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A master's degree in yoga? LA is the place to be

Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Ana Funes gathered her Westside 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," said 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.

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