Donna Karan urban zen 1From dressing the body to addressing the spirit

Urban Zen Integrative Therapies comes to Los Angeles

An idea can spark a movement that gains momentum and reaches far beyond one person. This is the case with the Urban Zen Integrative Therapies Program, established by fashion designer and long-term yogini Donna Karan. In 2007, the 10-day Urban Zen Well-Being Forum brought together an interdisciplinary group of people interested in change in the healthcare system.

The Urban Zen Foundation then launched the Urban Zen Integrative Therapies Program in 2009, training healthcare providers and experienced yoga teachers in the complementary modalities of yoga therapy, therapeutic use of essential oils, Reiki, nutrition, and contemplative caregiving. A team of teachers and leaders, including Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, Beth Israel Medical Center integrative physician Woodson Merrell, and others, has helped to support and expand the project. In Los Angeles, the Urban Zen Foundation is working with UCLA Medical Center and YogaWorks to train practitioners and offer a means to shift the paradigm around healthcare and to create a community of change.

Donna Karan & Inspiration for Urban Zen Integrative Therapies

LA YOGA: It is my understanding that the inspiration for the Urban Zen Integrative Therapies program came when your husband Stephen was dying of lung cancer in 2001 without access to the types of integrative therapies now offered. What changes have you seen locally, and in the healthcare system as a whole, as a result of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapies Program (UZIT)?

Donna Karan: When I started the program, I was frustrated by the healthcare system because I felt it was only disease-oriented and that nobody was taking care of the patient whether inside or outside the hospital. Providers were being taught by the book. I was fortunate enough to have someone who could take care of my husband holistically, but I wondered, “What do other patients do?”

We hosted a 10-day conference asking how we can shift the healthcare and educational systems. Rodney Yee, my yoga teacher at the time, asked about utilizing the yoga community since a yogi understands the whole mind/body.

Donna Karan urban zen 2I understood that it was not just yoga that was important, but also Reiki, massage, aromatherapy, meditation, and nutrition so we combined these to train integrative therapists. Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman pioneered the project and we worked with Young Living Oils and collaborated with Buddhist Roshi Joan Halifax who works closely with death and dying.

My doctor, Woody Merrell, who is a holistic doctor, said let’s bring the integrative therapists into Beth Israel Hospital in New York.  I wanted to do a study on one floor to see the merit of this program. When it was clinically tested, it was shown that $999,000 of hospital costs were saved as a result over the study period.  There is no question that the response has been phenomenal, yet is still a challenge to get it into hospitals. Now UCLA has picked up the program, and they are astounded by it.

Donna Karan and The Philosophy of Urban Zen

LA YOGA: What is your underlying philosophy driving this initiative?

DK: For me, it’s not only yoga. Most people think that yoga is just putting your legs around your head. Yoga is a sense of being, of being present, and being able to breathe, and to let go.

When I started Urban Zen I was looking at the past, the present, and the future. For me, the past is related to respecting and preserving cultural wisdom, the present is health care, and the future is education. This is a program that should be instituted into every single school because until a child is settled in a centered place, they can’t absorb any information. These three components [cultural wisdom, health care, and education] are necessary for integrating mind, body, and spirit. These are the three components of the Urban Zen Foundation.

Urban Zen is community, consciousness, and change. This is not really about me. It’s about collecting like-minded people together who want to create this change. Urban Zen is about creating a community of connection. Using it as a model, I would love to see the people of LA, Chicago, Idaho, and other places have an Urban Zen.

Right before my husband passed away he said, “Donna, whatever you do, take care of the nurses.” I realized that they were vitally important to the process I lived with for so many years. At the same time they didn’t have the knowledge I was able to bring through the Urban Zen Integrative Therapies.

LA YOGA: Education for healthcare providers is an important piece.

DK: Doctors and nurses must be trained. What is beautiful about UCLA Medical Center is that they are actually teaching the nurses and doctors there.  In terms of the healthcare system, I also believe there are two missing people in the industry today. One is the patient navigator to prevent a patient from becoming lost when they are trying to navigate the healthcare system.  The second is the integrative therapist. Speaking of the integrative therapist, we are working in Haiti now, bringing integrative therapists into Haitian hospitals where the nurses were under a lot of stress. To see these people doing yoga is extraordinary.

Bringing Urban Zen to Haiti

Donna Karan urban zen 3LA YOGA: How did you decide to bring these programs to Haiti?

DK: I stated to work in Haiti after the earthquake. When there, I was inspired by the amount of creativity there and the artistry. This connected to my mission for the preservation of culture. Then when I went into the hospitals—with everything going on there—it was overwhelming. There was a question of how people would be receptive to the integrative therapies. It is astonishing how much they love it. Now my mission is to teach Haitian people so that they themselves can own it.

