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History of Kripalu Center

Kripalu’s history parallels the evolution of yoga in America, which progresses from

  • An exclusive reliance on Eastern tradition, teachers, and cultural forms
  • To the development of Western teachers steeped in the tradition and able to transmit its authentic depths in formats appropriate to our time and place
  • To the integration of yoga with contemporary discoveries in medicine, psychology, and science.

The Yoga Society of Pennsylvania

Indian-born Amrit Desai came to the United States in 1960 to attend the Philadelphia College of Art. A close disciple of a renowned Indian yoga master named Swami Kripalu, Desai taught yoga classes to a growing number of yoga enthusiasts in the Philadelphia area. In 1966, Desai and nine others formed the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization organized to advance the science and philosophy of yoga. Within a few years, Desai had trained numerous Americans as teachers and the Yoga Society was offering 150 yoga classes a week. Along with classes, the yoga Society made yoga books and other educational resources available to students, an activity that continues today in the Kripalu Shop.

The First Kripalu Centers

In 1972, Desai left the Philadelphia area with a handful of dedicated students to establish a small, residential yoga retreat in Sumneytown, Pennsylvania. This was the first “Kripalu Center” and reflected a desire on Desai’s part to move beyond the limits of what can be offered in a yoga class. In 1974, the name of the nonprofit organization was changed to “Kripalu Yoga Fellowship” to reflect an increasing emphasis on propagating the teachings of Swami Kripalu, as interpreted by Desai, through residential retreats, depth programs, and the training of Kripalu Yoga teachers. Desai’s wife, Urmila, also played an important role in the establishment of the community.

In 1975, Kripalu purchased a second and significantly larger facility in Summit Station, Pennsylvania. Summit Station was the first full expression of the Kripalu vision for a residential yoga, health, and program center. Desai believed that a residential center could provide students with an immersion experience in the yoga lifestyle powerful enough to inspire them to explore and adopt new ways of being. The Summit Station facility had space for student housing, group yoga instruction, meal preparation, and a fully-staffed holistic health center that offered massage and a variety of other health services in concert with two physicians. This health center was the genesis of “healing arts,” which remains an important aspect of the Kripalu curriculum and mission.

The Rise of the Ashram

Both the Sumneytown retreat and Summit Station center were staffed by an inspired group of volunteers and yoga enthusiasts who formed the nucleus of an intentional community or ashram. Desai was the ashram’s spiritual leader and guru, and under his guidance the ashram staff was soon offering a modest curriculum of yoga, holistic health, and self-discovery programs to the public. Developed and taught by ashram residents, these programs were the outgrowth of practices taught by Desai and carried on within the community.

In 1977, Amrit Desai’s teacher, Swami Kripalu, came to the United States and spent the last four years of his life in residence at Sumneytown and Summit Station. Although continuing a lifestyle of intensive yoga practice that entailed limited public contact, Swami Kripalu’s presence galvanized the growth of the ashram community. Delivering periodic talks and teachings, his example and writings inspired thousands to begin regular yoga practice. Swami Kripalu returned to India in 1981, where he died shortly thereafter. His teachings, especially those delivered in America, still form the basis of the Kripalu approach.

Kripalu Finds Its Permanent Home in Stockbridge

Back in America, Kripalu Center continued to grow at a rapid rate, and the ashram community was soon overflowing the Sumneytown and Summit Station facilities. In early 1983, Kripalu purchased its current Stockbridge, Massachusetts, location, a former Jesuit seminary on a property called Shadowbrook, that had been vacant for 13 years. After a flurry of renovation work, the doors of Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health were opened in December. Drawing on their experience at Sumneytown and Summit Station, the resident staff was able to offer a varied and cutting-edge curriculum of programs on yoga, health, massage and bodywork, personal growth, and spirituality.

Read a brief history of the Shadowbrook property, once the residence of Andrew Carnegie.

Amrit Desai grew into a potent spiritual teacher in his own right during the 1970s. During the 1980s, he became an international figure in yoga, delivering talks, performing yoga demonstrations, and leading seminars worldwide. As the Summit Station and later the Sumneytown properties were sold, the Stockbridge community continued to grow in both size and sophistication until it contained more than 350 residents, necessitating the 1990 purchase of Foxhollow, another sizeable facility nearby to house senior members.

While Desai was engaged in traveling and teaching, a cadre of senior ashram residents developed into competent leaders, teachers, healers, and depth practitioners. It was during the late 1980s that efforts began to integrate the teachings of yoga with psychology, science, and Western approaches to healing and self-development. Instead of relying on ancient doctrines and Sanskrit terminology, the teachings of Kripalu Yoga were increasingly voiced by Western teachers in language that meshed with a contemporary worldview. It was during this time that Kripalu developed the Health for Life program, which combined a yoga lifestyle with aerobic exercise, alternative healing modalities, and growth psychology, foreshadowing the work now underway with the Institute for Integrated Healing.

