An Oral History of Yoga in Portland

by Enid Spitz
originally published in Willamette Week
In Portland, yoga began with talks. As early as 1912, when this was a city of 200,000 people, enlightened Portlanders gathered in a grand old building across from today’s Paranoid Park. Clad in straw boaters and hobble skirts, they listened to lectures on “Unseen Realities,” “Eternal Life”  and €œSolving Daily Problems. The local Christian Yoga Society advertised talks delivered by community members, religious figures and the occasional €œvisiting Hindu.
This continued through the ’20s, with even more Indian yogis traveling through Portland to offer philosophy classes. In May 1925, The Oregonian advertised a class with Yogi Sherwal: “Learn How to Get What You Want; How to Control Mind; How to Use the Life Energy Secret of Success.”

Yoga as we know it, with its downward-facing dogs and sun salutations, didn’t really pop up until the ’40s. An American Weekly supplement in a 1942 Oregonian began this way: “Worried about the war? Tense from taxes? Got a double case of the jitters and screaming willies?” The article was particularly supportive of headstands: “In India, the Yogis stand on their heads like this for hours and days at a time.  

By 1965, the downtown YWCA was sponsoring visits from Hatha yoga practitioners like Bala Krishna. 


“Hatha means physical Yoga, as distinct from the other phrases of the ancient Indian practice. Krishna claims that his method of Yoga exercises, practiced for only a few moments each day, is the ‘essence of Yoga for everlasting health.'”

The Oregonian, November 20, 1965


Portland first played an important role in American yoga when, according to local legend, world-renowned yogini Angela Farmer visited in 1967 bearing a bundle of mats she’d discovered in Munich.

“It was nonslip material meant for putting under area rugs. We would have a huge roll and cut it to make mats; some were straighter than others.”

—Julie Lawrence, who founded what was likely Portland’s first legitimate studio, the Julie Lawrence Yoga Center, in 1976 


Even then, yoga drew a wide range of Portlanders.

“I was working as a secretary at Clackamas Community College, but I taught yoga to the staff on lunch break. It was hard enough to get them to take their shoes off. We’d face outward in a circle so the women could lift their legs up onto chairs and stretch. Eventually I could talk them into sitting on the floor. They’d all end up falling asleep.”

—Holiday Johnson, who later established a studio for fitness-oriented yoga called Holiday’s Health & Fitness Yoga, in 1991

“I taught classes to everyone. People saw that this 5,000-year-old approach to health still works and hopped on the bandwagon. I was teaching restaurant staff, attorneys, doctors, artists and people with absolutely no money.”



The famous Bala Krishna made repeat visits.

“Getting all tied up in knots can take away the kinks. ‘You don’t need an instrument, just a piece of towel. It can be done anywhere,’ claims Bala Krishna of India as he demonstrated the art of yoga at the YWCA. ‘By strengthening body and muscles, all the flabby things go away. You cannot get any sick if you practice,’ the instructor insisted with a soft accent, adding, ‘this does not mean any guarantee.'”

The Oregonian, July 29, 1968


Local teachers were just as resourceful as Krishna.

“When we started there wasn’t a lot of money for fancy props; we used men’s neck ties instead of yoga straps.”



“At Bonneville tower, we used phone books as yoga blocks. I did a corporate demo where the audience was in three-piece suits with brown bag lunches, back in the ’80s. They sat in the auditorium and I showed them desk stretches. At the corporate offices, yoga meant stretching in the company gym in between people bicycling.”

—Barbara Fergusson, another early yogipreneur who began teaching Iyengar yoga in 1980 and now co-owns Portland Yoga Arts


Most early classes were unstructured gatherings at community centers like the YMCA and Masonic Lodge halls, surrounded by soup kitchen leftovers and odors far more questionable than sandalwood.


“In the beginning it was a lot of teaching out of church basements and community rooms. Once I was in the middle of leading class and suddenly an entire wedding party walked through to get to the reception. You never knew what you were going to find: Play-Doh on the floor, leftover food from a group meal … it was dicey.”



“I ended up teaching at a Masonic Lodge. There was this velvety red carpet and the whole place smelled like leftover banquet. I couldn’t quite tell: ketchup or champagne?”



The lunchtime and basement yoga caught on. Nike, Portland State University and even Portland’s Chief of Police joined in the city’s collective state of Zen, albeit not without reservation.

“I had a contract with the City of Portland to teach noontime yoga. Chief Moose would help me set up and I would encourage him to come to class. He never did.”



Most were more pliable, and yoga spread to cocaine-snorting college students and musclebound athletes.

“Yoga, which rode into town in Oriental dress during the 1960s, didn’t leave when the enthusiasm for Eastern mysticism died out a decade later. Instead, it adopted Western ways, shedding its spiritual wrapper for a physical fitness emphasis that has made it a fixture in exercise programs at Portland-area colleges and community centers. Yoga, which once meant striking a meditative pose in a countercultural context, has become as American as baseball.”

The Oregonian, May 1, 1981


“Eventually Nike and Portland State brought yoga in for their athletes. The football players were huge and probably thought this tiny 5’2″ woman couldn’t do anything with them. Then I had them do chaturanga and all of a sudden they start sweating and their eyes would get big and they’d shake. I eventually convinced PSU to pay me. It was $2 a student for 10 years.”



“I saw everything. I taught 100 students in my classes at PSU in the ’80s. We were in the wrestling room—it really smelled! Students were experimenting with all the trends and drugs, so I saw piercings become popular, and people came to yoga class with powdered noses.”



“Women would wear these one-piece leotards to yoga. That’s all there was. They would ride up, but they were great motivation for fitness because they showed every pound. I still have a hot pink one in my closet I saved to show the grandchildren.”



Through the ’80s, Portland grew enough students to warrant its own yoga festival, a visiting Swami, signature fashion and scandal. There were even yoga groupies. 

“I was invited to stay in a dear friend’s house during workshop in ’79 or ’80. Swami Satchidananda had just stayed there and as my friend took me to where I’d sleep she said, ‘This was Swami Satchidananda’s room and when he left, a group of his women students came and searched desperately in his sheets for a “talisman”… a pubic hair possibly left behind!'”

—Angela Farmer


“Since those days, the commercialization of yoga has almost been obscene. You can do yoga without an $80 outfit. I think we should be careful not to sell out yoga.”



Lawrence’s price point used to be $20 for eight weeks. Today, $20 at Yoga Pearl would cover one class, and possibly a mat rental. But there are cheaper alternatives (see here)—and supplies.

“The best thing about yoga being so popular now is that you can find great yoga pants at Goodwill.”