A visit with Karen Allgire, co- owner of Green Tara Yoga & Healing Arts

Upward bow pose.

Since working in the Cedar Fairmount Business District, I have come to know Karen Allgire as she taught Iyengar Yoga at her studio in the Heights Medical Building.  Her quiet demeanor and pleasant personality led me to want to know more about her and how she came to be a teacher of yoga and owner of her own studio.  Here is what said:

What is your personal background?

I am a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor and the co-owner of Green Tara Yoga & Healing Arts in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, went to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa as a theater major, and then came to Columbus, Ohio to attend Ohio State University as a dance major. After teaching at Youngstown State University for two years, I moved to Cleveland in 1985 to perform, choreograph and teach modern dance. Within a few weeks of the move, I met my husband Cliff Berns. We married in 1987moving to Cleveland Heights in 1987. I started teaching dance in 1983, and yoga in 1998. Cliff and I opened our studio in the Fairmount Square Building in 2001.

How did you decide to become a yoga instructor?

I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a teacher. Through my theater studies in college I discovered modern dance. I was immediately hooked and was completely engaged for many years with dance training, choreography and performance. Along with the performance aspect of dance, I developed an interest in the field of body/mind awareness and re-education. I studied experiential anatomy and various methods of body/mind integration including Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Awareness through Movement, Body-Mind Centering and Bartenieff Fundamentals. I taught at the university level from 1983 – 1999 and thoroughly enjoyed this phase of my life.

In the early 1990’s, one of my dance friends and mentors began to introduce Iyengar Yoga postures into her modern dance classes. I found the poses challenging and helpful. This approach to yoga seemed to both stretch and strengthen my body in ways previously unknown to me. In the late 90’s, I began intensive study of Iyengar Yoga with senior teachers Dean Lerner and Mary Dunn. I traveled around the country to attend workshops and retreats. My interest in yoga began to outstrip my motivation to continue in the world of dance. I was interested in the philosophy of yoga and its universal application to all, no matter what one’s religion might be. My original teacher encouraged me to start teaching yoga. I was reluctant at first, but soon found that I enjoyed the opportunity to teach a subject that was not just physical or expressive, but was a spiritual subject that helped with the art of living.

My personal journey has been from the performing arts to the art, science and philosophy of yoga. This journey came about gradually, evolving naturally from my various interests. I am deeply grateful to have been almost effortlessly led to the profession that I believe to be my true dharma or calling – the thing that I am uniquely suited to do. I feel that through this work I help others, help myself, and express my inner wish to be of service and to live a purposeful life.

Why did you pick Cleveland Heights for your studio?

I have lived in Cleveland Heights since 1985.  I have great affection for this city and would not want to live anywhere else. I love our progressive values, our diverse population and our unique, locally owned businesses. I enjoy our access to downtown, University Circle, and the Metroparks. I love Cumberland Pool, Cain Park, and our beautiful old homes and canopy of developed tress. I really like working in the town where I live, as it develops such a sense of community. I have students from the whole Cleveland Metro area, but many of them are from Cleveland Heights.

What type of training did you have?

In addition to many years of rigorous dance training, I started practicing yoga in the early nineties. Once I was introduced to Iyengar Yoga, I knew that this was the method I wanted to pursue. As there was no local teacher available, that required travel. I was extremely fortunate to find a wonderful guide and mentor in Dean Lerner, a senior Iyengar teacher. I began to attend his workshops in West Virginia and at his home studio in State College, Pennsylvania. Through Dean, I met my other mentoring teacher Mary Dunn, who passed away in 2008. Between 1999 and 2005, Dean and Mary taught two week long retreats together every year, one in Montana and one in Mexico. I attended every one of these for six years, for a total of 12 weeks of immersion in yoga. In addition, I attended many weekend workshops around the country with fabulous teachers like Patricia Walden, John Schumacher, Laurie Blakeney, Manouso Manos and others.

In Iyengar Yoga the certification process is a long and rigorous. It takes an average of five years to become a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor. We have to submit a DVD of our poses and our teaching. A recommendation is necessary to even be allowed to take the exam. Then we have to demonstrate our poses and teach a class in front of a panel of three senior teachers. Not everyone passes. Once certified, we can continue for higher levels of assessment by studying and being tested on more challenging poses. The testing process also includes a written test on anatomy, yoga philosophy and correct sequences of poses for different health conditions. I have been through four of these exams and am a certified Intermediate Junior II Iyengar Yoga instructor. There are only about 160 teachers in the United States who have achieved this level or higher. There are only 9 certified Iyengar Yoga teachers in the state of Ohio, and four of them teach at my studio.

What is Iyengar Yoga?

 Iyengar Yoga is a form of classical yoga, as developed and refined by living yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar. This method utilizes alignment and breath to create integrated action and awareness. The hallmarks of Iyengar yoga are:

•     Precision in the poses, utilizing specific anatomical detail to create correct alignment.

•     An orderly, systematic progression of poses to develop the student's ability both within a class, and from class to class.

