The Origins of Yoga in Louisville


Photo by Katie Marie Photographie

Yoga is big business in America. The 2016 Yoga in America Study by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs found that there where over 36.7 million practitioners in 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012, and that yoga students spend $16 billion per year on classes, gear and equipment, up from $10 billion in 2012. Louisville is no exception to this trend. Besides studio openings all over town, Derby City offers yoga teacher training in several styles and dozens of freshly minted yoga teachers eager to share their passion for the practice. In light of all the growth and popularity of yoga, it is interesting to look to the origins of yoga in Louisville and the teachers who started the first studios and have trained a generation of yogis who now carry the traditions forward.

The local yoga community, in the late 1970s through the 1980s, was a tightly knit community with teachers of various styles often practicing and attending workshops together. Yoga was a far more esoteric and little known discipline then, far from the ubiquitous images of fit women in branded athleisure gear in tree pose we now associate with some popular studios. Students interested in yoga had to take initiative to seek out teachers and classes.

Several yoga instructors contributed to the research of this topic, including Laura Spaulding of Yoga East, Alex Cleveland of Yoga at Crescent Hill, Betsy Jones of Betsy’s Hot Yoga and Theresa Wells, a former instructor of the venerable Orbis Yoga Studio. Their fascinating stories of the earliest teachers and studios with long and rich traditions is worthy of a book. Perhaps someday it will be documented fully, but for now, they pass along a brief snapshot of their history.

photo by Nerissa Sparkman

Laura Spaulding teaches regularly at Yoga East (yogaeast.org). Photo by Nerissa Sparkman.

In the beginning,
there were three

The practice of doing asana together in a studio can be traced in Louisville to the mid-1970s; however, as this city has always been a spiritual hub, it is very likely that there are earlier practitioners inspired by yogis such as the great Pramahansa Yogananda who toured the United States extensively teaching the philosophy of yoga and meditation. Laura Spaulding and Alex Cleveland recounted several in particular who had studios and were teaching asana (postures) as well as yogic philosophy. In the early 1970s, if you were practicing yoga in Louisville in a class setting, you would have learned from Maja Trigg, who founded Yoga East in 1974, Hellen McMahn and Ruth Allen, who founded the recently shuttered Orbis Yoga in 1975, or Judy Rice, who taught Iyengar yoga at the University of Louisville.

Maja Trigg, Yoga East Founder,yogamajatrigg2
Certified Muktananda Instructor

Laura Spaulding met her teacher, Maja, when she moved to Louisville in 1989 and looked up “yoga” in the yellow pages. The only studio listed was Yoga East so she called Maja and began practicing with her. Maja prepared Laura, Donna O’Bryan and Linda Hodge to keep the tradition going prior to her retirement in 1994. It wasn’t until Maja left that Laura realized that she didn’t know very much about her history. Maja did mention a few things to her students: She had begun her practice in the 1950s and at one point she lived in New York City and hung a shingle somewhere on Fire Island that read “Yoga lessons for $10.” That simple effort was how she got started teaching. It is known that Maja studied under Swami Vishnudevananda Saraswati who started one of the first yoga teacher trainings in the West while she was living in the Bahamas. Later, sometime in the early 1970s, Maja met Swami Muktananda and became one of his students. It was Muktananda who directed her to move back to Kentucky and open a center. The Yoga East studio on Kentucky Street has Maja’s certificate from Muktananda hanging on the wall. Maja opened Yoga East in 1974 and it was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1978. Yoga East continues as a 501(c)(3) dedicated to “Making the benefits of yoga available to Greater Louisville regardless of age, fitness level or ability to pay class fees. The studio has graduated a large number of well-certified and passionate yoga teachers who teach not only in Louisville but throughout the United States and internationally.

