Hirao. I have not exercised in an extremely long time, for I have been working on gaining weight again after losing a significant amount the past few months. Due to this, I was nervous about being in front of the instructor and the front of the class since I knew I did not have a lot of my strength. Everyone was very nice and accommodating though, for people made room for Maggie and me to practice. There were an array of people of different ages, genders and ethnicities, which made the experience more interesting because everyone is doing the same exercises, regardless of the differences. The room was very warm, but not as warm as I had expected or hoped. Next, the practice began.
We started with a meditation and a chant. In comparison to the class practice, the “Ohm” chant was extremely loud. I feel as though many in our class are quieter and new to yoga and are not as comfortable with the chanting as others may be, and I know that the chanting is not my favorite part, but in this class I found myself chanting with everyone else. After, we did some poses I had learned on Wii Fit and in class, but there were other poses that required athleticism. One of the first poses we did was lying down bicycling, each time trying to push as though the pedals were out of reach. Another pose we did was lying down with a towel or block between our thighs, knees bent a little less than 90 degrees, and we would lift one leg straight up and squeeze the block while we lifted our shoulders toward the leg we were lifting. I found it really difficult to keep up with the instructors timing. I also felt as though some of the poses had too many steps to keep track of at such a fast pace.
At this point in the practice, I was feeling pretty tired. We did some back bends, which is one of my favorite poses. It was different from the back bends we do in class, for we wedged the brick under us, and lifted various amounts of our weight off the brick while one of our legs was in the air. Everyone then found wall space to do handstands. The first stage we did was downward dog only we walked our feet up the wall to hips height. This was hard for me to do because at this point, my feet were extremely sweaty and they slipped on the wall. Then, the teacher demoed a handstand where she simply kicked her legs over herself and did a split with only her toes touching the wall. I am both very tall and very clumsy, so the idea of just kicking my 40-inch legs over my 30-inch torso seemed improbable, especially since my hands were slipping on the mat. I watched as one of the men who looked to be around 6’2” almost did the handstand perfectly. If I ever attempt a handstand, I think I need to do it in steps rather than with a lot of momentum.
Following the wall poses, we worked on sun salutations at an extremely fast pace. I had a hard time trying to keep track of my breath, for we were supposed to do certain parts of the pose while inhaling, and other portions of the pose while exhaling. After she guided us for about 4 rounds, we were able to work on them at our own pace and at that point I felt comfortable slowing down. We then did a series of downward dog poses. Some had logical, but weird names, such as “fire hydrant.” I found it difficult to do the pose while picturing why the pose was named as it was. This was getting toward the end of the practice, and because of that, my whole body was shaking since I had not exercised in so long. I found myself looking at the clock, hoping that it would be over soon. I really wanted to push myself though to try to work through the entire practice, but with the last difficult poses, I found myself resorting to more meditative poses. We did some gentle bending and a final meditation and chant at the end.
After the class, I was exhausted. I had not eaten much for breakfast, and we did a lot of exercises my body was not used to. I might have pushed myself too far. I prefer the practice we do in class, because I feel more comfortable in a group of people my age. I also prefer the gentler yoga, for I feel more mindful after since it is less strenuous. One of the things I learned from this experience is one should really not be self-conscious while practicing yoga. Everyone is working on their own breathing, meditation, and technique, not watching others, so if you make a mistake others rarely notice.
Karma has a peaceful environment makes it an enjoyable studio. The teachers are informed, and they really strive to help with posture and make sure one is doing the poses in the most effective way. Karma’s drive to inform others about causes is admirable, and it is clear that they have a mission. With the increase in business and popularity, they are able to expand their business, and will donate to other causes in the future. If I were more in shape, I would have had an easier time with the practice, but I would suggest it to anyone who wants to get in shape, for I have been sore the past two days from the one hour and fifteen minute practice.
Karma mind body spirit. Retrieved from http://www.karmayogastudio.com/index.htm
Sivananda, S. (2004, December 11). Ahimsa. Retrieved from