An Open Door
Karoun Yoga Meets a Need in Springfield — for the Gift of Peace and SilenceYoga wasn’t Karoun Charkoudian’s first career choice. In fact, she likes to say that yoga found her, not the other way around.
Her original plan was much different. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Geology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and followed that with her master’s at the University of Wisconsin, then worked for five years with Exxon Mobil in Houston, all the while practicing yoga for her personal benefit.
“I was in my late 20s, and I came to a place where I decided that the corporate work world just wasn’t for me,” she told BusinessWest. “So I quit my job and just planned to take some time off.”
Having grown up in Newton, she returned to Massachusetts, where two things happened.
First was her deepening interest in yoga, as she filled her sudden free time with intensive trainings. “I basically experienced a really intense, deep spiritual calling at one of these trainings,” she said. “It was kind of a shift that happened inside me. After that, I felt like I had to reach out to people, help them find a better place in life, help them heal and re-energize their life through yoga.”
Soon after, Charkoudian moved to Springfield because it was more affordable than living in the Boston area, and came to realize that the city’s downtown had no yoga studios. And everything just clicked.
“I had found my passion and also found a city that needed it,” she said. “In Newton or Northampton there’s a yoga studio on every corner, but coming here, I felt like I found my calling. I knew it happened for a reason.”
She opened Karoun Yoga last year, and has already been thrilled with the effect her sessions have had on her growing clientele.
“One of my students — she comes to class regularly, and she loves it — actually carries an oxygen tank with her,” Charkoudian said. “One time, toward the end of the class, I could hear her turning down the oxygen level in her tank; she didn’t need as much oxygen anymore.
“Another guy came to my class with anxiety issues,” she continued. “He wrote me a beautiful testimony about how he was struggling and needed to take medication, though he really didn’t want to. But once he started taking my classes, he was able to apply these breathing techniques in his life, and now we can control the anxiety, where before, the anxiety controlled him.”
The stories don’t end there, and Charkoudian is gratified by all of them.
“I have a woman who has asthma taking some classes with me, and she felt different immediately in class; she had bigger breaths, deeper breaths, more controlled breathing,” she said. “Then I had a senior man with arthritis literally everywhere, to the point where he has trouble walking, and walks slowly and rigidly. When he left my class, his walk was completely different; he was walking faster, taller, more upright in general.
“I have people come in at the end of class saying, ‘wow, I feel so amazing. Thank you so much.’ It runs the gamut from totally healthy people to those with health issues. But the thing is, even a 25-year-old who is otherwise perfectly healthy can be under a lot of stress. So this is very much a preventative health measure.”
Coming into Focus
Yoga serves that function by teaching people, through controlled breathing, posture, and other methods, how to live mindfully.
“The definition of yoga is the union, or yoking, of the body and mind,” Charkoudian explained. Stress arises when people fail to live in and focus on the moment; instead, whether they’re driving, eating, or simply watching TV, their mind is racing and obsessing about work tasks or anything else that might be contributing pressure to their lives.
“That kind of stress, even if it’s background stress, can build and build, and it sits there because you’re not releasing it” — something at which yoga is particularly effective, she explained. “Yoga is a way for people to stop and have this little gift in their day, a gift of peace and silence. A lot of people don’t realize how badly they need that. They have no idea how stressed out they are.”
Perhaps most satisfying is this testimony from a Springfield teenager: “I realized I’ve been stressed out a lot lately,” she wrote. “Those breathing exercises come in handy when I wanted to give up.” That note followed an intensive, four-day seminar with 10 girls from the Springfield Renaissance School, which “showed me how stressed young people are, between school and family, and how much they need this. So I’m building awareness.”
And making people in Springfield more aware of yoga also means dispelling some of the anxiety they might have about it.
“A lot of people get scared when they hear the word yoga; they think of some sleek studio in Manhattan where everyone’s skinny and in good shape,” she said. “We don’t have that here. We get all shapes and sizes, men and women, many different ages and ethnicities.”
Charkoudian leads a host of different classes, some scheduled, some drop-in. Her studio is located on Pearl Street, close to the city’s nightclub district, but she also conducts lunchtime classes at the Sovereign Bank building downtown, and she’ll soon begin offering free classes in the South End sponsored by the Recovery Learning Community.
“A lot of people may benefit from yoga who can’t afford it,” she explained. For her other classes, students pay per session but can purchase a five-class card for a cheaper rate.
She says the discipline of yoga can benefit people in several ways, mentally and physically. One client, a private-lesson student, played basketball with friends often, and realized after he began practicing yoga that his on-court skills were improving. “He actually felt like his response time was better.”
That has to do with that element of mindfulness and focusing on the moment, and it has implications for sports performance; indeed, increasing numbers of professional athletes are discovering yoga. But it can bring similar benefits to any job, Charkoudian said.
“You’re more aware of yourself, whether you’re at work or just walking down the street in the morning,” she said. “You have more focus, more clarity.”
Despite her own focus on building a successful business, “it hasn’t been easy,” Charkoudian said. “It’s been up and down. But a lot of that is just yoga education. Many people here don’t know what yoga is about. They’ve never seen gentle yoga; they think it’s crazy acrobatics. In a place like Northampton, it’s part of the culture, but here, I feel I’m introducing it to the city, trying to touch people with yoga.”
For that reason, her classes tend to be of the gentle variety of Hatha yoga. A typical class begins with simple breathing exercises and gentle poses to warm up the body, Charkoudian said. That leads into a series of lunges or squats and flowing arm movements, followed by deeper stretching. Each session ends with five to 10 minutes of guided relaxation, as participants lie down on the mat and focus on breathing.
In keeping with her passion of bringing yoga to new audiences, Charkoudian is changing the structure of her enterprise somewhat.
While she has focused on open classes during her first year in business, she wants to work more with groups, through events like corporate seminars and yoga parties, all with the goal of showing people how to incorporate yoga into their daily lives.
“I want people to know that they don’t need mats and blocks; you can be sitting in your chair in your regular clothes, or standing beside your desk, doing very basic breathing and stretching exercises. I’m basically giving people a way to eliminate stress at any time. I call it their toolbelt; I’m giving people tools so they can deal with stress right now without having to go to a yoga studio.”
And when they do visit Karoun Yoga, she wants to make sure people can explore what yoga has to offer in a fun, non-intimidating way.
“I want people to understand the benefits of yoga, but also have fun with it,” Charkoudian said. “Yoga can get serious very quickly, and I can be very serious as well. But having fun while learning to deal with stress at the same time is a unique combination, and I think I can help more people that way.”
And teach them how to help themselves, no matter where they are.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at