Saturday, June 9, 2012

Guest Post by Linda McLean: In Search of Kripalu: A Yogi’s Journey to Find the Heart of Perennial Wisdom

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 T he other day, I remembered the face of a friend I have not seen since I started my PhD. He stood barefoot and laughing in front of the lead-pane window of the yoga studio, a dozen wiry wrinkles fanning across his hollow face, mapping his story in ways he never quite spoke, but I extrapolated. After we parted ways, my serpentine recollections of that yoga class took on a cinematic quality, a life of their own that I'm sure contributed well towards the development of my own wrinkles, those physical inscriptions of the days we spent together. Though time has passed, I still find that I still carry on an internal dialogue with that 'laughing man', responding and reacting from a greater distance, just as I recall the faces of so many others who shared that class.

I think this is what friendships do. They create conversations - not just between yourself and the other, but between yourself and your multiple selves till you've become so porous that all kinds of people live "under your skin." Sure, people move on... yet you keep talking to them out there on the fringe, hearing their voices.  Maybe that's what the man from Galilee meant when he apparently said, "Wherever two or more are gathered, I am there?" Or, perhaps Raman Maharshi's words are useful here, "there are no others." And so it is, that I remember a conversation I recently shared with my dear friend Linda McLean.

(Linda McLean)
Linda McLean, MEd, CYT, is a singer songwriter and dedicated yoga practitioner. She’s lead singer and songwriter in Linda McLean Band, co- owner and operator of Mandolin Records, and has written and recorded and promoted 4 albums of original music. She’s teacher-trained in Alexander Technique, and has integrated and taught this unique body awareness principle while working as a professional actor. She has a Masters of Ed from OISE/UToronto, specializing in Holistic Learning and Arts Education, and was a founding faculty member in Seneca College’s Independent Music Production program, developing courses in Songwriting and Artist Development. She completed her yoga teacher training at YogaSpace in Toronto, and yoga massage at Ahimsa Wellness Centre in Muskoka. She teaches early Saturday morning Vinyasa at Sacred Breath Yoga studio in Muskoka, shares Vinyasa Wednesdays at YogaSpace in Toronto with her yoga teacher friends, and has opened a private studio in Toronto where she works one-on-one with students to help them develop a personal practice and integrate yoga into their lives.

Our conversation happened on one of those unusually warm first days of spring that turns the streets of Toronto into a frantic parade of flip-flops and daisy-dukes. (We in the northern climes seem to lose it at the first sight of the sun). That day Linda had come to take the yoga class I teach on Tuesday mornings; as we crossed the street wondering whether we could abandon boots for sandals, she said with unusual prescience:

"We will still get another snow. We always do."

I suppose Linda would know. She leads at least half her life up in the north country and she speaks as if she's long known the panorama of Ontario's protean seasons and its transitional storms. Speaking likewise in rural swells and intuitive horizontals, Linda happened to mention that she would be doing a Kripalu retreat the following week and I jumped on the opportunity to have her blog about it. As you will see, her guest post for this blog takes you where all conversations with friends lead: to those places you couldn't or wouldn't journey alone.

It also turns out Linda was dead-on about the weather. It wasn’t a week before we got another resounding gust of winter.

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  In Search of Kripalu: A Yogi’s Journey to Find the Heart of Perennial Wisdom

by Linda McLean, M Ed, Songwriter and Yoga Teacher

I ’ve been reading Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga and find myself practicing pranayama continuously as I wind my way along the Mass Pike through the Berkshire mountains to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. “Follow the movement of the breath in the body, feeling the inhalation from the center of the collarbone, down through the rib cage to the diaphragm, and following the exhale upward from the abdomen.”  The attention on breathing brings me perpetually to a still and grounded place in my body, even as I’m hurtling along a major US Interstate highway. The technique neutralizes for a time the endless mind chatter, and my thinking becomes like a translucent line flapping across a screen, until, forgetting my breath, the thoughts resume, and I’m once again preoccupied with trying to figure out what I’m hoping to ‘get’ during my stay at Kripalu.


