On any given day, someone might do a double take outside UC Riverside Registrar Elizabeth Bennett’s office – is she standing on her head?
Yes, she very well could be.
Bennett, who takes classes through UCR Extension’s unique Iyengar Yoga program, sometimes takes a moment from her busy and stressful job to preform a headstand that she learned from her yoga practice.
The headstands, she said, provide many benefits, including increasing her energy level, helping to relieve her chronic shoulder and neck muscle problems and improving her immune system.
“If it weren’t for yoga, I wouldn’t have a professional life,” she says.
For years, Bennett suffered from a variety of increasinglydebilitating symptoms. She could not sit for any length of time. She was losing control of one arm. She suffered from constant pain, had vision problems and was considering the possibility that she might spend the rest of her life disabled.
In 2000, after years of being misdiagnosed, doctors determined that Bennett had Arnold-Chiari Malformation, a condition in which the cerebellum portion of the brain protrudes into the spine.
She underwent surgery to remove portions of bone from the base of her skull and cervical vertebrae to make space for her brain. Surgery took care of the immediate problem, but introduced new ones.
“Basically, my back was messed up,” Bennett said. When Bennett’s massage therapist suggested yoga, she was willing to give it a try. She started practicing at a local studio in Riverside. Her teacher there told her about the Iyengar Yoga program at UC Riverside Extension.
Bennett signed herself up for an asana class at Extension, where she met her current teacher, Deb Murray, a certified Iyengar yoga teacher at Extension and a physical therapist.Murray has been working with Bennett for four years.
The Iyengar Yoga Program at UC Riverside Extension is the first program of its kind.
It was created under the direct guidance of Yogacharya
BKS Iyengar, a world-renowned yoga teacher from Pune, India, who was declared by Time magazine “one of the top 100 most influential people of 2004.” Students can take asana classes or earn one or all three of the certificates offered in the program. The third certificate prepares students to become teachers of yoga.
No other university in the United States offers this program, which was brought to Extension through the efforts of Sheila Dwight, Extension’s associate dean; Gloria Goldberg, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher and director of Extension’s yoga program; Peggy Cleve, Iyengar yoga teacher and English as a Second Language instructor at Extension; and Vivian Nyitray, former chair of Asian Studies at UC Riverside.
Dwight recognized the increasing popularity and importance of yoga in the West. She approached Cleve, who was teaching Iyengar yoga at Extension, about the possibility of a yoga certificate program.
Cleve approached her teacher, Goldberg, who in turn asked her teacher about creating a yoga certificate program. Shri BKS Iyengar personally created the three-year yoga syllabus for Extension.
Nyitray helped present the program to the Academic Senate for approval and served as the vital bridge between the eastern world of yoga and the western world of academia.
“It was a no-lose situation,” Nyitray said. “The instructors had to be up to UC faculty standards. The reading materials had to have rigor. The number of hours had to be commensurate.”
The Iyengar Yoga Certificate Program at Extension also introduces students to the ancient scriptures of yoga, yogic philosophy and yoga’s roots, history and traditions.
“Yoga philosophy makes the ups and downs at work easier to handle,” Bennett said. “I’m responsible for maintaining the academic records of every student who has ever attended UCR. I need to be both connected and stable and at the same time, I need to be flexible. Yoga is an excellent tool to learn how to achieve that balance.”