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Karen Kirkness
MFA, MSc (human anatomy)

Director, Avid Yogi YTT

My professional and personal life revolve around the continued study of yoga as a method of self-transformation.

Meadowlark Yoga is a not-for-profit yoga studio that I founded on the back of many years working as a freelance yoga teacher. The studio gets its name from its location on the edge of the iconic Edinburgh Meadows, on the south side of the city centre.

I started doing yoga in the 90s while at the University of Central Florida. For the first time, I felt connected to my body in a compassionate way, and at some stage it dawned on me that yoga had the potential for much more than physical benefits. I first studied yoga seriously in Mysore in 2003, and since then I have travelled to India 6 times for in-depth study with my teachers.

 

The Ashtanga yoga method is close to my heart as I continue with daily practice, which has adapted through my in-depth study of anatomy. My teachers, Dena Kingsberg and Sarah Hatcher, are a constant source of inspiration as I work through the Yoga Sutras and deeper into asana.

My approach to yoga is about gradually removing the layers of congestion through agni (fire)-building vinyasa and slow-simmering restorative techniques that work with the grain of spiral patterns in the body. As a teacher, I consider my approach to be as a facilitator in helping fellow students find routes to a regular practice that suits their circumstances.

I met my first anatomy teacher, David Keil, in 2003 at what was then called Centered Yoga Teacher Training in Koh Samui, Thailand. I got most of the Intermediate series from David, and have learned much about anatomy in the gross and subtle aspects from his teachings. I have also studied yoga anatomy with Leslie Kaminoff in his online course and in person.

My art teacher Robert Rivers has been a key lifetime mentor. He taught me the importance of learning how to look at reality and value the process of seeing through life drawing.

Anatomy

My passion for all things anatomical developed organically as I moved to Scotland from Florida to complete my first masters degree from the Edinburgh College of Art. The programme, Art, Space and Nature, is built between the Drawing & Painting and Landscape Architecture departments at the eca. It was there that I first worked with Platonic shapes and explored sacred geometry in the patterns of nature. I pursued a career as a travelling studio artist after graduation in 2005 before finally settling in Edinburgh with some hard-won perspective.

Since then, my story has evolved through the interweaving threads of art, anatomy, and yoga. Like most chronically adventurous people, I have learned a lot in moments of failure while facing up to obstacles. These obstacles range from personal struggles to professional and physical injuries, largely of my own making. As a keen cyclist for many years, I am no stranger to injuries and chronic tightness.

In my 20s and early 30s, yoga was the panacea for all the ravages of endurance sports and artistic adventuring. For a long time, I was sort of using yoga as first-aid. Influenced by the legendary, light-hearted teachings of David Swenson, I continued with self-practice. Weaving yoga practice into my passion for cycling, strong female practitioners like Kino became important influences.

I went back to Mysore in 2010 and 2011, and there sustained a meniscus tear when my knee subluxated in Janusirsasana C. Thus began a new phase of the journey. My search for healing intensified, leading me to thirst for a better understanding of the nature of tissue.

Slowly, through years of trial and error, I worked out that everything really is connected and that extremes at any point in the system will have extreme consequences somewhere else. My eventual understanding of the fascial web gave rise to the spiral anatomy kinematics that I now follow in my practice.

I still love being outside communing with nature, but I no longer throw myself down mountains for fun as I had in my 20s and early 30s. And I still work diligently in progressive asana practice into the third series, but the intention has shifted from achievement to absorption. Injury is less. Love and humour are more.

Sutra 2.16

heyaṁ duḥkham-anāgatam

Future suffering is to be avoided!

Svādhyāya

Sanskrit for ‘one’s own reading’ or ‘self-study’.

Together with tapas (purification) and Ishvara pranidhana (dedication to higher self or the divine), svadhyaya (self-study) is given by Patanjali as part of the threefold practice of kriya yoga, the yoga of action. Svadhyaya led me to an obsessive study of academic anatomy out of my interest in healing. I have subsequently realised that what we think we know about anatomy often backfires as stubborn adherence to illusion.

One of the most humbling and enriching experiences of my life was the year I spent in the dissection lab learning about human anatomy at the University of Edinburgh as part of my second master’s degree in Human Anatomy. In awe and yet simultaneously struggling to keep up with the rigorous exams on the course, I had to reinforce the dissection hours with other learning techniques in order to really learn. And learn I did.

This living anatomy toolkit is the result of years of research around the most effective ways to truly appreciate the majesty of anatomy. I bring these methods into my teaching and practice of yoga.

Moving forward from making models of how things look, I now build models of natural geometric patterns in the human body to understand how things move. Kinematic chains and tensegrity models inform my teaching of anatomy for yoga. With every model I make, every drawing and painting, I learn more about the vast web of push-and-pull that connects us all to nature.

Biotensegrity

Tensegrity is a natural way to explore the kinematic principles of the body in nature. Biotensegrity is tensegrity applied to living systems. I’m interested in this architectural concept (the term tensegrity was coined by Buckminster Fuller) and how its tenets provide a unifying theory of anatomy, especially for yoga practitioners.

Feeling the bones as “islands of compression floating in a sea of tension,” it’s easy to see how prana and apana co-create the tissues in a tensegrity relationship. I teach and practice yoga asana guided by the spiral action of joint systems connected “tensegrally” through the bodywide fascial matrix. Find out more about my approach to yoga here.

I met my biotensegrity mentor, Susan Lowell, through her fascinating, cross-disciplinary twitter feed all about biotensegrity. With Susan’s guidance and contributions from key contributor, Joanne Avison, I am designing a book bringing together the threads of art, anatomy, and yoga.

For more about my book, Spiral Bound: biotensegrity in functional anatomy for yogacheck out this page at Handspring Publishing.

Parenthood

As a new mum, I have encountered a whole new set of challenges – definitely the most rewarding and humbling so far! As I work to provide the stability of a family home for our son, my daily yoga practice has taken on a heightened importance. Never before have I valued the settling effects of a daily practice like I did during pregnancy. I share our birth story out of an interest in supporting other mothers who might wonder how to heal from unplanned outcomes.

Now that we have our son, my husband Simon and I balance out the practicalities of parenthood with our commitment to personal practice. Family life is much more fun and challenging than I had ever imagined and now I wonder what I was waiting for! Yoga practice is essential for all stages of life but is especially therapeutic for both parents working on fertility, antenatal self-care, and recovery in the postpartum period. I share my practice in free videos in the spirit of supporting all parents who might want to know more about how to get started with yoga.