Yoga helped me to obtain a different view on life and on myself
“Be mindful.” This is possibly Karin Johannsen’s (74) favourite ‛mantra’. After a sudden unexpected hardship, Karin’s life changed radically, she took up the practice of yoga at the age of 50 and began teaching it only a year later – for 20 years. The yoga teacher from Hamburg also participated in ten marathons and even in her current situation, finding herself suffering from Parkinson, she proves to be a fighter. How has yoga transformed her life positively and helped her coping with her disease? Where did she take her inspirations for her classes from? What, in her opinion, does one need to pay attention to when both practising and teaching yoga? These and more intriguing questions Karin answers in her interview with Vertical Truths and she is, thanks to her strong body, and moreover due to her strong mind, a great example of how to face and deal with serious problems in life, instead of running away from them.
Read the INTERVIEW
Jennifer: Imagine a child asks you “What is yoga?”. What would you answer?
Karin Johannsen: I’d tell the child that yoga has the purpose to treat the body in a way that is supportive and healing and that we don’t get injured. It implies to know one’s own limits and to not exceed them. At the same time, our concentration goes inwards with the effect that our mind gets calm. So, yoga is not just good for the body, but also for the mind, and it allows us to relax.
“It was yoga that brought some purpose into my life again”
How did your personal yoga journey begin? Quite some time has passed since you began...
My husband, whom I was happily married to for 20 years, had passed away. This was more than 20 years ago. I guess he was the only person who actually really loved me, therefore you can imagine how much his loss represented to me. Sometime later, I had read something about yoga and a friend encouraged me by suggesting something like “Don’t you think yoga is something for you? You are quite sporty and might like it.” And then I simply took up the practice. It was yoga that brought some purpose into my life again.
“We can’t expect ourselves to be perfect right from the start.”
How did it happen that you become a yoga teacher?
I trained to be a hairdresser, however, back then in my early 50’s I had already worked for many years as an administrator in the field of trade. I never intended to become a yoga teacher, actually. It’s just that I really got curious to know more about yoga after a year of quite regular practice and hence I decided to take a four-week intense sivananda yoga teacher training in Austria with the aim to deepen my knowledge. When I returned, people turned to me and said “Hey, now that you’ve trained in yoga, wouldn’t you like to teach?” Firstly, I substituted here and there a teacher who had fallen sick, but after a while I started giving my own classes. For 20 years, I’ve worked in Le Méridien and later at the Altonaer Turnverband as well, both in Hamburg.
“I say the Lord's prayer (...) even though I am not religious.”
Wow! What was challenging for you throughout your yoga practice?
Learning and practising new and more difficult asanas was normally never very problematic for me, as I always used to be quite athletic. I simply tended to keep up a regular practice and I never gave up. Yet, I struggled with meditation at the beginning. Because it works on more subtle levels than my physical practice which I had been used to. Then, always when I faced difficulties concentrating, I practised telling myself “Let go!”. One has to simply learn it and practise it over and over again. We can’t expect ourselves to be perfect right from the start. Lying in bed, I say the Lord’s prayer every morning and evening even though I am not religious. This is like a meditation for me. That is when my mind starts calming down.
Some yoga teachers claim ashtanga yoga is rather yoga for men and not for women, because it is a strength based and more energetic type of yoga...
This is nonsense. For many years, I have practiced ashtanga yoga under the guidance of Jake in the Yogaraum in Karolinenviertel, in Hamburg, and there were plenty of women. I don’t believe it is true when somebody claims that ashtanga yoga is not good for women, it’s quite the opposite. What is important however, is to practice the asanas in the correct order and to know the sequence by heart. Here, too, it is very important to know and respect one’s own limits.
Which positive changes did you go through due to your yoga practice?
I became more mindful with my body. I participated in ten marathons – the last time four years ago, when I turned seventy. And I never had any problems, very much thanks to yoga, which helped me to get to know my limits better, so that I could avoid injuries. One develops a feeling for the right body posture, as long as the yoga teacher gives proper and detailed instructions about it.
