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A Teacher of Teachers—Iyengar Yoga Teacher Karin O-Bannon and the Moment that Changed My Life



By Christie Hall

In this blog post, writer Christie Hall portrays her first meeting with her teacher Karin O'Bannon, and how it forever changed the trajectory of her life. Karin O’Bannon became an Iyengar Senior Intermediate 3 teacher in 1996. She influenced students across the globe, from Los Angeles to Louisiana and Georgia to Taiwan to Rishikesh. She died June 10, 2013. She had been a yoga teacher for more than 30 years. 

For some yoga students, the act of walking into a yoga class is a leap of faith.  It’s true for many of my students, who bring woes ranging from gout to bulging vertebral discs to post-traumatic stress disorder.

That I am standing in front of them teaching yoga is an act of faith as well. I must constantly draw on the words of the teacher who taught me to teach, Karin O’Bannon, Iyengar yoga teacher and teacher of teachers.

She asked me on my third day of yoga teacher training if I was teaching anywhere. I stammered, that, no, I wasn’t.

Was she crazy? Here I was with all these people who were actually GOOD at the poses. And she addressed me while I was struggling my way into Ardha Chandrasana, my elevated leg mere inches from the floor, restricted by such impacted hip joints that two years later I would have them both replaced. My back was to the wall, and my hand was on a chair seat.

“You should be.”

I was shocked. I was there because my teacher at a health club had urged me to get some training so I could sub for her.  After my first day of class that June day in 1997, I was sure I could never teach, but I was there to get more of the learning Karin provided, which had immediately taken hold of my heart.

I struggled with more than my utter inability to do the poses with even 10 percent of the quality of my fellow students.

I struggled with the concept of ishwara pranidhana, surrender to God. As an atheist, I didn’t even know how to begin to deal with this. A few weeks later, though, Karin gave me something to hold on to. In response to an assignment, I had written that at the end of a yoga class, I felt that the possibilities of all the individuals within the class were magnified far beyond the strength of any imagining. She had written: “For some, this is God.”

When I started teaching later that year, it was with her faith in me.

Over the years, perhaps encouraged by my own limitations, students came to me with problems and encouraged friends to come, too. Their courage inspired me. Over time they learned to have faith in yoga. When they thanked me, I had to point out that they were the ones doing the heavy hauling, that it was the yoga and their work that they should thank.

One day in 2010, a 30-something student came to my class who was in such immense mental pain that I felt overwhelmed. I was so frightened of doing her harm. I contacted one teacher by e-mail. She told me to trust my instincts. I realized later that what I came to trust was the student’s determination to heal herself and the ability of the yoga itself.

A few months later, I was able to see my teacher Karin and ask her directly for advice. (She had moved to India a few years earlier and then had moved back to Louisiana.) She said the same thing, to trust my instincts. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said: “And know that she is a gift.” I had no idea what she meant at the time.

Her workshop that evening touched on Sutra 2.15, that it was the “axial aphorism” for the entire text.

“The wise man knows that owing to fluctuations, the qualities of nature, and subliminal impressions, even pleasant experiences are tinged with sorrow, and he keeps aloof from them.  (Translation: Edwin F. Bryant.)”

Eventually our discussion went to ishwara pranidhana, my old nemesis, as she knew. And she said it might also refer to surrender to “absolute truth.” As a former journalist, I found the idea of an absolute truth perhaps even more difficult to grasp than the concept of a supreme soul.

The 30-something woman and I attended the Iyengar yoga conference in Washington, D.C., in May 2012, in large part to be able to study again with Karin. We also attended Professor Fred Smith’s discussion of the Yoga Sutras. Here I came across another explanation of the niyama: surrender to the “lord of yoga”, to trust in the act, the doing of yoga.

I thought I had come to that point, teaching as an act of faith in yoga. Then, in April 2013, I learned my teacher Karin is terminally ill, and I realized that, no, I was still teaching from her faith in me. Without her, how could I find the courage to keep teaching?

Student by student, the answer has come. Sometimes from someone who knows I am quavering, but as often not. Over the past weeks, many students have told me that I am an inspiration and that is why they have found healing in yoga. Rather like when I heard my teacher Karin, I have no idea what they mean. I am so very ordinary. But I find that I must accept their faith if I am to keep on teaching.

And so the gift I have wanted to give my students, faith in yoga, has come rebounding back, multiplied many times over.

