Some New Twists to the Art of Yoga

The long, narrow room, its arched ceiling dotted with skylights, is full of bending bodies.

Legs spread, right hands on the sides of their right legs, left hands in the air, 28 people are tipping like teapots to the right.

“Good! Now look up at your left hand,” comes the smooth voice of the teacher. “Try to expose your right underside to the front of the room.”


It’s Saturday morning at the North County Yoga Center, where founder Trish O'Rielly has drawn a capacity crowd to her class.

She is teaching yoga, in its Westernized version a form of physical exercise and mental balancing.

Although North County has long had a reputation as a center for other kinds of fitness endeavors--from bicycling to surfing--it has in recent years also come into its own as a center for the study of yoga.

More than 2,000 students have taken classes at the North County Yoga Center, according to O'Rielly. The center, next door to the Belly Up Tavern but worlds apart in focus, celebrated its third birthday earlier this year.

This year also marked the opening of a second center for yoga classes in North County: the Holistic System of Movement/Escondido Yoga Center.

Other yoga classes are available in North County from private teachers who use a variety of spaces in schools, and in Encinitas at the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA.

Why spend a bright Saturday morning inside, bending and twisting into unusual shapes, discovering all the stiffness of your body and repetitive patterns of your mind?

Roger Cole, an accomplished yoga teacher at North County Yoga Center, thinks he has the answer: “Yoga feels wonderful,” he says simply. “It’s a balancing force against the ravages of life.”

O'Rielly, 32, says most yoga students don’t begin taking classes until they’re in their 30s, “when they’ve begun to think there must be something to life beyond their career.”

For many students, yoga is essentially a way to gain flexibility and muscle tone. “I think of it as an activity that relaxes me and gives me physical exercise,” said Wenda Aldrich, a Cardiff resident and yoga center student who works as the marketing director for a commercial real estate firm in San Diego.

“A lot of people use yoga just for sport,” said O'Rielly. “And that’s great. But if you want the deeper levels, they’re there, too.”

O'Rielly said that with yoga, the individual becomes more aware of cause and effect. “Having that awareness, you start to take responsibility for more of your life,” she said.

Stress relief is a common goal among yoga students.

Among them is Solana Beach Mayor Richard Hendlin, a deputy state attorney general who began taking yoga 20 years ago at UC Santa Barbara and who occasionally takes classes at the yoga center.

“Yoga is one of the things that allows me to do as many things as I do and cope with the stressful nature of my work,” said Hendlin, who studied with noted yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyenger in India for a month in 1979.

Hendlin was on hand at the North County Yoga Center’s third birthday party and potluck dinner in February to present an official city resolution honoring the center.

“It really does bring world-class teachers to our community,” he said. “People come here from great distances and at considerable time and expense to take classes at the center.”

Four years ago, there was no yoga center in North County. There were classes at the local YMCA on occasion. Instructors such as Tim Miller of Encinitas, who teaches an aerobic form of yoga called ashtanga, had a national reputation and a steady North County following--but he had to teach in several different locations designed primarily for other uses.

Other teachers in the coastal area had regular followings but maintained a low-key presence, their reputations spread largely by word of mouth.

After spending most of the 1980s as a free-lance photographer in Los Angeles, O'Rielly moved to Leucadia in 1988, ready for a change.

“My whole life was my work,” she recalled. “I was totally obsessed.”

Having traveled regularly to North County to take Miller’s classes, O'Rielly decided to take her love of yoga--and Miller’s need for a single location in which to teach--and combine them to create the North County Yoga Center.

“I came into an area that was full of good teachers but had no program putting the teachers together,” she said.

Roger Cole came to North County at about the same time to take a position as a research psychobiologist at UC San Diego. He brought with him from the Bay Area his reputation as a teacher of Iyenger yoga, the most popular form in the United States.

Cole joined with O'Rielly and Miller to form the new center, which took over space in the Quonset-hut buildings of World War II vintage along Cedros Avenue.

The hardwood floors there proved ideal for yoga, where standing poses need to be done on a firm surface and other poses can be done with the aid of a blanket or wooden block.

Teachers from elsewhere began giving regular workshops, drawn to North County by the area’s growing number of students ready to sample other teachers’ approaches.

Among those teachers, Ana Forrest of Los Angeles has returned often to conduct two-week intensive workshops from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. five days a week. Another popular visiting instructor from Los Angeles is Erich Schiffman, who also teaches regularly at the Escondido Yoga Center.

Since it moved earlier this year, the Solana Beach center has expanded its offerings to include meditation classes by Leucadia residents Eric and Deborah Klein, who have became co-owners of the center with O'Rielly.

In all, the Solana Beach center has 10 instructors teaching 38 different classes a week, varying from beginner sessions to demanding workouts for advanced students.

Until recently, yoga in North County had been concentrated on the coast. As student Aldrich puts it: “Places like Leucadia and Encinitas have that ‘60s quality about them. They’ve always been identified as kind of spiritual places.”

It’s perhaps a measure of how mainstream yoga is becoming, then, that the county’s newest yoga center is in Escondido, a city with a more traditional image.

Charlene Berling, a nurse who launched Escondido Yoga Center last spring, has been teaching yoga for the past 10 years. She turned to yoga when doctors couldn’t help her with a painful chest condition. Doing yoga, she says, healed her.

Berling, 51, has taken over part of the space occupied by the Philosophical Library bookstore on Felicita Avenue.

Already the center has nine teachers, including O'Rielly and Catharine Miller, who teaches prenatal yoga.

Many yoga practitioners in other areas adhere only to one particular form of yoga originated by a particular teacher.

But in typical North County fashion, the live-and-let-live approach reigns at the area’s two yoga centers.

“We have a multidimensional approach,” Berling said.

O'Rielly has the same goal. “Different kinds of yoga work well for different people at different times in their lives,” she said. “To me, it’s all yoga.”