Question: How did you like your week at Kripalu? Did you take anything away from the experience that changed you?
Frank Answers: I very much enjoyed my week at Kripalu. I met a lot of people from various backgrounds who practice yoga, the grounds in the Berkshires were beautiful (so was the weather), the food was great, and I learned a lot.
For those who don’t know about it, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts is located in the beautiful Berkshires near Tanglewood. It is practically a yoga university. It’s roots go back to the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania founded in 1965 by Yogi Amrit Desai. The society was later named Kripalu (“Compassion”) after Desai’s guru, Swami Kripalavanda. During the 1970s Desai established the Kripalu Center for training teachers in Sumneytown and Summit Station, Pa. In 1983 Kripalu Center bought a former Jesuit seminary in Stockbridge and Desai established an ashram, a celibate religious community, dedicated to living the yogic life. In the wake of moral scandal, Desai resigned from the community in 1994. Those who remained pulled the community together and changed its legal status in 1999 from a religious organization to a secular not-for-profit school with the stated mission to teach the art and science of yoga and ayurvedic health.
Today the Kripalu Center, situated on acres of rolling land with surrounding woods and access to a lake, welcomes about 40,000 guests a year who come for retreats, personal R & R, and innumerable classes and workshops. It also continues to be a major institution for yoga teacher certification. Classes are available for yoga teachers, athletic trainers, coaches, massage therapists, psychologists, social workers, dietitians, naturalists, etc. I even met someone who was taking a creative writing course. My wife knew about Kripalu because of the Food as Medicine workshops it offers. Kripalu is known for its commitment to vegetarianism, although one of the food buffets in the cafeteria offers poultry or fish for lunch and dinner. For me it was important that some egg dish or just boiled eggs were always available for breakfast. Unfortunately, coffee was not; that had to be purchased in the café. So my caffeine need was not fixed until after yoga practice from 6:00-7:30 a.m. and breakfast at 7:30 a.m.
I wanted to experience Kripalu because I was really getting invested in yoga practice. It’s where my teachers received their basic training. Since I would be a three-hour drive from where I was teaching at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY, I checked out online what courses were being offered before or after July 26-31. I hit the jackpot. August 2-7 a course in “The Embodied History of Yoga” would be co-taught by Professor David Gordon White from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Yoganand Michael Carroll, the dean of yoga studies at Kripalu. I thought this course would be just right for me and I wasn’t wrong.
I’m also glad I spent a weekend in R & R at Kripalu between a strenuous week of teaching adult courses and a strenuous week of learning. It gave me a chance to get settled in, sample life at Kripalu, take a leisurely walk to the lake, practice qigong for the first time—on the lawn on Sunday morning in a class led by Ken Nelson, a Minnesota Swede with a charmingly understated sense of humor—, and participate in yoga classes. I opted to take a leap of faith and plunged into the 6:30 a.m. intermediate yoga classes and I’m grateful to my Kripalu-trained teachers Nick and Lela Beem (co-owners of Grateful Yoga, Evanston, IL) that I was well-prepared for it.
Now about the Embodied History of Yoga course. David Gordon White is probably the leading yoga historian now, the successor to Mircea Eliade, whose research assistant he was in the early 1980s at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In fact, I learned about David’s work because he wrote an introduction to the new edition of Eliade’s Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (Princeton University Press, 2009), which was the first Western academic study of yoga. (Eliade was an intellectual hero of mine when I was a college student in the 1960s, but I didn’t know back then that he had written his doctoral dissertation on yoga. In fact, the only thing I knew about yoga back then was that the Beatles went to an ashram in India.) Coincidentally, I was teaching the worship course in the Arts of the Ministry program at the Divinity School in the fall terms of 1981, 1982, 1983 when David was at the Div School. I noted this to David and he said, “I thought you looked familiar.” David’s lectures in this course were based on his trilogy, The Alchemical Body (1996), Kiss of the Yogini (2003), and Sinister Yogis (2009)—all published by the University of Chicago Press.
Professor David Gordon White
The density of the lectures was relieved by the many images he showed of drawings and paintings illustrating his points. In fact, some of the “texts” he exegeted were, in fact, drawings and sculptures on temples.
