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Yogi Amrit Desai:
originator of Kripalu Yoga
The third in a series of articles
on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

Summer 2002

by Shobhan Richard Faulds

The man destined to bring Swami Kripalu’s teachings to the West was born in 1932 in a small village in the Indian state of Gujarat. Yogi Amrit Desai’s father was a member of the merchant class and one of two village shopkeepers. Loving and religious, the 10-member Desai family lived a simple life in a one-room hut with earthen walls and a tin roof. From an early age, however, Amrit was motivated to better himself. Given a translated copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, he was captivated by its positive message and read it many times.

At age 15, Amrit met Swami Kripalu for the first time. It proved to be a turning point in his life. Recognizing the boy’s unusual devotion, Swami Kripalu took a keen interest in him. The two became close and Swami Kripalu guided Amrit’s moral and spiritual development, requesting Amrit’s parents to postpone their son’s arranged marriage until he reached the age of 25. During these formative years, Amrit practiced yoga and developed his artistic ability. It was in art class that he first heard intriguing tales of America from a friend whose brother had emigrated to the U.S. While continuing his studies, he worked as a tutor and saved money to undertake what seemed an impossible journey.

In 1960, that dream became a reality. While his wife and young son remained in India, Amrit arrived in the U.S. and undertook the difficult task of establishing himself in a new country and culture. In addition to attending classes at the Philadelphia College of Art and working a regular job, he began teaching yoga. He had a natural ability to speak about Indian spirituality in a way that appealed to a Western audience. Despite the fact that yoga was largely unknown at that time, his classes were so popular that after his graduation he put his art career on hold and returned to India for short periods of study with Swami Kripalu.

It was in 1970, several months after one of these visits to India, that Yogi Desai had the experience of energy awakening and meditation-in-motion that birthed Kripalu Yoga. His description of this experience has appeared in many Kripalu publications over the years. (Space does not permit its reprint here, but the KYTA Office will e-mail copies upon request.) After his experience, Yogi Desai wrote to Swami Kripalu, who replied:

During your visit to India last year, I gave you special yogic practices along with specific instructions for their use. Even though these techniques were meant to awaken prana, I withheld their purpose from you. As a result of the awakening of prana, the body begins to perform postures, breathing exercises, and other necessary disciplines spontaneously. Due to your appropriate practice of these techniques, you have been fortunate to receive the benediction of awakening prana.

Having found an unsuspected depth to the practice of yoga postures, Yogi Desai began to develop an approach to enable others to enter this experience of meditation-in-motion. He called it Kripalu Yoga. In keeping with his spiritual heritage, Yogi Desai assumed the mantle of a guru and founded an ashram where students could come to study with him. Drawing upon sources as diverse as Dale Carnegie, his family’s merchant background and his aesthetic sense and spiritual experience, Yogi Desai formed the nucleus of a dedicated ashram community.

In 1977, Swami Kripalu came to America, attracting many seekers who wished to be in the presence of a great saint. By this time, he was in seclusion, teaching only a handful of close disciples and speaking publicly only twice a year. By contrast, Yoga Desai traveled extensively, inspiring thousands. He never adopted his guru’s intensive schedule of yoga practice; instead, he emphasized the value of bringing meditative awareness to the tasks of daily life. It was his visibility, combined with the powerful presence and image of the reclusive Swami Kripalu, that planted the seed of the Kripalu Yoga tradition in the fertile soil of the transforming American culture of the 1960’s and 70’s. By the 1990’s, Yoga Desai — now known as Gurudev, a common Indian term meaning beloved teacher — was an international figure in the yoga world and Kripalu Center was recognized as an exemplary spiritual community.

The events surrounding Yoga Desai’s resignation as Kripalu’s spiritual director are well known. Less understood is the fact that the break between Kripalu and Yogi Desai was not solely the result of the sexual relationships that came to light in 1994. A longstanding pattern of dishonesty and abuse of power evidenced a much deeper spiritual betrayal. Grandiosity and image protection on the part of Yogi Desai, combined with projection and idealization on the part of his disciples, created the conditions for his sudden and dramatic fall from grace.

Even as he fell, however, Yogi Desai served as a catalyst for the evolution of Kripalu Yoga by shattering the myth of the perfect guru and forcing the community to a higher level of self-empowerment. As the resident community disbanded and Kripalu Center expanded its offerings of experiential programs, Kripalu teachers recognized the need for a different kind of student-teacher relationship, one that avoids dependency and empowers each student to learn from his or her direct experience.

It’s important to remember that Yogi Desai contributed much to what we know as Kripalu Yoga. In India, yoga practice is traditionally reserved for renunciate monks. Yogi Desai was the only close disciple of Swami Kripalu who was married. Knowing firsthand that it was possible for householders to experience the depth of yoga, Yogi Desai broke with tradition to pioneer an empowered spirituality for people leading active lives. In the early days of yoga in the U.S., Yogi Desai was the only prominent teacher emphasizing the ability of yoga postures, conscious breathing and focused attention to activate prana to heal the body and expand consciousness. With the help of a dedicated cadre of staff teachers, Yogi Desai developed the three-stage approach to awaken prana that begins with willful practice and ends with meditation-in-motion. This dynamic blend of effort and surrender remains a hallmark of Kripalu Yoga.

Perhaps Yogi Desai’s greatest contribution was in holding the Kripalu residential community together for more than 20 years, during which time the residents were able to digest and assimilate the teachings of the Kripalu tradition. The result was an approach to growth and transformation that integrates the best of East and West. The contribution of the members of the ashram community will be the subject of the next and final article in this series.

Note: Yogi Desai now teaches Amrit Yoga, which is separate and distinct from Kripalu Yoga. Neither encouraging nor discouraging people from studying with Yogi Desai, Kripalu simply bears witness to its full-spectrum experience with Yogi Desai and recognizes the right of individuals to seek out the experiences they need to grow and transform. On a personal level, Kripalu wishes Yogi Desai and his family well.

Shobhan Richard Faulds, Kripalu’s former president, now serves as chair of the Board of Trustees. He is the author of the upcoming Bantam book Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat. Shobhan will co-direct this year’s KYTA Conference, Oct. 24-27, and will also offer a workshop at the conference, Going Deeper Through Informed Practice.

Complete list of articles by this author:

Kripalu's Non-sectarian Approach to Yoga

The Path to Tantra: The first in a series of articles on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

The sadhana of Swami Kripalu: The second in a series of articles on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

Yogi Amrit Desai, originator of Kripalu Yoga: The third in a series of articles on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

Professionals with Heart and Soul: Teaching Yoga in the "Yoga Boom"

Eastern tradition meets Western disciples: Co-creation in Kripalu's resident community

The yoga of communication: Leading groups the Kripalu way

Kripalu Yoga: A path of transformation

What distinguishes Kripalu Yoga?

Facets of transformative teaching

Looking back to move forward: The guru-disciple relationship

Students, mentors, midwives: A model for transformative teaching

The journey from known to unknown: The first in a series of articles on yoga's transformative process

Purifying body and mind

A Kripalu Yoga definition of enlightenment: The last in a series of articles on yoga's transformative process

Mastery in teaching

Swami Kripalu’s Inspiration for Yoga Teachers

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