Once considered the realm of hippies, mystics, and spiritual scholars, yoga has found its way into mainstream desert culture.
Devotees extol its transformative benefits and pioneering research continues to lend credence to its therapeutic value. One fact is indisputable — yoga and our idyllic desert share a common attribute: both nurture the body, mind, and spirit and provide a framework for inner peace.
When a friend urged Sharon Steele-McGee of Indian Wells to try a yoga class, Sharon immediately accepted the invitation. She had recently stopped smoking and was determined to avoid weight gain by increasing her physical activity and stamina. Sharon’s entrée to yoga was a revelation and offered a challenge she was initially reluctant to accept. “My first yoga class was extremely difficult,” she recalls. “I was prepared to move onto something else, but when my friend said she loved it and planned to attend another class, I agreed to join her.” Ironically, her friend eventually stopped attending the classes, but Sharon has continued practicing yoga for 15 years, allowing an 18-month hiatus to recover from hip replacement surgery.
She practices at least three mornings per week in the incense-laden sanctuary of her bedroom. She begins with seated breath meditation, then conducts a body scan to ascertain which areas feel tense or stiff, using yoga postures like Sun Salutation to provide a cardiovascular workout and Downward Facing Dog to stretch and increase flexibility. Not only has yoga helped accelerate the post-surgical healing process, Sharon says yoga has resulted in positive changes in other areas of her life.
“Yoga has given me a tool for how to live my life,” she says. “If left unattended, my mind is in the future or in the past; it’s never where I’m living my life. Yoga has taught me how to control my mind and my thoughts; how to slow down with breath work — it’s a tremendous stress reliever.”
Since its earliest beginnings as a resort destination, Palm Springs Valley has provided a haven from stress — a refuge where people rejuvenate and draw sustenance from a heady convergence of natural phenomena: a temperate climate, unparalleled mountain vistas, healing mineral waters, scenic desert terrain and a variety of leisure activities. It’s no wonder that yoga has been firmly entrenched here for more than 50 years, thanks greatly to the efforts of the indomitable Jean Farrar.
In the 1940s, while mentoring under maverick health-and-fitness pioneer Bernarr MacFadden, Jean had access to several yoga masters, including Paramhansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship and author of the classic Autobiography of a Yogi. (Yogananda also retained a desert retreat at Twentynine Palms.) Jean’s association with MacFadden eventually led her to Charlie Farrell’s prestigious Racquet Club, where she spent 20 years as a fitness and yoga instructor. Jean’s sizable clientele at the Racquet Club, and later, when she opened her own ashram at the old Desert Inn in Palm Springs, included several luminaries of the era: Albert Einstein, Greta Garbo, Mae West, designer Pauline Trigere, Jimmy Durante, and Dinah Shore. “A lot of people at the Racquet Club were into physical fitness,” Farrar recalls, “but they were also very much interested in yoga philosophy — meditation is what they needed more than anything. People came here to regain their sanity from Hollywood and from life. When they metme, I was their survival kit.”
In the 1950s, Jean began teaching yoga classes for the city of Palm Springs. Through word of mouth and an affordable 50 cents per lesson, attendance skyrocketed, ranging as high as 1,500 students per week.
Jean also taught yoga at the Braille Institute and the Foundation for the Retarded of the Desert. “When I worked with handicapped students, I often played classical music. I quickly noticed that when the music became more symphonic, my students would become quiet and the guide dogs would become calm.” This realization led Jean to another venture — adapting yoga for animals and chronicling her experiences in a book, Yoga for Pets.
Jean’s yoga classes may have motivated thousands of students—and even some pets — to adopt a healthier and more peaceful existence, but perhaps the person she most inspired was her student and longtime companion Albert Frey, the acclaimed mid-century modernist architect. “Albert and I connected because he was a naturalist, and his architecture, like yoga, depicted bringing the outside in,” she says. “Like me, he was not interested in fame; he was interested in the needs of humanity.”
Former yoga teacher Susan Beard, who studied with the late James Gagnier, an influential Rancho Mirage-based yoga teacher who ran a studio called Space in the 1980s, founded the Desert Yoga Center for similar reasons. “My first commitment was to be of service to the community because I believed so deeply in yoga,” she says. “As long as I broke even, that was fine; if I made money, that was a plus.”
The enduring and liberating discipline of yoga originated approximately 5,000 years ago in India. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word, yuj, which means to yoke or to join. The objective of yoga, in its simplest terms, is to develop equanimity of mind and thought, enabling the perpetual movement of the individual toward the experience of divine consciousness and liberation from pain and suffering. Circa 200 B.C., the Indian sage Patanjali systematized the philosophy of yoga in his classic treatise, Yoga Sutras, composed of 200 brief aphorisms. In Sutras, Patanjali delineates an eight-fold path to help seekers achieve control over the mind and its modifications. This eight-limbed approach codifies guidelines for optimal spiritual development that include moral and ethical conduct, self-discipline, physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and an increasing control of the senses. Although it is derived from Eastern spiritual precepts, yoga itself is not a religion; many practitioners find that a commitment to yogic principles actually rekindles enthusiasm in their own faiths.
