LENOX -- Return visitors to Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health are in for a few surprises this summer. Famous as a retreat center for spiritual seekers, and the largest yoga educational center in the United States, Kripalu is engaged in some soul-searching of its own. A new leadership team is making changes they hope will reinvigorate the 20-year-old institution, implementing measures that reverse some of Kripalu's precepts from the past.
The changes may seem insignificant to those unfamiliar with Kripalu, but to longtime guests and employees they are profound. The most jarring are in the cafeteria-style dining hall. Once strictly vegetarian, the menu now includes tuna and chicken salad. Formerly a caffeine-free zone, Kripalu soon will offer coffee in its cafe. Peter Lamb, the new food service manager, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America with more than a decade's experience as a professional chef.
At the reception desk, where it has long been difficult to distinguish the staff from the guests, employees now show a professional demeanor and wear T-shirts with a Kripalu logo. They report to Jennifer Gigliotti, the guest contact manager and a former spa director at Kripalu's luxurious neighbor, Canyon Ranch.
In addition, Kripalu's Spartan accommodations are being upgraded: More rooms have been renovated to include private baths and air conditioning is under consideration. Kripalu's flagship ''R&R" (Retreat & Renewal) program now comes in multiple forms, including ''R&R Fitness," which emphasizes aerobic activity and strengthening exercise such as hiking, biking, and weight training along with vigorous yoga and massage treatments; ''Gardening as a Spiritual Practice"; ''Aqua Aerobics at the Lake"; and ''Bird Watching for Everyone."
The biggest surprise is the people driving many of these changes. Dinabandhu Garrett Sarley and his wife, Ila Sarley, were among the original followers of Kripalu founder Amrit Desai, who left in the wake of a scandal in 1995. Indeed, Dinabandhu Sarley held chief operating officer responsibilities at Kripalu when the ashram's problems emerged. (Desai, who was married, encouraged his followers to practice celibacy. He later was revealed to have had sexual relationships with several of his female adherents and was forced to leave the community. The events nearly destroyed Kripalu, prompting its evolution from a devotion-based ashram to a more secular educational institution.)
Sarley left Kripalu to head the Omega Institute in nearby Rhinebeck, N.Y., a holistic educational center. In his absence, Kripalu struggled through its transition from a spiritual community based on the guru/disciple relationship to self-governance as a nonprofit corporation. Now Sarley has returned, and has been embraced by members of the community he left 10 years ago.
During his decade at Omega, thoughts of returning to Kripalu never left his mind.
''It had been my hope to contribute to its flowering," Sarley says. ''The Kripalu board had made overtures across the years. It never got serious, but we were always in touch."
Late last year, when the Kripalu trustees initiated a search for a new president, Sarley expressed interest, and was offered the job.''They gave us full significant creative control," he said. ''We didn't think the board would ever give us that." The offer also included a seat on the board of trustees, a position past presidents did not have. Sarley became president and chief executive officer, and Ila Sarley was named vice president.
Since taking the helm March 1, the Sarleys have been striving, as Dinabandhu puts it, to ''reignite the original impulse." As he tells it, ''When I studied with Swami Kripalu, yoga was defined quite differently, as the pursuit of anything that produces life force. Yoga is anything that produces thriving." It's that definition, which extends beyond the practice of asana (physical postures), that he is trying to reinstate at Kripalu.
''We see Kripalu as a new kind of institution,' he says, ''where you go to become a fuller human being."
Sarley also wants to broaden the pool of those who might consider a stay at Kripalu. He says his goal is to ''increase the attractiveness and lower the barriers to participation."
That's one reason the menu has shifted from vegetarian to one with chicken salad (using humanely raised chickens) and (dolphin-safe) tuna salad.
''Our approach is to offer people a chance to explore new modalities," he says. ''We're leaving the choice to them. We want to make it about education, inspiration, and choice. There's no coercion involved."
