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An Interview with yogi Karen Fabian

Karen Fabian is a well-known and respected Boston yogi; you could even say she is one of the original Boston yogis. She's been practicing and teaching for nearly two decades, and found her niche in her bones - quite literally: she is the brain behind Bare Bones Yoga. Her passion for anatomy is clearly evident in her work, and she offers her yoga students a safe and strong practice. Her care and attention to detail is MY JAM! She guides her students gracefully and clearly through every class, and promotes a safe and intuitive movement which helps one tap into one's own body. She manages to offer all of this without being the least bit intimidating or judgmental. 

Karen is also an incredibly intelligent self-made business women who has worked hard and diligently to support herself and others. She has a genuine sweetness and realness about her, and she's always ready to empower her fellow female. Her service to others comes not only in the form of her teachings in studios, but also in the form of instructional videos, webinars, and literature that she passionately produces on her own. 

I'm so grateful to have basked in her brilliance and to have picked her brain for this interview, I know you're going to get so much out of it! 

We all have options, we all have different lanes we are in, you can either be authentic and take the chips or you can continually try to reshape yourself to gain favor.
— Karen Fabian

All about Karen and her path to yoga:
“I was born in NYC and grew up in the tri-state area, and I attended Boston University and received my BS in Rehabilitation Counseling, and then I went to graduate school at Simmons College to pursue a Master’s in Health Care Administration. I’ve been teaching yoga since 2002, and I earned my Certified Personal Trainer Certification through the National Association of Sports Medicine in May 2017.

What I want people to know about me is that I am an avid health and wellness enthusiast; my path throughout life has always been connected to health and wellness one way or another given the past fifteen years where I’ve taught yoga and focused on anatomy. It didn’t start like that, I found that through the love of anatomy and medicine I decided to focus on Physical Therapy (PT) in undergrad. After a couple of years in that program I decided I wanted to work differently with people (a little more of the mind/body versus functional movement only), so I switched to rehab counseling and worked as a Social Worker and Rehab Counselor. Working on an interdisciplinary team gave me a way to straddle the mind-body, work with various treatment modalities and handle discharge planning as well. It was a holistic approach to rehab in a medical setting. My career then shifted into more of a corporate role within healthcare.

n December of 1999 I went to the Baptiste studio in Boston with two male friends; one of them was a body builder and he had told me it was the hardest class he’d ever taken. From then on, I continued to practice yoga at that studio; I felt like, ‘Wow, this is the modality that helps me express my passion for wellness, medicine, health, mind and body... all wrapped up into one!’ After one year of taking classes, I saw a poster in the lobby - remember, there was no social media at the time for promotion - for a yoga teacher training (YTT). I thought, ‘Oh, I’d like to immerse myself in yoga and go on vacation,’ but wasn’t thinking I wanted to teach. At that time I was very ensconced in my corporate career and the economy was very different. I had a good lifestyle and really wasn’t thinking that going to teacher training would be as impactful as it was. But while there, I realized teaching yoga was the culmination of so much that I loved and was passionate about. Upon returning, I began creating a plan to train further to be a teacher. It then took eighteen months to engineer a plan to leave my corporate job and teach full time. I had to really put my time in with the Baptiste organization. The studios ran on a kind of unspoken motto that if you put your time in and you show up, good things will come. I assisted Baron and other teachers, attended trainings, and eventually I was offered a teaching job there as well as a part time job behind the scenes. I was one of the first teachers to become certified as a Baptiste teacher. I worked with Baron and some other teachers to create the Certification Program. It’s important to remember that back then there were not as many studios and styles; things were very different then.

One of the final steps of my 18-month plan was that I moved from West Roxbury to Charlestown, selling my house and buying a small condo. I also worked as a personal chef on the side and continued teaching yoga and working for the studios. However, after about three years, I was struggling to make ends meet. The vision was there, the drive was there, but the income just wasn’t. I decided to continue teaching part time and return to a corporate job. And you know, I don’t think this is very unique; many teachers have decided to keep their full-time job and teach yoga part time. It can be a great combination with a lot of stability.

After a number of years of working full-time and teaching part-time I got myself out of debt, and then relaunched my business on my own. In 2009, I found an industrial space in the Fenway (which is actually a Tasty Burger restaurant now!): a renovated gas station where I could teach classes on Saturdays. That was the genesis of the name Bare Bones Yoga. I liked the name especially because I focus on anatomy, and the space was pretty bare; there was nothing but the space where we practiced. I wanted people to come and do yoga and have that be the main focus. There’d be no retail space, no class cards, just a solid yoga class at a good price ($10). At that point, it was the very beginning of the recession and people couldn’t afford to keep going to classes, so it was another reason for me to think of how I could offer classes in a ‘cash-only’ format.

