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Where East Meets West: The Kripalu Approach to Healthy Living

by Bess Hochstein

Less than two years after her diagnosis of ovarian cancer, Sally O’Shea of Granby, Massachusetts, arrived at Kripalu for the Healthy Living program Radiance: Create an Amazing Life After Cancer. Sally didn’t practice yoga and had what she calls “a mediocre diet at best.”

More than a year later, Sally is reaping the benefits of what she took away from the program. She attends yoga class weekly and practices walking meditation, sitting meditation, and mindful eating. “I’m much more aware of my breathing and my ability to use it to calm my body and mind,” she says. “I continue to write with great regularity, finding it an incredibly valuable tool in processing the cancer experience. I value my voice and my strength more.”

Mindfulness, yoga, and journaling are tools that Sally expects to serve her well as she faces another round of chemotherapy. They’re also hallmarks of Kripalu’s Healthy Living approach, which blends Eastern practices like yoga and Ayurveda with Western medical principles. Integral to this approach is Kripalu’s retreat center environment, where participants can step away from the stresses of their daily routine and experience a different rhythm of life, which can help them achieve their wellness goals—or inspire new ones.

“We’ve been working toward incorporating more and more Eastern thought and practices into our Healthy Living programs,” says Ellen Rose Cunningham, Content Manager for Kripalu’s R&R Retreat and Healthy Living programs. “The pace at Kripalu lends itself to a yogic lifestyle: early-morning yoga classes, fresh food, and the opportunity to connect with nature, and a fairly early end time for activities at night. From an Ayurvedic standpoint, this schedule helps to create rhythms that many people can’t otherwise find in their day-to-day lives.”

It’s easy to see how Eastern principles can fit in lifestyle-oriented programs such as Yoga for Life, Transforming Stress, and Integrative Weight Loss. But holistic and non-Western modalities are also key to the Healthy Living programs that address serious health conditions, including diabetes, Parkinson’s, and life after cancer. Lisa B. Nelson, MD, Kripalu’s Director of Medical Education, explains, “Because the Western medical system is our dominant system, I think it’s critically important that our guests understand their disease from a Western perspective. They need to understand the physiology and language if they are to participate as equal and empowered partners in their care. But this Western understanding is just one piece of the puzzle. So, in addition to sessions on physiology and nutrition, we talk about stress and social support, and experience mindful eating, yoga, and meditation. There’s also time for guests to share with one another. It’s really the total experience of all that Kripalu has to offer that promotes healing.”

Even participants with a traditional medical background see the benefits of this East/West approach. Susan Fiumara, a nurse from Wilmington, Delaware, was diagnosed with diabetes four years ago. In June 2013, Susan recalls, she was “stuck in a rut of being overweight, my blood sugar climbing, my medications being increased, and being totally stressed out at work.” With her husband’s encouragement, she enrolled in the July session of Preventing and Reversing Diabetes. “My expectation after reading stories of some of the past attendees was that I could take control of my life instead of diabetes controlling it.”

Susan knew exactly what she wanted to learn in the program: how to get her eating under control, how to handle her stress, a better understanding of the effects of stress on her blood sugar levels, and how to formulate a plan. “By the time the week had ended, I had a plan and [the belief] that I could take this out into the real world,” she says. “I did have a fear of leaving the cocoon of Kripalu and going home, but the fear was unfounded.” The morning she left Kripalu, her fasting blood sugar levels had dropped 63 points from when she arrived.

Three months later, Susan had lost a total of 22 pounds, her BMI (body mass index) was in the normal range, she’d reduced her medication, and her blood sugar levels had dropped dramatically. Among the tools she’s incorporated into her life are Lisa’s “Whole Foods Never Diet Plan,” mindful eating practices, meditation, and regular exercise.

“I’m cooking more at home,” she adds, noting how her grocery basket has changed: it’s now full of fresh produce and nearly devoid of processed foods. “My MD is closely watching my success with the program so that he can recommend it to his other patients. He’s also finding that the traditional methods of diabetic teaching don’t work for everyone.”

Ellen Rose summarizes Kripalu’s Healthy Living diabetes program as a Western model of therapy combined with Eastern mindfulness practices. “Our programs are a great way to introduce the paradigm shift from compartmentalized, one-size-fits-all medical knowledge into a holistic view of health that addresses more than just the body.”

Many Healthy Living faculty members are cross-trained in Eastern and Western perspectives. Annie B. Kay, Kripalu’s Lead Nutritionist, is a licensed and registered nutritionist/dietitian (RD), a 500-Hour Kripalu Yoga teacher, and a student in the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. Lisa B. Nelson is a physician specializing in family medicine and a student in the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. “There are many ways that our faculty has one foot in the Western health-care world, while also expanding their knowledge of Eastern practices and schools of thought,” Ellen Rose says. “By blending these two, we can create healing that crosses the entire spectrum of the body, mind, heart, and spirit. This approach brings the best of both worlds together, and has the potential to reach an ever-widening spectrum of people.”

“Compassionate self-observation is the central tenet of Healthy Living programs, and what distinguishes our approach,” says Annie, author of the book Every Bite Is Divine. “We take that attitude and weave it with the wisdom of Ayurveda—beginning with honoring the rhythms of life and of the day—and look at the latest approaches to managing these conditions through this lens.”

Lisa’s experience teaching in Healthy Living programs reinforces her conviction that an East-West wellness approach is needed in the world beyond Kripalu. A family practice doctor in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, since 2005, she says it’s become increasingly clear to her that diseases such as heart disease and diabetes are often the culmination of many years of living out of balance. “In my office practice, I try to help people understand the root causes of their disease—unhealthy eating habits, stress, lack of movement and joy—and help them change their lives,” she says. “But in a 10-minute office visit, this can be hard. The immersion programs at Kripalu, where guests not only learn about healthy living but get to experience it, are desperately needed to help people truly transform their lives.”

Susan Fiumara’s experience on the first day of her Healthy Living program is a microcosm for that transformation. “That morning, we were asked to find one word that described how we felt, and I wrote down ‘hopeless,’” she recalls. “By the end of the day, my word changed to ‘hopeful.’”

Bess Hochstein is a freelance writer based in the Berkshires and Sonoma County, California.

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