By Tori Hahn
Yoga, the ancient Hindu practice of meditation to bring health and relaxation to the body, found resolution and validation in San Diego in an unsuspecting location: court.
Steve Hubbard, a Pacific Beach yoga instructor who goes by “Namasteve,” is for many San Diegans the face of donation-based oceanfront yoga — a class style in which participants are not obligated to pay but are encouraged to donate to the instructor.
The donation-based style of yoga earned local fame when Hubbard encountered a First Amendment issue with it in early 2014.
Hubbard’s oceanfront classes in Palisades Park stirred up mixed reactions among community members, who complained about the more than two hundred people who showed up to practice yoga Saturday and Sunday mornings.
“It was a municipal code that stated you can’t have over 49 people, and myself and my attorney disagreed,” Hubbard said. “[We] thought that the First Amendment guarantees that I can get up on my soap box and say something, [and] if people want to listen then they can.”
Hubbard said donation-based yoga exploded in San Diego after his win in court, and has since continued to rise.
The noncommittal style of yoga offers an option to those who can’t afford or don’t have access to traditional membership-based yoga studios. With monthly yoga studio membership fees reaching almost $140, yogis, as they are called, have started seeking out new outlets in which they can practice.
“For a college student on a budget, it’s really what you can manage,” said 22-year-old Quinn Nunes, a casual yoga practitioner. “You can try [donation-based yoga] out before you have a commitment; [with] other classes you [have to] pay up front or you have to pay a large sum of money, but this one — you can come to one class, try it out, see how you like it.”
Both practitioners and instructors stress the importance of donation-based yoga’s accessibility.
“In a studio, if you can find that, it’s going to cost you $20 or $25 per class, which, if you want to practice a lot of yoga, and you’re going class by class, it’s not very accessible to everybody,” Hubbard said. “So of course [with] donation-based yoga, you give what you can and it’s going to draw a lot of people.”
Hubbard’s classes follow the format of traditional yoga, whereas novel varieties of donation-based yoga continue to pop up in San Diego. One unique style, for example, is aerial yoga in which participants hang from cloth while practicing yoga-inspired movements and balancing techniques.
Leila Whitehead is the owner of Trilogy Sanctuary in La Jolla, a rooftop yoga studio that also offers donation-based classes.
Whitehead said she wanted to make the “fun and playful” aerial yoga classes accessible for those who can’t afford to pay the usual fee because of the positive changes it brings.
“I think … [teachers] want to be able to offer yoga to people, but they understand that having a set price doesn’t work for everybody,” Whitehead said. “Some people can feel really scared by it. It can bring up a lot of emotions and feelings for people … and all of those heightened senses, really, it makes it more powerful somehow.”
Another donation-based yoga platform called Yoga Out Loud introduces house music to the 5,000-year-old tradition. Sessions along the water in Mission Beach feature DJ Adam Davis playing deep house music while instructor Jordan Tyler recites classic yoga poses.
Tyler said people flock to donation-based classes because they are often the cheapest option that allow younger people to participate.
“Socioeconomically speaking, the rent is so high and the cost of living is so high [in San Diego] that [without] donation-based yoga for a lot of us, especially us in our 20s or in college … [we] don’t really have access any other way,” Tyler said. “And it’s [a] really important part of my practice, as a teacher, to bring that to the community.”
“We have an awesome outdoor environment too,” Tyler said. “I think that really gives us yogis specifically in San Diego so much opportunity to practice … We have so much time outside all times of year to be able to bring yoga any day, all day, to anyone.”
In the 2015 American Fitness Index report, San Diego ranked third most fit city in the U.S. The American College of Sports Medicine report compared the 50 largest metropolitan areas in diverse categories, including recreational facilities available to residents and community members’ personal health indicators.
The “built environment” indicators — statistics that account for parkland within a city — are what put San Diego on the map. Parks account for 23.5 percent of the land area in “America’s Finest City,” reaching almost 13 percent more than the nation’s target goal.
Additionally, San Diego boasts of almost double the target goal for acres of parkland per 1,000 acres with 36.2 acres.
Hubbard, a New York native, noted that the consistent sunny weather and health consciousness of San Diegans makes yoga a perfect fit for the region.
“You can get out on the beach 300 days a year and you’re not stuck in the house,” Hubbard said. “I think that has a lot to do with it.”
One thing yoga instructors agreed on is the healing yoga can bring.
Whitehead said her students have told her after practicing yoga they see changes in their physical bodies, their moods are elevated and they are generally happier.
Tyler said yoga helps her relieve stress and even improves her depression.
“Over time you start to learn that it’s such a safe space to open up and unwind, unfold the different layers of yourself and get in touch with your body and your brain at the same time,” Tyler said.
The juxtaposition of his two identities is stark.
Though he brings legal documents and persuasive arguments to the courtroom as a lawyer, Michael Coleman also teaches “laughter yoga” classes to San Diegans in his spare time.