The above drawing is a Nath Yogi painted in Rajastan, a center where much yogic art flourished. This one has seven chakras; many drawings had more, usually extending beyond the crown of the head. We learned from Professor White that chakras were originally chariot wheels yoked together by an axle (an early use of the term “yoga”). You can see such wheels sculptured onto temple walls—a throwback to the warfare phase of yoga history. Eventually the life and death struggle of warfare was internalized.
Chakra on the Konark Sun Temple
Back to the drawing: notice the little yogi in the third-eye chakra; many drawings show yogis within yogis. This little yogi is Lord Shiva, shown with his consort (variously named Durga/Parvati/ Kali). Shiva is pictured in iconography with a crescent moon in his hair. In the subtle body the cranial vault, associated with Shiva and the full moon, is locus of bodily immortality. The lower abdomen, identified with destructive goddesses and demons, is the locus of death. There appears to be a little yogini in the heart chakra. The heart chakra is the center of compassion, love, and devotion. The Nath’ s lower region, the region of death, is covered with a “sunskirt.” An early idea of immortality was piercing the orb of the sun. The yogi is sitting on a lotus. The origin of the lotus pose is not imitating a lotus flower but kings sitting cross-legged on a lotus-shaped throne. In our practice Yoganand Michael Carroll always told us to proudly sit up straight like kings or heroes when we assumed padmasana.
Yoganand Michael Carroll
Yoganand Michael Carroll developed yoga practices inspired by Professor White’s lectures. As we fought off dakinis and demons and pulled them up from the dark abyss of our pelvic region (Yoganand has a vivid imagination and superb narrative skills—I told him he sounded like a southern evangelical preacher), I did more uddiyana bandhas and kapalabhati or bastrika pranayamas in one week than I have done in six years of practicing yoga. An assignment at the end of one afternoon lecture: come to practice at 6:00 a.m. knowing how to do root lock (not the easy mula bandha one either!). This one is drawing up your pelvic floor into the abdominal cavity created by the uddiyana bandha. Go down and find those demons. Draw them up and hold your breath until you think you have no more. Then get extra energy with the tongue pushing up on the soft palate and make a high pitched bee sound. When you need to let it go, explode those demons up through the top of your head into the sky where they will be dispersed. Because some are left chase them back down into the pelvic region with kapalabhati or bastrika fast, vigorous breathing. Then do the whole process again to draw up and expel more demons and dakinis. Wow! I would say this was a graduate course in yoga, both in theory and practice.
Mula bandha with uddiyana bandha
What did I take away from this experience? Well, I came to appreciate the extent to which much of our yoga practice today is based on the yoga of the last one hundred years or less. What pioneers of modern postural yoga like Sivananda and Krishnamacharya were teaching as Hatha Yoga was more influenced by the 19th and early 20th century northern European physical culture movement with its emphasis on calisthenics and gymnastics than by authentic yoga traditions, which weren’t accessible to them. As Professor White emphasized, historical research into the yoga traditions has to be based on actual texts and works of art since oral traditions are hard to verify. Post-modern yoga will have to develop in ways that serves our physical and mental needs while searching for ways to connect with aspects of the authentic yoga traditions.
Yoga in its myriad modern forms has become geared to telling people to accept themselves and live in the moment. But the ancient yogis were looking for liberation from the here and now. Those “sinister yogis” may have been taking over other people’s bodies, but they were at least getting out of their own. We can’t return to the situation of the renunciate yogis who unwittingly became bankers for people and improved economic conditions (much like the medieval Western monks did); or warrior yogis who toppled kings and were involved in regime change (remember that the setting of the Bhagavad Gita was a battlefield where decisions about fighting and killing needed to be made). But those yogis were making an impact on their society. They were studying cosmology. They explored the cosmos also within their own bodies as they developed awareness of subtle bodily systems. They were spiritual and religious. They cultivated relationships with gods and goddesses. They were devoted to them. They practiced bhakti.
Shiva, the yogi god
I left Kripalu and this course feeling that the deeper we go into the study of the history of yoga the more it yields a usable past to draw on if we have the imagination to connect it with where we believe yoga needs to go in the 21st century. In my opinion yoga needs more connection between the inner world and the outer world in which, as the Greek poet quoted by St. Paul said, “we live and move and have our being.” I don’t know where I will go with this other than into deeper study of the yoga tradition, but enrichment is never a bad thing…and who knows where my yoga path will lead. But definitely into more study and practice!
Yogi Frank Senn