I love my decision to return to this yogic mecca, as I think of it, especially now that I’m a full-fledged yoga teacher. I’ve felt connected to the place for more than a decade, first through many mornings spent practicing yoga to Kripalu produced instructional videos, Gentle and Intermediate, and then through various positive reports from friends and colleagues who’ve attended either their schools for Yoga or Ayurveda, or both. And now, on my second annual R&R visit, I’m ready to jump in with full yogi consciousness and soak in all the retreating and renewing the Kripalu Center can offer up: over 44 hours.

If I’m honest, its not only my desperate need for rest that’s set me on this journey. There’s a big part of my voyeuristic self that wants to uncover the recipe for the secret sauce, so to speak. What is it about Kripalu that attracts tens of thousands of visitors and generates revenue of $30 million annually? How did it come to be the biggest, most established yoga retreat in North America? Clearly, there’s some successful marketing going on, a strong branding, strategically sent across a continuum of public messaging. Who wouldn’t want to take a “Reinvigorating Retreat” or better yet, “Transform Your Life” or “Be Transformed.”   The “welcome” note in their ‘Summer 2012’ brochure says it best:

“In 1972, a small yoga retreat called Kripalu Center was founded in Sumneytown, Pennsylvania. Now, 40 years later, Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, continues to flourish as we integrate our core yogic teachings with psychology, science, Western healing, and self-development techniques to create groundbreaking approaches to health and well-being.” 

(Berkshires, photo Linda McLean)
Each week, the center offers a dozen or more unique workshops, designed and led by luminaries from across the yoga and wellness spectrum; there are live-in Teacher Training programs in Yoga and Ayurveda offered several times a year, special intensive programs offered both on-campus and on-line; and on a daily basis, there are drop-in yoga classes, workshops and activities available for the picking. And on top of all this, they’ve created an Institute for Extraordinary Living (IEL), they proclaim is, “changing the world through yoga research.”

 ‘Love Love Love it.’ I think to myself.  ‘Who out there isn’t in need of some change?’ I hear my little pea brain ask intermittently, between pranayama, feelings of deep elation and intense gratitude, and the concentration required to dodge slow moving vehicles as I accumulate altitude on my way up the Berkshires. And when my little pea brain gets loud enough I can hear her echo the imperturbable core of my ever hopeful belief that says, ‘There’s got to be some mysterious current running there, something of the ever elusive mysterious essential ingredient of life force; part space, part electricity, part joy, (as Michael Stone describes it), and as Desikachar writes, “that which is infinitely everywhere.” I know it’s a naive question, but I can’t help myself from wondering, ‘Is Kripalu Center’s success based on some bigger, better form of prana?

(Kripalu parking, http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/)
Last year, I didn’t know to think of prana. Yoga had only recently, in Vanda Scaravelli’s words,  ‘pulled me up by the hair and put me on her path’, and overwhelmed most other passions in my life.  Through teaching I witness how the practice of asana opens the flow of prana, and know with certainty the power of yoga to positively transform a person’s way of being in the world.  Extrapolating from personal experience then, and multiplying the flow of prana by the thousands of yoga devotees who’ve gathered in morning practice and meditation in this place since 1983, it makes sense that prana would flow with greater velocity at Kripalu.  Doesn’t it?

So here I am, standing with my plastic key insert in front of my dormitory,  wondering who fate is aligning me with this time, and more importantly, through what conditions I’ll have to negotiate my few hours of nightly sleep. I open the door and find I have five beds to choose from. Life, as usual, had not conformed to my expectation. This is feeling like a real retreat. I’ll have to remind myself I’m here to probe this later. Right now, I’ll change into some stretchy pants, grab my mat, and head to the evening ‘moderate’ yoga class.

