Stretching for the new

Instructor Danny Paradise assists a guest with a pose during an Ashtanga yoga program at Kripalu.
Instructor Danny Paradise assists a guest with a pose during an Ashtanga yoga program at Kripalu.
By Jane Black
Sunday, September 5, 2010

For most of its history, "chic" was not a word that applied to Kripalu. Perched atop a hill in the Berkshires, it was exactly what one might expect from a nonprofit yoga retreat center - circa 1970.

Housed in a monolithic brick building that once was a Jesuit seminary, it offered accommodations in minimalist dormitories, some with bunk beds, and all with shared bathrooms reminiscent of a high-school locker room. (Tampons: 25 cents!) The food was basic and vegetarian, served cafeteria-style, and caffeine was forbidden. Most of the guests fit the yoga stereotype: middle-aged women in schlubby sweats dedicated to drinking tea and finding themselves.

But over the past decade, yoga has changed. Teachers are now rock stars with their own lines of clothing and DVDs. The practitioners are young: 40.6 percent are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to a 2008 poll commissioned by Yoga Journal. And they're affluent. They buy $100 Manduka mats and favor outfits from Lululemon, a Canadian yoga "lifestyle" company that specializes in $98 "groove" pants. And when it comes to retreating from the world, many, including me, prefer a little luxury - at the very least, a bathroom of one's own.

These trends, plus the need to house a growing number of students, led Kripalu to unveil a $15.3 million eco-friendly Annex last fall. Compared with the old main building, the LEED-certified addition, made of concrete and wood reclaimed from houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, looks like a beautiful alien spaceship hovering above a canopy of green. But inside are 80 minimalist rooms, each with locally made furniture, hypoallergenic mattresses and, most important, a private bath. Could Kripalu evolve without losing its soul? I had come to find out.

Kripalu is not only a place but a style of yoga that emphasizes meditation and breathing and encourages inward focus and spiritual attunement. In other words, it's the antithesis of the power yoga that has helped spur yoga's growth in recent years.

The first Kripalu ashram, a residential yoga center, was founded in Sumneytown, Pa., by Yogi Amrit Desai in 1972. Named for Desai's guru, Swami Kripalu, a master of a style of yoga called kundalini, the ashram grew quickly. In 1983, Kripalu purchased the old Jesuit seminary in Stockbridge, Mass. By 1989, the number of full-time residents, who took vows of celibacy, obedience and simplicity, grew to more than 350. More than 10,000 guests visited for yoga programs.

In 1994, Desai was accused of sexual misconduct and abuse of power. The ashram was shut down under a cloud of scandal. But Kripalu continued to welcome visitors, and in 1999, it formally changed its status from a religious organization to a secular nonprofit. Its mission: to teach the art and science of yoga.

I have practiced vinyasa yoga, which emphasizes movement and flow, regularly for 10 years. Like Kripalu, I strongly reject the yoga-for-exercise ethos. For me, it has always been a spiritual as well as a physical practice. But I do admit to liking - and owning - a small collection of Lululemon tops, flare pants and a brand-name mat (not Manduka). Upon my arrival at Kripalu, I was immediately relieved to be staying in the Annex.

It was a sticky, gray summer day. Inside the main building, the air was heavy with a stale sweat. Over at the Annex, which is connected by a ground-floor glass passage, the concrete floors and glass walls kept the air clean and pleasantly chilled, though there is no air conditioning.

My room, which I shared with my friend Megan, might be described as "modern monastic." It was small and white, with one cheerful flowered throw pillow on each bed. There was no art on the walls, no TV and no closet, just a small rod with a few hangers in the entryway and a drawer under each single bed. But there was wireless Internet access, available at no extra charge.

And, of course, there was a bathroom! It looked as if it had been lifted wholesale from an Ikea showroom, but no matter. It was ours: small but sleek with a deep bathtub and an oversize shower head. A glass wall separated it from the sleeping area, a decision designed to create a sense of openness, according to Kripalu literature, but one that caused initial consternation for two friends sharing a room - until we discovered that we could draw a curtain for privacy.

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