By Leslie Smith

Six days per week Karen Hollohan arrives at Astanga Yoga Ottawa, a downtown yoga studio, before dawn and practises yoga, then assists others with their practise. Then, the trained environmental engineer and senior project manager with the City of Ottawa puts on her hardhat and goes to her day job, usually on a construction site.

The native of Gander, NL started practising yoga in 2001. She had initially joined a gym and had a personal trainer but soon became bored with the gym routine. Eager to explore something new, she began doing power yoga with Basia Going (who now operates Adishesha Yoga Zone). She took every class Basia offered in concert with the gym, then began attending Mysore-style yoga occasionally. Mysore-style typically does not have teacher-led classes; rather, students perform set routines on their own, with teachers guiding their practise.)

In 2006, she moved to Melbourne Australia but could not find any teacher-led astanga-style yoga, only Mysore-style which was offered in a very traditional manner–without instructor-led classes. After a while, she was transferred to a small town, was working 70 hours a week, and had no time for yoga — even if she could have found classes in the remote area. She did not do yoga for about a year, and really found something was missing in her life. She moved back to Ottawa and found that she was really drawn to the traditional Mysore style she had practised in Australia. She visited Astanga Yoga Ottawa and “accidentally” signed up for a one-month course of yoga – six days per week, beginning at 6 a.m. — or even earlier.

That was three years ago and Karen has never looked back. She now teaches, gives private lessons, and practises at Astanga Yoga Ottawa under the guidance of Janice Defilippi (Ayo). She combines this rigorous schedule with annual trips to Mysore, India lasting from six weeks to three months with Sharath Jois, grandson of the legendary K. Pattabhi Jois. (Himself a student of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, K. P. Jois was said to be the living master of astanga yoga until his death in 2009 at the age of 93. See for more info.)

Learning the Mysore style requires daily practises and memorization of several series of linked movements. (To see the practise in action, check out Toronto yoga teacher David Robson’s video series posted on Youtube). “What attracts me to astanga is that it is so hard and you have to breath and you have to move with your breath.”

When in India, Karen she gets up at 2:50 a.m. to drink coffee, then walk to practise which can begin as early as 4 a.m. By 6 a.m. she is finished, and walks home to her nearby rental apartment to drink some coconut water and make breakfast. Students at the shala may spend the rest of their day reading, napping or studying other aspects of yoga, such as meditation, pranayama, ayurveda, Sanskrit, the yoga sutras or the Bhagavad Gita. Twice weekly chanting sessions also take place at the shala.

“Astanga yoga practise keep you good,” she laughs, quoting Ðavid Robson, because of the discipline required. “If you want to make it part of your life you have to make it a priority and everything else follows suit.”

Karen has studied ayurveda in India and at Shree Ma Ayurveda Institute and Wellness Centre with Ottawa’s Dr. Hemant Gupta, where she completed a Wellness Consultant course. She is currently enrolled in a HOLISTIC nutritionist diploma course at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition.

She hopes to become an authorized astanga yoga teacher but this designation is bestowed, not earned through simply following a set course. Generally, authorization is granted by Sharath Jois after a minimum of four trips to India, each lasting three months. “You can’t ask to be authorized,” she explains. If the authorization to teach is granted to her following her most recent trip which begins this December (she returns in two months) she would be the only authorized astanga teacher in Ottawa.

“I want to teach what I love and what I know best.”

Photo used by permission of Jessica Davis