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Meet 12 teachers who have spent 40-plus years sharing their practice to help authenticate yoga in America today.
Judith Hanson Lasater
A founding editor of Yoga Journal
Lives in: San Francisco
Forty years ago, a group of friends from the California Yoga Teachers Association gathered at Judith Hanson Lasater’s Berkeley, California, house to talk about their shared dream: to launch a yoga magazine. “We sat around on a green Oriental rug, and it was like one of those old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies where the kids would say, ‘Let’s put on a show!’” recalls Lasater, PhD, PT, who had been teaching yoga since 1971. “None of us had any experience in publishing. We had no market research. But no one told us we couldn’t do it, so we thought we could.”
In May 1975, using $5oo from a MasterCard as seed money, the five founders published the first issue of Yoga Journal. What the magazine lacked in glitz and high production values, it made up for in sincerity. “It was a labor of love,” Lasater says. “We did it because our hearts told us to.” Lasater has been the magazine’s guiding spirit ever since, writing many pieces, including the Asana columns for 13 years. A onetime student of B.K.S. Iyengar in both India and the United States and a founder of the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, Lasater is a trained physical therapist who specializes in restorative yoga, using props to support the body to facilitate relaxation and health. She has written eight books on yoga, including 1995’s Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times and Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life, recently updated. Lasater also trains teachers in kinesiology, yoga therapeutics, and the Yoga Sutra across the country (so far, in 47 out of 5o states) and gives workshops around the world.
“Teachers help people find themselves. To be able to do that as a yoga teacher is a great honor,” she says. “I want to give yoga away. It’s like love: Giving it away is what keeps it alive. It has power because we pass it on.” (judithhansonlasater.com)
As a member of our prestigious advisory council that selected the Good Karma Award winners, Lasater did not choose herself, though the YJ editors had her at the top of our list. Thank you, Judith!
Beryl Bender Birch
Founder of Power Yoga
Lives in: Great Barrington, Mass.
A student and teacher of classical Ashtanga Yoga, Beryl Bender Birch is founder and director of The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute, a school where she has been training yoga teachers since 1985. She is also the best-selling author of Power Yoga, Beyond Power Yoga, Boomer Yoga, and Yoga for Warriors: Basic Training in Strength, Resilience & Peace of Mind. (Birch, who teaches yoga and meditation through two veterans’ organizations in Massachusetts, is currently working to raise funds from corporations to pay for the free distribution of Yoga for Warriors, as well as for yoga teacher training for veterans.)
Birch has been a student of yoga, meditation, and the study of consciousness since 1971, traveling to India in 1974 with her teacher Munishree Chitrabhanu. After teaching Sivananda Yoga to ski instructors in Colorado in the 197os, Birch moved to New York, where she studied the Ashtanga asana system with Norman Allen. She then began teaching Ashtanga to athletes at the New York Road Runners Club, where she was wellness director from 198o to 2oo2. Over the years, Birch has taught yoga to more than 1oo,ooo people. “We started out by calling it yoga for athletes, but one day it came to me to call it Power Yoga,” she says. “It was a way to let Western minds relate to the practice and realize that yoga is a workout.”
Birch is also co-founder of the nonprofit Give Back Yoga Foundation, whose mission is to support yoga teachers in taking the full spectrum of yoga practices into underserved communities. “In The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute, I have always required students to do a give-back project to graduate. My feeling is, if you’re not serving the struggle, what are you doing?” she says. “The more present you are, the more you can simply rest in pure awareness; the more conscious you become, the more connected.” (berylbenderbirch.com)
Author of the influential book Be Here Now
Live in: Maui, Hawaii
When Ram Dass first went to India in 1967, he was still Dr. Richard Alpert, a prominent psychologist at Harvard who worked with Timothy Leary researching therapeutic uses for hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and co-writing the book The Psychedelic Experience.
But in India, everything changed. Alpert met Neem Karoli Baba—or Maharajji, who became his guru and gave him the name Ram Dass (“servant of God”)—and his life as a yogi began. Since then, Ram Dass has pursued an array of spiritual practices, including bhakti, or devotional yoga, in which he focuses on the Hindu deity Hanuman, and Buddhist meditation in the Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen Buddhist schools.
But Ram Dass became a counterculture icon in 1971 with the publication of his hugely influential book Be Here Now, which encouraged spiritual seekers to live joyously in the present and has since sold more than 2 million copies. He has written numerous other books, including 2o11’s Be Love Now and 2o13’s Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From Your Spiritual Heart. He also co-founded the Seva Foundation, which supports health programs around the globe, and the Love Serve Remember Foundation. He continues his teachings through books, webcasts, online courses, and retreats.