During the late 1980s, the legal structure of the community was formalized as a church and religious order. While they had always lived simply and worked as volunteers, ashram residents now took formal vows of celibacy, obedience, and simplicity to declare their status as yoga monks and nuns. It was at this time that the ashram grew to include a sizeable congregation of lay members, individuals, and families living locally who took part in community activities on a part-time basis.

By 1990, the ashram’s network had expanded to include a significant number of Kripalu Yoga teachers living throughout North America and the world, leading local groups practicing the Kripalu teachings. In 1991, the Kripalu Yoga Teachers Association (KYTA) was formed to coordinate the training and professional development of Kripalu-certified teachers. The 2,200 members of KYTA and the thousands of students they touch each week remain a vital part of the Kripalu mission.

The Fall of the Guru

Kripalu Center continued to expand in size and influence until late 1994. It was at this time that revelations surfaced of sexual relationships between Desai and several female ashram residents. When these and other alleged abuses of power were confirmed, Kripalu’s Board of Trustees called for Desai’s resignation. This ushered in a profoundly painful chapter in Kripalu’s history.

During 1995 and 1996, it grew increasingly evident that the bloom of the resident community was fading. The ashram gradually disbanded, with the majority of residents leaving the area to pursue new lives. In retrospect, it is easy to see that shattering the myth of the omniscient guru was forcing the entire Kripalu community to a higher level of maturity and individuation. At the time, a profound disillusionment gripped everyone who had dedicated themselves to birthing and sustaining the Kripalu work.

In the darkest of days, a collective of more than one hundred former residents formed a “claims group” to assert a class action lawsuit against Kripalu. Facing challenges on all sides, Kripalu did its best to make amends with all its long-term residents. A comprehensive settlement was negotiated and over $2.5 million dollars was paid to help senior residents pursue healing, education, and job training, or to meet other needs. After review by the Massachusetts Attorney General, the settlement was funded in part through the sale of the Foxhollow property. As a result, no claims ever went to court. Kripalu has the distinction of being the first, and possibly the only, yoga center in North America to survive the transition from a traditional guru-disciple structure to a secular, all-inclusive center for health, wellness, and lifestyle change.

Phoenix From the Ashes

Although divested of virtually all its assets except the building, Kripalu was once again free to pursue its mission. In the midst of the travail, a group of residents remained committed to the operation of Kripalu Center, whose doors never closed during this period. Eventually these residents were hired as paid employees and moved into the local area while continuing to work for Kripalu.

Between 1998 and 2004, the efforts of Kripalu’s leadership and staff were focused on establishing itself as a nationally-recognized yoga retreat and experiential program center. While continuing to teach Kripalu Yoga, it reached out to a broad mix of teachers from other traditions and disciplines to expand its curriculum and appeal to the growing number of Americans interested in yoga, health, wellness, and personal growth. This nonsectarian willingness to embrace all schools of yoga as venerable, along with other traditional and contemporary approaches to personal transformation, is an important part of the Kripalu approach.

During these years, Kripalu was restructured into a standard nonprofit organization offering a broad curriculum of educational programs and spiritual retreats. This new structure was formalized in 1999, when Kripalu officially ceased being a religious order.

From Surviving to Thriving

In 2004, the Board of Trustees hired Patton and Ila Sarley to serve as Kripalu’s CEO and President. As former members of the ashram community, the Sarleys returned to Kripalu with the intention to reinvigorate the founding mission of the organization by making it relevant to today’s yoga practitioners and society at large. They brought with them a forward looking vision honed by 30 years of experience in the retreat industry and a mature understanding of what the practice of yoga looks like in a secular, educational organization.

The Sarley’s vision was to create a whole new kind of organization—a place where you can go to explore what it means to be fully alive and fulfilled. Under the Sarley’s leadership, Kripalu enjoyed a period of dynamic and sustained growth. The vigor of the programming effort was strengthened. Relationships with leading faculty were cultivated. The result was an attractive program curriculum featuring a rich mix of national and international presenters. Program attendance increased markedly, enabling the organization to attract a professional staff, uplevel the guest experience, and improve the facility. In June 2009 a new, 80-room environmentally sensitive residential building, The Annex, was completed to comfortably house the growing number of Kripalu students and guests.

Along with enhancing the program curriculum, the Sarley’s also developed several schools and institutes within the organization including the

  • Kripalu School of Yoga
  • Kripalu School of Ayurveda
  • Kripalu Healthy Living Programs
  • Institute for Extraordinary Living, a research institute pioneering the interface of yoga and other approaches to creativity and peak performance.

After more than six years and many accomplishments, the Sarley’s stepped down in late 2010.