It’s 5 PM Friday. I’m self-conscious the moment I pull into the parking lot at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. What is acceptable behavior from a guy who’s committing to Yogic enlightenment and two days of deep relaxation? Should I bring in my laptop computer — that ubiquitous symbol of the overworked workaday world – and risk instant censure? What about the Dunkin’ Donuts dark roast I just picked up? Kripalu strongly discourages coffee consumption. So do I walk in alone, exposed, and anxiously undercaffeinated — devoid of the things that rule and fuel my life the other 363 days of the year?
I know what I must do. I will embrace the moment and submit to the Kripalu Way. But first, I keep the car running and guzzle the coffee.
I’m not your average yoga practitioner. I’m skeptical of unconventional exercise and anything that smacks of New Age spirituality. I’ve long defined the worth of a fitness regimen by just how hard it makes my heart thump, my muscles scream. Of late, however, I’ve hit some speed bumps. A hard lunchtime run is still satisfying, but it doesn’t always kickstart my head in the PM It feels more and more like an energy drain, not a gain. If you define a good workout as something that enhances your ability to handle all forms of stress, mine doesn’t qualify.
My wife, Patty, suggested yoga. A Sanskrit term roughly meaning “yoke” and “union,” its definition implies its healthful purpose: to unite the mind, body, and spirit. Its tools: breathing exercises, physical postures, and meditation. The major differences between the various forms of yoga are the sequence and time spent between (and in) various postures. One of the more kick-ass varieties, ashtanga, allows little to no recovery time between postures, which are held for long, sweat-generating counts.
Despite the stereotype, granola crunchers are not the only people who practice yoga. It’s the core of progressive stress-management programs in the United States, the stuff of celebrity workout videos, and an aerobics-rivaling fitness staple at urban area YMCAs. Several NFL football teams and innumerable elite athletes employ it as part of a peak performance training package. It’s even found its way into the U.S. military.
Kripalu, in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, is one of the largest yoga centers in the country and an increasingly popular weekend getaway for race-pace urban professionals. Some yoga spas tend to be on the lite side, emphasizing physical stretches and nothing else. With the Kripalu method, a conservative form of the traditional 5,000-year-old Hatha yoga, I’m assured I’m getting the real deal. In the handbook’s solemn words, Kripalu is a practice of entering the sanctuary of the body to quiet the restlessness of the mind. They call it meditation in motion. Perfect.
5:15 PM Friday
I walk into Kripalu’s hotel-like lobby. several faces instantly turn my way, their eyes buoyant, smiles warm, everything about them saying, “We’re so glad you’re here!” At the sign-up desk I’m formally welcomed by Andrew. Apparently, no one bothers with surnames. Elsewhere in the lobby there’s lots of full-body hugging among returning alumni. Other well-aligned folks gaze out the south-facing picture windows, breathing into the mountain view with deep, rhythmic precision. Now I’m really nervous. Never has a weekend of wellness loomed more arduous.
Our first yoga class. Shari, our 30-something head instructor, presents a challenge: breathing. Most people use just a fraction of their five-quart lung capacity, she says. Shallow breathing allows fatigue and stress to set in. We can do better.
“Snnnnnhhhhhh.” Shari slowly inhales, her upper abdominal muscles and diaphragm tugging downward and drawing gobs of oxygen through her nose and into her lungs. Her exhalation is even slower and more exaggerated. She bids us to do the same. Contrary to conventional exercise, Yogic breathing, or Pranayama, accentuates the exhalation because it cleanses the lungs and speeds the elimination of toxins from the body. Another difference: during yoga postures, you breathe only through your nose.
My fellow neophytes in the 50-person class immediately experience problems. We either can’t go deep, or we find ourselves panting in response to the anxiety-causing effort of being mindful about something as illusory as where our breath is at any given moment and whether it’s tracking correctly on its organ-to-organ odyssey. Instead of subtracting anxieties, I’ve just added another: I don’t even know how to breathe correctly.
We attempt our first and only posture of the night. The Mountain is probably the most basic and best known of yoga’s 85,000 postures, says Shari. It provides the basic alignment for all other standing postures, from the Tree to the Triangle. Here it is: stand ramrod straight with your arms stretched over your head. Hardly a towering challenge, right?
Then Shari begins the micromanaging that accompanies each posture. “Feet are hip-width apart, your weight evenly distributed on both feet,” she guides. “Spread your weight over your heels and toes equally. Do you feel yourself rooted to the ground? Now lift up your kneecaps by tightening your thighs, lift your lower abdominal muscles and lengthen your lower back muscles. Lengthen the back of your neck by lifting your head up and out from your shoulders. Finally, inhale and lift your arms overhead, stretching them from the armpit to the little finger side of your hand.”
