August 5, 2020
Love Song to Kripalu, Love Song to Everyone’s Inner Sanctum
When the sanctuary you have run to in chaotic times closes abruptly for an indefinite period— thanks to the worldwide pandemic—where do you go? I have sought to alleviate stress and seek spiritual nourishment at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts since I was seventeen years old. “I’m reluctant to leave you at an ashram,” my father said in a sober tone, when he dropped me off for the first time the summer before I started college. The Kripalu yoga class I had been taking in town inspired me so much that I signed up for an extended yoga retreat. “Don’t worry, Dad, I’m not going to drop out of college to join an ashram,” I assured him. From the sunrise yoga classes taught in grounding tones with Sanskrit terms and contemplative verses from the Vedas, to the healing workshops that taught us to speak and think with compassionate voices, and the nourishing vegetarian meals, I went home feeling serene and resilient. “I gained tools that will help me in college,” I explained to my father, “like learning to ride the wave in times of stress without losing my inner peace.” The wisdom of Kripalu sustained me on exam days at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland when I had to translate ancient Hebrew, write essays in French, and identify hundreds of art history slides. When I was anxious years later about the doctoral dissertation I was writing, Dad suggested “why don’t you go to Kripalu? It always works.”
And I did. Because Kripalu unfailingly brought me back to my calm center. I entered those hallowed doors where Andrew Carnegie’s manse once sat overlooking the Berkshire hills that I revered, feeling like my shoulders and neck were made of steel, worrying that I would never accomplish the goal at hand—that always involved writing—and I came out unflappable.
I was at Kripalu on March 14th attending a ten-day advanced meditation and yoga teacher training with my favorite instructor Yoganand, when Cristie Newhart, the dean of the School of Yoga came into our classroom to announce: “Given that Massachusetts has just declared a state of emergency in response to the pandemic, Kripalu will be closing its doors effective immediately, with the exception of your program.” We were able to take our final teaching assessment, but hundreds of other guests at Kripalu were sent home. When I went to the main doors for my longstanding sunrise ritual—barefooted, ginger tea in hand—ready to breathe in the ethereal mist and witness the most sublime view in the Berkshires, I was confronted with yellow “do not cross” tape. It was eerie; it did not feel like a sanctuary, but I went into quarantine bolstered from a fresh dose of Kripalu.
When they said we needed to shelter in place, I put a Sattvic—Sanskrit for one that has light and health—routine in place on day one. I woke up and meditated before I practiced yoga and pranayam, or yogic breathing. I’m a writer. I wrote. I’m an introvert. I could shelter in place for a long time if I were alone. But I was with another adult who had record-high stress levels and wore plaid flannel pajamas every day. I dubbed myself his spiritual cheerleader, and guided us through short meditations and invigorating yoga poses like Kripalu’s breath of joy, which involves bouncing the knees and arms on three short inhalations, raising the arms overhead, and hinging over at the waist with an exuberant stress-expelling exhalation. “It’s helping,” he said, having become a proponent of Kripalu early in our relationship. (After all, he was the one that encouraged me to enroll in the yoga teacher training program, along with my father.) We hiked Tyringham Cobble near our home in the Berkshires on weekends with our baby and puppy, and ran sprints in the driveway. We zoomed with Dan Leven, a wise Kripalu legacy teacher who held comforting weekly support sessions. Dan helped us tune into our body’s wisdom in spite of fear and incertitude. When they said we had flattened the curve in New York and New England, but needed to be cautious, I started signing my emails “with wishes for perseverance, resilience, and patience.” I thought: “we got this.”
Yet, sometime in mid-summer, I stagnated in angst about the nightmare we couldn’t collectively wake up from; the virus wasn’t going away, and my reservoir of resilience had been dredged. I stopped writing, stopped doing yoga, and stopped running. I temporarily went back to wearing pjs all day and freebasing chamomile tea. A verse from the Yeats poem “The Second Coming” ran through my head like a leitmotif: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” I didn’t counteract my aberrational despair with my tried and true formula: there is peace within me today, even if there is no end in sight for COVID, even though people are losing lives, jobs, homes, and cannot feed their families. There is peace within me today, even though Breonna Taylor and others have not received justice in response to their senseless killings, in spite of Black Lives Matters protests across the world. How could I feel the peace within when I knew 450 employees of Kripalu were on indefinite furlough, their futures replete with incertitude?
I stepped over the chains closing Kripalu to cars, and over the sign reading “Pedestrian Traffic Only” to walk the grounds of my shuttered sanctuary to see if it could rekindle my peace within. It did, fleetingly. But I had been teaching yoga and meditation for years. I’m equipped with more practices than I can enumerate. At Kripalu, yoga teachers are given the acronym BRFWA, which stands for breathe, relax, feel, watch, and allow, to witness an experience without distress. “Don’t forget to burfwa,” our teacher Rudy Pierce gently reminded us with a smile, I recalled as I walked past Kripalu’s blooming salvia. That’s what I taught in my meditation workshop for high school students at Interlochen Arts Academy, as I guided them through distress tolerance meditations, preparing them for high-level auditions and performances. It worked, based on the excited emails I received from my students. I taught yoga and meditation to adult artists in my Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanities workshops that were destined to cultivate the muse and free the mind from distractions. I instructed them: “As you move into Virabhadrasana [warrior], embody the traits of a wise warrior.” Some participants told me they made Mayapple Yoga a routine at home before they painted or wrote. So why couldn’t I access the tools I had taught and practiced for all of my adult life? Where was my own inner warrior?
In my first yoga teacher training at Kripalu, we learned to practice the yamas, or moral restraints. Most people know the first one, ahimsa, thanks to Gandhi. Rudy instructed us to choose a scroll from a basket to focus on that week. When I unrolled my scroll, I read: “Brahmacharya, or, moderation: A person practicing moderation is able to channel her full energy towards activities that support growth and transformation.” The crumpled remnants of that scroll sit on my writing desk during the age of COVID-19. To build a reservoir of inner resilience— rather than deplete it in the era of extended social distancing and normalized obsessive compulsive hand washing—moderation is key. Moderation means eating healthy meals that don’t reference COVID-15, and drinking beverages that don’t resemble the Barefoot Contessa’s COVID cocktail that would make Paul Bunyan inebriated. I realized that the Buddha bowls I was making for dinner were piled high with broccoli, forbidden rice, and wild-caught salmon, far more than what my body needed for fuel. I realized that my late-night google searches about COVID were an excessive consumption of media. But by practicing moderation, one can then focus on building resilience. I went back to a simple practice of moderation, humbly.
While sheltering in place in Cape Cod last week, my practice of brahmacharya came to fruition. I set up my yoga mat on a platform suspended over the Atlantic Ocean, and I went to it every morning for a series of yoga poses. I shed my burdensome thoughts into the ocean. I inhaled the peace of the morning while I heard the echo of Yoganand quoting the Ashtavakra Gita in our last lecture at Kripalu: “In me, the boundless ocean, is the imagination of the universe. I am tranquil…” I remembered I could recreate my sanctuary at home because my tools were inculcated in me; they were me. It was akin to the Biblical verse that the kingdom of God is within you. I found myself writing again every day. I savored modest bowls of Ayurvedic kitchari with steamed kale. I felt like I had just come from a weekend at Kripalu. Only I hadn’t. Kripalu was just inside of me.
An epiphany landed on my crossed legs while I was meditating by the ocean: when your retreats have been stripped from you, you can recreate them within by relying on your reservoir of inner resilience. We have inner sanctums we can retreat to. I like that reminder, and I hope you do, too. Jaibhagwan, as we greet one another at Kripalu, or, I salute the light within you.