Interview with Karen Kirkness, founder of Meadowlark Yoga

Find out how Karen Kirkness has overcome self-doubt to study for two Masters degrees and launch Meadowlark Yoga, a not-for-profit centre offering a range of classes, workshops and trainings in the heart of Edinburgh.

What’s your career background?

I started out as a visual artist working lots of different jobs to make ends meet. In college, I got invaluable experience working through the intersections of public and private business as the Director of what was then called the Art in State Buildings Program.

My job was to implement the funding process whereby a percentage of all new buildings on campus was allocated to the commission of a piece of public artwork for that particular building. As a twenty-two-year-old newly graduated art student, this was a hugely exciting role that also gave me a real taste of what the art world could be like… hard!!

I was soon faced with a choice, continue in my administrative role and go that route, OR keep developing as an artist by going to get my MFA. Like many a wandering seeker, I would fund these years of experimentation by plunging headlong into the world of service industry jobs.

Meanwhile, I had gotten into yoga during college and ended up doing my 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training in Thailand. As Eddie Stern is famously quoted as saying, “Yoga teaching is the new bartending,” and I was fortunate enough to be able to support myself by teaching yoga instead of tending bar (no disrespect to bar tenders!).

Where did the idea for your business come from?

Since those early days, I trained as a yoga teacher, got a Master of Fine Art degree and another Masters, in Human Anatomy. My business has grown through my passion for art, anatomy, and how understanding our bodies through movement practices like yoga can lead to positive health outcomes. I was inspired to teach yoga and anatomy in the same way that I learned it for myself: through art-based techniques and kinaesthetic experience. 

Along the way, my non-profit yoga studio business has grown out of my early experiences grappling with the challenging factors of monetising community interest without compromising on the non-profit spirit of the organisation. 

How did you move from idea to actual business?

My process of business development has been very organic and heterarchical, meaning that it is an ongoing work in progress! I didn’t go from having a grand plan one year to having a finished business product five years later. In a sense, my “actual business” is a complex adaptive system, continuously changing simultaneously with my own evolution as a person. 

What’s your USP?

As an educator and community maker, my USP is the use of kinaesthetic techniques to inspire lifelong learning. From anatomy body painting to models of spiral motion, to retraining as a yoga teacher and learning to live and share your truth, my USP is to LEARN BY DOING.

Who’s your target audience?

As a mother of two pre-schoolers, my message is increasingly geared toward parents of all ages. I’m especially interested in how postpartum women can take charge of their recovery by learning more about their anatomy at any stage, whether it’s months or years after they’ve given birth.

I train yoga teachers to be more tuned into anatomy and encourage parents to learn anatomy along with their children through creative techniques and movement. 

How do you spread the word about what you do?

I’ve always been big on real-time in-person experiences and the value of proximity, touch, and hyper locality, so, word of mouth has been a key aspect of my studio’s growth, especially in the early days.

As a visual artist, photography and image-making is a natural part of what I do, so my message finds its way into the world through social media. I take part in yoga events, Science Festivals, anatomy conferences, and community building events worldwide. 

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

I think the advent of authentic marketing was very fortuitous for me, because I don’t really have a strategy!? Like I said previously, my business is really just a manifestation of myself, so in that sense, I just keep my message true to what I’m learning and share that in the spirit of genuinely wanting to help other people.

The health and wellness education sector is saturated with sales strategies, so you can’t really go out there banging the sales drum. I saw this somewhere and it really resonates, “it’s not about what you know, it’s about how you serve.” I think there is a balance to be found on social media, sharing your knowledge through authenticity and trusting your message will find its home with your people. 

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Self-doubt! I’ve always known I wanted to contribute to society and make the world a better place, but as a young woman, I could barely afford to pay my bills. I was caught in the tension between thinking I wasn’t good enough to have lofty ambitions, and yet being consumed by a deep longing to do something that could really help people (and still pay my bills).

This obstacle doesn’t go away, it just grows more arms and legs after you have children! Over the years, I have experienced a shift away from self-doubt that has helped me discover my power and use it to help others discover theirs.

And your proudest moment so far?

I am very proud to see my first book, Spiral Bound: Integrated Anatomy for Yoga, which will be on sale with Handspring Publishing this Autumn!

Why is work so important to you?

I think that in our work, we can find a route for organising inspiration, channelling energy, and contributing to the evolution of humanity. 

Who inspires you?

Neri Oxman makes incredible sense of the natural world through her artworks. Luisa Neubauer almost makes me believe the next generation will overcome the climate catastrophe they are inheriting. Tiffany Cruikshank’s messaging through Yoga Medicine is always raising the bar.

Natalia Balague’s contribution to the academics of constraints-led physicality in sport and physical culture is what the yoga world needs so acutely right now.

Joanne Avison inspires me not only to know more but to serve more deeply through friendship and community. And Dr Sarah Duvall inspires me to see both the classical and contemporary views on the challenges postpartum women face and how we can best approach helping ourselves and others live more confidently in our motherly bodies.

How do you balance your work with your family?

My husband and I are a total team. We have different skill sets that are very complementary, and enough humour to make light of the differences when tension arises. Simon is a domestic guy who can see and manage things that sometimes I just don’t see, because I’m often so focused on the work perspective. Yeah, so he’s OCD and I’m a total mess, if you want to get real about it.

Balancing work and family, for me, is only possible through the team dynamic. I see every moment I spend present with my kids as an act of investment because the time does accumulate in the sense of health and happiness. You can’t put a value on the upward spiral of health and wellbeing in a family because we’re all so invested in one another it is crucial to stay connected. 

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar? 

1) Start before you’re ready

You’ve seen this mantra before… because it’s true! Don’t wait for the feelings of self-doubt to fade on their own. If you want to start a yoga studio or wellness business, you need to get going! 

While it is right to strive for expertise in any chosen field, you have to remember that studio ownership is about building community. It is NOT about whether you’ve mastered headstand or not. Ask yourself, “How committed am I to building a better community” not, “Am I good enough at yoga?”

In my experience, confidence only comes through small successes, and success of any kind only comes through practice. You can start small, but if you don’t get started somehow and do it while you’re young, the opportunities for low-stakes failure will fade. This is key. You are never ready before you start!

2) Embrace failure

It’s not going to be pretty. There will be bad IG posts, cliched captions, wrong choices and discouraging cul-de-sacs. In nature, failures lead to novel adaptation solutions and long term, failures are actually the driver of evolution. You need to fail in order to evolve! Give yourself plenty of time and let each failure be a lesson.

As part of this piece of advice, I’m going to include the importance of having a solid plan, loosely held, a plan that is almost designed to accommodate failure.

3) Cultivate comfort with risk

This is crucial. If you want to own a wellness business, especially one with physical bricks-and-mortar premises, you are looking at an intrinsically risky project.

I have dealt with floods, fainters, vermin, accessibility problems, noisy neighbours, tricky staffing issues, seasonal attendance shifts, constant website problems, accounting challenges and many more stressful problems with no easy solutions. The easiest of these has actually been the pandemic, because at least with the pandemic we got government support!

So, my advice is to prioritise your mental health, and this means understanding how to sit with risk. If you know you will be up all night chewing your nails with worry if cash flow gets dicey one year, multiply this over the course of your ten-year lease and this will lead you to ill health, which is the opposite of what inspired you to open a yoga studio!

You need to be okay with uncertainty and risk, and learn how to manage your stress, because all of this is part and parcel of owning a business. If you don’t take risks, you don’t have a business.

Find out more about Meadowlark Yoga.