Julie Kimball leads yoga students in triangle pose from the center of a circle in the Martial Arts room. Her style is influenced by Iyengar yoga, which often uses blocks and other props to reach different asanas, or poses. Photo by Morgan Grana.
Julie Kimball leads yoga students in triangle pose from the center of a circle in the Martial Arts room. Her style is influenced by Iyengar yoga, which often uses blocks and other props to reach different asanas, or poses. Photo by Morgan Grana.
Photo by Morgan Grana.
Photo by Morgan Grana.

Bare feet stretch toward the sky while bodies twist and coil, heaving deep breaths all throughout the city.

Since the Beatles-induced Maharishi wave of the ’60s, yoga and Santa Cruz have cultivated an organic and intertwined relationship. Santa Cruz is home to roughly 20 different yoga venues, each with a varying technique and purpose. The compatibility of the practice with the town seems to stem from the general personality type that gravitates towards Santa Cruz.

Don Bard, a UC Santa Cruz faculty member and local yoga instructor, attributed the prevalence of yoga in Santa Cruz to the demographic of the student body at UCSC.

“I think there’s a lot of classes offered here because it’s a university town,” Bard said. “I think Santa Cruz draws environmental, spiritual, in-tune students anyways, because of the ocean and landscape.”

In a similarly organic process, many of the prominent yoga instructors who now work in Santa Cruz began their yoga exploration as students on the UCSC campus.

Julie Kimball is one such instructor. She has experienced the connection between yoga and Santa Cruz firsthand.

“What’s neat about Santa Cruz is people learn to learn here. There is nothing that feels better than being in that flow of purpose. In Santa Cruz that flow could be found in surfing, hiking, in the woods — there are so many ways to learn here,” Kimball said. “You add on yoga as a way to heal or add to that flow of purpose — I think that’s why we have so many yoga teachers here.”

If You’re Always Content, You Never Learn

Her bare feet padded across the mint-green mat. Kimball pointed to three red words scrawled on a whiteboard: “Sat Chit Ananda.” She repeated the words aloud to a room of students who smiled up from the martial arts room floor.

“Thank you for being here,” Kimball said.

Kimball arrived in Santa Cruz in 1974, and her journey into yoga began soon after.

“I wanted something exercise-related to do here, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try yoga,’” said Kimball, whose first yoga experience was in a UCSC physical education yoga class, much like the ones she now instructs.

After graduating from UCSC with a degree in German literature, Kimball embarked on world travels to Ecuador, Japan and India, where she received intensive yoga training.

In India, Kimball studied at the Iyengar Institute of Yoga under B.K.S. Iyengar, known as one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world and the founder of Iyengar Yoga itself. The practice is known for its use of props such as belts and blocks. It is also a form of Hatha yoga, which focuses on the structural alignment of the physical body through the development of asanas, or postures.

“Watching [Iyengar] teach students was really a kick,” Kimball said. “He was very hard on us physically, but I came to realize a lot of his physical harshness was designed to slap down that very large ego that many of us Westerners have. Once you hung with him long enough you’d realize it was a game to get us to be more sensory.”

Kimball subsequently embarked upon several return trips to study with Iyengar in India to hone her practice.

Eventually returning to Santa Cruz, she has been teaching yoga to UCSC students since 1982. Her classes are offered by the Office of Physical Education and Recreation (OPERS).

Eve Wheatley is a third-year Cowell student who has been practicing yoga since she was 15, most recently with Kimball.

“I’ve gone through a lot of different studios and a lot of different styles, and I’d say [Kimball] is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” Wheatley said. “She allows you to get inside of your body in a way that other yoga classes and instructors haven’t. I usually feel very calm after her classes. I leave looking around at the world, humming or whistling, like ‘Oh look at the birds,’ or ‘Look at those trees!’”

Classes with Kimball are more slow-moving than some of the other styles found on campus. They focus in on different parts of anatomy in correspondence with yoga positions.

Kimball said her teaching philosophy and yoga method stem both from her training with Iyengar and her time spent in Santa Cruz. She also draws inspiration from a great collection of literature she has studied, noting especially the book “Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell.

Chris Spencer is a recent UCSC graduate and part time stand-up comedian who took Kimball’s class for three quarters. He continues to practice yoga almost daily and said Kimball was an enlightened teacher whose class inspired him to continue with yoga.

“I loved when [Kimball] would make jokes,” Spencer said. “She’d say something like, ‘There’s a lot of tension between India and Pakistan right now, much like the tension between the liver and the kidney. We’re going to do a stretch to lubricate our liver and kidney, and then hopefully Pakistan and India will get along better too.’”

Kimball’s method is to teach with the students, rather than to them. She describes herself as a “rebel” and says she understands that when told to do something, many naturally resist. Her method chooses to educate rather than coach.