LA YOGA: You’re offering the training  in Los Angeles through YogaWorks.

DK: We wanted to scale this up and have people learn the program throughout the country. My dream is that this is taught in every single yoga school to give people the opportunity to have the place and space to find the calm in the chaos. That’s what I feel Urban Zen is all about. YogaWorks got it immediately.

Donna Karan and her Yoga Practice

FMT: What inspired you to begin your yoga practice?

DK: I have no clue, really. I started to study yoga when I was 18. When I was young, I wanted to be a dancer; I loved Martha Graham, and the movement of the body. While I love sports and I have always been very active, there was something about the quiet of yoga that I loved. And I love the student-teacher relationship.

Donna Karan and her Home Practice

FMT: How do you integrate some of the other modalities, such as Reiki and aromatherapy, in your own life?

DK: I live with aromatherapy day and night; I even ask people all the time if they want to do a little aromatherapy or a little Reiki. The minute people walk into my home, they ask what they just walked into. I believe in the energy that you set up in your home—you just feel it, so I set up an energy of calm and peace.

FMT: What are some of your favorite oils?

DK: My favorite is Thieves by Young Living. When I feel like I’m getting sick, I even drink it.

FMT: What do you do to help yourself find your own calm within the chaos?

DK: I meditate, practice yoga, use oils, incorporate healthy food (including juicing) and nutrition.

FMT: When you travel to LA, what are your favorite places that you visit to help you maintain your sense of balance?

DK: I’m always there for such short visits. But of course, I really love my store. [Urban Zen, in West Hollywood.] I’m also a Malibu beach nut.

Finding Rewards in Philanthropy

FMT: What have been some of your most rewarding moments doing this work of healthcare and philanthropy?

DK: I love going into the hospitals because I love actually doing the work on people. It’s also very challenging: Designing for me is like kindergarten next to what this is all about. You can dress people on the outside but addressing them on the inside is another world and very challenging.

Designing Urban Zen

Donna Karan urban zen 4FMT: How does your work in fashion and design support Urban Zen?

DK: I started as a designer with a body suit—a body suit since I was interested in yoga from a young age. When I started designing 70 pieces, it was from a yogic mindset. And I realized that as I built my brands Donna Karan and DKNY, I was looking for a brand that wasn’t about a season. But was really about everyday life. If you can’t sleep in it and go out in it then I don’t want to know about it. Right now, I’m in my yoga clothes, this is my core base and everything else is secondary. As far as accessories, I love scarves because I can add them to anything, and dress something up and not have to think about it.

As I was designing the retail environment of Urban Zen, I was influenced by my travels around the world, so I created a retail environment with products showing culture and artistry from around the world, such as Bali, Africa, Haiti. Urban Zen is also a way for me to feature a collection of wardrobe basics, such as a seasonless, timeless, ageless jersey dress.

In dressing rooms, I learn more about customers than anywhere else. It starts with the dress but it is really about what is going on in their lives. That’s when I realized that you can’t only dress them on the outside but you need to address them on the inside. This is where the worlds of philanthropy, commerce, design and creation all come together.

Dreaming What’s Next

FMT: What’s next for you?

DK: I have so many dreams. I wish for a community of change, people who realize that what is needed in education, in hospitals, even in business, is to put the mind, body, and spirit together. I would like to see this happen in nursing schools, for doctors, for everyone.

Yoga is part of this dream because I see that yoga is community-driven. And that is it is one of the tools necessary for the world we live in today. We are living in chaos and uncertainty.

Creating a Community of Change

FMT: This brings up the question, how do we support each other?

DK: For me it is creating a community of change. Yoga is becoming so big and important because it creates a community in class. I prefer going to a class than doing yoga on my own because I like the energy that way.

FMT: What are some of the components you utilize to create calm in your retail store, your home, and in the integrative care programs?

DK: It is energetic—beyond the aromatherapy, there is a soul. You walk into Urban Zen and there is a natural, elemental feeling that entices all of the senses. In New York, the Urban Zen center is where my artist and sculptor husband’s studio used to be and the energy there is amazing.  My husband was an artist and a sculptor and he is in the inspiration for what I do today.

LA YOGA: What have been some of your most surprising moments working on this project?

DK: When I go into hospitals, I’m blown away by the reactions of the patients, nurses, and doctors. Then, the frustration I feel is wondering how I get this out there more. I know we have something great that is not just about me. It’s about the “we” and the collaboration of bringing together the entire community to integrate these concepts in schools, in every single educational curriculum, and into healthcare. These concepts of the yogic mind, yogic practices, Reiki, using essential oils, all of these practices are part of living.

Donna Karan and Urban Zen: Learn More

Visit the Urban Zen retail store, 9045 Nemo Street, West Hollywood. 310-247-1255:

Learn more about the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program:

For more information about Donna Karan visit:


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