Harlem’s Aspiring Yogi Proves Yoga Isn’t for the Weak-Minded

Lara Land beams at the camera in her studio, Land Yoga, in Harlem. (Photo by Mally Espaillat/NYCity Lens)

Lara Land beams at the camera in her studio, Land Yoga, in Harlem. (Photo by Mally Espaillat/NYCity Lens)

Clad in thigh-high argyle socks and electric blue leggings, Lara Land walks through the hallway of her Harlem yoga studio, Land Yoga, in a rhythm that seems as natural as breathing. In a classroom, the yoga instructor grabs two heavy woolen blankets and tosses them on the floor as seats. She sits, cross-legged, and moves from side to side in a subtle stretch. Her small frame booms with energy, accompanied with a voice that reaches to the furthest corners of the room. Before she’s even fully comfortable with the way she’s sitting, one thing is obvious about Land: her passion.

“I actually didn’t like yoga that much when I first started,” Land divulges, though seeing her now on the studio’s wooden floor, the notion of her doing anything else seems almost absurd. Her energy visibly rises the deeper she gets into talking about her practice, threatening to burst through her body as she shifts from leg to leg, arm to arm.

The owner of Land Yoga opened up her studio in Harlem in 2011, after working as a freelance yoga teacher for ten years. She chose the neighborhood as her entrepreneurial debut carefully, making sure it was the right place for her to open up shop, both physically and emotionally. “There wasn’t too much yoga here, which is why I put the place here,” Land explains. “Most of the city is over saturated with it. I’ve been living here seven years; the community is the reason we’re here. It’s their energy and their spirit that comes in and makes it what it is.” Land makes sure the studio is heavily involved with the community, throwing frequent community events, holding kids’ parties and yoga She is even in the process of forming a nonprofit organization. “A pose is not yoga at all,” Land says firmly. “At all. What we’ve done here is to try to share all parts of yoga, which means peacefulness, energy. There are many aspects of yoga that aren’t really talked about.”

Yoga wasn’t Land’s first love.  Before practicing yoga, Land was a theater student from suburbia who had no intention of spending her days learning a meditative craft. She was raised in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, with dreams of being a pediatrician during her youth. As she grew up, her aspirations turned to drama, which she would go on to pursue in her undergraduate studies. Soon enough, she turned to yoga as a way to practice stage presence and of course, for the lean yoga body. After experimenting with a few different styles of yoga, she finally landed on one that spoke to her on an intrinsic level: ashtanga, a style that focuses on the eight limbs of yoga, a yogic theory, through a sequence of poses. In an era of yogic over-saturation, where anyone and everyone is snapping a quick shot of a pose to upload to Instagram, her practice is something Land takes seriously, distinguishing herself from others who are riding the wave of the fad by thinking beyond the mat. “Yoga is coming to oneness,” Land muses. “That’s what I always go back to. Your yoga is to unite your little selves with a greater, supreme energy. We all have that spark of truth, and to be constantly aware of that, and to be yearning for a unity with that truth, that’s yoga.”

Land’s commitment to yoga is clear. Every year she takes trips to India to further her practice and give her life a reality check when she feels in need of a bit more balance, whatever balance means.  “Balance is just that one moment, right?” Land thinks out loud.

This winter will mark her tenth time. Her first trip to Southeast Asia was one that marked the intensity of the life she was about to embark on, leaving those close to her with their mouths gaping. “Everyone in my other life, you know my normal life,” Land says as she recounts her first experience in India, “they all thought I was crazy because the minimum amount of time my teacher will allow you to go is for a month. So I went for a month.” This trip has now become a series of vivid snapshots in her mind. Her mouth slowly breaks out into a hesitant smile as she recalls that first visit. “All I can think of are the lights and smells of it,” she says contemplatively. “The guy cutting the coconuts with the machetes, the smell of the burning trash, which everyone hates but I love for some reason. The incense, the coffee, tea, chai. It’s very specific.”

Although she admits the travel and the teaching can be taxing, she knows she’s helping others, and for her that makes the work worthwhile. “You have these little moments all the time,” Land says. She leans on one arm, then on the other, causing the bun of curls sitting on top of her head to move along with her. “As a teacher, when you guide a student through something they didn’t before, that feels really good. They come to you all the time telling you their lives are better, they sleep better. We had a student that had irregular heartbeat that’s doing better now.” Her eyes widen. “Little things all the time,” she said, looking up towards the ceiling of the studio. “Little sparks that add up to something big.”