“As a legal project management lawyer, I know how to speak in front of juries, but I do get anxious in those kinds of environments,” Coleman said. “Doing laughter yoga has helped me. When I go to court, I’ll smile to bring back that sense of relaxation and calm.”
Coleman is the sole-proprietor of Laughing in San Diego, an organization that trains laughter yoga leaders and brings free classes to the community. Coleman also leads classes for seniors and brain-injury patients (read more about them), as well as corporations looking to improve employee morale.
He seeks to share the same stress relief and optimism he’s experienced through the practice with others.
“Practicing law, cooperating with DuPage county lawyers, among other colleagues, working hard on papers – and laughing are very different. And some cases take more than just positive intentions and energy, like kombiglyze legal center issues. The thing about law is people are very serious and they worry about how they appear, while laughter yoga is about opening up,” Coleman said. Whatever the issues of everyday family life or accident claims with 1800 Car Wreck or other rough situations, a little meditation goes a long way. “You learn how to laugh at yourself, which can really change your mood. You feel more alive and positive.”
“Practicing law and laughing are very different.” – Michael Coleman
The practice of laughter yoga, contrary to its name, involves little-to-no actual yoga, but rather, the practice of forcefully laughing with the hope of receiving the mental and physical benefits of actual laughter. Participants don’t use jokes to ignite laughter, but Coleman said forced laughs often turn into real laughter.
Laughter yoga’s prominence in San Diego has grown since Coleman founded the organization in 2007, and he said he has trained more than 160 other leaders who continue to teach throughout the country. They offer free classes in places like Balboa Park for people who simply need it to de-stress, as well as for brain injury patients and the elderly. Coleman leads a weekly class at St. Paul’s Senior Homes, a facility in Bankers Hill with programs for seniors affected by varying levels of dementia.
MULTIMEDIA: Laughter yoga participants gather at a weekly laughter yoga class in Balboa Park. The class is led by Louis Rader, who was trained by Michael Coleman.
“This class is what keeps us young,” said 80-year-old Carline Zarling, who has been participating in the class since it started and repeatedly referred to herself as a “maniac” because of her birthplace, Maine. “It keeps me going.”
The St. Paul program has grown over the past year, according to Coleman, and in turn, so have the laughter yoga classes. When Coleman first started hosting the class, about eight seniors would be in the class. Now as many as 24 seniors may show up to participate.
Even some of the seniors who tend to shy away from too much participation are still enthusiastic throughout the class, according to one of St. Paul’s Certified Nursing Assistants, Bianca Ripa, who monitors the class and cares for the seniors.
“It lifts their moods for sure,” Ripa said. “Even the [seniors] who don’t usually like to get involved.”
Classes like these have gained popularity throughout San Diego and the rest of the world since the founder of Laughter Yoga, Dr. Madan Kataria, began his practice in India in 1995. Now, 20 years later and thousands of miles away, the practice continues to gain traction among holistic-minded people who believe in the power of positivity at Imagine Wellness Centre and other such centres.
One of the leaders Coleman has trained is Alicia Sacks, who volunteers and holds her own classes in Balboa Park. Sacks used to manage a health food store in Hillcrest before it went out of business, and says she is “very into natural everything and being green.”
She said she cured herself of Hepatitis B in the 80s through holistic methods, sans any medication, after being told by doctors that she only had five years to live. The laughter classes, she said, allow her to let go of negative feelings about things she cannot control.
“If there is something that’s been in your family for hundreds of years and it breaks into smithereens and you get angry, everyone you meet that day will feel your anger,” she said. “If you laugh about it, even if it’s fake laughter, you won’t be as mad.”
Though the laughter classes do not use jokes to ignite laughter, Sacks said forced laughter has the same benefits as many other mood-lifting activities. Though the studies are limited, there is some scientific support for claims like these, such as a 2011 study by the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry that concluded laughter yoga is as effective as exercise in treatment of depression and improved life satisfaction for elderly women.
That’s because laughter is known to decrease stress and increase the release of endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” chemical, according to former registered nurse Yvonne Rawraway Wultz. Wultz also was trained by Coleman, and now leads weekly laughter yoga classes at the College Avenue Senior Center.
VIDEO: The College Avenue Senior Center offers free laughter yoga classes. Participants Jeanette Aguilar and Len Goldberg say laughter yoga gives them a stronger sense of community and discuss how it has improve their lives.
“I think it’s really important for elderly people to be able to speak out loud, especially if they live alone and may not have many opportunities to use their vocal chords,” said Wultz, who has been leading the class for four years. “They may not feel good when they come in, but they always feel good when they leave.”
“They may not feel good when they come in, but they always feel good when they leave.” – Yvonne Rawraway Wultz
Children laugh about 300 times a day while most adults may only laugh around 15 or 20, she said, and by laughing more, people can improve their overall life. Many other practices all over the world focus on the idea of treating the whole person, which inclusively focuses on the body, mind, and emotions.