“Love is a way into our souls,” he says. “When you are identified with your soul, you see everyone as a soul. The love between souls is unspeakable—nothing can be said about it except that it transcends birth and death.” (ramdass.org)
See also The Yoga Of Relationships
Star of popular yoga show Lilias! on PBS
Lives in: Cincinnati
Dubbed “the Julia Child of yoga,” Lilias Folan started coming into Americans’ living rooms in 1972 through her PBS TV series Lilias! Yoga and You. Even though Folan says she was shy, her future as a TV star may actually have been destined: “My husband, Bob, and I were moving to Cincinnati, and our house in Connecticut wasn’t selling, so I went to see a psychic in New York City to find out when it would sell. She told me, ‘You will sell your house when the tulips bloom, and I have another message for you: I see cameras and lights around you, and you’d better be ready.’”
Folan, a mom of two who began teaching yoga at a YWCA in Stamford, Connecticut, before teaching in Ohio, was approached by a Cincinnati TV producer about doing a yoga show. “I came into the planet to serve, and the show was a form of service,” she says. Five hundred TV classes later, Folan had introduced millions of viewers—from housewives to a former President (Jimmy Carter)—to yoga with her warmhearted style. “My goal continues to be to experience yoga as usual and normal in everyday life … body, mind, and spirit,” says Folan, who studied Vedanta philosophy and meditation under Swami Chidananda of The Divine Light Society in the United States and India, and continued her meditation practice with Swami Muktananda.
Reruns of Lilias! still appear on some local PBS stations, and Folan’s teachings can also be found in her three books, three CDs, and more than 1o videos and DVDs. And though Folan no longer has her trademark thick brown braid, she is still recognized weekly. “Recently, my butcher said he had sat down with his granddaughter to do yoga, watching my show,” she says. “When I hear that, I smile from ear to ear.” (liliasyoga.com)
See also Lilias Folan: Yoga’s Grande Dame
Founder of four yoga studios in LA and NY
Lives in: New York City
One of the most successful yoga entrepreneurs of the last 40 years, Kavi Yogiraj Alan Finger is responsible for co-founding four popular studios. After moving to LA in 1976, he taught yoga to celebrities like James Taylor and Barbra Streisand before co-founding YogaWorks. Finger went on to start Yoga Zone in New York City and to launch its spinoff TV/DVD series, which attracted 64 million viewers on the Health Network. Be Yoga studio followed, and, in 2oo8, he founded Ishta Yoga, named after his famous practice method.
What’s the secret sauce? “I think I bring a vitality to the studios because I was brought up in yoga,” says Finger, who grew up in South Africa, where his father, Kavi Yogiraj Mani Finger, built an ashram onto their home that attracted visiting Indian yogis like B.K.S. Iyengar. “I spent the most important years of my life with them, and started teaching at 15.”
Finger’s Ishta style of yoga, which he developed with his father in the 196os, draws on the ancient and modern sciences of Hatha, Tantra, and Ayurveda, with the aim of allowing each student to practice in a way that suits individual needs. “I think what I’ve contributed to yoga is to show that it’s not just about acrobatics; it’s about using your body to explore what’s more subtle in you, and lead you to your spirit,” says Finger, who is working on a new book about the Yoga Sutra. (ishtayoga.com)
See alsoMeet the Innovators: Alan Finger
Founder of the Ashtanga studio Yoga Workshop
Lives in: Boulder, Colorado
Richard Freeman is one of America’s preeminent Ashtanga Yoga teachers and the founder of Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado, one of the oldest Ashtanga studios in the States.
As a young man, Freeman traveled to India and Southeast Asia to study for a few years and then went to Iran, where he taught for four years. He later became one of the first Western teachers to be certified to teach by K. Pattabhi Jois.
Freeman founded Yoga Workshop in 1988 with his wife, Mary Taylor, and he continues to do teacher training, intensives, and lectures there. Freeman says: “What inspires me is the subject matter itself. You become a teacher by becoming a student—a better and better student. And it is always a delight to introduce someone to yoga, because yoga is something that, if presented well, people will just love.”
Freeman, who is known for his wit (he says that “yoga ruins your life— but in positive ways, because if you get a taste for it, it’s so tasty that it ruins everything else for you”), travels as a guest instructor all over the country and world (he and Taylor travel overseas at least twice a year and always include teaching at Samahita Retreat in Thailand). “What I find as I travel is that yoga is really universal, like a spark gap between different religious and cultural traditions. It’s an invisible link,” he says.
