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.  


On the Corona Island with a Dog

In a draft of my memoir Soul Mate Dog: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Dog, I write: “At the risk of being ridiculed, if I were banished to a deserted island for the duration of my life, and could only choose one being to accompany me, I would pick Brady.” Although I knew that a human would surely outlive Brady, I wrote that my ideal companion was my beloved German Shepherd. In the era of extended corona quarantines, these words resonate with me more than ever. The isolation feels a lot like being on an island away from all of our humans. But when we can’t hug, when we have to stay at a six-foot distance from one another—wondering if it will be good enough, or if we will succumb to the virus anyway—we still have the right to touch our animal companions close-up without masks.

Dogs across the United States have benefited from the virus insofar as animal shelters report a surge in adoptions and fostering. New York City shelters are receiving ten times the usual number of applications to adopt and foster, partially because the city that never sleeps has become the city that never goes out. That’s every dog’s dream: unlimited time with their humans. The increase in adoptions also reflects the human capacity for compassion in an era when rent and food are challenging to cover, let alone dog food and veterinary bills. People have discovered what I have: dogs make good soul mates. 

Dogs’ affection is unconditional, and it is reciprocated. When Brady jumped onto the bed to nest with me, his velvety cream and cinnamon ruff tickling my cheeks, an unmatchable warmth spread through me. I stroked the black and tan fur on the top of his head while he licked my cheeks in return. “Have I told you today that I love you?” I would ask him softly, knowing that I had. 

In my memoir, I write that I had never loved anyone before like I loved Brady. And I proved it. I recount the harrowing story of how we went to the brink of death while he was in an extended doggy lockdown at the emergency hospital in 2013. “I will go to the moon to save you if I have to,” I kept telling him as he battled Leptospirosis—a spirochetal bacteria oddly similar to the Lyme disease I fought. The days multiplied in his unanticipated confinement at the hospital with no end date in sight. Losing him was my greatest fear, in an era where discrimination, climate change, economic and political volatility plagued the earth. 

As I contemplate why I was so afraid of losing him, and why I had never loved anyone like I loved him, I wonder why I picked Brady to be my one companion on that hypothetical island that is no longer a fantasy in 2020. Before I submit the memoir to yet another round of literary agents, I must answer this question: Brady was unquestionably my soul mate dog, but why was my soul mate a dog? I realize that something in him touched me that humans don’t. 

When I was a child, I had parents that frequently told me they loved me, and I knew they meant it. But they were the happiest when I showed signs of being a child prodigy as a saxophonist. I had a loyal husband, albeit one that spoke to me sometimes in harsh tones reminiscent of his Soviet origins. Brady did not expect me to be a super star. Thank goodness, because I’m not. Brady didn’t growl at me in Russian upon occasion. Good, because I would have hidden in the closet. What Brady did have was limitless reservoirs of attention, love, respect, compassion, and kindness at his disposal. He generated this reservoir because he radiated love. I didn’t have to do anything, be anything, achieve anything to receive his love. He gave it to me freely. 

In turn, I got to know him, much like kindred spirits take the time to learn one another’s traits, capacities, and personalities. I learned that he was a lot more than what scientists and Western philosophers said he was. And I never took out my own character flaws on him; he brought out the most admirable traits in me. That’s the story I tell in Soul Mate Dog, a story that shows why I gave Brady everything I had from my love, time, and money. 

Today, I am sheltering in place with a one-year old Swiss white shepherd named Genji who has been a light-filled member of my family since he was ten weeks old; I would take him to my Corona island, too. His name means “shining prince,” and Genji does shine light on all who encounter him. Every morning we have a reunion ritual that involves him licking my face with abandon while I kiss his nose, and we throw distance to the wind. I catch my husband whispering nonsensical endearments to him. I watch my baby crawl over Genji and pull his teeth and ears, and I marvel that he doesn’t flinch; rather he treats her with as much patience as my husband and I do. When I see them sharing bones and Montessori wooden toys, I think he is like the Buddha in a puppy’s body because he is so gentle, so compassionate. When we swim in the ocean, I see that he didn’t get the memo on social distancing because he swims up to every child in the ocean to play, and he runs down the beach to greet every dog and human walking by. I watch Genji race through the water at low tide experiencing a freedom that no human can know right now.

I’m elated for Genji to have broken out of doggie lockdown. I’ll live vicariously through him right now since scientists claim that dogs cannot transmit the virus to humans, so while I can’t hug, he can offer affection to all. “I’m sorry; he is friendly!” I offer to beach walkers when he bounds up to them with a wagging tail and a smile. “We love it! He’s beautiful,” they reply.

Genji and I make ideal Corona island mates because we commune without arguing, without grumpiness, without residue from childhood wounds creeping into adult interactions. When we run together to watch the sun rise, we have an understanding about pacing and rhythm. We radiate nothing but love for one another. As I did with Brady, I communicate with Genji through what I call the language of Dog in Soul Mate Dog, which relies on animal communication techniques that I explain at length in my memoir.

Dogs merit being our companions on deserted islands—especially on the metaphorical ones we are all on right now with no end in sight. So, to all the dogs and humans out there: snuggle up and celebrate your interspecies love; find comfort in one another in the era of Corona vicissitudes.