Loyola Marymount is the only university in the country (so far) where it is possible to earn a graduate degree in yoga studies.
Ana Funes gathered her Los Angeles yoga class in a circle on the floor. She bent her right knee and instructed her students to cradle their own “like a baby.”
But hers wasn’t the “namaste,” downward dog, Lululemon type of yoga class as familiar to L.A. as breathing.
Funes is a philosophy professor at Loyola Marymount University. She sat under a whiteboard she’d filled with flow charts and Sanskrit. Her graduate students had just spent more than an hour examining the “Hatha Yoga Pradipika,” a 15th-century manual. Now they were eager to understand how the ancient text could be translated into physical experience.
They were studying to earn master’s degrees in yoga studies in the only university in the country where it is possible to do so.
Forty-million people in America say they do yoga — twice as many as five years ago — but how many really learn about what it is and where it comes from? It’s an important area of study, says the practice’s few (but growing number of) scholars. After all, Mohandas K. Gandhi practiced yoga; it is associated with social change, empathy, healing — and is enormously popular.
“I’m personally surprised there aren’t more graduate programs in the study of yoga, given that we’re talking about a transnational phenomenon,” says Andrea Jain, co-chair of the Yoga in Theory and Practice unit of the American Academy of Religion, whose members teach religion at schools, seminaries and colleges across the country. “It doesn’t occur to us as scholars to tap into that cultural trend and demand.”
There are a handful of other yoga master’s programs around the world, including one at SOAS University of London (formerly known as the School of Oriental and African Studies), but scholars say LMU’s stands out.
In the LMU program, which enrolled its first students four years ago, the classes are hard, the discussions philosophically complex. Students study Sanskrit grammar, anatomy and history. A few drop out each year when they realize the quantity of reading and writing.
At the Catholic university, it took time to build backing for such a program. When Indic and comparative theology professor Christopher Chapple, who has practiced yoga since he was 15, first pitched the idea two decades ago, many people still thought of yoga as something like a cult or dismissed it as the stuff of suburban housewives.
Chapple had been hired in 1985 to teach all non-Christian religions, in accord with the pope’s proclamation to “recognize, preserve and promote” the good that is found in other traditions. He co-created an Asian studies program, then two theology master’s programs. In 2002, at LMU’s extension school, he introduced a certificate program in yoga therapy, which was so popular that he started five other yoga-focused programs, such as Yoga and the Healing Sciences and Yoga, Mindfulness and Social Change.
Yoga shares core values with Buddhism and, like Hinduism, recognizes the Vedas as an authoritative source, Chapple says. But it’s best understood not as a religion but as a system of spiritual practices.
Its origins and history — dating back thousands of years by some measures — are rich and hungry for scholarship. And its disciplines go beyond physical poses (asana) and include breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation (dhyana) and other activities that connect body and mind. The word itself, yoga, comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to join or apply. Modern practitioners such as B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Yogi Bhajan, who popularized Kundalini Yoga, spread their own applications and interpretations to thousands.
At LMU, studying yoga takes two years and is more in the books than on the mat. Five professors — two full time, three part time — lead about 30 students through numerous disciplines. Students study health sciences. They learn Sanskrit in order to read the “Yoga Sutras,” the “Upanishads,” the “Bhagavad Gita” in their original language. They grapple with Eastern philosophy and numerous Indian theologies.
Julia Kasza, who is heading into her second year, spent four hours a week this year studying Sanskrit grammar and vocabulary for her readings in just one of her classes, then many more hours trying to grasp the philosophies she was reading about.
“All these concepts are so new, I have to read and reread just to be able to talk about it in a way that allows me to produce the kind of thought that’s required to really make sense of it all,” she said after one particularly challenging Sanskrit class. One word, she said, could encompass an entire and many-layered concept.
Kasza and her fellow classmates — who as undergraduates studied religion, social psychology, business, art — come from all over America, as well as Spain, England, China. They have organized yoga training for inmates, taught at transitional living homes and created stress management programs for social workers. One student developed a yoga curriculum for community colleges; another hopes to make yoga part of hospital care.
Many bring what they learn each week into the studio classes they teach around town.
“Let’s warm up the spine,” says Rob Zabel, who just graduated earlier this year, told the students in his regular downtown L.A. class as he instructed them to arch their backs while resting on their hands and knees.
Before coming to LMU, Zabel, a Pitzer College graduate, had completed three yoga teacher training programs. But he wanted more. LMU’s program, he said, allowed him to study yoga — its original texts, forefathers, concepts — objectively as an academic.
“To learn a lot of these things, you basically have to join one of these groups with a lineage and practice it as your religion, or you have these yoga studios where they don’t really want to teach you anything that vaguely comes off as religious and scare you away,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to get an uncensored version of yoga with no agenda.”
After his master’s, Zabel hopes to get a doctorate in history or religious studies. One day, he would love to teach yoga at a university. “It’s important to raise the standard of information,” he says.