He is the author of The Mirror of Yoga; has produced numerous DVDs and CDs, including Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga: The Primary Series, Yoga Breathing, and Yoga Chants; and he and Taylor are working on a new book on asana, “from a subtle, internal perspective, including what is going on in the core of the body.” (yogaworkshop.com)
One of America’s leading yoga therapists
Lives in: Oakland, California
As founder and director of the American Viniyoga Institute, Gary Kraftsow is a pioneer in the use of yoga for health, healing, and personal transformation. A student in India of T.K.V. Desikachar, who developed Viniyoga, Kraftsow is one of America’s leading proponents of yoga therapy, the therapeutic application of yoga practices to treat anatomical, physiological, and mental or emotional conditions.
For almost 40 years, Kraftsow has taught thousands and trained several hundred yoga teachers, therapists, and health practitioners how to use Viniyoga therapy to help patients with the aforementioned conditions. He and his senior students worked together to design, develop, and implement yoga-therapy-focused studies with the National Institutes of Health on low-back pain; Wayne State University, in Detroit, on lung cancer; Aetna Insurance Company on stress management; and Harvard University on anxiety. And he has written two books, Yoga for Transformation and Yoga for Wellness, and produced two DVDs, Viniyoga Therapy for Low Back, Sacrum and Hips and Viniyoga Therapy for Upper Back, Neck and Shoulders. “Yoga has so much to offer people today,” Kraftsow says. “We are already seeing it in the areas of health and fitness, therapy, and self-care. Yoga can help each person reduce and manage symptoms of suffering, cultivate higher potential, find a deeper meaning and purpose, and uncover and connect to the sacred dimensions of life.” (viniyoga.com)
Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa
Kundalini teacher, founder of Golden Bridge Yoga
Lives in: Santa Monica, California
As co-founder and director of Golden Bridge Yoga, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa is one of the top teachers of Kundalini Yoga and meditation in the world.
Born in the Midwest, Gurmukh went in 197o to the 3HO Ashram, in Tucson, Arizona, where she met her spiritual teacher, Kundalini Yoga Master Yogi Bhajan; he gave her the name “Gurmukh,” which means one who helps thousands of people across the world ocean. “When I took my first Kundalini class, it felt like I had come home,” she says. “And I feel that way every single time I take a class and teach a class.”
In 1985, she and her husband, Gurushabd Singh Khalsa, opened the Golden Bridge studio in Los Angeles. They now have two Golden Bridges, one in Santa Monica, the other in New York City. They travel 10 months a year around the world—from Iceland to Israel to South Africa to Serbia—as well as in the United States, sharing their teachings.
Gurmukh is also the author of two books, Bountiful, Beautiful, Blissful: Experience the Natural Power of Pregnancy and The 8 Human Talents, and has created several DVDs, including Prenatal Kundalini Yoga and Meditation for Mothers to Be.
“We feel very, very blessed to deliver these teachings as science, because we know it’s not about us. It’s about an ancient, 4o,ooo-year-old technology that has changed thousands of people’s lives,” Gurmukh says. “This technology gives people their own experience of self and consciousness. It’s not personality-driven or star-driven. It’s not about how many students we have. It is the consciousness that is evoked.” (gbglobalvillage.com)
See also Armchair Yoga: Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa
Founder of the Integrative Restoration Institute
Lives in: San Rafael, California
Richard Miller has two statues on his bookshelf: One shows the goddess of compassion, Guanyin, sitting in contemplative meditation; the other shows her stepping out into the world. “To me, she represents compassion in action,” Miller says, using a phrase that also captures his work as founding president of the Integrative Restoration Institute.
Miller—whose mentors have included Jean Klein, Dada Gavand, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and T.K.V. Desikachar—is in private practice as a clinical psychologist and teacher of meditation. He is a leading practitioner of yoga therapy, an author, a researcher, and a co-founder of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Miller began in the early seventies to develop what is now called the iRest Yoga Nidra protocol, a secular application of an ancient meditation practice that combines deep relaxation and resiliency training with meditative inquiry to address such issues as depression, anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain, sleep disturbances, chemical dependency, and well-being and awakening. He now uses it to help students, the homeless, seniors, the incarcerated, and those in the military. “My desire has always been to identify people who can learn this approach and then give it back to the populations they come from,” says Miller.
Research shows the effectiveness of the iRest protocol, which is oriented toward meditation and self-inquiry. “I can walk in now, say, to a veterans’ setting, and the first thing I do is show them the research, and their eyes brighten up,” he says. Miller’s institute makes its protocols available in a variety of ways—through trainings, retreats, teleconferences, webinars, CDs, and books.
