Fashion designer Donna Karan has added another item to her résumé: international wellness crusader. Her passion project, The Urban Zen Foundation, states its mission thus:
The Urban Zen Foundation creates, connects and collaborates to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of well-being, preserving cultures and empowering children. We design forums, partner with existing organizations and bring together experts to define solutions and implement action.
Karan's interest in well-being has roots in the deaths of her husband, Stephan Weiss, and her dear friend, photographer Lynn Kohlman, who succumbed to cancer in 2001 and 2008, respectively. Karan told The New York Times in 2008, "Nobody was looking at [Stephan] holistically as a patient. How do you treat the patient at the mind-body level? Not only the patient but the loved one?"
Karan founded The Urban Zen Foundation in the months after her husband's death, and in 2008 the foundation donated nearly $1 million to the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Shortly thereafter, the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) Program was born. The fulcrum of the UZIT program is the integration of yoga, meditation and aromatherapy into conventional treatment regimens. Karan sees treating patients as people, individuals and loved ones as the key to well-being.
The Huffington Post caught up with Karan in Los Angeles May 3 at the Milken Global Conference, where we sat down to discuss the Urban Zen Foundation, spirituality and her predictions for the future of wellness.
HuffPost: You've spoken about blending commerce and philanthropy, and how beneficial a human touch is. Do you believe philanthropists have an obligation for a human connection to their cause?
Donna Karan: You have to be touched by something, I mean, why do you buy whatever you buy? Because you feel something about it... If there is no feeling related to it, then why do it?
I mean, the world needs help, and we cannot keep pointing our finger at the government. It's about us curing it. You know, when we all say, "It's his fault," well, it's not his fault, it's our fault. We can create the future, not the government, and it really is about the massive movement.
I think philanthropy has a strange understanding about it. People think it is just giving money and getting a tax write-off. We're in a position that in our lives, the rule of life is giving. You will feel better if you give. But of course, giving on something that you care about is far more important. You really need to get involved with a group of people that want to make a change in this world.
HP: Like-minded individuals are key to this.
DK: Exactly, you get into a group of like-minded people that want to give and then in fact, that is the key to philanthropy. I believe in philanthropy and commerce as a new model of doing business, where you can buy something and make a difference in the world -- like these bracelets I did in Haiti. I'm in love with them, I'm going to help the Haiti people, I got a great design, I can share it with the world, and there is a soul. There is a soul about these; you know they came from these people who created them -- my God, I haven't seen things like this before, and I know there was that person behind it, and I was there helping them. Its sort of like -- I hate to say it -- an addiction, and it's the best addition I could have.
HP: One of the true, fundamental building blocks of what you do with Urban Zen is the preservation of cultures. But the Milken Conference is so forward-thinking, and it brings what is most innovative to the forefront. How do you balance that?
DK: What is the newest thing that we are living in today? We are living in the world of chaos. Everybody is looking for the answer. Be aware of the past to realize where our importance lies. Don't negate the past. Look into the present, and in the present our lives are in chaos, total chaos. So what is the future? How do we correct the chaos that we are in today? Health care is a problem, education is a problem, the energy crisis is a problem. The future is how do we solve these problems? How do we deal with what we have to be here now with, and be here into the future and call in the next generation to say, "We need your help, guys. Were going to be saying goodbye to it at some point, but you guys are the ones that are going to be stuck with it. What kind of life do you want to be stuck with? You have got to engage in the future of tomorrow."
HP: Do you mean the idea of being here now, as in Ram Das' iconic book, "Be Here Now"?
HP: How does your spiritual practice infuse your daily routine, and how has it affected your views on commerce?
DK: On so many different levels ... yoga is part of my body. I took to the mat when I was 18. It was a way of reconnecting with my daughter, and connecting to myself. Then I navigated the world of yoga on many different levels, and I found that I was most in touch with my body instead of in my brain, and then I could find the calm in the chaos. Yoga mind is of so many limbs of yoga. Yoga is not just putting your leg around your head. People say to me, "Are you doing yoga?" And I say, "Yes, I'm breathing." The awareness of what breath work is, the awareness of how to communicate, how to give, how to care, how to share, that's yoga.
HP: What are your thoughts on the next generation?
DK: If I could say anything to the next group, please think of the we, not the me. Please do not think the we is only on Facebook and on the computer. My preservation of cultures is so important to me why? That is where the wisdom lies. All the problems we are having today, we haven't done such a good job. Go back before you go forward. Search out the wisdom, live the wisdom, deal with the present, and think about the future. Also realize that working together, however that works, is the most important thing. You yourself cannot make it happen. It is who you have around you that makes it happen.
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For more information on Donna Karan, Urban Zen Integrative Therapy and The Urban Zen Foundation, visit the foundation on Twitter, Facebook and its website. Urban Zen Retail donates 10 percent of net sales to the foundation. Retail locations can be found in New York City and Sag Harbor, N.Y., and in West Hollywood and Newport Beach, Calif.