Name: Joanna G. Hatzopoulos
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a dancer, an actor, a fairy, and a mathematician. I saw no reason I couldn’t be all of them!
List three words that describe your teaching style:
Challenging, compassionate, awakening.
Tell us about your first experience with yoga:
I’ve had many first experiences in yoga! I’ll tell you about some of them:
I was twelve years old and living in the San Francisco Bay Area when I took my first hatha yoga class. It was part of a dance camp I was attending with a friend, and it was the last class of the session. Up to that point, all I knew about yoga was what I saw on the television show That’s Incredible! Based on what I saw on the show, yoga was about getting into and out of a tiny box as if you were tying yourself in a knot and then carefully untying yourself. Being claustrophobic, I wanted nothing to do with that!
I don’t remember any of the postures we did except for savasana. I was a restless kid, and somehow I managed to simply lie down, listen, and relax for a full five minutes. This was the most rested I had ever felt. I was convinced that the yoga teacher was a magician who could hypnotize people into sleep! It would be years before I’d take another yoga class again, but that first class had a lasting impact on me. I came away from that experience knowing that I could still my mind and seeing yoga as a path to a state of peace.
I was in my 20s and living in Illinois when I took my first Iyengar yoga class. At the time I had knee injuries and couldn’t walk without feeling pain. My teacher, Lois Steinberg, was not a magician, but she was certainly a healer. I learned to slow down and pay attention to safe, sustainable alignment and accept help from props or other people. I learned to use ahimsa (nonviolence) toward myself. I came away from that experience seeing yoga as a path to healing.
I took my first vinyasa yoga class when I moved to New Mexico in 2000. I was a regular at the studio of Tias Little, whose passion for anatomy was contagious. I also became pregnant with my first child at that time and practiced pre- and postnatal yoga with Linda Spackman. I came away from those experiences seeing yoga as a path to self-awareness and a way to create space for breathing in a changing body.
After moving to Northeast Ohio, I had my first experience with power vinyasa yoga. At first the heat bothered me—I spent the first part of class trying to plan my escape! But when I reminded myself that I wasn’t in a box, I was totally safe and free to move, and all I needed to do was breathe, I untied the knots in my head and settled into my practice. The way the teacher weaved stories and themes together with the physical practice was so beautiful, it was worth taking the heat! I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and community, and I was truly connected to myself and to the world around me. I came away from that experience understanding yoga as my path to home.
Shortly after beginning my teacher training at CY in 2012, I took my first slow flow class with JoAnne Aboussouan. I expected the class to be easy because it was slow and not in the hot room, so I was surprised by how challenging it was for me both physically and mentally. I had rushed to class and got there feeling anxious, and it was hard to put on the brakes in my mind and focus on meditation. When I started to listen to JoAnne’s voice, my mind went straight to my breath; slow, steady movement followed, and eventually my nerves were calmed. I came away from that experience understanding that I had a lot more to learn about yoga and about myself, and I needed to drop my expectations in order to see it.
What is your favorite aspect of Yoga?
It brings me to the present moment.
What is the most challenging aspect of yoga, for you personally?
How have you seen your practice change/impact your life?
Well, let’s just say that if a “Ghost of Yoga Past” appeared and showed me what my life would be like without yoga, I wouldn’t recognize—or like—the person I saw! I am stronger, more peaceful, healthier, happier, and lighter because of my yoga practice.
Why do you love teaching at Cleveland Yoga, and what is your favorite aspect of teaching?
I love teaching at CY because the community is so open and joyful, and all the teachers and staff are people I respect and admire.
My favorite part of teaching is that I get to share my practice and pay forward the gift I have been given. Maybe someone else will find out that they are stronger than they think, that they need to slow down and pay attention, or that they need to lighten up, and maybe that will help them in some aspect of their day or their life.
Tell us about a memorable/favorite moment teaching yoga:
I had just found out that a member of my family was in the hospital on a respirator, so at the beginning of class I asked students to take a breath as if their life depended on it. Then I asked them to breathe as if someone else’s life depended on it. The second breath was much deeper and longer than the first, and it gave me chills to witness it. In that moment I saw the transformative power of compassion, not just on those you share it with but also on your self. I wasn’t the teacher anymore; the breath was teaching all of us.
Do you teach yoga full time? If not, what other things do you do for fun/work?
I spend about 10 hours a week teaching yoga. In addition, I am the Yoga Advisor at CY and I continue to assist at the studio. I also teach private Pilates sessions. I work from home as a freelance writer and editor. I edit texts and courses about physical activity, health, and wellness. I love that these jobs are connected. I get to apply knowledge from one job to another on a daily basis, turning theory into practice and vice-versa.
I am a wife and mother, and I love spending time with my family. Cooking is a big passion of mine. I refer to making sourdough bread as my “other yoga practice.” I get to use my hands and my breath to create transformation; kneading dough is sort of like a vinyasa. I baked my first loaf of bread before I took my first ever yoga class—I was ten!
If you had one piece of advice for a beginner yogi, what would you say?
Don’t run away! I promise, the practice will give you what you need if you let it, but it takes time. Just keep on going.
If you had no restrictions (money, responsibilities etc.), what would you do with the next 12 months?
I would take my husband and kids on a journey to all the places my family lived before immigrating to America (Africa, Greece, Cyprus), and we’d cook with local people, gathering recipes for my cookbook. Of course, I’d have time for a daily yoga practice!
What is a quote that helps you during your yoga practice?
“You don’t have to travel to the desert to find stillness.” Someone said these words to me at a time when I needed to hear them. This quote centers me. It reminds me that I don’t have to look outside myself to get what I need; all is within.