“We’re lit up,” he says. “As the Buddha said, ‘Be a light unto yourself.’ I hope my life is an inspiration to others on the path, as all I do is coming from my heart as love in action.” (irest.us)
See also 10 Steps of Yoga Nidra
Co-creator of award-winning Yoga Mind & Body video
Lives in: Santa Monica, California
For Erich Schiffmann, an influential teacher known for his open, healing style of instruction, yoga is a lifestyle. “It’s like being wirelessly connected to the Internet of the infinite mind, learning to use your mind to Google whatever you need to know,” he says.
Schiffmann began his own yoga practice as a teen: “My brother gave me a yoga book when I was 1o, in the early ’6os, but I didn’t look at it for several years. Then I pulled it out and started tinkering around.”
Schiffmann, who began teaching yoga when he was 21, has studied with spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti at Brockwood Park School, a holistic school in England, and also with T.K.V. Desikachar, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Iyengar student and teacher Dona Holleman. “Erich does not rely on the texts for his authority,” says Kira Ryder, president of yoganytime.com. “He has access to his own inner author, and what he shares resonates as truth.” Schiffmann has shared many of his teachings in his popular book Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness and in the award-winning video Yoga Mind & Body, with Ali MacGraw. He teaches at Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California, and about once a month travels to conduct a yoga workshop on the road. “In the ’9os, Erich gave us smart sequencing and deep asana—and one of the earliest yoga DVDs,” says fellow California yoga teacher Annie Carpenter. “Later, he brought a quieter approach to asana that introduced mindfulness to many of us who were asana focused. More importantly, Erich has included us in his spiritual quest with accessible language and his deeply personal expression, which is always authentic, calm, and patient.” (erichschiffmann.com, freedomstyleyoga.com)
Senior advanced Iyengar teacher
Lives in: Cambridge, Massachusetts
A classical Iyengar yogi who traveled to India annually for more than 4o years to study with B.K.S. Iyengar, Patricia Walden is one of the country’s most accomplished yoga teachers.
Her résumé attests to her devotion to Iyengar Yoga: She is vice president of the Iyengar Yoga Association of New England, a senior consultant to the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, and one of only two teachers in the States to hold a senior advanced certificate in the Iyengar method. Walden helped start the National Certification Committee and continues to serve as an assessor. With the death of B.K.S. Iyengar last year, Walden says, “There is a certain loneliness. In the past, I would feel Guruji sitting right beside me. Now my practice is my guru.”
Walden is co-author of 2002’s The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health, an expert on yoga and depression, and known for her popular yoga DVDs, including Yoga for Beginners and A.M.-P.M. Yoga, which came out in 2ooo and introduced many to yoga for the first time. But her first love is teaching in person: She is director of the Iyengar faculty at Down Under School of Yoga in Newton, Massachusetts, and travels the world for workshops, retreats, and teacher trainings. “When I am together with students for a week, something very special and deep happens,” says Walden.
“I tell students, once they have a practice, the feelings they experience will stay with them throughout their day and their life. I don’t want my students to just do yoga; I want them to live it.” (yoganow.net)
See also Meet the Innovators: Patricia Walden
Founder of one of the country’s top Iyengar studios
Lives in: Washington, DC
“My reason for teaching yoga is to have us wake up to the fact that we are all connected and that every little thing we do has an impact on the world, so through our actions, we can make the world a better place,” says advanced Iyengar teacher John Schumacher, who studied with B.K.S. Iyengar for 33 years in India. In 1979, he founded Unity Woods, which has hosted more than 45,ooo students since its opening.
In contrast to many “drop-in studios,” Unity Woods encourages students to commit to a three-month course of study. “To have a student progress, you can’t start over every week,” says Schumacher, who teaches six classes a week at Unity Woods, travels one weekend a month to share teachings, and records all of his classes. “So instead of digging a lot of shallow holes going from teacher to teacher, students dig a deeper hole in their understanding.” Amy Van Mui, a student of Schumacher’s and owner of the Well Within studio in Baltimore, says: “John is a remarkable teacher—but beyond that, he is an amazing human being. What really sets him apart is his integrity. The students always come first. The yoga comes first.”
Schumacher says his goal is not only to help people become healthier but to create a community of like-minded people. “As you begin to do yoga and realize that what you do with your feet affects your spine, you can extrapolate that to yoga’s interconnectedness with everything else,” he says. “You become a citizen of the world, not just a passer-through.” (schumacheryoga.com)