“If you’re always content, you never take risks and you never learn,” Kimball said as she sat cross-legged, with perfect posture, at the end of one of her classes in the martial arts room on the UCSC campus. “I think it’s really important for students to learn to be comfortable with things they don’t understand — we’re used to things that are palatable, and we need to become comfortable, relaxed with things much bigger than us, because most things are.”

Endless World in the City

Ask anyone who knows a thing or two about yoga, and they will tell you there are literally too many different styles and strains of yoga to count.

“The first thing you’ll learn about the world of yoga is that it is huge!” Kimball said.

The UCSC campus alone offers Bikram, Warrior and Hatha yoga classes every single quarter, and other more specific types flutter through intermittently.

This quarter, OPERS offers five yoga classes, four of which are taught by Kimball.

Yoga classes taught through OPERS have historically been free of charge, but as of this quarter, budget cuts have resulted in a $10 fee per quarter, per student enrolled in the class.

According to Katie Taylor, the reception center supervisor and administrative assistant for OPERS, physical education usually offers between five to seven yoga classes per quarter.

“Yoga tends to be fairly popular. All yoga classes tend to be full and the instructors have additional people who want to take them,” Taylor said. “The $10 fee has not really affected yoga enrollment.”

In addition to the yoga programs on-campus, many other styles and studios can be found in the city of Santa Cruz. The One Yoga Center offers flowing, stronger styles of yoga; Village Yoga features Bikram hot yoga; other classes can also be taken at the Pacific Cultural Center, Mount Madonna Center and the Veterans Hall. In addition, small private practices dot the town and many larger gyms, such as 24-Hour Fitness, Gold’s Gym and Spa Fitness offer weekly classes (see guide on p. 20).

Yoga Center Santa Cruz is one of the largest and oldest venues for yoga in the city. Like Kimball, the center bases its practice on Iyengar’s yoga method.

Maya Lev has been the director of Yoga Center Santa Cruz for 13 years. Lev also started her yoga journey at UCSC, and like many, stumbled on her passion for yoga by chance.

“My instructor at the time introduced me to the idea that you could separate one part of your mind from another,” Lev said. “When I studied yoga it was really just by chance. I had a roommate who was enthusiastic about it so I tried it out. It’s become a lifelong project.”

Lev was a Kresge student who graduated from UCSC with degrees in psychology and women’s studies in the eighties. While at UCSC she also took classes from Kimball, who served as an inspiring mentor.

“I remember once we were doing a challenging pose in one of her classes, and [Kimball] said you could fall asleep in that pose. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But now I could fall asleep in that pose,” Lev explained. “If you choose to stick with it, [yoga] will benefit you in ways that are beyond your wildest imagination.”

Yoga instructors in Santa Cruz come from outside of the city as well.

Don Bard works full-time for the ocean sciences department at UCSC. He teaches yoga for Cabrillo College’s physical education department, a yoga class for the city of Scotts Valley Parks and Recreation, as well as a drop-in yoga class for staff, faculty and retirees three days a week at the Wellness Center on campus.

Bard emphasized yoga’s tendency to start as a physical activity, and blossom into much more.

“[Yoga is] a good way for people to meet their physical and spiritual needs,” Bard said. “I like that it’s a meditative practice. In my humble opinion that’s what yoga is all about. Yoga is a meditation.”

Abbey Asher runs the College Nine & Ten service learning program at UCSC. She stumbled into yoga as a way to de-stress after having children in her thirties.

She now teaches yoga on campus and at Yoga Center Santa Cruz. Asher also studied at the Iyengar Institute in India after a bit of encouragement from Kimball, and said it benefited her experience with yoga immensely.

However, unlike many yoga instructors, teaching yoga was never Asher’s goal.

“I fell into teaching, I didn’t really choose. Around the same time the university and Yoga Center Santa Cruz asked me, ‘Do you want to teach here?’ I thought, ‘Maybe it’s a calling,’” Asher said. “Now I love to teach.”

After her experiences teaching and getting to know the community, Asher said it’s no surprise that Yoga has such a strong following in Santa Cruz.

“Life is slower here. There’s a lot of alternative medicine here, there’s a lot of massage. . .this type of community encourages an alternative lifestyle. People are open-minded and searching for their spirituality here. People are interested in taking care of themselves here. People love nature here, love the outdoors. It’s that kind of a community.”

Yoga centers of various shapes and sizes dot the city of Santa Cruz.
Yoga centers of various shapes and sizes dot the city of Santa Cruz. 1. Village Yoga offers a form of Bikram hot yoga. 2. Veterans Hall Yoga offers a multitude of styles depending on instructor. 3. One Yoga Center is home to flowing, strong styles of yoga. 4. Pacific Yoga Cultural Center is a mixed-use facility that offers the Ashtanga style of yoga. Illustration by Maggie McManus.