On the business of spirituality: New York Times, July 3, 2008
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New York Times
July 3, 2008
It's Not Easy Picking a Path to Enlightenment
By ANDY NEWMAN
ON the last Tuesday in June, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health
was a New Age encyclopedia come to life.
A roomful of seekers pursued "Total Immersion for Total
Transformation." A lecturer demonstrated yoga poses to combat anxiety
and depression. Pounding music issued from a gymlike hall where the
inventor of a "movement experience" called JourneyDance supervised the
liberation of her trainees' second chakras. "The burning in our souls
and the fever in our hearts and the fervor in our eyes as we're hoping
and we're praying ..." went the soundtrack as women waved their arms
heavenward or sat crosslegged on the floor.
So many paths to serenity; so many pilgrims: 30,000 guests a year come
to Kripalu, which bills itself as the biggest retreat center in the
country, offering 700 workshops and seminars annually.
But behind the scenes in a crowded second-floor suite at Kripalu's
sprawling lakefront campus here in the Berkshires, things are a tad
less restful. Beneath a long expanse of whiteboard and corkboard
plastered with thousands of color-coded sheets and dots laying out
each day's offerings from 2007 through the end of next year, phones
ring ceaselessly. Gaps between projected and actual attendance are
tracked like stock prices, and self-proclaimed visionaries and healers
are subjected to the scrutiny of veteran vetters.
This is Kripalu's programming office, known internally as Mission
Control or Grand Central, where the gatekeepers decide who merits the
instant respectability a player like Kripalu confers in the
ever-expanding Lohas industry (that's lifestyles of health and
sustainability). For a place that makes its living selling relaxation
and harmony, the love can feel a little tough.
"I'm getting a lot of inquiries about spiritual programs for
children," one programmer skeptically told a woman who came in to
pitch a seminar on stress and the family. Another programmer read
aloud from a proposal: "Self-realization and Enlightenment in the
"Sounds ambitious," a colleague said dryly.
Kripalu's programming director, Denise Barack, gestured at the
room-long scheduling board. "We could do a commercial for Post-its,"
Anyone who sets foot in a health-food store has seen the bulging
catalogs for holistic meccas like Kripalu or Esalen or the Omega
Institute. The course listings can seem almost like a collection of
randomly combined buzzwords: "path," "wellness," "Rumi," "goddess,"
"awakening." But deciding what goes into those catalogs is a process
that leaves little to chance or flow. With one hand firmly on the
bottom line and the other grasping for the spiritual firmament, the
people who run Kripalu are engaged in a sort of permanent yoga stretch.
"We're constantly re-examining," said Kripalu's president, Ila Sarley.
"What are the needs? What are the needs of the market, and what are
the needs of society?" In the end, everything comes down to what will
bring bodies in the door. "What we're looking at," Ms. Sarley said,
"is what will someone pay to take a vacation to do."
People will usually pay, of course, to vacation at the feet of a bona
fide New Age celebrity. Outside the JourneyDance room, Ms. Barack, an
energetic 48-year-old with big eyes and a beaming smile, pointed out a
craggy-faced man named David Williams on a promotional poster for a
coming Ashtanga yoga festival. "He's the top of the Amway line in
terms of Ashtanga," she said excitedly.
To get the big names, Kripalu, a nonprofit institution that cannot
match the offers from private spas and corporate clients, bends over
backward to make instructors feel at home.
"You figure out what they want," Ms. Sarley said. "They want candy,
and we don't do candy, but we'll get them candy. Or they want a
certain kind of meat."
"We spend money on chocolate," Ms. Barack added, recalling a time when
she sent a programmer to a conference in Chicago to ply Deepak Chopra
Business deals and the details of seminars are hammered out on the
lake behind Kripalu. One presenter told Ms. Barack, "Kayaking is your
golf." The lake also affords privacy from the clutch of devotees,
which can be hard to come by. "People have not groupies, but people
really want to be in their presence," Ms. Barack said.
To figure out who, or what, the next big thing will be, Kripalu
programmers go on scouting trips, to professional conferences, to
other retreat centers. They keep an ear out for cross-promotional
"Shiva Rea" a marquee yoga teacher "will say, `That Simon Park,
he's really up and coming,' and sure enough he is," Ms. Barack said.
"We want to catch them on the edge. By the time they hit our catalog,
he's going to be on the cover of Yoga Journal."
If you're not a celebrity, it helps to be related to one. Ms. Barack
noted that the man leading the "Working With Your Angels" seminar was
"the son of someone who's well known for angel work. She'll draw 300
Even so, Ms. Sarley said, "about 20 percent of the things we try
fail." A program on "Conscious Kitchens" featuring the cookbook author
and food activist Francis Moore Lappé was poorly attended. "Some of
our more socially conscious programs tend not to draw as well," Ms.
Sarley said. "Probably we should have focused more on foodies and
gourmet." Other dud categories include aging ("People want to feel
like they'll be eternally youthful," Ms. Sarley said), gardening and
And even stars, if they want to be invited back, need to be mindful of
the line between offering tools for enlightenment and engaging in
crass self-promotion. "I've had to sit down with people who'd just
drawn 250 or 300 people," Ms. Barack said, "and tell them, `This is
not the opportunity to be trying to push the book.' "
Then there are the hundreds upon hundreds of would-be workshop leaders
who come knocking on Kripalu's door. At least 90 percent are rejected,
Ms. Barack said. The reasons can range from insufficiently appealing
subject matter to a thin résumé to a bad vibe about the proposer,
something that the folks at Kripalu were particularly sensitized to by
their founding guru's fall from grace in a sex scandal in the mid-'90s.
Programmers at other holistic centers said they used similar criteria.
"One of the first qualities needed for a programmer is a high-level
detector for baloney," said Ralph White, a founder of the New York
Open Center. "Crystals, channeling, dubious gurus. Plowing through
that relentless stream of proposals, there were certain phrases that
would always trigger `I don't think so.' "
Still, at Kripalu and elsewhere, there is always room for something
new. At the end of August, Kripalu will offer, for the first time, a
three-day seminar in rock balancing, the contemplative practice of
stacking stones into precarious-looking formations. The presenter,
Lila Higgins, an environmental artist based in California, said she
was emboldened by an image from the Kripalu catalog itself.
"I saw a Kripalu magazine," she said, "and on the cover I saw a stack
of rocks. And I thought, `Hey, I need to propose a class for this.' "
The scheduling board in the Kripalu programming office lists a
projected attendance of 20 for Ms. Higgins's class. As of Wednesday,
six people had signed up not bad, given that there were seven weeks
left to register, Ms. Barack said. She said she was hopeful the class
would fill up.
"Sometimes we just have to take risks," she said.