Christie Hall became a full-time yoga teacher in 2004 after asking Karin’s advice and receiving her encouragement to do so. 

Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O'Bannon and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: Her Web site is


Study: Yoga Offers Encouraging Mental Health Benefits


Mental illness is a significant health concern worldwide, in spite of increasing improvements in treatment modalities and access to care. And, while the number of medications that are available for mental health disorders has been increasing, drugs are often very expensive, have significant side effects, and don’t necessarily offer the desired results.

In this environment, it is generally recognized that there is a need for safe, cost-effective forms of treatment for mental illness. A number of studies looking at the effects of yoga for people with mental health issues have shown promising preliminary results. But does the cumulative evidence across studies support the use of yoga to help offer relief for depression and other forms of mental illness? 

This was the question asked by a group of researchers at Duke University, who set out to examine the evidence across a number of studies for the usefulness of yoga for mental health disorders. 

To answer the question, the researchers conducted a review of studies on the mental health benefits of yoga. They initially looked at a pool of 124 studies, but only 16 studies met the rigorous criteria for final inclusion in the review. Specifically included were studies on the effects of yoga on depression, schizophrenia, ADHD, sleep complaints, eating disorders, and cognition problems. The study was published in the January 2013 issue of Frontiers of Psychiatry.

Across multiple studies, the review found, there is cumulative evidence for the usefulness of yoga as an adjunct modality in the treatment several mental health issues.

In particular, studies have consistently shown potential benefit for depression and for schizophrenia (as an adjunct to drugs treatments), as well as for sleep complaints and for children with ADHD.
The review also found that yoga may balance biochemical markers thought to play a role in mental health. One of the studies included indicated that a regular yoga asana practice affects neurotransmitters as well as markers of inflammation, oxidative stress, lipids, and growth factors. Other significant benefits noted above drug therapy were the absence of side effects, the low cost of practicing the postures, good accessibility, and general improvement of the patients’ level of fitness. 
Still, while results are promising, more rigorous research with larger groups is required, the researchers concluded. The studies revealed conflicting results for cognitive and eating disorders, and none of the existing studies looked at issues around primary and relapse prevention, or compared the effectiveness of yoga therapies versus drug therapies.
Yoga on Our Minds: A Systematic Review of Yoga for Neuropsychiatric Disorders
Meera Balasubramaniam, Shirley Telles, and P. Murali Doraiswamy
Front Psychiatry. 2012; 3: 117. Published online 2013 January 25. 




New Documentary Portrays the Work of B.K.S. Iyengar

B.K.S. Iyengar


“One cannot begin work on a sculpture without courage.

The nature of a stone is that it is strong;
To transform it into a sculpture, and see the God within it,
Requires immense strength.
If one gives up or is daunted by the strength of the stone or injuries,
the sculpture will never come to life.”

An Indian stone carver, in Sadhaka: The Yoga of BKS Iyengar 
Courage, transformation, strength. These are among the many qualities described in a new documentary called Sadhaka: The Yoga of BKS Iyengar by director Jake Clennell and executive producer and senior Iyengar teacher Lindsey Clennell.  
B.K.S. Iyengar is known worldwide as a preeminent yoga teacher, and a leading force in bringing yoga to the U.S. The books of Mr. Iyengar have been published worldwide, and his resources support schools and a hospital in his native village in Southern India. 
Born a crippled child, yoga strengthened him and transformed his body. Mr. Iyengar’s own physical limitations led him to develop his own unique yoga style that he has taught to multitudes. His contributions to bringing yoga to the masses led Time magazine to recognize him on its list of the world’s most influential people, and he has been awarded the equivalent of a knighthood by the Indian government. At 94 years old, Mr. Iyengar is still active in his own yoga practice. 
The documentary highlights the life and teachings of Mr. Iyengar to give viewers a chance to learn about this great man and get a sense of the style of yoga he has developed. To Mr. Iyengar, ‘the body is the temple, and yoga asanas are the prayers.’ 
In his own life, he has exemplified the transformative power of yoga for body, mind, and spirit. Through his extensive and creative use of props, Mr. Iyengar has made yoga accessible to everyone, no matter which physical limitations they may bring to the practice.
The documentary also demonstrates the powerful effects of yoga on drug addicts and orphans, helping those living confused and painful lives to align with deeper parts of themselves.
Crowd-Funding Efforts Offer 22-Minute Preview of Iyengar Documentary
To capture an extended excerpt of the movie, check out the 22-minute trailer at the crow-funding website Indigogo. And should you feel inspired to do so, contribute to help move the documentary into the post-production phase.
The first three years of making this film were funded by the director and producer, and the intent now is to raise enough money to take the documentary through post-production. Supporters will receive recognition for their contributions based on the size of their gifts. Once this film is completed, proceeds from the sales and screenings will go to the B.K.S. Iyengar Foundation in support of Bellur Village schools and the local hospital there.