So far, ''feedback has been positive," Sarley says. ''People are voting with their spoons. We do go through the stuff." He acknowledges some dissent among the kitchen staff. ''Some felt they were committed to vegetarianism. My response to them: Let's make the vegetarian food so attractive that no one takes the tuna fish."
Another approach to broadening Kripalu's appeal is the dramatic expansion of programs from 500 last year to approximately 900 this year. Denise Barack, curriculum outreach manager and part of the team that recruits presenters to lead programs at Kripalu, says she finds her job more gratifying since the Sarleys' return.
''There's a big buzz all around the country," Barack says. ''People know them, they know their values. There's a lot of excitement being generated."
In the past, Kripalu was run by committee. With the Sarleys at the helm, she notes more efficient consideration of new ideas and decision-making: ''I feel like a racehorse let out of the gates."
With the near doubling of programs, Barack is also much busier. She credits the Sarleys, and especially Ila, with encouraging faculty recruiters to think differently.
''It's a bigger vision," she says. ''They see faculty as key to our success. We are inviting [presenters] to consider us their center, to think of us as their East Coast base. We're the vehicle that's helping these teachers bring their work to the world."
Asked to cite new programs and presenters, Ila Sarley provides a diverse sampling: ''We are very excited to have David Hykes, internationally acclaimed musician and composer, who will be presenting a program entitled 'Harmonic Chant,' which will include a spectacular concert with members of his choir. We will be presenting 'East/West Fitness Fusion' with Scott Cole, one of the top fitness instructors in the world. He is actually known as the 'abs of steel champion.' This is a fun mix of kick-boxing, tai chi, yoga, and core-abs work."
She is also keen on Capoeira, a Brazilian blend of martial art and dance, which will be taught by a master of the form, Beto Simas, called Mestre Boneco. Other new programs range from Brain Insight and Rejuvenation Retreat, a workshop by Gessner Geyer, president of the Cambridge-based education, health-care, and life-management consulting firm Brainergy Inc., which draws on Kundalini Yoga and Vipassana meditation, to the Yoga of Knitting, led by actress and knitting designer Karen Allen.
Kripalu's foundation still rests on yoga; in addition to expanding the Yoga and Self-Discovery workshops, Ila Sarley hopes to attract more prominent teachers representing all styles, such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, and Kundalini. There's a new emphasis on Western-style physical fitness, too: more classes in Pilates and strength training and enhancements to Kripalu's fitness room.
Still, the mind/body balance won't be disrupted. Kripalu is also focusing on its Meditation and Spiritual Practice programming, with presenters including Tara Brach (founder and senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C.), Byron Katie (author with Stephen Mitchell of ''Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life," Three Rivers, 2003), Shinzen Young (founder of the Vipassana Support Institute, a meditation center), and Lama Surya Das (author most recently of ''Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be," Broadway, 2003), and expanding workshops in Personal Growth and Intuition Development, with various faculty members.
Longer-term changes also are ahead, to address a nagging issue at Kripalu: While the grounds are spectacular, set against a mountainous backdrop with lawns, fields, and woods that sweep into Lake Mahkeenac, the stern brick building is unattractive.
''Over the next few years," says Dinabandhu Sarley, ''we expect to embark on a facility-wide upgrade process which will further enhance the warm, friendly, and relaxing atmosphere that is most conducive to health, inspiration, education, and stress reduction."
Will these changes entice more mainstream vacationers to consider Kripalu? The Sarleys believe so.
''People use the term 'vacation' as a way to come back home to themselves and get energy," says Dinabandhu. ''Most vacations don't do that. We offer a real vacation that actually reduces stress and leaves you not where you left off but at a higher level of functioning."
Ila offers her hopes for Kripalu's guests: ''I want them to take with them a sense of body-mind-spirit integration, to absorb the beauty and peace that is available to them here, and to bring it home to their families and communities. We want to offer them tools to improve their daily lives."
Bess Hochstein is a freelance writer in Great Barrington.