Hellen McMahan and Ruth Allen, Iyengar Instructors at Orbis Studio

Alex Cleveland teaches Iyengar Yoga with Kathleen Geile at Yoga at Crescent Hill located at the Crescent Hill United Methodist Church (crescenthillyoga.com). photo by Tim Valentino

Alex Cleveland teaches Iyengar Yoga with Kathleen Geile at Yoga at Crescent Hill located at the Crescent Hill United Methodist Church (crescenthillyoga.com).
photo by Tim Valentino

The Orbis Studio, originally located on Crescent Avenue, operated for 42 years. A teacher and practitioner at Orbis Studio, noted yogi Karin O’Banon taught classes and workshops throughout the United States for decades and worked closely with Hellen and Ruth, perfecting the Orbis Iyengar tradition. Linda Smith continued the Orbis tradition, taking over as director in 2005, and her student Theresa Wells recalled that when she took over the 10 a.m. class from Ruth Allen, most of the practitioners had been together for decades, a few even from the 1970s. The Orbis Studio had two teacher training sessions, producing several well-trained teachers to continue the tradition. Graduates include Theresa Wells, who teaches at Yoga on Baxter, and Lydia Lagnour of Inner Spring Yoga of New Albany. Alas, Orbis finally ran its course. With an aging membership and the growth of yoga occurring mainly in the more strenuous and younger styles, Orbis offered their last class in September of 2015.

Judy Rice, UofL Instructor,
Certified Iyengar Instructor

Judy taught an accredited physical education class in Iyengar Yoga for many years at the University of Louisville. In addition to teaching at UofL, Judy also had a nice home studio from which she taught Iyengar with all of the props you can imagine. Judy was the residential yoga instructor for many years at Fox Hollow resort in Crestwood. Her teachers were Patricia Walden as well as B.K.S, Geeta, and Prashant Iyengar. Judy would travel to India and study with the Iyengars for an entire month for many years. Alex Cleveland was her student and studied with her for almost 20 years. Judy was a very well-known figure in the Louisville yoga scene. Most Louisville yoga practitioners of the era knew her and studied with her.

Diane Rabinowitz and Betsy Jones, Bikram Certified Instructors

Bikram Choudhury made a huge impact on the global yoga scene in general and in the way yoga was perceived and practiced in the United States in particular. While there have been many larger-than-life and famous yoga teachers, Bikram was like a rock star of the yoga scene, popularizing a style consisting of 26 specific postures taught in a 105-degree mirrored room that for many Americans has come to be synonymous with yoga itself. Laura Spaulding told me that the first time she became aware of Bikram was in 1994 when she picked up a copy of “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class” at Hawley-Cooke bookstore and found the concept to be a breath of fresh air to the yoga community. The primary figure for Hot Yoga in Louisville is Betsy Jones, who on January 18 will be celebrating her 20th year as a Louisville studio owner. Betsy said that the first time she practiced Bikram’s method, she begrudgingly agreed to go to a class in Boca Raton with a persistent friend who had repeatedly asked her to try it. In fact, she didn’t know the studio was supposed to be hot and assumed that the air conditioner was on the fritz. However, she fell instantly and completely in love with the practice and soon was practicing six to seven days a week. She made a promise to herself that one day she would teach Bikram Yoga and have her own studio.

Betsy Jones teaches regularly at Betsy’s Studios (betsystudio.com). Photo by Katie Marie Photographie

Betsy Jones teaches regularly at Betsy’s Studios (betsystudio.com).
Photo by Katie Marie Photographie

Upon Betsy’s return to Louisville in the mid-90s, she found a small group of devoted Bikram practitioners led by Diane Rabinowitz who had set up a hot studio in the borrowed space in the basement of an office building on Grinstead. Still pursuing her dream of gettng a viable Bikram studio off the ground, Betsy began leading practices first in a gym and then in an antebellum house in Middletown. With only a small space to work with, Betsy added mirrors and space heaters and in no time, the class was at capacity, with yogis driving in from all over the Louisville area to practice hot yoga. This success gave Betsy the confidence that she could make her dream of owning a studio come true, so she traveled to California to train with Bikram Choudhury for three months and returned to open Louisville’s first Bikram Yoga College of India in the shopping center that is now Westport Village in 1998. Since then, over a dozen of Betsy’s students have also certified in Bikram yoga and returned to Louisville to offer hot classes at Betsy’s and other fine studios.

The yoga tradition in Louisville is a fascinating and complex subject. With the variety that is offered all over the greater Louisville area, there is undoubtedly a regular class near you in a style and pace with which you are comfortable regardless of age, gender or ability.  VT

By Lincoln Snyder