At 15, Elise Browning Miller was diagnosed with scoliosis. Forgoing the recommended surgery, she discovered that yoga kept her pain free. She then embarked on a lifelong journey into the physical, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions of yoga, and turned her condition into a chance to serve others. Browning Miller, who has been a student of Swami Satchidananda and B.K.S. Iyengar, owns and directs the California Yoga Center in Northern California and offers yoga workshops throughout the world.
Yoga Journal: Who has inspired your journey?
Elise Browning Miller: A friend gave me Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi. After reading it, I had a dream. In it, Yogananda told me that I would come to the West Coast and teach yoga. Eventually, I did. My first teacher was Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga. When I was getting my master's in therapeutic recreation at the University of North Carolina, I brought Swami Satchidananda there in 1972. More than 1,000 people showed up. He was a bhakti yogi; my heart opened, and he gave me the sense of how to live my life as a yogi. When I came to Iyengar and focused on the asanas, I had a broad perspective.
YJ: Why did you then study with B.K.S. Iyengar?
EBM: When I moved to California in 1974, I met Mr. Iyengar. Right away he saw my asymmetry. He gave amazing adjustments with the back of his hand. People thought he was hitting, but to me it was awakening; his attention helped me with alignment. When I went to India to study with him, I thought, "Oh, I'll get all this attention and healing." Well, he ignored me! He thought I needed to gain strength, confidence, and power. He made me do Chaturangas, jumpings, Handstands, Headstands, and backbends I never thought I would do. Two weeks later I was stronger, and that's when he gave me attention.
YJ: What do the two teachers have in common?
EBM: They have a love of and devotion to yoga, and they laugh at their own jokes. It's important to see dedicated teachers experience moments of joy.
YJ: How did you come to be a pioneer for using yoga to help people with scoliosis?
EBM: Iyengar's attention helped me realize that I needed to give myself attention. I did a lot of yoga in that period after I met him—three to four hours a day—and was just focusing on my back and healing. Self-empowerment is something I emphasize with my students with scoliosis. Yoga helped me avoid surgery. I want to share that.
YJ: What have been obstacles on your spiritual path?
EBM: My mother died when I was eight, so I've always wanted to live life fully. I also want to help others. I volunteered in the Peace Corps, and now I want to help people with scoliosis manage pain and see that they have options. But I constantly need to strike a balance between taking care of myself and taking care of others. Swami Satchidananda said to me, "Don't forget to take care of yourself." After my first trip to India, I learned that I needed to nurture and strengthen myself before I could give to others.
For more on Miller's experience with scoliosis and on yoga for scoliosis, see yogajournal.com/practice/1060.