Kelly Wood, founder and director of Karuna Yoga and Hi Yoga, wasn’t always the dedicated yoga teacher that she is today. In fact, she was heavily invested in the corporate world for a good part of her life, far removed from the tranquility of a yoga pose and peaceful meditation.
Kelly now spends her work days mainly where she belongs: on a mat rather than behind a desk. She’s built Los Angeles-based Karuna Yoga into a successful and progressive studio, where droves of Los Angeleans flock daily. She’s taught over 60,000 children with her Hi Yoga program, and her live streaming yoga classes (I told you she’s ahead of the curve) are becoming wildly popular by the minute.
Born and bred in South Carolina, Kelly still possesses that warm, southern charm thousands of miles away in L.A. Her childhood was a normal one, as she tells it; she was a crafty kid who was a disciplined dancer. Her loving and supportive parents have been together for 50 years, which by today’s standards, isn’t so “normal.”
In the late 1990s, when she was living the corporate life in Atlanta, Kelly began practicing and falling in love with yoga before and after work, and she suddenly felt compelled to exercise her passion in laid-back California .
“I didn’t want to look back as a grandmother, regretting I didn’t go.”
Kelly bid adieu to Atlanta and corporate America, and followed her heart across the country.
Amazingly, two years after Kelly arrived, she opened up her very own studio. She became certified in both Hatha and Kundalini yoga, and her teaching style is influenced by her in-depth studies of yoga, dance, philosophy and art history.
Kelly is a new breed of businesswoman now, running her own studio, giving the gift of yoga to others and serving her community. But she truly loves what she does daily, and it’s what keeps her going.
“I’ve had various jobs throughout my life,” she explains, “but I now get up so early, work long days and then I reflect back at night and sleep well knowing I’ve given the day my very best.”
Kelly translated her love of children and yoga into Hi Yoga, a program that builds great focus for kids and their parents. Her Hi Yoga DVDs give families time to breathe, be calm and enjoy one another. Tens of thousands of children have benefited from her program, because Kelly gets kids and has a keen sense on how to make yoga relatable to them.
“The practice of yoga helps us to know ourselves better — knowing what we’re thinking and knowing what we’re feeling,” Kelly says. “Yoga encourages kids to recognize their feelings instead of turning away from them or stuffing them down. They learn to direct themselves from the inside.”
While Kelly extols the benefits of yoga for kids in our fast-paced world, she’s also is adamant that parents pick up the practice as well.
“It’s really important for children and parents to spend time together in the poses. It helps them build the secure bonding that’s necessary for healthy emotional and mental development. But if a parent isn’t understanding the practice, then it’s a wash.”
Understandably so. It makes sense that if a parent wants a happy, focused child, they too must work on finding inner peace and focus. Often times, Kelly finds it’s the kids that get Mom or Dad into yoga, not the other way around. Children return home after one of her classes, show their parents what they’ve learned, and parents see firsthand how yoga is helping their child. So, they figure they’ll give it a shot, too.
“The world is moving so fast,” says Kelly. “All of the information that we are bombarded with, kids are bombarded with too. Hi Yoga helps them to learn how to minimize distractions and to know what they’re feeling. I’ve had countless children tell me after a few classes that they when they wanted to hit their brother or sister, they paused and took a breath and didn’t do it.”
It’s those sort of values — composure, knowing oneself, confidence and self-love, that will make children who practice yoga happier, healthier and more productive adults.
For the past nine years, after every school year, the kids Kelly teaches give Kelly pictures, paintings and letters that express their joy and appreciation for what they’ve learned through Hi Yoga. They will make your heart melt.
Kelly argues, and study after study agrees, that yoga is the answer to many emotional and behavioral issues in children. She’s soon to launch an exciting project with Jane Tavyev, MD, Pediatric Neurology/Neurodevelopment Disabilities at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and UCLA to research the benefits of yoga in children with autism.
“Dr. Tavyev understands,” Kelly says, “how powerful the practice of yoga is to help soothe and focus a child. We both see tremendous opportunity in this project.”
Kelly uses her love of yoga as a means to better many lives. But she also uses it as a way to give back to her community. By doing so, she’s had to ignore that “bottom line” business acumen once so second nature to her. I asked Kelly how important service is to her.
“It’s not even a question in my mind. It’s just a matter of what has to happen. I teach 2-4 classes a week to children free of charge. My financial consultant who looks over my business told me at one point that, I can’t just spend all of my time ‘teaching yoga at no charge.’ But I told her that, ‘I just have to do it.'”
Kelly’s a do-gooder, but she’s an innovator, too, who still has that savvy businesswoman in her. When it comes to her yoga studio as a business, she’s light years ahead of the game.
About a year and a half ago, her mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and her father desperately needed her back home in South Carolina to help care for her. Without a question in her mind, she knew where she needed to be. Kelly would have to close up the studio in LA she worked so hard on and head home to care for her family. But she was determined to find a way to stay connected to her practice, so she thought outside of the box.
“I realized that I’d need a studio with me wherever I went. And then the idea for an online studio hit me. I could stream my classes live to my students, while being with my family in South Carolina.”
Kelly trusted that “the dots would somehow connect” in her future, if I might share a thought from a true American hero, the late Steve Jobs.
She returned home to LA this past spring but her live streaming classes continue to gain in popularity. People are singing its praises as each class is just as effective as if you were physically in Kelly’s studio, but you’re in the comfort of your home instead. Saving time and money on driving is a bonus for students, too.
In addition to building on Hi Yoga’s and her live streaming classes’ momentum, publishing a book is on her to-accomplish list. Kelly hopes to do more speaking as well, as she wants to help parents understand the importance of yoga for their family.
“Underneath it all, you have to be a friend to your mind and a friend to yourself. But we’re not taught how to do this. The practice of yoga is an exercise program on a emotional, mental and spiritual level. Sure, the teacher can help you to find this, but most importantly, it’s about being comfortable in your own skin and having a sense of heart.”
Kelly brings that southern hospitality to each endeavor. She’s the perfect face for yoga because she’s unlocked a way to make it so accessible and relatable to everyone, because she is so accessible and relatable. She’s dispelling that notion that yoga is just for the granola-eating elite, and she’s helping people recognize that yoga is a life-changing activity that has the power to turn everything around for the better.