Featured Teacher of the Month: Nirmala (Karen) Habib


July 2019

Nirmala (Karen) Habib

Interview by Sarah McElwain

nirmala karen habibOriginally from Bogotá, Colombia, Nirmala (Karen) Habib is a Yoga teacher and massage therapist currently living and teaching in New York City. She completed her basic teacher training at the Sivananda ashram in Woodbourne, New York, in 2003; her intermediate teacher training at IYINY in 2007; 500-hour massage training at A New Beginning School of Massage in Austin, Texas, in 2010; and Stress Management TT in Yogaville in 2016. Nirmala has also been an ashramite, having lived at the New York IYI between 2005 and 2010, and has been a short-term resident several times since—including now, in the summer of 2019.

Previously, Nirmala worked for 25 years in Hispanic/multicultural marketing for the TV/entertainment industry. Among the highlights of her corporate career were spearheading the creation of the Hispanic Marketing Division for Showtime Networks (Viacom), conceptualizing and launching the quarterly, award-winning bilingual magazine Nexos Latinos, and helping launch MTV’s LGBT-targeted TV channel, Logo (also meeting Robert Redford at a company event!). Nirmala holds an M.B.A. from the Babson Graduate School of Business and a B.A. in economics from Wellesley College. In addition to Yoga, she enjoys ecstatic dancing, hiking, kayaking, traveling, the opera, international affairs and politics, and healthful cooking.

What is your definition of Yoga?
For me, Yoga is medicine. It helps me maintain overall health and well-being, not only in the body but also in the mind and spirit. Yoga is my antidepressant and my anti-anxiety medication in these stressful and uncertain times. Yoga helps me stay limber, strong, and pain-free in the body; permits me to remain calm, positive, and non-reactive; and guides me in my growth toward a higher consciousness. Yoga allows me to be the best me I can be.

What do you love about Yoga?
When I started taking Hatha Yoga classes, in the mid-nineties, I felt at home right away. I remember thinking, “Can it really be this simple? I just put my body into these positions and take slow, deep breaths, and that’s supposed to make me healthy and happy?” Indeed, even a very simple practice—a few rounds of sun salutations or kapalabhati—can completely shift the way I feel in just a few minutes. It’s magical!

I also love how Yoga offers something for all types and dispositions. Whether it’s Hatha Yoga for the physical body, Karma Yoga for selflessness, Bhakti Yoga for devotion, or Raja Yoga for self-awareness, Yoga really is for everybody!

Why do you teach Yoga?
I feel blessed not only to have access to the tools of Yoga for my own health and well-being but also to be able to share them with others. Few things are more rewarding to me than teaching Yoga. The effects are both immediate and cumulative. I love seeing how the tension visibly washes off my students as the class progresses, watching the relaxation response kicking in, seeing the expression of “aahhhh” on their faces. It’s priceless! The sweetest is working with a group of students over time, getting to know them individually, and witnessing their progress and growth.
What are the particular areas of Yoga you are teaching in now or in which you have created your own, special offerings? What attracted you to those areas?
Since taking Stress Management TT in 2016 with some of my favorite teachers—Swamis Vidyananda and Ramananda—I have been teaching more stress management and less traditional Hatha Yoga. I’ve sought out opportunities to teach groups of people who don’t tend to go to Yoga studios or classes but who I felt could really benefit from understanding the impact of stress in their lives and learning how to manage it. Over the past three years I’ve taught ongoing Yoga/stress management classes at several low-income housing complexes, a substance-abuse clinic, and a health and wellness center, among other places. That was in Austin, Texas, and given that Spanish is my native tongue, many of my classes were bilingual. I really love teaching bilingual Yoga classes, even though they can be challenging: you don’t want to repeat the entire class in both languages, for that would make the class wall-to-wall talking, leaving no room for golden silence!

Most near and dear to my heart are the weekly stress management classes I’ve been teaching to male inmates at the Travis County Correctional Facility in Del Valle, Texas, over the past year. The opportunity fell into my lap when a friend of mine asked me whether I’d be interested in taking over the Yoga and meditation classes she’d been teaching in a jail. This was way outside my comfort zone and I was terrified, so I knew I had to do it. In addition to using the tools in my stress management toolbox—stretching, breathing, relaxation, refocusing, and resilient attitudes—I also decided to experiment with incorporating laughter and play to break the ice and establish a connection. I led Laugha Yoga sessions (they loved “Very Good, Very Good, YAY!!!” so much that someone would initiate it in every class), and I introduced them to various improv games, like name games and sound ball. I had no idea how these games would be received; my students were, after all, presumably hardened criminals (to me they were always sweet human beings in need of kindness and compassion). It was incredibly heartwarming to see these tough guys transform into carefree, laughing children for a few minutes. The games brought joy, laughter, and harmony to the group and allowed me to connect easefully with the inmates. Once the endorphins were flowing, we would transition to doing asana, pranayama, and then meditation. The practices were invaluable in helping the inmates cope with the stress of being in an incarceration setting, the uncertainty of upcoming court cases and legal procedures, and their multiple physical and emotional conditions, such as PTSD.

I am currently seeking opportunities to teach in similar settings in New York City (not only or necessarily jail/prison), having moved back to the city just a few months ago. If anybody knows of any such opportunities or has any suggestions, please contact me at karenhabib@yahoo.com. Thanks!

What do you hope students will receive from you as a teacher, and what do you hope students will get out of your coming offerings and workshops?
I hope first and foremost that my students always feel safe and comfortable in my classes, that they are able to find ease in their bodies and peace in their minds and hearts and, hopefully, a bit of inspiration.

I usually observe a few minutes of silent prayer before the class to center and ground myself. In those moments, I pray that I may serve as an effective conduit for the ancient teachings of Yoga, that I may get out of the way, and that each student derives from the class what he/she needs at that moment.

Do you have a favorite book or Yoga mat or product that you like, something you sincerely enjoy and wish to share with the teacher sangha?
I strongly recommend the book The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, by Michael A. Singer. It is incredibly powerful, profound, and deeply transformative. I found some of the concepts so vast that I could not digest them in a single or even a couple of readings; this book merits repeated readings. Great for the night table!

If you have children in your life, consider giving them the book The Magic of Me: A Kids’ Spiritual Guide to Health and Happiness, by Becky Cummings. It’s much like The Power of Now but beautifully rendered for young (or future) seekers.

Ongoing classes at IYI: Having just recently moved back to New York, I do not teach a regular class at IYI (yet!), but I am doing plenty of substitute teaching, as many teachers are away during the summer. I teach Levels I, I/II, and II and Gentle Yoga classes. For the months of July and August, I’ll be substitute teaching the Level I/II class on Thursdays at 3:15 p.m.