HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (1/4/12) – For over 5,000 years, yoga has connected the mind and body together into one, harmonious experience. The word yoga literally means “to join or yoke together.”
Yoga encourages fluid exercise, proper breathing technique, and mind-clearing meditation. According to the American Yoga Association:
The exercises of yoga are designed to put pressure on the glandular systems of the body, thereby increasing its efficiency and total health. The body is looked upon as the primary instrument that enables us to work and evolve in the world, and so a yoga student treats it with great care and respect. Breathing techniques are based on the concept that breath is the source of life in the body. The yoga student gently increases breath control to improve the health and function of both body and mind. These two systems of exercise and breathing then prepare the body and mind for meditation, and the student finds an easy approach to a quiet mind that allows silence and healing from everyday stress. Regular daily practice of all three parts of this structure of yoga, produce a clear, bright mind and a strong, capable body.
And it was each of these benefits, and more, that intrigued local Baptist Health yoga instructor and Kentucky forester, Kathleen Williams, 34.
To learn more, I had a chance to talk with Kathleen about her life, how she became a forester, and the important role that yoga has played in her life.
“I was born in Georgia,” says Kathleen. “I moved back to Louisville when I was two and grew up there. I was born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, so I was told. Growing up, I had a lot of pain in my joints and stuff. Winters were rough.”
Kathleen discovered—while cheerleading throughout high school—that her joints weren’t in pain as long as she stayed active. Proper nutrition and regular exercise kept her symptoms at bay and, eventually, Kathleen says she completely outgrew her condition.
“I went to the University of Kentucky for a forestry degree,” shares Kathleen. “After that, I did some work at Red River Gorge with Peregrine Falcons. Previous to that, I had done an apprenticeship working to rehab birds of prey, which is a hobby of mine. Eventually, I moved here [Madisonville, KY] for my job. I am an Inventory Forester, and I work for the Kentucky Division of Forestry. I count trees for a living. I’ve been doing it for 11 years.”
Early on, Kathleen knew she wanted to attend college at UK because of the prestige of their Agriculture School.
“I knew I wanted to go into something agriculture related,” says Kathleen. “I thought it would be animals. I took animal science my first semester and realized right off that it wasn’t the right fit. I wasn’t raised on a farm. I was raised in a family that came from an agricultural background, but not on a true farm.”
Upon realizing that animal science wasn’t her calling, Kathleen took her concerns to the head of the College of Agriculture at UK.
“I told her that I didn’t know what to do,” says Kathleen. “I wasn’t interested in being animal science anymore. She asked me about some of my interests and I told her. She said, ‘Have you ever thought about forestry?’ I said, ‘What’s forestry?’ [laughs]”
Kathleen was quickly ushered over to the university’s Department of Forestry building.
The Department of Forestry is one of ten academic departments in the College of Agriculture at UK. This specific department was established in 1969 for the purpose of research, instruction, and extension programs in forest and wildland natural resources.
“The Department of Forestry building is all by itself on the campus,” says Kathleen. “I walked in the door and it was like angels started singing. Forestry college was a blast. So much of your schooling is outside. It’s great.”
Kathleen attributes her personality traits to that of your “average” forester.
“I have a little bit of an ADD kind of personality,” explains Kathleen. “I’m kind of a ‘spazz,’and half of us tend to lean that way. The students involved in the forestry program don’t generally do well in school. We don’t do well sitting still and having to pay attention. We do much better being very active with our hands. There are not many women foresters. It’s a male driven field. I’m very lucky my work partner is also a woman. We have been partners for eight years. The average class at UK has around 8 to 10 graduates. So it’s also a very small field.”
Oftentimes, when people hear that Kathleen is a forester, they are quick to reply with their excitement about how much fun the job must be.
“The woods beat me up, I’ll be honest,” says Kathleen. “My job is not a breeze. People always say, ‘I’d love to do your job!’ I’m like, ‘Come out with me and you’ll change your mind.’ [laughs] We wear Carhartt [pants] with double pleats for a reason. A month ago, I was covered in poison ivy. People think it’s a breeze, but it’s actually really hardcore. Not many foresters want to do my job. They are not willing to have the tar beat out of them. We don’t get to pick where we go for our job. They send me an area photograph with a GPS coordinate and I have to go there. It doesn’t matter if it lands in five acres of briars. I have to get in there.”
Being a forester can be a tedious job as well. Upon receiving GPS coordinates, it is Kathleen’s job to count all the trees in a tenth of an acre around them.