We hold the posture for five deep breaths. I’m overwhelmed — the unfamiliar imagery, the obtuse alignments, the choreographed breathing. In fact, I’ve completely forgotten about deep breathing. “That’s the stress response,” says Shari, noting that when your mind is challenged to focus on a task — any task — the first thing to go is calm, conscious breathing.
As with all our sessions we close with a meditation. Following Shari’s lead the class chants as one: Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmmmm. I abort mid-ohm, gasping for air. Back at the gym I’m a cardio ace. Here I can’t even hold my ohm. What gives?
5:45 AM Saturday
People in stocking feet are quietly afoot. One of two daily yoga classes begins in 15 minutes. I see Maryann Fiebach, whom I met last night. On the backend of a business trip to London, the 40-year-old senior medical research associate for Bayer Corporation arrived direct nonstop to Kripalu. She discovered yoga less than a year ago. Before that she was a competitive whirlwind, doing quite well for her age group in marathons and triathlons.
“My mentality is just go, go, go,” says Fiebach, whose basement is crammed with a Nordic Track, a treadmill, and a rowing machine. “I really wish I’d taken up yoga when I was competitive, because it keeps me focused on what my body is doing, not on going faster. But the funny thing is, now I’m swimming faster than I ever have.”
This weekend at Kripalu, Fiebach is aiming for a breakthrough: to work at her limits without obsessing over whether or not she’s making progress. Perhaps this is yoga’s biggest takeaway. “Number one, I want to do more advanced postures,” she says. “Number two, I want to forget about number one.”
The morning’s yoga session is wrapping up. Diana, a senior program teacher garbed in customary loose white leggings and T-shirt, instructs us to grab a pillow and a blanket and assume the Corpse posture. We lay ourselves out in a supine, palms-up, going-to-meet-our-Maker position. “You’re about to attempt the hardest pose of all,” she says. “Relaxation.” The goal is to mentally scan your body for any remaining reservoirs of tension. Breathe in to dissolve tension, she says. Breathe out to release tension. My mind, free of any pressing physical challenges, races indiscriminately. To work. To home. To the stash of lemon cookies on the dresser in my room. My breath quickens. My body stiffens. “Where are you?” whispers Diana to the class. “Where are you now?”
I wander into a small, advanced yoga class to observe. Kavi Raj, the instructor, begins with a warm-up series of neck and shoulder rolls. I decide to follow along. Slowly, things heat up. In the Salutation to the Sun sequence each posture begets a counter posture: the standing Prayer morphs into an arched, arms-overhead backward “C”; a touch-your-toes bend from the waist spreads east-west into a knee-drop lunge. We go down to the floor. Up from the floor. It’s fast-paced, and the postures flow powerfully from one to the next. For the first time I experience a zap of energy.
Fact: Since so much of a 90-minute yoga session is guided, you need to click with your instructor. For me, Raj has the right bearing. He’s even got a last name.
“There’s no getting it,” he says, balancing on one foot with his arms lifted above his head in the Tree posture. “There’s just being.” I plant my right arch downward and raise my kneecaps up until my right leg is stable. Slowly I lift my left leg, bending it so my left foot is snug against my right thigh. Focusing on a spot on the wall across the room and exhaling deeply, I feel my spine lengthening, my arms extending to form a pyramid overhead. I actually hold the Tree without toppling over.
As the routine progresses into more advanced and contorted postures such as the Hero and the Camel, I don’t fare quite so well. But I’ve lost a lot of my self-consciousness. Don’t let your mind get in the way, we’d been told all weekend. Let the physical sensation from the posture — the tingling, the heat — be your anchor to the present. Unlike conventional exercise, the question to ask with yoga isn’t what do you want to achieve, it’s how do you want to feel. For the first time in 24 hours, I believe I have a clue.
7:30 AM Sunday
as we emerge from the closing session, I reflect on my two-day journey. I’ve put a few addictions on hold — caffeine, competition, corn chips. I haven’t sworn them off, but I’m pleased to know my cravings can be reigned in without suffering a catastrophic breakdown. I can stretch, really stretch, without inducing boredom or muscle tears. I can generate deep, calming breaths. Perhaps most important, I realize that stress — as dramatic, macho, and endlessly time-consuming as it is — probably doesn’t need to fill every nook and cranny of my life. If I’ve proven anything in my better moments at Kripalu, it is this: I can, with practice, go slow with the best of ’em.
Coordinates: Prices for the two-night Yoga for Beginners start at $190; Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, 800-741-7353
Todd Balf (firstname.lastname@example.org) , a contributing editor at “Outside” magazine. He lives in Beverly, Massachusetts.