Being Donna Karan


By Mary Billard  |  

A yoga devotee for 30 years, fashion designer Donna Karan is so dedicated to her practice that she kept dates with her mat—even with two broken knees—after a skiing accident. Now the designer turned philanthropist (she sold her eponymous business for $643 million in 2001) is determined to bring yoga and other complementary healing modalities such as acupuncture and medi-tation into the hospital setting.

Last year Karan launched the nonprofit Urban Zen Initiative, which is funding a yoga pilot program at Beth Israel Medical Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, both in Manhattan, to see how yoga can best serve patients. So far, the program has raised $1.2 million. Yoga teachers are being trained and credentialed to teach simple breathing and yoga techniques—techniques similar to those that dramatically improved the quality of life and state of mind of Karan’s late husband, sculptor Stephan Weiss, during his seven-year battle with cancer. After Weiss’s death in 2001 Karan knew she wanted to share her passion for yoga with patients, yet she was too busy "being Donna Karan" to tackle the medical system.

But being Donna Karan has its advantages. In 2006 she hosted a practice with the Dalai Lama. During their time together, Karan was flooded with emotion, experiencing an intense sense of giving and purpose. So she decided to make her healing concept a reality. "I started to cry and said, ‘We’re doing it.’"

Last spring, by tapping her network, Karan brought together 2,500 friends from the wellness community for a 10-day conference to envision hospitals becoming healing centers for the body and spirit. Each day began with yoga and continued with discussions of various topics. Yoga was a common denominator throughout. "Yoga takes you to a place that inspires you and brings spirituality out," Karan says. "To me, yoga is a way of life. It is meditation; it is consciousness; it isn’t just wrapping your leg around your head. It’s about connecting on a spiritual level-opening and bringing the heart out."