To clearly portray the glow of light that exudes from Hala Khouri, or the twinkle in her eyes is not possible; you experience something far more visceral while taking her class or talking with her. She has an infectious energy that makes you want to be around her. Luckily for us, she continues to mine her inimitable gifts, and she is generous with what she uncovers.
Although we each come to yoga for different reasons, Khouri’s story is as unique as she is. Her profound understanding of yoga developed out of a life-changing event. In 1994, Hala Khouri was diagnosed with cervical dysplasia, one step away from cervical cancer. Her doctor recommended a hysterectomy, but after a month of research, her idea of her body completely changed. She recalls: “I was fit, [but] I wasn’t healthy. That’s when I really discovered yoga, because I realized I was blocking my energy through working out in the gym, especially around my second chakra and my stomach. I stopped doing any type of regular exercise, and I started to practice only yoga. I really got what yoga was about, because I was working on healing my body, not trying to change the shape of my body.” She started to eat a vegan diet, and to understand the difference between health and fitness. She was healing herself from the inside out.
One month later, she went to have surgery and, miraculously, the doctors did not find any cancer cells on her cervix. Hala Khouri asserts: “I believe that I was able to heal myself through yoga, diet, and nutrition.” That was the beginning of Khouri’s real yoga practice. For her, yoga was not about solely performing asana, it became a way of life. Instead of focusing on caloric, protein, or fat intake, she became more concerned if her food was organic, locally produced, and alive. She adds: “Suddenly, moving my body wasn’t about burning calories or building muscle; it became about moving energy and releasing blocks and healing. From that point on, my whole experience of my body and my spirit has been different.”
She continued this newfound lifestyle, studying yoga, meditation, and energetic healing. Hala Khouri got thrown into teaching yoga when a friend needed a substitute. Even though she had ample experience as a personal trainer and an aerobics teacher, she could not yet call herself a yoga teacher. This has been the path of her life – “jump, then learn to swim.” Before she knew she was ready, one of her mentors encouraged her to do a teacher training at Yoga Works in Los Angeles. The wind blew her from New York to LA, and she has been teaching yoga here officially for ten years.
Hala Khouri’s knowledge of psychology is an extension of her work as a yoga teacher. She has always been a scholar, and continues to thrive in the intellectual community with her perpetual academic inquiry. She earned a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Religion from Columbia University. Then she became a somatic counselor, getting a master’s in Clinical Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She trained with Peter Levine in somatic experiencing. Currently, she is working on her doctorate in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in somatic psychology, at the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute.
Somatic psychology is a body-centered discipline of psychology, which claims that the body is the mind, and vice versa. Having a PhD is one way for Khouri to “infiltrate the mainstream” by writing books and “going to the cracks and crevices where yoga isn’t.”
All of this phenomenal training led Hala Khouri to have a private practice in somatic experiencing and traditional psychotherapy. Her passion is to understand the body-mind, and how our history, emotions, and psychological patterns reside in the body. Somatic psychology influences her teaching the most, so the language that she uses when teaching is not always rooted in the Hindu tradition, but more of a psychological, somatic tradition.
Hala Khouri understands that as her students unroll their mats, they are holding on to certain emotions and experiences. She will instruct students to be cognizant of what comes up for them as they are practicing yoga. Students respond well to Khouri’s dialogue because it is tangible to them. She holds a safe and sacred space to digest what is brought to and taken from her class.
Bringing the principles of somatic psychology into yoga is Khouri’s brainchild. She is pioneering this idea through workshops, retreats, and teacher trainings. She believes that the same methodology used to become a psychologist should be employed when yoga teachers are trained. She wanted to provide a place for yoga teachers to process feelings and thoughts that arise while teaching, so she created a yoga teacher support group!
To Hala Khouri, yoga teachers are “like the modern day psychologists, and the philosophers, and the medical doctors of many people. Some of us come to [teaching] because we like to move our bodies, and then we end up dealing with people’s innermost worlds. We get into it without realizing what we are getting into.” Khouri sees other teachers more as kindred spirits than competitors. Having “an amazing tribe” of yoga teachers that she is connected to within the community supports and inspires her teaching. “Our yoga is truly limited if we are on a narcissistic quest for enlightenment. We have to pull back and help others too.”
Her most recent altruistic endeavor involves working with at-risk youth. Hala Khouri is interested in how cycles of violence and addiction are related to gang activity in the inner cities. She suspects that these themes are connected to what is happening in the Middle East. She was born in Beirut, Lebanon, yet she only lived there for three years before her family moved to the States to escape civil warfare. She used to wonder: “Why I am so interested in trauma, why do I get along with gang kids, and why do they open up to me?” As she understands her history more, it makes sense to her why she resonates with this subject matter and how her roots are part of her dharma, or life path. She has a natural ability to work effectively with trauma victims, and uses yoga as a tool for transformation.
One of her goals for this year is to implement a yoga program in juvenile halls. She and a few other teachers will be instructing one group of boys and one group of girls, and then doing assessments. In addition, she plans on creating a teacher training on how to teach people self-regulation, how to work with trauma, and how to handle at-risk youth. Ultimately, her vision is to have this type of teacher training all around the country so it becomes an ingrained part of the juvenile justice system.
Whether Hala Khouri is teaching gang members, grandmothers, or celebrities, the fact that she gets to teach everyday is a gift that she gives herself and in turn to others. She feels most creative and inspired when teaching: “Every time I walk in to the room, there is a blank canvas and we are all co-creating this piece of art together.” Her innovations in the yoga world are making lasting imprints on all those affected. Khouri’s enthusiasm and genuine nature are quite palpable. She shares that “as a teacher, you are always called to be as authentic as possible, so no matter what I am going through in my life, I can’t hide behind it if I want to be a good teacher. If I am going through something difficult, I have to show up in the difficulty and not pretend that it’s not there [or] not identify with it fully. Being a teacher forces me to know who I am and be really loving with myself, because it is what I want to teach to others.”