Yoga May Decrease Health Complications of Diabetes



The number of people affected with type 2 diabetes has reached epidemic proportions worldwide, with the highest level of increase yearly seen among seniors aged 65 and above. Diabetes often carries with it numerous adverse complications in those suffering from the condition, and people with diabetes are at higher risk for heart disease, bone and joint issues, and skin disorders.

A recent study conducted in India may offer preliminary evidence that yoga may have preventive and protective effects for this people with diabetes by reducing stress and improving the antioxidant defense system. 
This study included 143 people between the ages of 60 and 70 with Type 2 Diabetes. Each had a five to ten year history of Type 2 diabetes with poor glycemic control. Participants were all middle class, literate, living with their families, and they continued with their conventional medications without changing any dosages. 

During the study, half the participants were assigned to a study group, which practiced yoga under the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher for 90 minutes daily for three months. The control group participated in a comparable control session. 

Blood work was conducted for both groups (glucose, lipid profile, cortisol, and others) at the beginning of the study and on day 90. At the end of the three months, the yoga group showed a decrease in fasting glucose, total cholesterol, triglyceride, LDL-cholesterol, T.chol/HDL ratio and a significant increase in good HDL – cholesterol. 

In addition, yoga participants also showed significantly decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while participants in the control group had increased cortisol levels. Stress is thought to aggravate diabetes; studies have shown that cortisol level tends to increase along with the severity of the condition. Increasing cortisol have been strongly associated with increasing pathophysiology in people suffering from diabetes.
Several markers of oxidative stress also improved in the study group, another encouraging finding, as oxidative stress also plays a major role in the development of health complications in people suffering from type 2 diabetes mellitus. 

The slow rhythmic movements of yoga postures stimulate organs and glands with easy bending and extensions, whereas aerobic exercise can be less effective for older population groups, because of the strenuousness of the movements required.  

Although yoga won’t offer a cure for diabetes, study results indicate that the ancient practice of hatha yoga can help keep the symptoms of diabetics under control and to protect against long-term complications. As such, a regular yoga practice may be a useful complement to other lifestyle changes that can help manage the condition and reduce long-term health complications.

Yogic practice and diabetes mellitus in geriatric patients by Rani K Beena and E Sreekumaran
International Journal of Yoga. 2013 Jan-Jun; 6(1): 47–54.!po=3.57143



Yoga in the Era of the Rock Star Yoga Teacher


By Carol Horton, Ph.D.

I used to assume that the reason that famous yoga teachers were famous was because they were better at yoga than others. After all, every field has its exceptional geniuses: there's lot of rock musicians out there, but a John Lennon doesn't come along too often. So when I thought about famous yoga teachers, I fit them into this paradigm, e.g.: B.K.S. Iyengar is to yoga as the Beatles were to rock. 

Certainly, in the case of Mr. Iyengar (and some others), I still think this is true. But in the past 15 years, yoga has become a multi-billion dollar "industry” and the number of famous “rock star” yoga teachers has grown proportionately. You no longer have to be a genius, who has profoundly influenced the development of modern yoga in order to achieve fame. Today, with so many yoga classes, studios, students, retreats, and products on the market, it's a whole different ball game.

Given the enormous influence that yoga teachers can have on their students, it’s useful to reflect on the qualities that can vault a yoga teacher to prominence today. 

The Rock Star Yoga Teacher: What Does It Take?

What does it take for a yoga teacher to become a famous teacher in the U.S. today? Off the top of my head, I'd suggest the following: 
1) Kick-Ass Asana Chops. Teachers who can do amazing things with their bodies wow students. It's impressive, exciting, and can be inspiring. Also, because so many Americans assume that yoga is asanas, pure and simple, being able to do advanced poses is taken to mean being “good at yoga” as a whole.