Though vastly different physically, laughter yoga and meditation practices seek to elicit the same benefits. Meditation has become increasingly popular, and places like San Diego like UCSD’s Center for Mindfulness offer resources for people interested in mindfulness meditation, a practice that is also believed to enhance someone’s overall quality of life.
“The mind is really powerful, and the way we approach our own reality has a huge impact on our physical well-being.” – Jennifer Miller
“[Mindfulness] is about noticing what the stressors are in your life and having a means to change the relationship to the stressors and be at peace with them,” said Jennifer Miller, a psychologist and mindfulness teacher who works at the center. She believes that mind power has the ability to change brain and body chemistry, potentially improving someone’s infliction of fatigue or immune disorder.
“The mind is really powerful, and the way we approach our own reality has a huge impact on our physical well-being,” Miller said.
She sees the similarity between laughter yoga and mindfulness meditation, two different breeds of the same concept: releasing tension in some way and being emotionally present.
As less traditional practices expand, places like Cancer Treatment Centers of America accept laughter therapy as a having a beneficial impact on health and use an integrative approach focused on overall health and wellness while still including conventional medicine and treatment.
But no matter a person’s state of health, Michael Coleman said that laughter yoga is for everyone, as long as they’re willing to let go of inhibition.
SAN DIEGO – While some people practice yoga to stay active, others have found yoga to be not just a good exercise but also therapeutic. 40-year-old Vu Dang is one of those people.
At the age of 17, Dang’s life as he once knew it changed in a matter of seconds. During a high school football game, he was tackled by a large group on the opposing team and was left with a serious concussion and long-term brain damage. The injury put him in a coma for six months and he was forced to relearn several activities he once took for granted. Dang found himself struggling in areas of his life where he once excelled.
“I knew I had to do something to turn my life around,” Dang said. “I needed to find myself and become grounded again.”
Dang explored many different techniques to help ease his pain and build back his strength. He said he found that yoga’s physical and meditative aspects helped him regain his sense of balance, improved his cognitive brain functions and reduced the pain he had throughout his body. Now more than 20 years since his injury, yoga has become a regular part of his life and is currently helping him as he battles Cancer.
MULTIMEDIA: Vu Dang explains how yoga and meditation has helped him get his life back on track and how others can benefit.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health describes yoga as the combination of physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation. Yoga works on the physical imbalances of the body and each posture helps to break up physical congestion in muscle groups and soft tissue.
Danieli Gabardo, a yoga therapist at True Nature Therapies, says it’s important that people listen to their bodies and tailor their yoga practice to their individual needs. She suggests people ease into the practice and learn how the different asanas can target different muscle groups. Before becoming a yoga therapist, Gabardo practiced yoga to help recover from a serious back injury.
“I work with a variety of people dealing with different things starting from chronic body pain to more serious health concerns,” Gabardo said. “Not everyone is going to benefit from the same practice.”
She recommends yoga as a form of therapy over other forms of therapies because it works with the whole body spiritually, emotionally and physically while other therapies only target one muscle group.
SLIDESHOW: Yoga instructor Steve Hubbard explains the healing benefits of yoga on the body. More than 100 people meet at Pacific Beach every Saturday morning to take his beachside class.
While there are several different styles of yoga, restorative yoga is the most common style practiced for stress and injury rehabilitation.
According to Women’s Health, restorative yoga uses specialized techniques to direct the blood flow to the injured areas. In addition, strategically placed props including blankets and pillows are used in the practice to get a deeper stretch and help the person become more relaxed.
Miranda Hope, a registered yoga instructor teaches restorative yoga to the military population at the VA San Diego Hospital. The veterans suffer from a wide range of conditions, although Hope said her classes are often filled with veterans recovering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“One patient came up to me after class and told me that when he first walked in he didn’t believe in what I was preaching,” Hope said. “But then he said he hasn’t been able to smell in nine years and he could smell right after taking my 30 minute class.”
She also teaches restorative yoga to patients with missing limbs. Hope said every person is different and while some may see results right away, it may take others a longer time to see real changes in themselves and their bodies.
In a study that tested the effects of mindfulness meditation, scientists found that meditation increases the grey-matter density of the brain associated with the area that targets a person’s memory and ability to comprehend information.
In addition, the scientists found that the participants of the study had reduced levels of psychological stresses including anxiety, depression and pain since incorporating meditation into their lives.
“I believe meditation is a crucial part of the yoga practice and I meditate at least once a day for about 15 to 20 minutes,” Dang said. “By meditating, I’ve found that I’m able to release all my negative thoughts and engage my brain in a positive way.”
There are several different forms of meditation including mantra meditation and mindfulness meditation. According to the NCCIH, yoga and tai chi are two of the most common physical activities that incorporate meditation in their practices.
“We have 80,000 thoughts a day and most of them aren’t even true,” Hope said. “Meditation helps us watch our thoughts, abandon our thoughts and decide which ones are true and need a reaction.”
According to Hope, yoga and meditation has the ability to completely transform people if they allow it to. She said yoga’s mental and physical disciplines is like nothing else but in order to reap the benefits, you have to fully commit yourself to it.