Encinitas: Yoga Mecca of America

January 14, 2012, Judd

It’s a frigid Friday evening. The sun has dipped below the horizon. The green-flash sunset has inspired Lisa Hetman, a clothing designer and wetsuit repairer, to hop on her beach cruiser and pedal from her Leucadia trailer home to one of the numerous Encinitas-area studios and gyms that offer yoga classes.

Hetman, who has her purple yoga mat cradled in a wooden basket in front of the bike’s frame is headed to Yoga Tropics, one of seven downtown Encinitas studios located within a short walking distance of one another.

Encinitas has indeed earned its reputation of being the yoga Mecca of America.

Yoga, it would seem, is the backbone of holistic health here and it’s not a fad that’s going out of style anytime soon. With so many places offering yoga with a myriad of styles to choose from in town—Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hatha, Anahata, Anusara, Svaroopa and more—how do yoga practitioners decide where to take classes?

“I like the intensity of hot yoga,” says Hetman, in between gulps of half a liter of water she’ll consume immediately after her class at Yoga Tropics.

“I like sweating out my toxins…it makes me feel cleansed and renewed,” she adds, wiping off the last remaining beads of perspiration with a drenched towel.

For Hetman and many other practitioners, yoga is an outlet for maintaining and improving physical, emotional and spiritual wellness.

“Yoga is the time I set aside to meditate and internally repeat mantras and visualize what I want in my life,” says Hetman.

Although there is no shortage of yogis in town, there are lots of people still un-initiated to the yoga scene. Many of these people, no doubt, would be intimidated and horrified at the thought of taking a class in 105-degree heat, which is the approximate temperature of the room at Yoga Tropics.

Passing out is not the path the yoga neophyte is likely to take towards achieving enlightenment and spiritual fulfillment.

But there are plenty of classes in town suited to beginners. The Magdalena Ecke YMCA has one of the largest offerings of gentle classes.

Most people eventually pledge allegiance to one studio, often through word of mouth or trying out different studios before eventually settling on a favorite one.

Like a pub crawl on St. Patrick’s Day, some prefer to yoga studio hop and experience the eclectic collection of vibes and styles of Encinitas’ yoga cribs. It’s not unusual for some to take classes at two or three different places per week.

Some yoga studios have closed their doors within the last couple years or so (R.I.P. Shanti Yoga, Yoga 101 and Yoga on 2nd). Can Encinitas, especially the downtown corridor, support so many studios? For as many surfers as there are in Encinitas, there are only a few shops that serve the surfing community. Why then, are there so many places that offer yoga here and what is it about Encinitas that makes it a yoga Mecca?

“Despite the numerous studios in town, there seems to be an ever-increasing demand for places to practice,” says Margaret Stockalper, owner of one of the newer studios on the block, Yoga Tropics, which opened for business in December 2006.

“Never has a day gone by in Encinitas where I haven’t felt inspired by seeing people walking, riding bikes and getting yoga gear out of their cars all over town,” says Jennifer Waters, an instructor at Yoga Swami, another recent newcomer to the yoga scene.

Yoga Swami, a yoga-accessory boutique which fronts the 101, offers classes in a yurt in the certified Wildlife Backyard Habitat, and leads community organic gardening workshops, drum circles and weekly trance dances. It’s one of the few studios in town which accepts payment on a donation basis—perfect for thrifty surfers who can’t afford $15 a pop, which is what many yoga studios charge for a drop-in visit.

Dawn Singer, the proprietor of Yoga Swami claims that anybody who is really strapped for cash may donate their time by working on the community-maintained garden or creating an art project in exchange for free classes.

The yoga scene in Encinitas would certainly please the father of Encinitas yoga.

The roots of yoga here can be traced to Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) founder, the late Paramahansa Yogananda, who introduced the science of meditation—Kriya Yoga—here in the 1930s.

Ashtanga yoga, a style more suited for advanced practitioners and those that can easily twist themselves into pretzel-looking postures, has become quite popular in recent years. Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Yoga Center relocated to south Carlsbad, but was a long-standing institution in Encinitas.