•     The use of props as teaching tools and aids, allowing students of varying abilities to work in the poses with integrity and alignment.

•     Highly developed teaching methodology including the precise use of language, demonstration and teaching of specific points of action in a pose, and individual correction and adjustment of students.

•     A complete approach to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual transformation, bringing the practitioner physical health and vitality, mental clarity and wisdom, and emotional serenity and poise.

I love Iyengar Yoga for its clarity and ability to bring about deep transformation. I know that my own long-standing injuries and problems have been greatly reduced through this detail-oriented approach to yoga postures. I have gained abilities that I thought I would never have through this progressive and systematic way of training. This method also gives much attention to relaxation, breathing and philosophy, creating a well-rounded approach for the mind, as well as the body.   Iyengar Yoga is also extremely versatile. There are specific practices for various areas of the body with different effects depending on what is needed. An Iyengar Yoga practice can be calming when there is anxiety, or bring energy to counter sluggishness, or bring recuperation when there is fatigue. It all depends on the poses selected and the sequence in which they are done.

How has practicing yoga benefited you?

At age 52, I feel strong, flexible and fit. There is a huge variety of ways to practice Iyengar Yoga, so I can tailor the practice to my needs at any given time. Yoga has brought me deeper body awareness, enabling me to work harder with less strain. It has improved my posture, my balance and my breathing. I feel calmer and am better able to handle the ups and downs of life. The practice of yoga has made me reflective and more aware of how my actions affect others. The study of philosophy has helped me understand what is most important in life, which is love. Yoga teaches us to be unattached to the outcomes of our effort, because we can't control results, but only our actions. This view has helped me to be less anxious about the future and more grounded in the present. Yoga has enhanced my health, but more importantly, it has helped me to live with greater serenity and joy.

Tell us why you traveled to India.

Within the system of Iyengar Yoga, serious students and teachers are encouraged to go to India to study at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI). There students train directly with BKS, Geeta and Prashant Iyengar, and with the other teachers at the institute who they have trained. This provides an opportunity for complete immersion in yoga for a one- or two-month period,   One has daily classes and practice times in the company of devoted students from all over the world. To achieve the higher levels of certification, study in India is required. To be accepted for study at the Iyengar Institute, you must have 8 years of experience in Iyengar Yoga and the recommendation of a senior teacher. With the encouragement of my teachers, I have now made three month-long trips to India to study at RIMYI.

What type of experiences did you have in India? 

The routine in India is to take one two-hour class each day and to practice for 2-3 hours each day. After class, students typically get together with friends or roommates to write down the notes from the class in as much detail as possible, a process that can take almost as long as the class itself. Once we return home, those notes are reminders of all we learned in India, helping us bring new knowledge and insights to our students.

The classes in India are fantastic. The teaching is clear and methodical, bringing the light of understanding to the mind. As much as I love the classes, what I enjoyed the most were the long practice times. To have two or three hours per day, completely uninterrupted, to practice yoga is something that is almost impossible to achieve at home, especially along with running a business. These long practices allowed me to work not only strongly, but also deeply, taking time to repeat poses or hold them for long periods of time. While in the practice hall, you could also get ideas for your practice by watching the other students practice. The students helped each other, and could always find someone to look at a pose or give an adjustment. The other wonderful thing about the practice hall was the opportunity to watch BKS Iyengar practicing, and it was very inspiring to see his amazing postures at the age of 91. He also is teaching his granddaughter, Abhi, so we could watch and listen as he worked with her.

How did your travels to India help you in your teaching of yoga?

Since I have been back, I feel that I have been able to improve my teaching and deepen the learning the students experience in my classes. I find that I can now take one or two themes and weave them into the entire class, so that by the time the class is over, the students have a very clear understanding of how they can work on a particular pose or action. I also see that in the six weeks I have been home, the students are improving. I think the clarity of instruction and some new understanding that I gained in India has definitely transferred very directly to the rate of learning for my students.

How long have you been teaching yoga?

I started teaching modern dance and body awareness in 1983. I spent 17 years teaching, choreographing and performing modern dance, mainly at Cleveland State University, and also including Oberlin College, Hiram College and Case University. I started teaching Iyengar Yoga in 1998. By 2001, I transitioned out of my dance career and was teaching yoga full time.

What is your personal philosophy?

I believe that each of us has a personal responsibility to contribute to the peace and happiness of all beings. It is hard to help others if we are suffering ourselves, so we also have a duty to discover the capacity within ourselves for joy and freedom from suffering. To do that, we have to study ourselves, and start to learn what thoughts, words and actions bring joy and happiness, and which bring about difficulties and pain. Over time, with the support of spiritual guidance and practices, we can start to learn what needs to be cultivated in this life, and what needs to be avoided. We see that every one of our thoughts, words and actions has an effect, and that therefore we are responsible for them. If we do our best to think of others, and try to cultivate our own capacity for love, then I think we can live a full and happy life and die without regrets.