2) Good Looks. Our society places a huge premium on physical attractiveness. Particularly for women, fitting into mainstream standards of what's considered beautiful generates attention and admiration. While men have a bit more leeway, it certainly doesn’t hurt them to be good looking, either.

3) Charisma. While harder to identify than beauty or asana chops, charisma is actually much more important. Max Weber classically defined charisma as "a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities . . . not accessible to the ordinary person." Powerful in any field, charisma is a particularly good fit with yoga, where students are primed to search for a guru, teacher, or leader who can guide them toward the transformation that more powerful forms of the practice can provide.

4) Business Savvy. As the yoga industry, like American society in general, has become more competitive, business savvy has become increasingly important. Yoga teachers need to make a living, too. But with zillions of recent yoga teacher training grads, not to mention Pilates, Zumba, spinning, and other popular fitness options competing for the potential yoga student’s time and money, how does the individual teacher stand out from the crowd? It’s not easy. Having a good head for business helps. 

Is That It?

Am I suggesting that all famous yoga teachers are simply charismatic, attractive gymnasts with a strong business sense? No. I myself have studied with several famous yoga teachers who were famous for good reasons – e.g., they had a depth of knowledge about yoga and ability to communicate it to students that was simply exceptional.

I do think, however, that in today’s environment, these are the qualities that will help someone become “successful” in the sense of being able to attract big numbers of students to their classes, teach nationally or even internationally, sell DVDs or other tie-ins, etc. The qualities of exceptional athleticism, good looks, charisma, and business savvy dovetail with what American culture values more generally. 

I’ve experienced this directly myself. About 18 months ago, I stopped attending the yoga class I’d been going to for years and spent a few months experimenting with new classes. What I saw made a big impression on me. 

I remember going to one class with maybe 80 students packed in mat-to-mat. The teacher bounced in like a radiant cheerleader: pretty, confident, eye-catching, smiling, bestowing good vibes on the crowd. She led us through a nice workout that left me feeling like I’d had some exercise, but not done any yoga. Aside from a brief New Age-y reading at the beginning and end of class, there wasn’t anything that distinguished it from a “normal” exercise class – no work with the breath, no attention to mental focus, and no meditative dimension.

Soon after that, I went to a class led by a woman who’d been teaching in the Chicago area for well over a decade. Her hair was streaked with grey and she had a quiet manner. She was not charismatic. I knew that she’d travelled to India and New York multiple times for intensive study with renowned yoga teachers. Her class had had incredible focus, energy, and depth. It had six people in it. 

As I left the studio, I thought: Wow. She’s been teaching in this city for as long as I can remember and she only has six students in her class? And it was a great class! I found this surprising, and disheartening.
Ethical Ambiguity
Of course, someone can have asana chops, good looks, charisma, and business savvy in spades, and also be an incredible yoga teacher.

The problem, however, is that our culture holds these qualities up as an indicator of what’s valuable, aspirational, and admirable. We assume that someone who can float from Crow to Handstand in the middle of the room is “better” at yoga than the rest of us, who can’t imagine accomplishing such a feat.

In fact, however, the ability to perform such a pose is ethically neutral. The person who achieves it may have the personal qualities of a saint, an a-hole, or anything in between.

Similarly, we tend to see physical attractiveness as worthy of admiration in ways that it doesn’t merit at all. Particularly in the yoga world, which has a strong aesthetic sense, we tend to feel that a teacher’s beauty imbues her with other qualities that she may or may not really have: equanimity, compassion, understanding, etc.

Charisma poses the trickiest issue, because it is the most invisible yet the most powerful attribute contributing to fame. While charisma can be harnessed to truly effective teaching, it can also be used to manipulate, dominate, and disempower. All of the cult leaders who have eventually fallen from the weight of years of abuse inflicted on their students were powerfully charismatic. Charismatic leaders can twist meanings so effectively that their followers become completely out of touch with reality. This can be extremely dangerous.

Similarly, business savvy is an ethically neutral talent. It’s possible to be in business and be visionary, responsible, and positive. It’s equally possible to be reactionary, manipulative, and negative. You can succeed financially either way. Sure, it’s probably harder to stay on the high road. But it’s certainly not impossible.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that I no longer assume that more “successful” yoga teachers are somehow “better” at yoga than those who aren’t. I don’t hold their fame against them. But I don’t consider it a guarantee of anything that I value, either.