And what changes did yoga have on your mind? And do you perceive them as enrichment?
Definitely. Yoga helped me to obtain a different view on life and on myself. I have learnt to be mindful and more kind to other people.
“What actually matters in everyday life - to feel into ourselves and ask ‛am I really standing right, or am I sitting straight?’”
Exciting! Do you mind sharing a few tips with us, especially on what to pay attention to during asana practice?
I used to tell my course participants “Bring your chin inwards a little in order to lengthen the neck, pull your shoulders back and down, so that the chest opens up, the shoulder blades closer to each other and keep the shoulders still and relaxed.” For the downward facing dog posture, I used to tell them to press the hands firmly onto the ground and lengthen the spine. It’s also important to contract certain muscles, for instance to pull the abdominal muscles inwards, like in the downward facing dog, and to tug the tailbone in, in order to lengthen the lumbar region. That is what actually matters in everyday life, to feel into ourselves and ask “Am I really standing right, or am I sitting straight?”
Which other sports did you practice?
I loved running. Participating in the ten marathons was a great joy, but I have always also loved hiking . One day I hiked 38 kilometres! It is crucial to never overstrain in such a situation. The weather was very hot that particular day, and every now and then I sat in the shade of a tree to rest for a while.
How would you describe your own yoga practice, your self-practice?
I used to practice four times a week ashtanga yoga with Jake and that was usually enough. I often went on hiking trips and during such time I did not usually practice asana.
You seem to have had an extremely physically active life...
Yes, the asana practice, running and hiking helped me to stay active and fit. Hiking also used to be my main holiday activity. Once, I even slept outside with minus 20 degrees. I like the simple life without too much comfort, and I love my sleeping bag so much that I even use it at home.
“Apart from the disease, my body remained young and fit – due to yoga”
Kudos to you! I’m freezing by just thinking of that. What’s your diet like with such an active lifestyle? Could you give us some piece of advice on that?
I usually say: I love animals; hence, I don’t eat them. However, I must confess that sometimes I do eat some fish, because my body needs some animal fat. When I get up around 5.30 am, I have some cereals for breakfast. I add a variety of nuts, chia, sorghum, an apple, a banana or blueberries. And I only eat twice a day, since I prepare a salad or seasonal vegetables at around 2 pm, and that’s it. I don’t have milk or any dairy products either, and this diet has worked pretty well for me. My blood levels are a proof.
You are now a proud 74-year-old lady. Many people at this age suffer from age-related health problems. What about you? Do you have this kind of worries as well?
No, I don’t have any age-related health issues. I was unfortunately diagnosed with Parkinson’s recently – but this is a disease which has its cause in the brain, something that implies that there are no means of prevention. But apart from the disease, my body remained young and fit – due to yoga.
“Yoga helps me to cope with this disease and to stay strong”
How do you cope with this diagnosis and with the changes and adaptations in life that come along with it?
It’s not an easy situation for me. And it’s a pity that I neither am able to practise or teach yoga anymore, nor that I can have the active life I was used to. But yoga helps me to cope with this disease and to stay strong and keep trying the little things that I am struggling with. I have difficulties in washing my body, for instance – but I became more creative on finding solutions. On the other hand, yoga also helps me to accept those things that I can’t solve or fix.
Which were your best experiences as a yoga teacher?
I’d say it was the fact that some students practiced for a long time with me, and also every time I received positive feedback from them.
"I wouldn’t call them a ‛guru’."
Who was your greatest guru throughout your yoga journey?
I wouldn’t call them a ‛guru’. I simply call them ‛yoga teacher.’ Usually, I liked all the teachers I had and what they taught me. Within the last years, Jake from the Yogaraum in Hamburg has been my teacher. He did not teach us like the majority of people do in a common asana class. In our ashtanga yoga practice we rather self-practiced and he went around and helped us individually. This was the best way for me.
What characterizes, in your opinion, a good yoga teacher?
A good yoga teacher gives clear instructions, so that every participant, even the one in the last row, can hear them. Their language should be plain and simple without any unnecessary words that distract the practitioner’s mind.
