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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sangha Spotlight ~ Karen Caggia ~ Shine On

When my husband and I were house hunting we happened upon a realtor at an open house, with whom we clicked immediately.  She found us our dream house then faded out of our lives until one Friday afternoon when I took my two older daughters to a Family Yoga class at the Prancing Peacock.  There was Karen, our realtor from seven years earlier, teaching the class!  The connection we made when we first moved here remained strong and relevant.  It made sense that the first person we met in our now history-laden home should be the first person I interviewed for this blog.

We agreed to meet at a local breakfast place.  Karen came in with her usual effervescence and infectious optimism.  We greeted each other like old friends, immediately chatting and sharing stories.  Both of us on the path, curious where it may lead and charging forward, hearts wide open.

Curious about her beginnings, I asked Karen what her interests were when she was a kid.  She told me that she was a competitive swimmer when she was younger, though her spirit was less competitive than it was joyfully along for the ride.  She loved every moment in the pool and always felt great when she emerged.  When she finished telling me about how she felt in the water, she took a breath and smiled.  “Yoga feels great,” she sighed while seemingly being washed over by that particular memory and making the current connection.

Through the years Karen experienced her life with big eyes, enthusiastic and curious.  At sixteen, Karen was a lifeguard at the outdoor pool at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.  This four year experience was extremely rewarding and helped to shape Karen’s desire to help and nurture others.  She always believed that motherhood was her destiny, but as a child also entertained dreams of Olympic swimming or possibly becoming a famous criminal attorney.  While the shape of our childhood dreams may change form over the years, we bring our particular talents and sensibilities with us, however they manifest.  

Karen took a Yoga class when she was 28, but her aerobics-mind took over, leaving her to feel that Yoga wouldn’t be able to keep up with her.  “I guess I wasn’t ready to receive it at that time in my life,” Karen reconciled.  That was a time when she didn’t realize the value of slowing down, so never even stayed for the stretching time at the end of her aerobics classes.  She enjoyed life’s party, married and had three sons.  

In her mid-forties she spent summers at a swim club where she and her friends would talk about trying Yoga.  They talked about it a lot.  Then, Karen decided to do it.  At 48 years of age, she took her first class (since the one 20 years before) through Pennsbury Adult Education at Makefield Elementary School.  “I actually fell asleep during my first Sivasana,” Karen remembered.  She continued, “Linda Carl was the teacher; her style was so loving and gentle and she helped open my eyes to the beauty of Yoga.”  

In Linda’s class, Karen remembered, “We did Leg Cradle Pose and it brought me to tears.”  When I asked her why she cried, she said, “Rocking my leg brought me back to childhood.”  She had spent so much time taking care of others, including the joyful caring for her  husband and three sons; Yoga gave her the opportunity to take care of herself.   Linda’s class lit the Yoga fire in her belly, inspiring the need to try new studios and teachers, and sample from the glorious Yoga buffet.  

She started visiting Yoga studios all over the local map before discovering her Emerald City.

It wasn’t a Yellow Brick Road or ruby red slippers that led her to her destination, but a soft voice guided by an open heart.  Karen recalls, “It happened on a dark and stormy night when I was driving home from Pennsbury High School with my son.  We were driving down Stony Hill Road when, just near the train tracks, something caught my eye.  I don’t know how I saw it, so small and unlit, in the dark and between the raindrops, but there it was.  Yoga.  A sign for the Prancing Peacock loomed there, receded from the road, calling me.”  They stopped the car and Karen wrote down the phone number.  She called the number, met its proprietor, Liz Connor and connected.  Karen begins this part of her story, “I found a home.”

Karen admits to having some amazing influences along the way, including her parents who instilled a strong sense of compassion in her.  Her mother embodied a spirit of faith and charitable work and her father would ask Karen and her siblings daily, “What have you done for the betterment of mankind today?”  