“It takes us quite a few hours,” says Kathleen. “I wear about 15 pounds of tools on my body. We might have to hike two miles, or we might be able to get out of the car and walk 200 feet. You never know. We have partners for a reason, too. We trespass a lot. We go where we’re told. It doesn’t matter who it lands on. Since the 1920s, foresters have been keeping an inventory so we will know how much forest land is in Kentucky at all times. We also keep inventory of the percentage of crop, pasture, and urban land as well. If there is forest, what trees are there? How big are they? Are there disease or insect issues? What are people doing with them? Are they cutting them down? Are they keeping them there?”
Even though her work as a forester keeps Kathleen active and healthy, she still makes time for yoga and acknowledges the positive impact it makes in her day to day life.
But how did Kathleen discovered her love for yoga?
“I grew up calling my mom’s best friend, ‘aunt,’” says Kathleen. “When I moved to Madisonville, I met her for the first time. She and I are two peas in a pod. She was the yoga teacher in Madisonville. She was the only person that had ever taught yoga here in 20-something years. When I met her, we were instant friends. We are kindred spirits. I took [yoga] from her for awhile, but then she quit teaching.”
Kathleen needed yoga in her life, though, so she decided to go to yoga school. She went down to DeLand, Florida in February of 2006 and got certified in prenatal yoga.
“I knew I wanted to teach prenatal yoga before I had even gotten pregnant,” says Kathleen. “At that time, however, I was working full time as a forester and helping to rehabilitate birds of prey. I had enough going on.”
Around that time, a chance encounter with a bird at the Madisonville YMCA opened a door of opportunity for Kathleen.
“I got involved with the YMCA because they had a Great Horned Owl stuck in a soccer net,” laughs Kathleen. “I had to go out there and get it for them. I got the Great Horned Owl out and, jokingly, I told them that I’d hoped to teach yoga one day so I could pay for my bird habit.”
Interestingly enough, they decided to take Kathleen up on her offer. Following the owl incident, the YMCA contacted Kathleen and asked her if she would be interested in hosting yoga classes there.
“They asked me to teach in 2006,” says Kathleen. “I started teaching at the YMCA when I was already four months pregnant with my daughter, Pheobe. I taught the whole time I was pregnant and worked full time. She’s almost six now. I quit teaching there right at the end of my pregnancy with my son, Leif. It was about a year-and-a-half ago. The hospital called and asked if I would be interested in teaching prenatal yoga at the Women’s Center. I was like, ‘Great timing, I’m pregnant again [laughs].’ So, I waited until after I had Leif, and it all just fell into place.”
Kathleen quit teaching at the YMCA and passed all of her yoga classes on to their current yoga instructor, Hillary Lowbridge.
“I still go over there sometimes and teach children’s yoga,” says Kathleen. “My passion is prenatal and children. I love it. It’s fun because you don’t have to be serious with either one. You have to laugh at yourself when you’re pregnant, and with children you have to laugh or they won’t even do anything [laughs]. It’s really fun.”
Kathleen loves teaching prenatal yoga at the Women’s Center for a variety of reasons.
“It fits in better with raising my kids and working full-time,” says Kathleen. “Right now, I only do prenatal yoga. Eventually, what I hope to do is really grow the program here at the Women’s Center. I’m leading the first yoga class here, ever. They have the masseuses here. The massage therapists recently became certified doulas, so that’s a good step. They’ve got me in now. In the future, I’d like to lead arthritis, anxiety, and ‘mommy and me’ yoga classes. Eventually, I would love to go back over to the YMCA and teach a children’s class as well.”
I spoke with Kathleen about how the prenatal yoga class has evolved since the first session in June of 2012.
“We’ve been offering prenatal yoga once a month on Saturdays,” says Kathleen. “I learned from teaching at the YMCA that I’m not going to get a lot of people at first. It’s going to take awhile to catch on. It’s going to take some time for people to even know it exists. You don’t have to be pregnant to benefit from these classes. At the first class, I had about five pregnant women, and as the sessions have continued, I’ve opened it up to women who are not pregnant. Baptist Health wants everybody to have the opportunity to enjoy it.”
However, Kathleen does more than merely lead her students through poses.
I watched a session take place before speaking with her, and I was impressed by how much information she shares with the class. It was inspiring how open and comfortable these women were with each other. They seemed to utilize the class as a therapeutic release on multiple levels.
“I don’t just teach prenatal yoga, I try to educate,” says Kathleen. “To me, it’s as much about education. I’m fortunate that I’m blessed with an education. I know all these things and I’m comfortable talking to people, so I want to share it. If I am going to teach, I want to share a wide range of things with people. I make sure I cover breastfeeding, labor, and all these different things so that I can try to help others. I like to talk and I like to be with people. I just want to help.”