Kripalu’s brand of yoga is drawn from what they term Sanatana Dharma, a Hindu philosophy based on the idea there is a single universal truth that can be attained through many different paths. Kripalu Center translates Sanatana Dharma as Perrennial Wisdom. Appropriate term, suggesting a spiritual lineage in line with the vision to grow Kripalu yoga around the world. That was the thrust behind the creation of IEL, whose mission statement begins with an intriguing and telling question, “What if the practice of yoga and meditation were to become an integral component of daily life, as routine a part of our ecology-of-living as brushing our teeth?”

(Linda McLean)
Kripalu teaches a primary concern for mindfulness during yoga practice. Generally, a class begins with warm-ups focused on breathing deeply into the belly with a bit of limb moving here and there.  The middle section of a 75-minute class, moderate or gentle, is usually built on a random series of traditional hatha poses where teachers continually remind students to “be aware of how you’re feeling now”. About five minutes before  Savasana, there is an invitation to “explore any poses you feel you need to add to your practice today.” This part, I know, is signature Kripalu yoga, what I’ve heard referred to as “Mindfulness in Motion.” Catchy term. It was coined by Amrit Desai, the yoga master who originally founded the Kripalu Center. Desai, or Gurudev as his followers referred to him, based his teachings on what he learned from his own guru in India, Swami Kripalvananda, for whom Kripalu is named.

I left the yoga class feeling “OK”, and, really looking forward to dinner. I learned how delicious the food was last year. But when I enter the dining hall, I pick up a kind of heaviness in the air. I opt to sit alone and eat silently, and notice a lot of people are staring down at their plates, or talking quietly in groups of two or three. After dinner, I find myself walking in circles around Shadowbrook, the main building of Kripalu Center, along wide hallways, past offices, glancing into rooms and studios, standing outside closed doors wondering if I should peek in, and generally meandering like a character in an Edith Wharton novel searching for the secret door to the room that hides the heart of the place. I go outside to sit on a bench and mindfully watch the light transform on a western ridge. Then I walk up to the fourth floor Sun Room and find a comfortable chair and open myself to the moment. Finally I make my way down to the Orchard Room and attend a one hour workshop called, ‘The Art of Receiving.”  Ok, I think, as I massage my receptors, this is how my r&r experience is going to pan out. I’m here to collect experience. The one-hour workshop whets my appetite for stillness, and I end my evening with 30 minutes of pranayama, alone in the fourth floor Meditation Room before turning in for the night. 

Next morning, after early yoga and a big healthy breakfast, I check out the message board and realize the energy I’m picking up could be due to some heavy-duty workshops going on this week. The theme’s are all about detoxing and developing new relationship with food, and nurturing the body. Spring cleaning type workshops. No wonder there’s a feeling of struggle all around me. I decide to take a walk to the “Lake” and feel the warm sun on my hair. My mood brightens immediately.  This is sacred ground. I feel the certainty of it as I take slow measured steps along the path.  I have an overwhelming sense the forest is watching me, opening itself to my attention, and willing me to respond. For the first time since I came to Kripalu I feel like I’m having a conversation. It’s as if my admiration of the trees and forest floor is being received and then returned to me in triplicate.  I’m filled with deep gratitude, my smile is broad, and I have an urge to fall to my knees and kiss the earth.  This is what I’ve come here for, to experience this, this - what can I call it? - this primordial vision of prana flowing palpably.