Karen feels that all of her teachers have contributed their wisdom and love, adding flavor and dimension to her practice.  She is adamant that every teacher at Prancing Peacock, including the teachers with whom she trained, inspire her and bring something new to her practice.  She feels compelled, however, to take a moment to further honor Liz Connor’s presence in her life as a mentor, teacher and guide.  “When I have felt insecure, she has seen something in me that I couldn’t.  She has faith in me when my own faith fails.  She really sees me as I am and has enabled me to begin seeing myself through a wider, more compassionate lens.”  She ends this part of her story the way she began it, “With Liz and at Prancing Peacock I have found a home.”

Practicing now for close to five years and teaching for one year, Karen continues to see her life on this path opening up and extending to others.  She laughed when thinking about her days in Catholic school when the nuns would say they were “called” to their stations of service.  She admits to just not getting it.  As someone who feels she was “called” to this practice, to share it with as many people as she can, Karen now gets it.  “Once I found the mat and fell in love, I understood.”  

Still a professional realtor, I asked her how life has changed personally & professionally since embarking on a life on the mat.  Professionally she said, “Working in real estate can be extremely reactive in many situations.  I often find myself in the role of counselor.  Buying and selling houses can bring up major issues and when you’re dealing with people you are also dealing with their hearts.  Yoga helps me to absorb and not react when things get tense in negotiations.  I can take a step back and be in the moment.  Now, I’m deeply grateful for every job I get and find joy in all I do.  Personally,” she said, “I’m better able to take a breath and take a step back.”

Karen’s enthusiasm for the practice extended to a friend from East Brunswick, NJ, who came down to Prancing Peacock for a class.  “She came down with a friend and I taught a class with just the three of us,” Karen told me.  It turned out that her friend’s family owned a building with a vacant space, suitable for a small studio.  As a result of her Yoga experience, her friend was moved to open a Yoga studio in that space.  Not a regular practitioner, herself, she opened it up to Karen.  Karen feels that, “It has become a blessed opportunity to hone my skills and speak my truth.  While I’m not a shy person, I’m not always comfortable being the center of attention.  Even when I dabbled in theatre, I was always behind the scenes.  What a wonderful place to stretch my wings.”

Yoga is a natural extension of Karen’s open, artistic nature.  She majored in Art in college and lives a life of music.  She loves “treasure hunting” (yard sales) and making unexpected vignettes out of her finds.  She has a side business called, “Ocean Gypsy.”  The name itself honors her love of the water and the seeker within, that continues to guide her.

Those who practice Yoga understand that the path may lead in many directions.  Karen’s long-term vision of her practice goes back to her lifeguarding days with the prisoners at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.  “I would love to go to prisons or shelters for women and teach them Yoga to empower them to know that where they are now is not where they need to be.  I believe it would change the atmosphere of their lives while inside the facility and would nourish the people they’ll become if & once they re-enter the world outside.  I have a friend who is a rape counselor.  I know it would be challenging to get this group of women together, but I would love to share Yoga with them, too.”  

Karen’s love for her husband and children is palpable.  You can feel her gratitude as if it were your own.  “I am grateful to be able to practice and that the practice found me.  I love how life is shaping up and can see it unfolding unexpectedly.  I’m not nearly done.  I hope to have the opportunity to do all the things I have in my head.  I have a lot to do.  This practice radiates out, inspiring us all to Shine On!”

* * *
Karen teaches Family Yoga at Prancing Peacock in Yardley, Pa ~ Fridays at 4:15pm
(click on name for website and information)

She also teaches two beginners classes, Tuesdays 12:30pm & 5:30pm, at Exhale Center for Art & Wellness located at:  223 Route 18 East Brunswick, NJ. (732) 247-6900.

Fun Karen Facts

  • Do you have a favorite pose?  Why?  Fish Pose because the heart space is open wide.  Can’t speak enough about what we do for ourselves in each pose.
  • What is your most challenging pose?  Chattaranga and bringing the leg up in high lunge.
  • Memorable “AHA” moments on the mat?   I had an “OMG” moment early on when I did a split.  From that, I felt that anything’s possible.
  • Do you have a favorite Sanskrit name to say out loud?    Chattaranga Dandasana
  • Do you have any rituals for before/after you practice/teach?  I breathe.  I used to think the “cleansing breath” was funny and a little strange.  Now I revel in it, it’s become ritual.

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