Unfortunately, the space changed hands after a few months. I kept the name going however and around the same time, my own full time job was in jeopardy due to the struggles of the company given the current economic downturn. When they eliminated my position on September 30, 2010, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to start taking the Bare Bones Yoga concept full time.

Currently, I have a blend of teaching private clients and teaching studio classes. Five or six years ago I started a Women’s Wellness group program which was a private group of women, meeting in my home weekly for yoga, meditation and a group discussion about different wellness topics I’d pick. Even though I don’t offer that group anymore, I see a lot of those women privately; a lot of them are physicians and nurses with intense jobs in Boston-area hospitals.

I teach in two studios in Boston, Prana and Health Yoga Life, have two books, “Stretched” and “Structure and Spirit” which I self-published, and I’ve created several online courses on yoga and anatomy. I love to break that down and make it more digestible; I think it can be overwhelming for people, so I carve out the important parts and make it understandable. I firmly believe you have to have an understanding of basic anatomy and biomechanics to teach yoga. A lot of teachers tell me they didn’t really absorb the anatomy portion of their YTT; everything is so jammed in and people are overwhelmed after training and things may not be mentally retained, so I like to offer the courses and focus on different aspects. Webinars have become my version of a podcast – a lot of what I teach needs a visual, and I like having another way to give voice to a lot of these topics that are important.

I also do some entrepreneurial coaching with the nonprofit Center for Women in Enterprise; they support women-owned businesses in Boston. They offer workshops, an hour of free coaching to anyone who is starting a business, and they host paid workshops, so I do business coaching there one to two times a month and just led my first workshop there about building a digital marketing strategy.”
 
 On balancing yogic philosophy and business:
“My whole story and lessons learned, especially on the business side, all became the heart of my first book “Stretched." I wanted people to have some sense of what can go wrong; in retrospect, I was naïve about what the opportunities were and that was with a lot less influence than people have now, with respect to social media.

Often when I do trainings for the anatomy portion, inevitably we get into a conversation about the business aspect of teaching yoga. People sometimes have very little understanding of what is required to build a full time business teaching yoga independently, versus owing a studio. This has been a circuitous path for me, and I still don’t know where it will end up, but I think that’s the interesting aspect of what I’m doing. The foundational pieces are always there; I’m still connected to it, working with people, groups, focusing on health, figuring out different ways to bring in a spiritual aspect that I look at in a concrete way and finding that balance in between….this became the basis for my second book “Structure and Spirit.”  I appreciate the concreteness of the practice – it can be spiritual or bio-mechanical. The lens in which you look can shape the same posture in a very different way. For practitioners, you can find what you like and gravitate towards teachers that share a similar view point of the practice, or you can try something totally different. We didn’t have as much of that when I was starting out, and now there are many options.

I struggle with a concept raised in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Big Magic.” In it, she talked about the time after “Eat, Pray, Love” was released and its huge popularity. She talked about how her publishers were pushing her to quit her 'regular job' and write full time but she was concerned about burdening her passion for writing with also paying the bills. I can totally relate to that because a huge part of teaching is being passionate about what you’re doing and being creative. If everything is going well financially, then you have the freedom to be creative, but it’s very hard for teachers who don’t have that cushion. I talk a lot with my parents and my boyfriend, all of whom aren’t in the yoga industry, and I talk about the challenges of it, how it’s structured… It’s hard to make it your full-time career and burden it with this awesome responsibility of paying your bills. To manage this challenge, three years ago I started working at Starbucks four mornings a week. Initially I did it kicking and screaming. I was embarrassed, feeling somehow like I was a failed teacher but over time I have come to love it! I find that I have so many conversations with people about yoga, love making their mornings better with a little chit chat about something light and love being of service in that way. I think for me it really helped me deal with the issue of ‘identity’ and the idea of  ‘what is your identity?’ People have jobs and get laid off and feel the struggle of losing their identity; for me it was wanting control over my schedule, and I was looking at my income, realizing I needed extra money. I thought, ‘What can I do that won’t have any follow up aspect’ to it… something where I can just go and do it and get paid and go home…’ That to me was Starbucks.