I find my way to the lakeside and settle into a lounge chair. I’ve purchased Stephen Cope’s book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. As I flip through the pages trying to get a sense of it, I realize it’s primarily an autobiography of his first years at Kripalu. I’m hoping to interview him tomorrow, and I figure it’s a good idea to arm myself with info to avoid asking irrelevant questions that will only engender superficial answers. I look up from the pages briefly and see an older gentleman standing close by waiting to ask me a question:

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“Excuse me, do you know where they keep the kayaks?”
I point to myself. “Me? No, I’m a total newbie here. No idea.”
“Oh,” he laughs. “ I thought they might be nearby.” He sits on the lounge chair beside me.  “So you’re new here, are you?”
I close my book around a couple of fingers, “ Yes, well, it’s my 2nd year.”
“Ah, I come here every chance I get, since my wife died. My daughter, she does yoga, she’s the one who got me started.”
“That’s a great daughter you’ve got there.” I pat my sternum. “I’m a yoga teacher.”
“Are you? Did you study here?”
“No, in Canada. I’m from Toronto.”
 “Oh, I’ve been to Montreal. Never Toronto. I live close by here, so this is where I come. Once a month about. Just for the day. 3 meals. A couple of workshops.”
“Very nice.”
“Yup. I really love it. It’s a magical place.” And he gets up and wanders off. Magical indeed.

During dinner I notice the dining hall is filling with new faces and a fresh energy. I wonder if a busload of guests has just arrived. They’re all chatty and smiling and filling their plates to the brim. There’s a party atmosphere in the hall and I ask a staff person sitting next to me if she notices how different the energy in the room is tonight.  She explains the public has been invited to a dinner followed by a lecture about the negative effects of sugar on health. Of course, I realize. Kripalu’s mission is after all, to combine yoga, with wellness. And the theme this week is detox after all. Good marketing strategy Kripalu. Great information to pass around, “Sugar is poison?” Go Kripalu, Go!

The open house makes me think of an expression I’ve heard bandied around a couple of times during this visit. “Householder’s Yoga.” I liked it when I heard it. Sounds like a familiar story.  I came to learn a lot about yoga in my living room, while my young children slept in their beds. During dinner, I chat with a day visitor, Faye, and explore the concept.
    “What do you think of Kripalu’s idea to make yoga more part of daily hygiene?” I ask her.
    “Oh yah, it makes perfect sense.” she says. “Mind you, the only time I do yoga at home is when I throw my mat on the kitchen floor, turn on the radio and do a couple of down dogs while the kettle boils.”
 I’m nodding and thinking, ‘good multitasking girl.’  But I’m not sure if I should encourage this perfunctory going through the motions of yoga practice. This isn’t what Kripalu has in mind. Is it? Or do they care how superficial the integration of households and yoga is? And if they don’t care, what kind of yoga is it that they’re promoting? If it’s not based on a desire to experience the self on a deeper reality, isn’t it all just a waste of time, or at best, a form of aerobics? Calling it yoga doesn’t make it yoga after all. Does it?  Like those politicians who believes if they speak a lie enough it will become true?

Later, I’m reading Cope’s book, and begin to count the times he makes reference to the surrounding landscape. You can’t help but get his deep and abiding reverence for this place he chose to make home. Did he think of the location as magical? He definitely thought of it as a special power spot; “Ever since there have been human beings in this neck of the woods, it seemed, this piece of ground has been held as sacred. The Native Americans believed that the unusual circular formation of mountains, with the lake at the center, was auspicious…” he wrote. Certainly there’s a ‘power spot’ located here. I imagine a magnetic hub of energy in this medial point, from which an invisible web ensues, pulsing outward across the eastern continent, maybe further, attracting all us millions of seeking souls to her gently sloping shores. The landscape is at peace, despite the human drama that’s been cultivated here.

