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On the business of spirituality: New York Times, July 3, 2008

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  • Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
    From: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/fashion/03kripalu.html?ei=5070&en=efe05497d02a6253&ex=1215748800&emc=eta1&pagewanted=all New York Times July 3, 2008
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/fashion/03kripalu.html?ei=5070&en=efe05497d02a6253&ex=1215748800&emc=eta1&pagewanted=all

      New York Times
      July 3, 2008
      It's Not Easy Picking a Path to Enlightenment
      By ANDY NEWMAN

      Stockbridge, Mass.

      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
      Kripalu Tradition."

      "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,"
      she said.

      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
      with bonbons.

      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
      opportunities.

      "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
      people."

      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
      feng shui.

      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.
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