Miller is one of the first Americans to be certified by Ashtanga guru Pattabhi Jois and open up a western-style yoga center in Encinitas.

But according to Miller, he wasn’t the first to open a studio in town. “The first yoga studio in Encinitas that I know of was opened by David Williams around 1974. Williams was the first American to bring the teachings of Ashtanga back to the states.”

Williams brought Jois and his son, Manju, to Encinitas in 1976. Williams eventually moved to Maui. Miller, who began practicing in 1978 out of the long-gone Ashtanga Yoga Nilaya on the corner of La Veta and Marcheta, and the St. Anderws Episcopal Church in 1981, became the main source of Ashtanga yoga instruction.

“When I first began practicing, yoga classes cost two dollars,” says Miller, who has kept his Ashtanga Yoga Center going, albeit relocating half a dozen times.

Unlike modern yoga amenities such as heated rooms, mats, straps, blocks and fluffy cushions, yoga in Miller’s day was a spartan affair.

“The old church had no electricity, no heat and no bathroom,” says Miller. “We used a portable toilet and we practiced on carpet remnants. Today we have a state-of-the-art studio with fancy lighting, heating and air conditioning, wood floors, plus a boutique that sells the latest yoga wear and mats.”

Miller has taught students who eventually opened up their own centers in San Diego, Del Mar, San Marcos and Dana Point, and other places scattered around the country.

One of Miller’s students, Dennis Dean, opened Yoga Mandiram two years ago in Cardiff. Dean’s tiny studio is sandwiched between the Subway and dry cleaner on San Elijo Avenue.

Michael Oyster, a piano teacher is a devoted Yoga Mandiram regular.

“It’s a great little studio,” he says. “They have a yoga wall with holes to place straps in, which helps you get a better stretch. They also have great props to help you learn how to do backbends and progressively advance into more challenging postures.”

Miller claims that he’s not miffed that Dean opened up another Ashtanga-style studio in Encinitas.

“He did it with my blessing,” he says. “They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so it would be silly for me to object to people following in my footsteps.”

Peri Ness was briefly a student of Miller’s 20 years ago and is perhaps the other main source and purveyor of downward dogs and sun salutations in Encinitas.

Ness, who came to Encinitas via South Africa, was initiated into Kriya Yoga at the age of two, when she was influenced by two direct disciples of SRF founder, Yogananda.

Ness opened Synergy Yoga Center in 1992 and has been teaching the same 39-asana (posture) flow, to thousands of practitioners, several of whom opened their own centers, including Tom Kelly, a former SRF monk of 25 years, who opened Soul of Yoga five years ago off of Encinitas Boulevard.

Synergy is located next door to the SRF temple and it’s no coincidence that Ness’ center is closely tied with the teachings of the SRF. Gracing the walls of the entrance to Synergy are pictures of Yogananda.

Ness, who does not grant interviews, has personal assistants respond to the media inquiries.

According to one of those assistants, Ness’ position is that Encinitas attracts many yogis because of Yogananda’s spiritual vibration.

“They say an avatar’s vibration will last a millennium,” claims the assistant. “Encinitas has as high of a vibration as any of the holiest temples in India, Jerusalem or Tibet. He (Yogananda) is known as a world avatar and even if he isn’t your direct guru, he can guide you to yours and help you anytime that you ask of him,” adds the assistant.

While some may feel Ness’ views reek of dogma, Synergy Yoga remains one of the most popular studios in town and also offers a teacher training program.

Melody Clark, a nurse at Scripps Encinitas, loves taking classes at Synergy.

“After my stressful day at work, the last thing I want to do is think during yoga class,” she says. “I love knowing what posture is coming up next.”

But Bill Gerber, a Cardiff-based inventor and Clark’s boyfriend prefers to take classes at Yoga Tropics. Like his girlfriend, Gerber takes yoga to de-stress.

“There’s no way excessive stress is a part of my life as long as I’m practicing yoga,” he says.

Many Encinitas yogis would no doubt Om in agreement. 

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.