For decades, the vibrant local yoga community has continued to grow, attracting practitioners of all ages and abilities to a variety of venues — yoga studios, fitness centers, resorts, recreation centers, hospitals, and the indigenous phenomenon of country club yoga.
In 2000, community interest surged as Palm Springs and tourism officials welcomed the selection of the city as host of the Southwest Yoga Conference. Convention and hotel staffs were equally accommodating, allowing Julie Deife, conference founder and publisher of LA Yoga, to develop a menu specifically for the dietary needs of participants (many yogis are vegetarian). Moreover, the conference helped mobilize the Coachella Valley Yoga Teachers Association and officially heralded the area as a premier yoga vacation destination.
According to Jennifer Overton, spa director at Desert Springs, a JW Marriott Resort and Spa in Palm Desert, many guests return each year specifically to attend yoga classes taught by preferred instructors. The resort offers four yoga classes weekly, private instruction, a popular outdoor sunrise yoga class for corporate and incentive groups, as well as a comprehensive pilates program.
Luciana LoPresto, a spa consultant and yoga teacher based in Palm Springs, offers an innovative vacation option for travelers who want to deepen their yoga practice. LoPresto founded Yoga Trips in 1997 and has led private yoga retreats to Italy, Spain, Canada, and Mexico. Recent collaborations with area hotels, including retro hip Ballantine’s in Palm Springs and hacienda-style Club Intrawest in Palm Desert, have spawned hiking and yoga retreats, family yoga classes, and customized yoga classes for visiting groups.
As Westerners continue to gravitate toward yoga and other alternative therapeutic remedies, the popularity of complementary medicine inspires new research. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, is funding clinical trials to evaluate yoga’s efficacy for chronic lower back pain, insomnia, shortness of breath in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, multiple sclerosis, and even aging.
Eileen Flaherty teaches adaptive yoga in Palm Desert to individuals with multiple sclerosis. Participants perform postures either in a chair or adapted on the floor with yoga props. Flaherty regularly incorporates meditation and breath work into all her yoga classes. “The students receive peace of mind, experience relief from symptoms, and their bodies feel better,” Flaherty says. “It’s an astounding group of committed, focused individuals. And, for the average person, the benefits are also immense. Their lives change.”
At Urban Yoga Center in Palm Springs, Kristin Olson offers an open Restorative Urban Yoga class on Sunday mornings designed to support individuals living with HIV/AIDS. “The class really supports balancing the immune system, increasing energy, and working with the fear of the unknown,” says Olson, who was awarded a grant in 2002 from the Southwest Karma Yoga Foundation for the class. “All of us need a safe place to connect, a place to develop strength of spirit and a sense of community.” Additionally, the center provides healing classes and workshops for all employees and clients of Desert AIDS Project, as well as Palm Springs Unified School District.
Insurance companies have also begun to offer incentives supporting alternative therapies. LoPresto is even listed as a provider for Blue Cross Blue Shield of California, which enables her to offer a 20 percent discount on services to Blue Cross participants.
Sharon Steele-McGee counts gratifying friendships with teachers and fellow students among the many rewards she has received from her involvement in yoga. During extended holidays, she makes an effort to attend yoga classes in the area she is visiting. “With yoga, there’s a common language spoken; it’s often a community comprised of people like me who love yoga,” she says. “Little by little, you start talking to people; it’s very easy to make friends.”
Sharon also fervently advocates yoga for older people who suffer from chronic pain or have limited range of motion. The practice, she says, is “perfect for retaining strength, balance, coordination, and good posture.”
And Farrar, the happy and ageless yogini, still does headstands “several times a day.” But she is quick to point out that yoga is not about standing on your head; it’s really about standing on your own two feet.
Finding the path that’s right for you.
The proliferation of yoga nationwide has spawned an array of approaches and classes. All styles share common elements and a mutual lineage; where they diverge is generally in emphasis. Some focus on strict structural alignment of the body; others emphasize breathing techniques or holding postures vs. fluid movement from one pose to the next. How do you determine which style is for you? Though the ayurvedic (yoga’s sister science) perspective suggests that your yoga practice should correspond with your body constitution (dosha), the best rule of thumb is to let intuition, experience, and comfort guide you. Experiment — take a variety of classes with different teachers and you will soon discover the path that’s right for you. These are the major yoga styles:
Ananda — Developed by Swami Kriyananda, this classical style of hatha yoga uses asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) to connect to the subtle energies within oneself. Through this gentle practice and its use of silent affirmations, energies are directed to integrate body, mind, and spirit and reach a higher level of awareness.