Everyone has personal reasons for why they do what they do, but for me I like to share that story because a lot of people don’t know that I do that. Initially, I would be all bundled up and worried about how I would be perceived as a teacher, you know, caught up in the illusion and image of a yoga teacher. Fast-forward to now where I teach at night, I go into Starbucks the next morning and sometimes see the same people and we can chat and say hello… being older and being comfortable with who you are, having that ability to be yourself in multiple situations and not feel that you have to put on airs, has been a huge growth area for me. It’s not always easy but it’s a big part of personal development. When you’re a yoga teacher that’s what you’re doing: you are shaping yourself, not necessarily physically, but there’s discipline and attentiveness to detail to it.

There’s a whole side of what I do that’s on the side of running the business of Bare Bones Yoga, and I have found that it needs to be scalable in order to be sustainable. You have to have a way to scale what you’re doing to bring in enough money (unless you’re going to primarily make money by teaching classes and workshops). For me, the way to do that is creating and selling product; to scale it, I use digital marketing to reach thousands of people. I spent the last year and a half doing work with other entrepreneurs, taking courses, studying and training, to understand all the aspects of digital marketing. It’s a whole industry…people can literally sit in their house and make millions of dollars teaching a whole host of topics. For me, it’s a platform to take what I love and build products around it, and leverage the power of the internet and virtual vastness of the number of people out there and share that word and do it in a way that makes it a revenue stream which makes the business sustainable.  It’s also about finding cost effective ways for teachers to get information, earn CEU’s and build their knowledge through products versus always paying money to attend training, which can be very expensive. It’s a different path than what a lot of people think about; people think it’s teaching a lot of classes and being asked to go to conferences, teaching a lot of privates – but guess what, some of the teachers doing that have agents marketing what they do. That’s a great way to build your business.. you have someone working for you to help you book opportunities. Not every teacher has that person on their team. There is that aspect to this industry and what I’ve tried to do is a figure out a different way to make my business work and still stay true to offering what I love and still support myself in the process. I know software, I can build online courses… It’s a different way to crack the nut. It’s like anything else: you’ve just got to have a plan and you’ve just go to stick to it and change what’s not working. Unfortunately, so much of that is tied up in identity and status and that can often get in the way of teachers pursuing different things, like creating products. For many, they see the only way to build a business through their hands on, in person teaching."

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Karen’s teaching style and passion for anatomy:
“The practice that Baron created is brilliant in that it’s very accessible, logical and athletic; it’s very pure and essential. And I taught that sequence for a long time primarily and although I still very much stick to a similar sequence, I did go through a phase where I was changing my sequences a lot. However, sometimes studios don’t want a lot of variability from class to class, so I try to be respectful as to where I’m teaching and offer classes that are consistent with what they want to offer to their student population. It’s not an easy decision for me but I’m an independent contractor and in business for myself, so I need to do what is expected of me to some degree; from the business side of things it wouldn’t be smart to not do this. I do still stick to that general flow but my passion for super hot yoga has gone down and my cuing, my verbiage, has exclusively shifted to teaching concrete anatomy and completely away from the personal development and coaching in the context of yoga. Offering yoga as a tool to create change in the person is one approach to teaching and I believe in that but I don’t put myself in that role. I did for a while and I found that it was too much to offer in the context of what I was doing. We each have to pick our focus in the context of the class, we have to pick what we will focus on: spirit, anatomy, personal development, people will find what their comfort zone is. Over the years, I really let go of my interest in trying to be a change agent from a ‘mind/personal coaching’ perspective and I decided that, especially now more than ever, the physical body that people are walking around in is confusing to them. It’s not feeling so great, it’s battered and war-torn from their dependence on technology. In the limited time I have, given the transience of yoga students these days, I would rather give them concrete information that is highly understandable; that’s my scope. I really avoid trying to razzle-dazzle them. Over the years when I shifted I got more questions after class than ever before. To me it illustrates that there is a healthy curiosity for this kind of information out there in context of a moving practice. It could be any form of moving practice, and people are not getting this information in a lot of classes. When we think about how people get informed it’s in a fleeting, newsfeed-ish way via social media. I stick to the sequence but the flavor of my teaching and the leanings that I lean to are different. I sometimes don’t even put people in down dog until they’ve been on their back and gotten a sense of their body for a bit.

I try to make a distinction between alignment and anatomy. 200hr YTT’s teach alignment, but you are only required to do 20 hours of anatomy, and because there’s little review at the ground level as to how teacher trainings are presented, there is a lot of variability.  Everyone gets taught alignment on some level, but there isn’t a lot of discussion on the why. The epiphany I had was ‘why do we not teach people the why?’ If we just teach them the ‘the,’ the shape, and we don’t teach the why of the shape, when someone asks that question of the teacher, the person would say ‘I don’t know, it’s what I was taught/told.’ This is fundamental characteristic of how people become yoga teachers: because someone senior to them taught them and depending on the kind of person they are, their level of inquiry, they may or may not ask anything about what they’re being told, and then they go on to teach what they’ve learned without the awareness of the ‘why.’

