Yoga and academia may seem like an odd pairing, but Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, seeks to challenge that notion with its master of arts program in yoga studies, part of LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. The two-year program, which was launched in 2013, is the first of its kind in the United States. LMU’s yoga studies MA program utilizes a holistic approach that goes beyond a superficial lifestyle trend and promotes a higher level of education for yoga practitioners. This comprehensive course of study allows students to explore yoga through an academic lens and deepen their knowledge of the philosophy and history of yoga as well as the physiological aspects of the practice.
The master of arts in yoga studies grew out of a series of certificate programs started in 2002 by the yoga studies director Dr. Christopher Key Chapple, whose expertise in yoga, religion and philosophy is evident throughout the curriculum. Dr. Chapple explained in 2013 to South California Public Radio that “[as] yoga moves into the mainstream consciousness, increasingly we need people that are well qualified to teach yoga teachers and we have a number of school teachers in the program. I’m anticipating that there will be permanent full-time positions at, say, community colleges.”
Sara Ivanhoe, a yogi who has contributed in no small part to yoga’s popularity with her expansive collection of yoga videos and expert advice for outlets such as the Huffington Post, had nothing but positive things to say about Dr. Chapple and the program back in 2013. “With Professor Chapple’s commitment for excellence, we can predict this program will be so successful that, like all inventions, we will wonder how we lived without it,” wrote Ivanhoe in a piece for LA Yoga. In fact, Ivanhoe herself was part of the first cohort and received her MA in yoga philosophy. The program has just welcomed its third cohort, with each cohort consisting of approximately 20 people.
The comprehensive program incorporates the many facets of yoga into its curriculum. Students study anatomy and physiology, yes, but they also delve into the history of yoga and the practice as it relates to various religions and cultures such as Sikhism, Christianity and Buddhism. Comparative mysticism, meanwhile, is a class that explores the ideas of philosophers such as Carl Jung along with mystical sects of religions such as Judaism. In addition, students are taught how to read and write Sanskrit to translate and study texts such as The Yoga Sutra and The Bhagavad Gita. They also travel to India to study yoga’s relationship to Jainism, which, according to the yoga studies website, includes “Preshka meditation and its emphasis on nonviolence.”
The program addresses a diverse range of interests and specialties pertaining to yoga. In addition to the main coursework required, students also complete one of the certificate programs that laid the groundwork for the creation of the master’s program, allowing students to further their studies in an area that speaks to them. MA students choose from several options, including yoga philosophy, yoga therapy Rx and yoga, mindfulness and social change. This last option is particularly exciting, as it focuses on how to apply yoga and meditation to positively impact communities. Topics such as social justice, ecology and the science behind meditation are explored. Students also learn from people with experience in various communities. For instance, yoga studies program administrator Sarah Herrington, founder of OM Schooled, a teacher training program that focuses on teaching yoga to children and teens, conducts a mini workshop on yoga in public schools. Those who are interested in studying yoga without committing to a degree program will be happy to know that certificate programs are open to the public.
The yoga studies department doesn’t end their civic engagement with certificate programs. It also hosts monthly workshops and other special events for the community. The department recently had its annual “Yoga Day,” which fell this year on September 19. The event drew nearly 300 local community members and consisted of a variety of free classes led by faculty, staff and experts including Herrington and Ivanhoe. The yoga studies department also gives students in its MA program the opportunity to teach yoga at a local area prison through a partnership with nonprofit organization the Prison Yoga Project.
Applications for fall 2016 are currently being accepted. For more information on the program and events, check out the yoga studies website.