(Marion Woodman in India)
The dharma dramas! (Sorry, couldn’t resist) Cope describes them all: stories of haunted hallows, and killer wasps, burning Jesuits, slavery and sexual exploitation.  As I read through his chronicles, the intrigue turns “Yoga and the Quest for the True Self” into quite a page turner. I’m particularly entranced by the story of Marion Woodman, the Jungian Feminist who was invited to Kripalu to speak at a weeklong conference on psychology and yoga back in 1994. She sent a shock wave (a wave in the colour red) through the community, from which it never recovered. Here’s an excerpt from Cope’s retelling of that story:

On this final morning of the conference, as the room came into stillness, the keynote speakers entered quietly. In deference to the presence of the guru, the room was a sea of white. But, as if to balance the whiteness of the crowd, Marion Woodman had dressed herself in shocking red, and had thrown a boldly patterned red and purple silk scarf around her neck.
        “Do you know whose colors these are?” she asked when Gurudev expressed delight with her garb.
        “These are the colors of the whore of Babylon.” She looked right at him. “Red and purple.
The room erupted wildly in laughter and applause. Through the week, Marion had acted as a “tuning fork” for what was hidden, unspoken, outcast, rejected, forgotten. She was calling for the red under that sea of white, calling for the sexuality underneath the spirituality, for the feminine divine Mother, even as she stood on the altar of patriarchy.
               
On the final morning of the conference, Marion was talking explicitly about balancing the masculine and feminine in our community and beyond: “the entire planet is struggling right now to give birth to the new feminine and the new masculine. The feminine comes to us in nature. Go outside. Look at he amazing waves of green of lilacs, of blue mountains. We are in the presence of the manifestation right here. And she’s reaching for you.”
   
The week-long conference was the catalyst for the breaking apart of a 20 year hegemony perpetuated by one man, Desai, and his uncompromising vision that prescribed unpaid labour and celibacy, among other dysfunctional affectations of devotion.  Woodman wore her heart on her skin and it served as a beacon, exposing the Kripalu community to what was a patriarchal stranglehold on their spirits. Once the shadow was invoked it was everywhere. Marion’s tidal wave from the unconscious had hit landfall. Aspects of community life that had once been idealized were now devalued. There was a longing for a new level of authenticity. “Let’s get real” was the code word. A new allergy to “spiritual language” erupted. There was a burgeoning emphasis on egalitarianism and feminism, on co-creation, individuation, sexuality. The search for nirguna Brahman, transcendence, had collided directly with the spirit of American pluralism, democracy, realism, and self-reliance.

What would survive? Hopefully not the dictates of their guru, Desai, who admitted to abuse of his position of power (he had sex with several of his followers). Isn’t that a form of sexual assault? And yet, why am I not surprised that Desai continues to extract huge sums by offering refined yoga retreats to unsuspecting seeking souls.

Still, it’s all just the wailing of the wind to this forest isn’t it? And the lake, the mountains, the power of the place, will continue to interact unperturbed and remind us, There’s nothing like a good drama to alert our vigilance on the path to inner peace. Like Thich Nhat Hanh prescribes:
“When faced with painful experiences? Recognize. Embrace.”

(Stephen Cope, IEL Kripalu)
This is what I’m wondering about, again, as I’m sitting over lunch on the last stretch of my r&r. I’m waiting to chat with Stephen Cope, who, as well as being a writer, is the Director of IEL. If anyone can tell me how Kripalu will proceed with its mission to bring yoga into mainstream America, he can. We emailed back and forth last week, and promised each other to keep this lunch time open.  I sent an early morning reminder to assure him I’d be waiting in the dining hall, but haven’t heard back from him. Even as I settle into a corner table and gaze over the comings and goings of some familiar and some new faces, amidst the clatter of dishes and chatter, I’m beginning to sense this journey will end as it began, with me facing my own questions.

I examine the ones I’ve written down, the questions I’ve prepared to encourage a casual conversation worth transcribing for all the world to read. IEL, Inception? Intention? In his words, not the brochures. And then think of the question I haven’t written down but really want to ask in reference to the workshop he’s leading this coming weekend called “Living in the World as a Spiritual Practice: The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita.” And all I can think is, how on earth do you do that? In 3 days? Isn’t that, um - challenging? I don’t know. He must be a genius. He’s certainly busy. I wish I could go. 