The reality of the industry is that it’s grassroots and still runs very much that way, at the heart of it. In context of yoga and understanding anatomy and biomechanics, there’s a huge aspect of ‘I don’t know’ that must be acknowledged. When I teach anatomy trainings students will ask questions and they want to know the ‘right’ way and the ‘wrong way.’ The reality is every single body is different, every movement in and of itself cannot be looked at as ‘you should never do this in all people.’ The more that you understand anatomy, the more you’ll appreciate that there’s a huge variety, and that when you teach classes you have no idea what people are dealing with. Like, honestly, it’s somewhat interesting to me to ask about injuries students might have as it’s so hard to know exactly what’s going on with that person. Of course, you can provide modifications and you can offer suggestions as to how to approach it, but ultimately every student will be different. I like to stay in the middle lane; as soon as you have people double bind and flip their dog and stand on their head, for example, the risk increases. Everything that is unknown gets amplified a gazillion times and because people get competitive, ego driven, it becomes risky. All of that is connected as one thing informs the other thing, it creates the whole package. These concepts are what I share with teachers when I teach anatomy because I don’t think it’s helpful to go and ask people to do things where you know that the risk is high.

Variety in yoga allows for there to be choice, but teachers need to think what kind of teacher they want to be. In a lot of cases, behind offering those poses is a possible interest in trying to be popular and doing what’s trendy, and that existed as a temptation long before social media but has worsened since social media. My boyfriend will ask me ‘Why don’t you post a picture of you doing a handstand on a beach?’ But I wouldn’t do that because it doesn’t line up with who I am.

Learning how to articulate anatomy is important and it can be hard to do. I realized I had this massive opportunity in teaching a class to give people information they weren’t getting somewhere else, information that they could use in other parts of their life. Not just their time in class, moving in a way that is consistent in health and wellness, and then going to work hunched over their desk. When you know these different pieces you have to think, ‘what’s a digestible way to relay this information?’ It depends on wording, so some cues get you the right action but other cues confuse people (blog creator’s note: for me it’s ‘scissoring thighs’). A lot of that phraseology is passed down from teacher to teacher, and beyond the phrases and the alignment there is a lot of understanding around why, and the why lives in the anatomy and the bio-mechanics. In one of the movements we do often, moving from high to low push-up, there are tremendous ramifications on the body if you don’t understand the anatomy behind that movement. Anatomy allows us to understand the how to help someone in a pose, over the understanding of the mere shape.

There will always be themes in yoga and we can decide what we want to emphasize: the breath, alignment and anatomy, there may be no music or maybe it’s a class with music. For many students, it’s likely the only time of day where they’re in silence. When you teach yoga, you can make it spiritual, honorable, you can pay homage to something, or you can focus on a particular aspect and not so much else. I never use Sanskrit and I do three oms at the beginning and three at the end. Sometimes I don’t even use names of poses when I cue. It’s all a matter of what is the person’s situation and what do they need to do. One of the common topics that comes up these days is that of the ‘appropriateness’ of talking about the business of yoga along with the skill and commitment to being a yoga teacher. People sometimes say that teaching shouldn’t be focused on as a way to make a living and the financial aspects shouldn’t get in the way of teaching. The reality is teachers are now involved in the business of yoga simply by showing up and checking students in for their class. They have to function at an operational level, and then offer what the business is there to offer - the teaching. What consumers expect from brands, companies and brick and mortar businesses used to be focused more on other businesses besides yoga studios but now extends well into the studio. Before, there was no obligation between the studio and practitioner beyond that one practice, but as the years have progressed, consumer expectations have risen so high for every interaction they have, and it extends to the yoga studio. This creates the problem of students coming to the studio and expecting access and service and turnaround time, and that’s why people come in with high levels of expectation, i.e. stress, and that carries into the practice. Let’s start to think about how can we have yoga studios be a respite from all that, without losing sight of the fact that they have to do things to make money like offer vouchers, allow you to sign in a myriad of ways… I’ve never owned a studio by choice and is a very different business model than teaching independently."
 