Anusara — Founded by John Friend in 1997, anusara is a hatha system that incorporates principles of alignment with a nondual yoga philosophy whose main premise is to generate a state of acceptance, balance, and love, reflected in the “heart-oriented” approach to the poses. Instead of externally controlling the body and the mind, the poses originate from an internal spiritual focus. Each student’s unique abilities and limitations are honored.
Ashtanga — Those who prefer a rigorous, active workout might seek this style developed by K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. Students move through a structured series of poses, eventually using jumping transitions to develop strength, flexibility, and endurance. Additionally, body, mind, and spirit are further integrated through the use of energetic locks, called bandhas, to restrain the breath.
Bikram — Devotees offer glowing testimony for this therapeutic style of yoga, developed by Bikram Choudhury. The scientifically designed series of 26 poses uses a tourniquet effect, alternately blocking and flushing the blood supply throughout the body. The studio is heated to 105 degrees to safeguard and improve the muscle tissue, detoxify the body, and provide an optimal cardiovascular workout.
Integral — In 1969, the late revered yoga master Sri Swami Satchidananda propagated his message of peace at the premiere of Woodstock Festival. Today, his spiritual teachings are ubiquitous. He described the style as “a flexible combination of specific methods to develop every aspect of the individual: physical, intellectual, and spiritual.” This tradition unifies essential elements of various systems of yoga, including the physical and mental practices of hatha yoga and raja yoga; the use of mantra repetition in japa yoga; karma yoga, the yoga of action and selfless service; and the intellectual approach of jnana yoga. Both Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Michael Lerner have incorporated integral yoga into their innovative research on heart disease and cancer.
Iyengar — B.K.S. Iyengar, 84, is one of the most venerated teachers of modern yoga. His seminal book, Light on Yoga, can be found on the shelf of every dedicated practitioner. His style emphasizes structural alignment, precision in poses, therapeutic techniques, and the use of yoga props to aid beginning students and practitioners suffering from acute and chronic illness.
Kripalu — Described as “devotion in motion,” the style teaches physical postures and breathing techniques, as well as mindfulness and self-acceptance. It adheres to a three-stage sequential approach. Stage 1 focuses on postural alignment and learning to coordinate breath and movement. Stage 2 advances inner awareness through the prolonged holding of postures. Stage 3 completely integrates poses, breath, and meditation in a spontaneous flow of natural and harmonious movement.
Kundalini — The “yoga of awareness,” developed by Yogi Bhajan, embraces several techniques — physical postures, controlled breathing methods, chanting, and meditation — to bring a spiritual aspirant to a place of health, vitality, and higher consciousness.
Hatha — The ancient tradition encompasses physical and mental cleansing techniques, mudras, bandhas, and pranayama. In the context of hatha yoga, ha is figuratively translated as “sun” and tha as “moon,” referring to the co-existence of masculine and feminine aspects within all of us. The goal is to attain a state of pure consciousness called samadhi.
Restorative — This is a rejuvenating and healing relaxation experience for everyone, irrespective of fitness level or lifestyle. Restorative poses generally utilize props to passively stretch and support the body for a sustained period of time. Judith Hanson Lasater, author of Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times, refers to restorative practice as “active relaxation.”
Sivananda — Known as the yoga of synthesis, the style integrates the four paths of yoga into a comprehensive spiritual discipline involving proper exercise and breathing, relaxation, a vegetarian diet, positive thinking, and meditation.
Viniyoga — Known for its therapeutic applications, this style uses asanas, pranayama, meditation, ritual, and prayer to enhance health, productivity, and self-realization.
Yin Yoga — Based on several anatomical and energetic concepts derived from Taoist yoga, including meridian theory, this style focuses on the connective tissue of the hips, pelvis, and lower spine. Poses are held for an extended period of time — sometimes up to 10 minutes. Stretching connective tissue can strengthen and promote joint flexibility, as well as facilitate alignment and comfort for seated meditation.
Coachella Valley Yoga Teacher’s Association
— information on yoga resources and teachers in Palm Springs Valley.
Kristin Olson’s Urban Yoga Center
(Healing Arts Community, 750 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; 320-7702, www.urbanyoga.org)
— ashtanga, gentle, hatha, power, restorative, YogaLite
Living Yoga of the Desert
(55583 Twentynine Palms Highway, Yucca Valley; 369-YOGA)
— vinyasa flow
Pacific Pilates & Yoga Studio, LLC
(72-624 El Paseo #B4, Palm Desert; 341-6778, www.pacificpilates.com)
— ashtanga, hatha, restorative, yoga for MS
Third Eye Yoga
(73625 Highway 111, Suite H, Palm Desert; 776-1440)
— Bikram, restorative, vinyasa flow