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Eastern tradition meets Western disciples:
Co-creation in Kripalu's residential community
The fourth in a series of articles
on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

Winter 2002

by Shobhan Richard Faulds


Inspired by Swami Kripalu and birthed by Yogi Amrit Desai, Kripalu Yoga came of age in the residential ashram community that thrived from 1974 to 1994. Led by a charismatic guru, run by an inner circle of senior disciples dedicated to selfless service, informed by visiting luminaries and staffed by a diverse group seeking to explore the limits of human potential, the ashram was a hotbed of creativity and innovation.

By all external appearances, the ashram was wholeheartedly committed to living the authentic teachings of the Kripalu Yoga tradition, complete with its Indian cultural trappings. Virtually all residents were initiated disciples, known by Sanskrit names and vocal in their devotion to the guru and his teachings. White clothing symbolized a striving toward purification, which was embodied in a strict vegetarian diet and weekly fast days. Disciples wore necklaces of mala beads, used for mantra meditation. Days began with early morning sadhana and ended with evening satsanga, with long hours of selfless service to the organization in between. From the outside, it seemed that these American youths were simply adopting the garb and habits of a foreign culture.

But just beneath the surface, something of more long-term consequence was occuring. The ashram residents were exploring the ancient Indian teachings of yoga through personal practice and self-inquiry, and doing their best to assimilate them—each in his or her unique way. So too were numerous non-resident disciples living the Kripalu lifestyle in their home communities. In the interaction of Eastern guru and Western disciples, the Kripalu tradition was organically evolving into a new and contemporary form. Popular holistic health principles were grafted onto the practice of hatha yoga, replacing the more arcane theories of Ayurveda. The yogic ideal of ego transcendence was balanced with a model of healthy ego development drawn from Western psychology. Introspective pursuits such as solo meditation were mixed with group practices like spirited aerobic dance and intensive communication dyads. While retaining the basic Kripalu teachings of ethical living, regular yoga practice and the awakening of prana, something very new and different was emerging from the ashram community.

By the mid-1980s, many residents had been studying with Yogi Desai for a decade or more. A number had grown to be respected spiritual teachers in their own right, directing increasingly popular Kripalu programs. While remaining in the role of disciples, the ashram teaching staff began to question and adapt the guru's teachings. When Yogi Desai talked about being in the moment, these ashram teachers probed the essence of what he was trying to communicate and came up with the "practice of being present": Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch and Allow. Yogi Desai stressed the importance of feeling your feelings, and these teachers refined his ideas into the concept of "riding the wave of sensation." Yogi Desai spoke on accessing the state of meditation through observing the play of the mind, and the teachers developed witness consciousness. Looking for a simpler way to guide students into yoga postures, teachers formulated a system of press point instructions. Attempting to express the idea of yoga as a lifestyle, they came up with the phrase "yoga on and off the mat," which was part of the ashram's lexicon a decade before it became widespread. Gradually the Kripalu approach to experiential education took shape. It can be summarized as creating safe and sacred space, engaging in transformative exercises that integrate body, mind and Spirit, and integrating the experiences that result through group process and other techniques.

Such a summation reflects only a portion of the wealth of spiritual curriculum created in the dynamic ashram community, but it drives home the point—Kripalu Yoga is much more than the brainchild of a single individual. It is the result of a 20-year evolutionary process in which an authentic yoga tradition was slowly and steadily assimilated into contemporary Western culture. To his credit, Yogi Desai always modeled an openness to other teachers and a willingness to blend East and West. In retrospect, it is obvious that numerous residents made important contributions to the development of the Kripalu Yoga curriculum. At the time, their contributions went largely unrecognized because the ashram culture attributed all teachings to the guru. The culture facilitated collaboration and group creativity, but failed to recognize the creativity and personal efforts of individuals. The larger truth is that Kripalu Yoga was co-created by Yogi Desai, the resident teaching faculty and the ashram community.

The guru/disciple paradigm suddenly and unexpectedly imploded in 1994. The ashram community was literally rent asunder and its cultural trappings consumed in the raging fire of a painful transition. But Kripalu Yoga was not annihilated in the heat of this conflagration; it not only survived but continues to thrive and evolve. The Kripalu Yoga we practice today will be the focus of my fifth and final article in this series.

Shobhan Richard Faulds, M.A., J.D., has practiced yoga and meditation intensively for more than 20 years and is the author of the forthcoming Bantam book Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat. Shobhan served as Kripalu's President from 1998 to 2001 and currently chairs the Board of Trustees. His final installment in this series will appear in the Summer 2003 issue of the Bulletin.

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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