Ironically, I find myself chatting to more people in the two hours I wait for Steve than in the two days preceding. I collect plenty of personal anecdotes to answer my question: ‘What brought you to Kripalu?’  Marnie from Ohio is part of the “Detox” workshop, trying to shake herself out of a general feeling of malaise that is weighing her down. She hates her job and wants to find the strength to move on. Connie lives not too far from here, and comes every three months with her girlfriends to participate in whatever workshop de jour tickles their fancies. But this time she’s just here for the day to try hiking, something she’s never considered doing before. Sylvie and her friends came up from New York to get away from their husbands for a few days of r&r, and they’ve all been loving the noon time dancing yoga, the whirlpool and the food. But none of them have been able to get up for the early morning practice. Maya is here again this year to take a workshop with her favourite yoga teacher, Sam.

I know Sam. He’s a Kripalu trained teacher I met last year through my dorm-mate Deb. She’s a classical cellist from New York City, and she told me, “I’m only here because Sam’s a great teacher and this is where he’s offering his course, “Developing your Personal Yoga Practice.” I need to figure out how to relax ‘while’ I’m playing. Sam turned out to be an inspiration to me too. The model of a yoga practitioner. He sat peaceably by as a few others, me included, argued the dangers and importance of self identifying in our current political climate. As the debate heated up Sam listened deeply, and only contributed when asked, and with grace and positivity.

It’s the end of lunch-time, and Steve’s not coming. I get up with a smile, not all that disappointed, and on my way out say hi to Sam. We chat for a while, and he tells me his workshop this year is called “Yoga and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
    “That sounds like a winner.” I tell him.
     “It’s a no-brainer.” He shrugs. “People come here to do yoga. Lots of them are looking for what will make them happy. They talk and discover a lot about themselves, especially through listening to each other. And then of course, I support their discoveries with sprinklings of yogic philosophy to help them along their way.”
 Sam has a beatific smile. I’m reminded of why his students would want to follow him anywhere.
 On my drive back to my own household in Ontario, I glance down at my smartphone and see Steve’s sent me an email:
Hi Linda:

Ack! Just getting to this email.  Sorry, I was not on campus at all today, or this week, as it turns out.  I have a weekend course to teach this weekend, and I am completely redesigning it.  Apologies, and sorry to miss you.  Hope you had a good stay!
Warmly,

Steve

It’s OK Steve. It turns out my visit was not meant for a probing journalistic exposé of your thoughts. My answers were all pretty planted in the ground; and as usual, in the questions, I found perennial wisdom alive and well in your part of the world. And I’m carrying the seeds right here. They're rolled up in my yoga mat, and very much improved from my time in your magical power spot.
- Linda McLean, 2012.
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N othing happens in a vacuum, without conversation. Linda McLean's conversation with Stephen Cope didn't quite come to pass, not in person anyway. Yet, Cope's absence frames her conversation; her affection for the Berkshires and its 'magical power spot' owes to a silent collaboration with someone on the periphery. So we babble to ourselves, gathering in wild circles while we assume the shapes of yoga-dogs and sleeping cobras... refining the chant, singing this land, this place, is 'auspicious.' It might seem strange, but even if the words never leave your mouth, even if your conversation never was, even if the person you were talking to becomes an incoherent ghost town, you will keep babbling... to all those who live under your mercurial skin, or as Linda says "in your household," as you drive on, your unblinking eyes on the road. You may drive day and night, up through the Berkshires or to the cold northern reaches of an Ontario outpost, or cross-continent to the banks of Varanasi, in the hopes of a sacred space, a conversation, or what Linda calls "the magnetic hub of energy... from which an invisible web ensues."


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 • To book yoga classes with Linda McLean consult her website.

• Linda McLean is running a wonderful yoga program as part of the North by Northeast Music Festival happening this week in Toronto, June 11-17. If you are a musician performing at the festival, or just a friend of a sedentary musician-type, it's good way to prevent any kind of repetitive strain.
For more information, consult NXNE YOGA




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