Conversely, I don’t assume that because a teacher has only a small number of students in her class that she’s lacking something important. (In fact, the one class that I make an effort to go to regularly is quite small.) A teacher may have small classes, because she is new, inexperienced, and not capable of leading stellar classes. But it may just as well be because she is seasoned, knowledgeable, and committed to teaching classes that are true to her practice and don’t cater to mass market tastes.

The American yoga world is changing fast. As such, it’s a particularly important time to reflect on just how ambiguous the relationship between market success and ethical substance really is. We need to think carefully into the dynamics of what makes one particular method or teacher more popular than others. Most of all, we need to question the commonly assumption that “successful” necessarily means “better.” It doesn’t.
Share Your Thoughts! Has yoga become a mile wide and an inch deep, as Judith Hanson Lasater once put it? Or is the teaching of yoga just right? Share your thoughts below (comments are moderate to avoid spam, so it may take a short while for comments to appear).

An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Think Body Electric

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at



Artist Robert Sturman on Yoga and The Poetry of the Body

Robert Sturman


Robert Sturman, an artist from Santa Monica, Calif., recently traveled to Kenya to document the work of the Africa Yoga Project, a nonprofit organization that teaches and employs more than 70 local yoga teachers and conducts up to 300 free yoga classes for more than 5,000 people weekly in orphanages, prisons and other locales throughout the country. 

The result? A series of stunning photos that capture just how universal a language yoga has become.
“Yoga is a beautiful, poetic expression of the body,” Sturman tells the New York Times in this interview, which also displays a sampling of his stunning photos. “I wanted to go to Africa to celebrate human beings aspiring to reach their full potential.” 
More than perhaps any artist before him, Sturman has made it his mission in life to capture the poetry of the body via yoga asanas.
"It is the study of yoga that has triggered one of the most creative periods of Sturman's career, resulting in a series of stunning portraits that capture the beauty and poetry of asana, the repertory of postures included in the practice of yoga." says Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times.
The visit to document the wok of the Africa Yoga Project proved memorable. Sturman traveled to orphanages, prisons, and remote villages.

“Visiting the Kenyan prison brought me unexpected joy,” says Sturman to The New York Times. The inmates, some of whom are H.I.V.-positive, told me that yoga has become a rare source of happiness in their daily lives. After a yoga class, I looked at the people in the class and I saw the hope in their eyes that they could become a part of something positive."
For more on Sturman and his beautiful photography of yoga asana, visit his website at



Yoga in Encinitas Schools – Trial on Hold till Late June


The trial challenging the teaching of yoga in the PE program of the Encinitas Union School District has been put on hold till June 24, pending the testimony of more witnesses before closing arguments.

“This is 21st century P.E. (physical education) for our schools. It’s physical. It’s strength-building. It increases flexibility but it also deals with stress reduction and focusing, which kickball doesn't do,” says Superintendent of EUSD, Timothy Baird, who testified at the trial. 
At the heart of the issue is the attempt to define yoga narrowly as either religious or not. 
As author Philip Goldberg points out in a blog post on Huffpost, entitled, The Encinitas Yoga Case: Yoga Is Religious, Only It's Not.
“Yoga" means different things to different people, has a broad spectrum of applications and can legitimately be presented in a variety of formats, contexts and rubrics. In fact, its adaptability is among its greatest strengths.
If yoga is interpreted as religious, it must be the most nonsectarian, nondenominational, trans-traditional, interspiritual, universal expression of religion imaginable. It would also be the least religious of religions, since it demands neither allegiance to a specific tradition, nor faith, nor the acceptance of any doctrine. Few Americans for whom yoga is central to their spiritual lives call themselves religious, and even fewer think of themselves as Hindus. Indeed, none of the gurus and yoga masters who brought yoga to the West ever asked anyone to convert or to accept their teachings on faith. To them, yoga is a practical science that has value for people of any religion.
As blogger Carol Horton points out in this blog post on the Encinitas yoga law suit, the basic issue with the case is trying to narrowly define yoga as either religious or not. Yoga as taught in the U.S. today is a varied as the American culture itself. If we try to box it into concepts narrowly defined by prevailing culture wars, everyone loses out. 
Watch a brief recap of the case here and stay tuned for more updates when the trial resumes in June:

No More Excuses—The Gift of Yoga


Reasons people give saying they can’t do yoga:

–I’m too stiff.
–I have arthritis.
–I’m overweight.
–I have a bad back.
–I’m too old.
–I’m a guy.
Let me describe the people in one of my recent classes: 
-Their ages range from 42 to 82. 
-One is blind. 
-One has scoliosis and deals with chronic pain from post-polio syndrome. One has fibromyalgia. 
-One’s a guy. 
-Half of them can’t touch their toes. 
Let me describe their teacher:
I am 54. I took my first yoga class in 1995, shortly after I learned I had advanced osteoarthritis in my left hip. I had been told at age 25 that I suffered from early-onset joint and disc degeneration and that I had the knees of an 80-year-old. I had my first joint surgery a few months later. It left me more crippled in the knees than before. I had suffered from crippling back pain since I was 18.
By the time I took that first yoga class, I could walk about a quarter mile. I could go up and down stairs only with assistance. I had to use my hands to move my feet onto the gas pedal and brake to drive to that first class. I sat on the floor and burst into tears from the pain. My teacher gave me a stack of towels to sit on and I could stop crying. 
An hour and 15 minutes later, the back pain was gone.
I began studying how to teach and then began teaching yoga in 1997.  Fifteen months later, I had to have that left hip replaced. The doctor told me I would have been there much sooner if it hadn’t been for the yoga. Three months later, I had the second hip replaced. 
My recovery period: five weeks. At week four after each replacement, I was walking up and down Mt. Rubidoux, a 3.5-mile round trip on a big hill in my hometown. My doctor also attributed that recovery pace to the yoga. The doctor also noted that my entire spine was degenerating, as were all my joints.
In 2004, although my back pain was mostly gone, I was aware that damage existed and I had sharp pain in my neck. I had X-rays and then an MRI done. The lowest disc in my spine was completely gone; next one up was half gone; I had ground bone away from my lowest vertebra; I had bulging discs and bone spurs in my neck. I set to work on the neck problems in my yoga practice, and the pain was gone in about two weeks.
When I started practicing yoga, and for years after I started teaching, I couldn’t come anywhere close to touching my toes. I couldn’t do backbends, I couldn’t do forward bends, my standing poses were narrow and wobbly. Even as a teacher, I felt frightened in most poses all the time. I still do.
What got me going in yoga: pain.
What kept me there: Hope. Hope and inspiration, deriving from the constant, small, but steady progress in dealing with the challenges I have been dealt in life. And ultimately, this is the gift of yoga, and this is what keeps us all coming back to the mat again and again.


Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O'Bannon and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: Her Web site is



Yoga on Trial: Encinitas and the Need for a New Paradigm


By Carol Horton, Ph.D. - 

The legal battle unfolding in Encinitas over the constitutionality of teaching yoga in public schools is now on hiatus; the San Diego Superior Court will resume hearings in late June. At this point, it’s impossible to predict the outcome of the trial. It’s a good time, however, to pause and reflect on what we may or may not be learning in the course of this historically unprecedented case. 
The Encinitas lawsuit against yoga in schools is a complex mélange of legal, political, historical, educational, cultural, and religious issues. While the long-term impact of the case remains to be seen, it will likely frame the debate over yoga in schools going forward. Beyond the status of the Encinitas program itself, the question of whether yoga can be successfully integrated into important social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons is extremely timely, as the movement to do so has been growing exponentially in recent years. 
Yet as this trial demonstrates, critical questions about the nature of yoga and its legitimate place in public institutions are only starting to be asked. And unfortunately, the most important issues raised in the Encinitas case have been very poorly addressed to date. 
Rather than acknowledging the complexity of the legal, educational, cultural, and religious issues in play, the opposing parties have squared off into narrowly defined and sharply polarized camps. Each is equally committed to defending an overly simplistic, one-dimensional paradigm that leaves little, if any room for nuance, compromise, or finding a much-needed middle ground. 
Hopefully, the presiding judge will decide the case in a way that parses the issues presented much more finely. Because if he sticks with the paradigms presented so far, it won’t be good either for yoga, public education, or our collective health and well-being. 
Exercise or Religion?
As it stands, the plaintiffs in the case – a group of aggrieved parents led by Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock – have been arguing that yoga is inherently religious, and consequently unconstitutional to teach in public schools. In response, the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) is insisting that yoga is exercise, pure and simple. 
And that (ridiculous as it may seem to anyone who knows anything about yoga) is essentially it: Yoga is either religion or exercise! Take your pick. 
When presented with such one-dimensional positions, anyone with a reasonably informed understanding of contemporary American yoga would immediately respond that yoga is neither simply exercise, nor inherently religious. For most regular yoga practitioners, it’s beyond obvious that yoga is a multidimensional practice that’s much more complex, nuanced, and adaptable than either of these simplistic (not to mention, profoundly polarized and polarizing) positions permits. 
In our culture, yoga is commonly described as a “mind-body-spirit” practice. True, this phrase is used very casually, and lacks clear definition. Nonetheless, it communicates the fact that yoga as we know it today is a richly multidimensional practice.
Yoga in America is alternately understood and experienced as exercise, fashion trend, self-improvement technique, physical therapy, stress reducer and/or spiritual practice. There’s a huge variety of yoga methods, classes, teachers, and practitioners. There are radically different – and in many cases, sharply opposing – approaches to the practice. To boil such a remarkable degree of diversity down into an argument over whether yoga is “exercise or religion” would seem ridiculous, if it weren’t already being taken seriously in a court of law. 
Mind, Body – and Spirit?
Of course, it’s the “spiritual” part of this mind-body-spirit picture that presents the problem. In this case, the EUSD wants to deny it exists (or equate it with something akin to a “runner’s high”). Meanwhile, the Sedlocks and their supporters want to subsume this vague term of  “spirit” into a made-up category of “yoga religion” that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. 