“There’s no need to exceed your limits. This might only result in injuries.”
You used to teach yoga in heterogeneous groups in which practitioners practice together with beginners. How did you handle such challenges in your role as yoga teacher?
I used to ask: “Who is practising asana for the first time?”, and I used to tell also “don’t overstrain. Once you practise regularly, your body will adapt to the practice. There’s no need to exceed your limits. This might only result in injuries.” I used to keep an eye on the new participants and actively help and adjust them.
How did you usually plan the sequences for your asana classes?
Within the last years, my classes used to be inspired by my passion for ashtanga yoga. Due to lack of time, I never taught the sequences in full length. The sun salutations (a sequence of 12 yogic body postures that are performed repeatedly in a flow, often at the beginning of a class) A and B, however, were a constant part of my classes. I varied with all the other body postures and played around with them a little. I usually repeated the same sequence throughout a period of four weeks and only then started to change it, because I found out it was easier for the frequent participants in my classes to keep the postures in mind and to get into them more easily.
There’s this saying “Bend your mind and body.” How do you explain the relationship between body and mind?
I’d rather call it “Stretch the body and calm down your mind”. I used to tell my students to listen to their mind. “If there’s a persistent or distracting thought, or if a part of your body, the shoulders for instance, are in pain, don’t strain in a posture, simply skip it.”
Is there any book which was an inspiration for your yoga classes and that you would recommend?
Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual by David Swenson. There are plenty of illustrations and the language is clear, something which makes easier to understand and remember the correct alignment of a posture necessary to prevent injuries.
What would you say to someone who is feeling demotivated and rather lazy to continue yoga practice?
My advice would be to only go into the asanas that you can do. Don’t push too hard. Be mindful, and most importantly, don’t forget that a few short breaks during your practice are totally okay.
Is yoga something for everybody?
It’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. But whoever wants to try it, should not forget that there’s a big variety of yoga types out there. If a certain class does not makes you happy, maybe you should try a different yoga stile or teacher. Iyengar yoga, for instance, is especially interesting, because it can be practiced even with an injury.
"I don’t need any religion or any sect to tell me how to live my life."
Do you believe in something like karma and resurrection?
Karma – that term derives from Hinduism. However, I am not a fan of religions, to be honest. It seems they’re only good at initiating wars and killing people. God exists – I don’t have any doubt about that, but I don’t need any religion or any sect to tell me how to live my life. I must live a good life, I mustn’t hurt anyone, but I must be a caring and loving person. It is simple. It doesn’t take more than this to please God.
Would you say yoga is something like a ‛religion’?
I would never label it as a religion. It is a way of living. I used to know someone who is a member in a sect and who also joined the German right-wing-populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany). He kept trying to convince everybody to live according to his beliefs. And he used to insult those people who disagree with him. I fully align with what the Dalai Lama says : “I believe all religions, ideologies and political systems are manmade. But in order to live a purposeful life, one doesn’t have to believe in one religion or ideology as long as we what motivates us in life comes from a place of deep love and compassion for other beings.” Love for our fellow human beings and acceptance of the difference are very important, in my opinion.
All the best for your health and thank you for this interview!
The former hairdresser and administrator from Hamburg, Karin Johannsen (74), has always loved sports, long hiking trips and running marathons. 20 years ago, at the age of fifty-four, she began practicing yoga, after her beloved husband passed away, causing a radical change on her life. The practice of yoga helped Karin to cope with her grief and only one year later she decided to do the Sivananda yoga teacher training in Austria with the aim of deepening her knowledge. Even though she did not plan for a career as a yoga teacher, it didn’t take long until she was asked to teach and to take her first steps in this new job. She taught yoga for 20 years in Le Méridien in Hamburg and a few years later she also began teaching at Altonaer Turnverband. For her own practice, she used to go for ashtanga yoga guidance at Yogaraum in Hamburg.
* Karin has passed away a couple of months after the interview. I'm grateful having had the opportunity to practise yoga with Karin and to learn from and be inspired by her and to have the chance to share her experiences and perspectives here on Vertical Truths with you.
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