Kathleen leads free yoga classes on the last Saturday of every month from 9am until 10:15am.
“The last 15 minutes is the resting period,” explains Kathleen. “The first few minutes are reserved for centering. We talk a little bit and get to know each other. We center, we get relaxed, and then we start into our poses. We start nice and slow. We usually start on the ground and do some nice warm-ups. After that, we do the standing poses, and then we come back down to the ground, lay down on our sides, and rest.”
But that’s not all; the multi-talented yoga instructor, who also owns an all-natural bath and body business, entertains as well.
“I play drums at the end,” Kathleen says with a smile. “Sometimes I bring my bongos, or my djembe, and play. I was actually trained in African dance at UK, where I was part of a 20-person dance group. It was a blast.”
“I do all kinds of stuff,” laughs Kathleen. “Every once in awhile during the [seasonal] solstices, you’ll get whispers of drum circles. You just have to be around the right people to hear it.”
Kathleen says her favorite thing about yoga is the calm peace that it gives her.
“I have anger and temper issues,” admits Kathleen. “It’s what drives my personality a lot. The guys that I’ve worked with in the past have coined me, ‘The Pistol.’ I came to understand that I needed yoga to learn how to calm and center myself. I stay so active in life and do so many things that I had to learn how to breathe properly. I think that’s the main thing that our society doesn’t know how to do—how to breathe. People need to just stop, slow down, and breathe. It’s so simple and so many of our health problems are results of stress, hurry, and clutter. It’s just inside of us. We can get rid of it, though. You just have to learn how to do it.”
Just watching while Kathleen led the group through the different yoga poses had a calming effect on me. The poses were so visually stimulating that they caused me to reflect on their intrinsically artistic nature.
“In India, meditation is practiced regularly, and it lasts a very long time,” says Kathleen, “but they realized they would get uncomfortable during mediation. As a result, they started developing yoga poses. The yoga poses are designed to stretch and relax your body so you can stay in mediation longer. Yoga poses have nothing to do with religion, which many people associate with yoga. It’s really just a way to relax the body so you can sit longer, comfortably. We sit so much that if we don’t stretch these areas out and keep them fluid, then we get a lot of pain.”
“The more you do yoga, the more you lose your ego in it,” explains Kathleen. “That’s one of the ideas behind yoga, too. You lose your pride. You lose your ego. Some yoga studios have a sign out front that says ‘Drop your ego at the door.’ Basically, that means that you’re not here to compete and you’re not here to look beautiful. You’re here for you. Don’t look at what the person next to you is doing. Focus on what you need. I’ve gone to a yoga class before when my grandmother was sick and dying, and I cried for an hour. I did every pose, and the whole time I was sobbing. Nobody knew I was sobbing because it was a yoga class. I was having my moment on my mat. You can be excited and happy, too. You can have whatever you need at that moment. It’s like your own personal therapy session. So when you do a pose, you go inside yourself and you express it physically on the outside. I might move my hands a certain way and it shows how I’m feeling. Some people might do the ‘warrior pose’ and they might do their hands one way, while I do mine another. I like to feel as if my heart’s energy is opening and coming out through my hands. I like to keep everything open. It just depends on how you feel and what you are embracing.”
Throughout the session I sat in on, I was starting to realize that yoga offers comfort and a creative, expression-based outlet as an art form as well.
“It’s a way to express yourself and share what you know, what you’ve learned, and how you feel with everyone around you. You can spread that energy, and whatever emotion it may be—good, bad, and indifferent—you can share it,” says Kathleen. “Someone else can take it and transform it into what they need in life. I feel like that is how life is. We feed off each other. If all you hear are negative stories, then all you are going to pass around is negative energy. When people come to my yoga class, I hope that I can leave them with a calm feeling. I want them to be able to walk away and feel centered, to feel like they’ve found a place. I just want them to feel like they know that someone was there to witness them. That is art to me—just being witnessed and being acknowledged as part of the whole. I count that one Hackberry Elm tree in the woods. It gets noticed in the grand scheme of the whole woods.”
Kathleen impressed me with her openness, warm heart, and the ability to juggle her many passions.
“I simply enjoy life and I want to share it with people,” says Kathleen. “That’s why I stay so busy. I’m not really advertising these classes because I like things to grow slowly. If I advertise things like yoga in this community, I have found that people will develop a negative impression of yoga and what it actually is. Let the advertising be the people that come. It will grow the way I need it to grow.”
To contact Kathleen Williams you may email her at
Sugg Street Post
Written by Jessica Dockrey
Photos by Jeff Harp