In 15 years of practice, as well as several spent studying contemporary yoga in the course of researching my recent book, the only striking pattern I’ve seen with regard to the “spiritual” side of yoga is that it’s extremely variable and undefined.
I’ve met many people who take their practice very seriously who would never describe it as “spiritual.” Alternatively, I’ve found that those who do see yoga as “spiritual” can’t really explain what they mean by that well. Most significantly for the purposes of this case, I’ve also become convinced that a solid majority of American practitioners simply aren’t interested in the spiritual side of yoga at all. 
Yoga Journal’s 2012 market study, which offers the best data available on the American yoga “industry,” backs up this observation. When asked to report the top reasons they practice yoga, a representative sample of the American population replied as follows: “increase flexibility” (68%), “stress relief” (62%), “improve physical health” (61%), “enjoy class” (“57%), “improve mental health” (51%), “increase strength” (50%), “physical fitness” (50%), “weight loss” (31%), and – last but not least – “spiritual development” (30%). 
Particularly given that the term “spiritual” is extremely elastic and vague, the fact that only 30% of American practitioners cite “spiritual development” as a reason to practice belies the claim that yoga is “inherently religious.” However, it also counters the assertion that yoga is “simply exercise.” As these data indicate, American yoga is a diverse phenomenon. While most commonly prized for its physical benefits, it’s also valued for its psychological effects – and, in a solid minority of cases, as some sort of undefined “spiritual practice.” 
Finding a Middle Ground
If it’s understandable why the conflict in Encinitas arose, the fact that it’s polarized into the two simplistic positions of “yoga is religious” versus “yoga is exercise” is problematic. Both are grossly inaccurate ways of describing the variety and complexity of American yoga. Plus, they are polarizing positions that encourage people to dismiss each other’s concerns out of hand, torpedoing potential conversation and compromise. 
To stick with the polarizing paradigms presented in the Encinitas case could potentially undercut the growing trend toward teaching yoga in schools and other publically funded institutions. This would be terrible, as it’s an important movement that offers much of value to not only to our children, but society at large.
It’s particularly stupid to stick with these simplistic positions given that both parties agree that the public schools have no business directing kids’ spiritual and/or religious development. Rather than fighting over one-dimensional definitions of what yoga supposedly is or is not, they should be working together to develop classes that are appropriate for a public school setting. As such, the yoga taught should not only enhance children’s physical and psychological health and well-being, but also respect the diverse religious commitments of a multicultural society. 
Hopefully, Judge Meyer will write an opinion that recognizes the legitimate concerns of both parties, but rejects the one-dimensional nature of their positions. Ideally, the Encinitas case will contribute to a productive conversation about how best to adapt the ever-evolving practice of yoga to meet the needs and concerns of our troubled and unhealthy society. Rather than reigniting the culture wars, we need to reach across the fault-lines of our deeply divided body politic, finding ways to continually re-create yoga as the healing, unifying, and empowering practice that it can and should be.  
Many thanks to Gary Warth, reporter for the U-T San Diego, for being so generous with his time in answering my questions about the case. All views expressed in this article represent those of the author alone.  


Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at



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