On choosing a teacher training:
“One of my first chapters in my book “Stretched” is how to pick a teacher training. Variety is good but it can be confusing and make it very hard to know what exactly you’ll get from a particular training. My suggestions is always to practice with a studio and the teacher, develop a deep understanding for the style and that teacher; that experience you have, your loyalty to that and your learnings come from one place, and out of that develops the path to become a teacher. There are many, many studios out there and as a result, there can be a high level of variability in studios as to the students.  If you’re interested in becoming a yoga teacher, find a studio you love and stay there. Get to know the studio, the teachers, the style of yoga that’s presented. That’s one of the best ways to vet a teacher training: really get to know the studio first."
 
Karen’s most embarrassing teacher moment:
“I don’t have one that stands out, but I’ve worn my yoga pants inside out, I’ve forgotten one pose on one side, scenarios almost anyone has had. One time my parents came to my yoga class and no one knew who they were. They placed themselves on opposite sides of the room, and at the end of class they made their announcement that they were my parents to the whole class, unbeknownst to me. I was caught off guard but not really embarrassed. Embarrassing to me ties in with shame, and I don’t feel a lot of shame in general, but after fourteen years of teaching I still struggle with making connections sometimes, and that feeling of ‘how can I best connect with the people here.’ I’m aware of boundaries, very aware of being around people but also being in my own space, and that comes from practicing mindfulness and meditation and fundamental Buddhist practices. I’m used to trying to be calm in the center of the storm. When I teach I always try to balance being authentic and connecting with respecting distance, thinking about how can I be of service without over-inserting myself to someone’s life. I’m a pretty straight-laced teacher, I won’t chit chat and sit with students before and after, I am really very boundary-aware. I look at what I do, that I am there and I have a job to do, like ‘we’re going do this, I’ll get you from point A to point Z and I know what my role is in this.’ I’m very committed to that without a lot of fluff and personal stroking, and I think in some ways, it has held my own class growth back. I can still have conversations with people and offer them information, but am I really asking them questions about their life, their relationships, like a friend might? We all have options, we all have different lanes we are in, and you can either be authentic and take the chips as they fall or you can continually try to reshape yourself to gain favor.”
 
On incorporating wellness into her life:
“I love to run, running is my other yoga. Running to me is a great way to get what I don’t get out of my own yoga practice: the pure cardiovascular and same thing over and over again. I do go to the gym, I like the totally different atmosphere of the gym versus the yoga studio.

The more I got into the anatomy side, I realized that there are some problems with only practicing yoga, with muscular and joint movement, and that doing the same thing and only that thing repeatedly isn’t such a hot thing for the body. Which is why I have a problem teaching a similar sequencing over and over. It’s the same thing as ‘sitting is the new smoking.’ I’m a very driven type-A person, so I always have to keep in check that tendency and be sure that I’m not overdoing it. It’s doubly hard when you work for yourself.

A lot of my stress comes from the business side of my work and worrying about finances. I need to be sure that I’m taking time away from the computer, so am I reading books, am I going for a run… I try to mix in other non-yoga forms of exercise. I try to have some moments of quiet. Every day I get a good night’s sleep because I’m not good on not a lot of sleep. I have wine on the weekends when I get to sleep in. I haven’t eaten meat for 7 or 8 years but just recently went back to every once in a while eating chicken, after much soul searching. It’s not a lot, but I just felt my body needed it every now and then."
 
…and her favorite ways to indulge:
“On the weekend, I drink wine and eat jelly beans. Some people might say they go to the spa, but for me on Saturday I have Pinot Noir and Jelly Belly’s or Skittles. I even say to Ben [my boyfriend] sometimes when I’m out during the week and I see Skittles, ‘I just want you to know that I didn’t eat them because it’s during the week.’ I also like to play golf, Ben is a good golfer. And golf has a lot of similarities to yoga like being outside in nature, no attachments to results, breathing, the biomechanics of the body, etc.”
 
On with whom Karen would practice yoga, currently alive or deceased:
“I have two people – not so much a yoga practice, but if I could meditate with someone it would be with the Dalai Llama. If I had the opportunity to sit in stillness with him that would be amazing! In terms of yoga, I recently saw a photo on Facebook of Helen Mirren, she was in yoga gear and had some Sanskrit tattoo, she was so casual. Everything I have read about her paints her as someone who is very wise and still relevant in an industry that values youth and beauty, and yet she always seems to espouse this attitude of ‘I don’t care what you think; this is who I am.’  She is someone I’d like to meet and learn from her wisdom."

Karen's book recommendations:

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Find out more about Karen and continue to follow her on her website Bare Bones Yoga, on Facebook and Instagram as @BareBonesYoga, and check out her classes in Boston. You'll leave her class feeling stretched, toned, stronger, and smarter.

Thank you so much Karen for this invaluable interview! It was an honor to speak with you and I'm so grateful for your time.

Namaste,