I am so happy to share this interview with Karen Harmelin Tropea, one of the most important yoga teachers in my life.
During my second year of medical school, Karen started up a morning Mysore program in Philadelphia. Almost every day before heading to class or the hospital, I would go there to practice yoga. It has been incredible to watch this community grow over the years and I can’t imagine my life in Philadelphia without it... it has been a constant and supportive space during so many of my ups and downs of medical school.
Karen is an amazing woman, yoga teacher, and role model. She has taught me tons about yoga, she has given me a lot of life advice, she has challenged me when I’ve needed challenging, and she has calmed me when I’ve needed calming. I decided to ask Karen some questions I’ve been curious about and I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.
Karen is also beautifully pregnant with her second child… so stay tuned for more from her about yoga and pregnancy!
Why do you practice Ashtanga yoga?
I practice Ashtanga yoga because it is the most grounding practice for me. I am a physical person, I have always needed to be very active and have never done well in life (all aspects) without physical exercise. So Ashtanga was a good practice for this outlet at first. I connected to its very challenging physical practice, but soon discovered that the method was a gateway to the deepest center of who I am… my courage, my fears. It helped me meditate and it allowed me to be diligent and grounded. All forms of yoga can help individuals find out about themselves and go deeper within. Ashtanga just happens to do this for me.
How has your practice changed over the past 10 years and how do you see it changing over the next 10 years?
My practice has changed in so many ways. I think a regular yoga practice will naturally evolve anyway, but my physical practice has gone through ups and downs, strides and setbacks. Pranayama has gotten stronger and more focused and I am sure it will (along with bandhas) continue this path in the next 10 years. A steady growth and deep awareness have progressed within my pranayama and bandhas. These aspects of practice become solid with understanding and diligence.
The physical practice changes as one ages, gets injured, has babies etc. I definitely had a much more physically oriented practice when I was 27. Over the past few years having had a back injury and now two pregnancies, I have backed off the physical part and have focused more on the continuity of breath and connection to myself that comes with a more matured practice. I have learned that there is a lot more to a dedicated practice than just being able to get into postures or complete a series. It is most important to practice. Through backing off I found that breath and bandhas make the practice more efficient and actually allow a student to achieve more, physically. I have become more patient.
Over the next 10 years? I have no idea. I think women experience a resurgence of energy and physical ability in their 40’s. I have seen it in many of my students. I am excited by the changes my body will undergo in the next 10 years! Other limbs (of the eight) are a constant work in progress.
How do you balance your yoga practice with all of the demands from the rest of your life?
How does anyone balance a practice with life? I just have to make the time. If I have a busy day I practice for just a small amount of time, and try to dedicate another day in the week to a longer more focused practice. My husband and I both practice, so we trade off days or time in the shala.
I can honestly say that I took for granted the days when I attended a regular morning Mysore and was able to stay for 1.5-2 hours 6 days per week. I am sure there will be a time in my life when that happens again. Right now I would rather spend time with our son. Kids are little for such a small amount of time. I try to use the other limbs in raising and birthing my kids. It has been an amazing way to see how Ashtanga yoga has shaped my life.
Who have been your greatest yoga teachers and why?
I have had only a few teachers in my life. I have taken many classes and tried many practices, but only a few people who I consider to have been teachers for me. Richard Freeman was my first real teacher. I learned to practice daily from him. I learned a vast foundation while I was in Boulder, but I think I was too young to really get what I was experiencing there. Eric Powell was and still is a teacher for me. He impacted my physical practice and made my physical understanding of the practice real. He continues to do this for me. David Keil has taught me so much about being a teacher. David Garrigues has helped me to learn that there are times to push yourself and there are times to respect your body as well as what is happening in your life. Great yoga teachers will guide a student and give them a clear understanding of what they are learning. A great teacher also allows the student to make mistakes and helps them to learn from those mistakes through experience.
Tell us about your diet.
I eat a lot of greens. I LOVE kale and swiss chard and spinach. I pretty much like all vegetables. I prefer macrobiotic meals and vegan slow cooked food over quick foods (like snack bars) and junk. I eat junk once in a while, but it never sits well in me. I never eat fast food. I am a grazer. I eat raw nuts and dried fruit for snacks. When I am super active I can eat a lot. I love the farmers market and I buy most of my family’s food there. Eat local!
I also like to cook. My husband and I make sure to eat as a family at home most nights. We typically eat very little meat. If we do eat it, it is local, grass fed beef or fish. We do not eat poultry and will never eat veal or pork. I was vegetarian and vegan for over 14 years and experimented with a raw diet and macrobiotics. I started eating fish in my late 20's and after becoming pregnant with my first child, began to eat meat once in a while. I truly believe all bodies go through change every few years. It is super important to listen to what your body is telling you. What may work for you one year may not work for you another. Lifestyle changes, activity levels, etc all impact your daily needs. But in general, the body requires a variety foods at different stages of life. I have found that eating a variety of foods based around whole grains, leafy greens, nuts and fruit, and healthy fats has been most beneficial for me in my 30's and while having babies. I am sure my 40's will require much of the same with some added new twist!
Who has been the most influential person on your health habits?
My parents. They have given me the tools to be healthy and I have also picked up on their bad habits and have tried to steer clear of them. I have influenced my own health habits. I read a lot about current issues and I have experimented on myself. I know what works for me. Yoga is a huge part of being able to stay in touch with your body. Ashtanga Yoga can help you recognize what is “off” on a daily basis. There isn’t one right formula for health.
What is your biggest fear?
I fear what all parents fear. It is unspeakable. I can honestly say that throughout my life I have not had too many real fears… Nothing at least that would preclude me from doing or trying things. I wouldn’t say I was fearless, but I have never really experienced a deep fear until I had a child. If I ever had an anxiety or nervousness I was always able to move through it and process it. I guess I got lucky because somehow I managed to transcend this emotion. If you asked my parents I am sure they would have a lot to say on this about me. I just realized I have one more fear... having a child who doesn’t experience fear ;)
If you could tell a room of 10,000 young women one piece of life advice, what would it be?
Be inspired. Life is so unbelievably short. Seize opportunity. Sometimes the best and most important things in life happen because you were just having fun.
What do you wish you could go back in time and tell your 25-year old self?
I would say, “See last answer” but I know I did that at 25. I would tell my 25-year old self to ask: “What do YOU want out of life? Sit and think about it, don’t rush into anything just because you think it’s a good idea or it’s what you should do. Its ok to take the time to figure out what will make you happy. Approach every major life decision this way. I tend to leap and deal with things later. I would tell myself to skip instead… at least once in a while ;)