With free classes for law enforcement officers in the 28th Precinct and for LGBT minority youth in Harlem, Lara Land is on a mission to dissolve biases and provide a safe space for neighbors to heal, resolve conflict, and build community.
Citing Patthabhi Jois’s steadiness and humbleness as an influence, she is passionate about bringing Ashtanga yoga to a wide variety of populations on Frederick Douglass Blvd. and beyond through her studio,Land Yoga, and her not-for-profit Three and a Half Acres Yoga.
YogaCity NYC's Kathleen Kraft sat down with her to find out more about her work.
Kathleen Kraft: How did you become inspired to open up a studio in Harlem?
Lara Land: I started making trips back and forth to India, and, at the end of one of them, I found out about an opportunity to go to Rwanda to work with genocide survivors, mostly women and children who were HIV positive. They specifically wanted a woman with Ashtanga experience. I was in my twenties and felt that I could take the time to do it, and I wanted to go abroad, with a purpose. I had to fund my own trip. I did a fundraiser and spoke at my high school, my parents’ synagogue, and all over. I went for three months in 2008, and then back to India for two months, so it was a very intense year.
"I was called here" is the only way I can explain it. I had heard good things about Harlem and subbed a lot on the Upper West Side and had clients up here. One day, when I was meditating, I heard my voice saying "you have to do it." There were few options for yoga here, and I felt like this was my home, where I could give back to my community.
KK: Why Ashtanga?
LL: The Mysore practice is very real, and you’re expected to show up. With this generation, it’s become diluted, but with my teacher Christopher Hildebrandt, you felt that you should show up every day, do your practice, and not complain; I enjoyed it. It was scary and he didn’t make it any easier—Christopher kind of grunted at me when I first got there. It took a month of me being super consistent before he thought I was for real. My mantra was "I’m just doing this for me." Within a year I went to India to study with Patthabhi Jois, but he was ill, so his grandson, Sharath, became my teacher. By then, my life was all yoga.
KK: Did you have concerns about bringing Ashtanga, as opposed to other more well-known practices, to Harlem?
LL: Yes! I’ve had concerns bringing it anywhere. It’s the hardest yoga to explain, which is why we recently made this video for our website. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that they can come at any time during the 5-hour class period in the mornings here. They can’t believe they’ll know what to do and they’ll get the attention they need from the teacher, but I can only teach what I know and I knew that it had to be accessible.
I knew I had to do it on the ground-floor of the main avenue, right in your face. We have a whole system here of explaining the practice to everyone who stops in front, we give them a tour of the gallery and the studio; everyone here is trained to do that.
KK: You also have a non-profit as well and some programs in the community.
LL: I knew after Rwanda that I would have a non-profit one day, but the studio had to come first. I teach seniors at the food bank, and we work at the community markets and many of the schools where we give presentations. During the last trip I took to India, Eric Garner was killed and my feelings deepened about starting a non-profit, so I came back and formed Three and Half Acres Yoga, with a great board, and we started building partnerships in the neighborhood, which are about healing and uplifting through the practice.
KK: Tell us about the partnerships.
LL: Our first two were with Ali Forney Center and Harlem United H.O.M.E. Program, which are community organizations that support LGBT young adults who are predominantly minorities, many of whom have AIDS. We gave free classes weekly at both organizations, and are currently giving free classes twice a week at H.O.M.E, based on the great success of the program.
We’ve also started a yoga program with the 28th Precinct, providing yoga for those who police the central Harlem community. We have a free weekly class for them at Land Yoga. That’s the big one in terms of really bringing this vision to life.
Ultimately, THAY is working to serve both vulnerable populations and those in power who co-exist in one neighborhood. In the future, we hope to utilize the inherent quality of yoga to act as a bridge between people of power and those who may feel disenfranchised within the same community.
KK: What is your role in the programs?
LL: I teach at first until the group is comfortable, and then I pull myself out to an overseer position. I train our teaching team.
KK: You’re an ambitious and driven person. Who has been an instrumental teacher, or a main influence, in your life?
LL: I think a lot of life is your upbringing. I believe I’m motivated a lot by fear. I’m motivated to make things work. Once I have an idea, I have a crazy obsession with seeing it manifested. It’s not OK for me to let it go.