Being educated in the performing arts of theater, music and dance, I have reflected upon the role of the arts in human culture, and how the work of an artist serves the community. While I enjoy art as entertainment, I was always interested in how art can function to educate and elevate society, bringing about reflection and new perspectives on living. At the same time, I was attracted to reading about various mystical traditions, especially Tibetan Buddhism. I found that the writings of the Tibetan masters, especially the Dalai Lama, were deeply helpful and inspiring. When I began to study yoga, I felt that two worlds, one of dance and movement and the other of meditation and philosophy, had a place to meet. In my teaching, I strive to remain faithful to the elegant and insightful teachings of BKS Iyengar and his children Geeta and Prashant. I have studied the wonderful books written by Mr. Iyengar and Geeta Iyengar and turn back to these sources again and again for guidance.

I would also note that two books by Eckhart Tolle have been inspiring and helpful to me. The Power of Now and A New Earth are deeply spiritual and completely non-sectarian books. Tolle asks us to look clearly at our beliefs, attitudes and behavior, to see how we ourselves create the seeds of happiness or suffering. He quotes and refers to the great spiritual masters of many traditions, offering a wonderful guide for knowledge and reflection that could appeal to people of any faith or culture.

What is your favorite aspect of teaching yoga?

I think the most rewarding aspect of teaching yoga is supporting growth and awareness in a student, and seeing their recognition that they themselves brought about that transformation through attentive, intelligent practice over a period of time. When a person who has been in pain says that the pain is gone, or when they do something for the first time that was once beyond their capacity, it is such a joyful moment. I truly enjoy the connection I make with each individual, especially when some new learning has taken place.  I can see the light of new understanding in their eyes. That is just such a joy.

Can you give me examples of experiences with students?

There are so many wonderful stories that is it hard to pick just one or two. I can think of several students who went to their yearly physical and returned to report that they had grown 1/2"! Many people have experienced relief from chronic pain through Iyengar Yoga, so it is always fantastic when I learn that someone feels freedom from some discomfort that has been nagging them for a long time. Many students have shared that they were able to get through a very stressful time or through an illness because of the support of our yoga classes. I also love the community support that comes through when someone achieves a goal, like kicking up into a handstand. For an adult who has never done such a thing, it is a big deal. I have had students work on that pose for two years, and then one day in class, up they go. Everyone claps and cheers for them. You can see the courage and confidence that moment creates, and the joy in their eyes.  It is just beautiful to witness.

What would you say is the most valuable benefit of practicing yoga?

Yoga can bring wellness to human beings at every level. Physical health and vitality, mental awareness and concentration, and emotional poise and serenity can all be gained through yoga. Most people come to yoga for the physical body. Perhaps they are feeling stiff and weak, and want to improve their condition. Maybe they have chronic tensions that they hope yoga can alleviate. Perhaps they have back pain and they have heard that yoga can help. Another group of students come to yoga to manage stress. They want to let go of physical and mental tension, and learn how to relax. A few come to yoga seeking spiritual knowledge. The truth is that yoga addresses all these areas from the outer body, to the mind and emotions, to the innermost core of ones being. Yoga concerns integration of all aspects of oneself. The ultimate aim of yoga is to learn to become free from suffering.

Yoga practice begins with body awareness. Improving posture, correcting chronic imbalances and developing a sense of vibrant well being comes from the yoga postures. Relaxation techniques bring a calmer mind and the ability to manage our emotions. Yogic breathing practices bring a deeper level of self-awareness and serenity. Meditation and study of philosophy guide us to mental clarity, ethical behavior and inner peace and freedom. When more individuals within a society embark on this inward journey, it is inevitable that the culture as a whole will be effected. As more people practice yoga, it can bring our society towards greater health, awareness, non-violence, truthfulness and peace.

How does the ancient art of yoga fit into modern day life?

Yoga is a practical subject. It exists to help people experience health in the body, awareness in the mind and serenity in the spirit. Those values can never become old, as everyone wants to be free from illness and experience joy and peace. In the midst of our very busy lives, I encourage students to fit in small moments of yoga throughout the day, and to eventually develop a regular practice. Even 10 minutes of yoga can make a difference in how we feel and how the rest of the day goes. If people do some practice they will get some benefit. If they do more practice they will get more benefit. Each of us has to make spiritual practice a priority and figure out how to make the time for it, while still tending to the duties of work and family.

If you could give one piece of advise to our readers, what would it be?

I would say that we should each find some practice that suits us individually, that is basically a practice of awareness in action. This could be yoga, tai chi, walking, meditation, or many other things. The point is that we spend some time each day observing ourselves intensely, and noticing the effects of our actions. Little by little, every aspect of life can become part of our yoga, as we practice living in a state of awareness, joy and peace.

Karen Allgire can be reached at her studio, Green Tara Yoga and Healing Arts at 2450 Fairmount Blvd. or at 216-382-0592.

Kaye Lowe

Executive Director

Cedar Fairmount SID

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Volume 3, Issue 12, Posted 10:12 PM, 10.27.2010