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Stretching for the new
I would have been very happy passing my two days at the Annex. But no matter where you sleep, most activities take place in the main building. On our first morning, we rose early for the 6:30 "moderate" yoga class. The room was stuffy and the motel carpet reeked of sweat. The class could only be honestly called moderate if the target audience was octogenarian. For most of the 75-minute class, we performed gentle stretches and twists - and I spent most of the time trying to avoid touching the carpet. The lunchtime "vigorous vinyasa" class was almost as slow, and the teacher advised us to "take it at our own pace" at least six times. If this was Kripalu holding on to its history, I wasn't sure I wanted it to.
Happily, our experiences improved over the course of our stay. We were inspired by a workshop on the five Tibetan rites of rejuvenation, a kind of 10-minute mini yoga practice that involves spinning, leg lifts, kneeling back bends, hip stretches and core work in the form of a slow roll between the famous downward-facing and upward-facing dog poses. (According to our teacher, the series was developed by a guru who visited a monastery in Tibet where monks were falling asleep during their meditations.) When the sun came out, ushering in a glorious only-in-New England summer day, we joined a two-hour guided hike through the woods and fields of golden yarrow and Queen Anne's lace.
Among the most pleasant surprises was the food. Kripalu's self-serve lines look like those in a college cafeteria. But what could have been tasteless vegan soups and tofu stews were uniformly delicious and filling in the hands of Kripalu's executive chef, Deb Morgan. I went back for seconds for both the romaine lettuce salad tossed with miso dressing, peanuts and cilantro and the spicy carrot ginger soup.
Classes, room and board are all included in Kripalu's price. Coffee, however, is not. It is available for sale at the center's snack bar. The coffee bar, along with fish or chicken at dinner four times per week, was added about six years ago, says Cathy Husid-Shamir, Kripalu's director of media relations. The decision, like the one to build the Annex, was a response to guests' demands. "You'd go into town and you'd see all these Kripalu people at the coffee shop, so we knew that people wanted it," she said. "But it also raised a whole conversation about how we can be kind to our guests: Is it kind to have people getting headaches from caffeine withdrawal? We try not to pass judgment."
Kripalu's acceptance of yogis' preference for meat, caffeine, wireless Internet access and upscale accommodations will help attract a new set of students. The expansive options at its Healing Arts Center are a draw, too. Like the rest of the building, the spa doesn't look like much: The rooms have the same cinder-block walls and motel carpeting; the only difference is the piped-in yoga music. But the range of treatments and the expertise of the practitioners, many of whom train at Kripalu's college of ayurveda, are probably unmatched in the area. I signed on for massage to treat an aching hip. My therapist consulted for 10 minutes about which yoga poses helped and which aggravated the situation before delivering a sensitive and truly therapeutic rub.
Still, the place where we found Kripalu's values of unconditional acceptance most in evidence was at a class called Yoga Dance. Under the soaring ceilings of the former chapel, about 60 of us, on hands and knees, slowly rotated our hips to the chords of a New Age instrumental track. Some made small, conservative movements. But others arched their spines, then swooshed their hips to their heels like aspiring pole dancers - and they were setting the tone.
Within minutes, our teacher had us on our feet. We shimmied. We marched. We mimicked the movements of anyone in the room who inspired us (or whom we were capable of mimicking). At the peak of the hour-long class, we expressed our fears and anxieties to our inner shamans, then granted ourselves healing. Really.
It wasn't yoga, per se. But in the final cool-down, a bearded man wearing a "Go Bruins" T-shirt rocked an imaginary dance partner in his arms. On a raised platform, the former church altar, a guy who looked like he might coach a Little League team in his real life twirled a leopard-print scarf in graceful circles like a Chinese ribbon dancer. Every person in the room was present, joyful and, perhaps as a result of exhaustion, utterly unselfconscious. And whether you demand coffee, meat or your very own bathroom, isn't that what yoga is all about?