When Erica Kaufman first encountered India, she felt an instant bond.
Kaufman, a master yoga practitioner and instructor who owns Lila Yoga Studios in downtown State College, has made several trips to India to study and teach her passion. She’s there again now, in the southern city of Chennai, with some of her students for nearly three weeks.
But her initial visit two years ago will always hold a special place in her heart.
“I loved India,” she said. “I felt like I was meeting a relative that I had never met.”
Since childhood, she had studied the teachings of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, known as the father of modern yoga. She had gone on to found her trademarked form, Lila Yoga, based on Krishnamacharya’s ideas and the philosophy of the Indian writer Jiddu Krishnamurti.
Then she came face to face with the subcontinent, and all its vivid colors, kinetic daily life and diffuse spirituality. She fell right into her advanced studies at Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, comfortable with the culture, at ease with practicing yoga in the company of 600 others.
“I guess it’s an extension of me,” she said. “I’m interested in India, and I’ve learned from my experiences there. It’s a second home.”
She treasures the memory of her first meeting with yogis.
“They were equally interested in me as I was with them,” she said. “It brought tears to my eyes to be in their company.”
Poor health brought her into the yoga community at age 9.
As a sickly child living in Israel in the 1960s and early 1970s, Kaufman suffered from asthma and eczema. Her mother, a student of Krishnamacharya’s yoga, thought it would help.
Kaufman, buoyed by maternal love and support, took to it immediately. Yoga gave her not only special time with her mother, but also a respite from discomfort.
“It was just an amazing thing for me to have a period of time when I wasn’t preoccupied with symptoms,” she said. “I didn’t need discipline to practice yoga. I was authentically eager to do this.”
After moving to the United States at 12, she deepened her studies, progressing to the point of teaching others. It wasn’t a goal; it just happened naturally as yoga students sought her help.
“It was clear that teaching, that being able to share these things that I had observed, was sensitized to, was something that was right,” she said.
“If I hadn’t done it, I would have been resisting what was very strong, and very positive and natural. I would have been in denial.”
In 2010, she opened the Lila Yoga Studios at 103 E. Beaver Ave., drawing on her extensive teaching experience.
Besides Chennai and Bangalore in India, her career as an instructor has taken her to Carnegie Institute; the Wyoming Fine Arts Center in Cincinnati; the University of Marburg in Germany; the University of Denver and Juniata College.
Over time, she formed a style blending postures, breath work and meditation — one that seeks to build creativity and strength by, according to the Lila Yoga website, “awakening energy pathways within the body, and uniting them with the currents of energy around us.” Rather than an end, yoga postures become a means of “clarifying the direction and intensity of these pathways.”
“Using the body as a tool to understand the mind, Lila Yoga is a philosophy in motion — a meditation in motion,” Kaufman wrote on her website.
She’s also accomplished in actual motion.
At Temple University, she earned an undergraduate dance degree and then a master of fine arts in dance, choreography and movement studies. From 1991 to 1995, she taught dance at Penn State.
At present, she performs and teaches Contact Improvisation, a contemporary dance form in which partners perform routines revolving around touching. Along with yoga, she has conducted dance classes in India.
Teaching overseas has been a rewarding challenge, she said. She quickly discovered that, when it comes to yoga, Indians can be a tough audience.
“If they find you entertaining, they will stay and listen,” she said. “If they don’t, they’re gone in a heartbeat.”
Back in State College — where Tibetan prayer flags, meditative crystal singing bowls and hand-blown glass prayer beads from Jerusalem adorn her studio, symbolizing her cross-cultural spirituality — she couldn’t be happier instructing her college town mix of students. In fact, she feels blessed.
Life’s currents have brought her, husband Nonny Schlotzhauer and their two teenage daughters, Sonia and Maya Kaufman, to State College, and she’s going with the flow.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be entrusted as an experienced teacher, and I take it seriously. I think I’m a very casual person in my demeanor, but when I start work, there’s nothing casual about it.”
— Chris Rosenblum