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What is Kripalu Yoga? (Lisa Santa)

By November 16, 2013 Yoga Shala

I remember vividly some of my very first Kripalu Yoga classes…right here in Lubbock, TX, at the YWCA.  Before taking classes at the Y, I had been away from yoga for some time.  My first yoga teacher had moved to the beautiful state of Washington and, apparently, so did my yoga practice.  I had returned to running as a means of fitness (I still do run…very slowly, and often in circles…but anyway…).  A good friend, who was also a student of my first teacher, had noticed that I was, mildly put, very stressed out: “Uhhhh…  I don’t think the running is serving you, Lisa.”  She had been to some classes at the Y with a new young teacher and had really enjoyed them.  She suggested I try it out.  So I did.

The classes were creative, spontaneous, and themed around life teachings, which often included readings of Rumi, Hafiz, and other mystic poets. I left the classes feeling more positive about my life and my place in the world…and feeling connected, feeling closer to whole.  I also vividly remember lying in savasana after one of these classes and finding streams of tears running down my face as the music of Snatam Kaur enveloped me.  The sound of Snatam’s voice, recorded in layers, reminded me of my mother.  We grew up with an old 8-track and my mother was a singer-songwriter.  She would write songs and record herself singing the melody as well as a harmonic line or two.  Her voice was clear and beautiful, with no to little vibrato.  She had died when I was 12.  The first time I heard Snatam Kaur, in that yoga class, I felt not only in the presence of, but completely held by my mother.  At 36, it marked the beginning of my grieving of that loss…something I had suppressed for reasons that had served me to that point, but were no longer serving me.  It was a powerful and transformative moment…healing.  What was it about that class that had made that experience possible? Was it the heart opening postures of pigeon and bridge?  All of the breath-work layered throughout the class?  Perhaps it was just the coincidence of the music and the memories that made the class so powerful, but it was a heart-opening moment for me…and there were many more to follow.  I had liked yoga before, but I fell totally in love with yoga on that day.  I later discovered that the unfolding of that class was a result of the Kripalu methodology.  And, as one thing tends to lead to another, I eventually sought and completed training as a professional yoga teacher at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

As a Kripalu teacher I’m often asked, “What is Kripalu Yoga? Is that anything like Bikram?”  Well, no, it’s not anything like Bikram.  Bikram would be much easier to explain because the parameters are so clearly defined. 26 postures. 105 degrees. 40% humidity. Pre-set sequence. Pre-set dialogue required for the instructors. Regardless of where you take a Bikram class, you know what you’re getting. No variance allowed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing…there is safety physically and mentally in knowing what to expect, regardless of the temperature. By the way, I love taking Bikram classes when I’m in a city that offers them!

“Is Kripalu Yoga anything like Ashtanga?” Well, not exactly.  Recently, when I was taking the Yoga Wall training in Ventura, Bryan Regers asked, “So what traditions do you teach again?” When I responded “Kripalu and Ashtanga,” he said, “Wow!  How’d you get those two things together?!” Ashtanga is closer to Bikram in that there is a pre-set sequence of postures and straight-ahead verbal direction, but the primary difference is that in the Ashtanga Primary Series the heat is built internally, supporting a great deal of strength-building while also ensuring that your muscles are going to be warm enough to respond to deep stretching.  Another plus for Ashtanga is that it can be practiced at home without having to pay an astronomical electrical bill.  In Bikram, the heat is imposed externally.  The downside – I can’t imagine many would regularly heat their homes to 105 degrees.

“Is Kripalu Yoga anything like hatha yoga or vinyasa flow?”  Well, yes!  It is hatha yoga, and yes, it absolutely incorporates vinyasa.  Kripalu, Ashtanga, and Bikram, as well as Ansuara, Kundalini, and Baptiste, are all traditions of hatha yoga.  The Sanskrit word hatha breaks down into ha and tha – literally translated as sun and moon.  Hatha yoga is the physical practice of yoga that balances the various systems of the body including the sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects of the nervous system.  Hatha yoga builds strength while also increasing flexibility and range of motion.  The term vinyasa breaks down into nyasa and vi – meaning “to place” “in a special way.” Vinyasa refers to the deliberate coordination of breath with movement and is an integral part of both the Kripalu and Ashtanga methodologies.

“Well, then what is it that makes Kripalu yoga Kripalu yoga?” There are three primary aspects to the Kripalu methodology and all three support individual inquiry…Kripalu methodology allows for the student in the class to take responsibility for creating their personal experiences on the mat – and this directly impacts their response-ability off the mat.  You may have heard the acronym “BRFWA!” in a Kripalu class.  Well, here it is more clearly defined:


1) Proper alignment and breath geared toward the bio-individual – We’re not all built the same way and Kripalu yoga celebrates this!  Therefore, you are encouraged to listen to your body and to allow it to inform you regarding your most optimal alignment.  Now this doesn’t mean we throw all of the alignment principles out of the window – quite the opposite: Teachers use fundamental alignment principles to guide students into their unique expressions of a posture.  Forward bends are a great example.  One student may feel no stretch in the hamstrings in paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) while another begins to feel stretch immediately at the start of the fold.  Which takes us to the next bit…


2) Sustaining the posture – working with your “edge.” Students are encouraged to identify and embrace their personal edges of sensation and to “hang out” around 80% of that edge.  Imagine for a second that you are running across the desert and suddenly there is a cliff right in front of you. (100% edge!)  What do you do?  Nooooo….Stop!  You skid to the edge of the cliff.  The body contracts.  The heart races.  Fear of falling consumes you. “Get me away from the edge! I don’t want to die!”  Now, imagine a different scenario…you’re walking in the desert and you see a beautiful cactus flower blooming right on the edge of a cliff.  (BREATHE) You approach slowly. (RELAX) You sense that the ground beneath you is sturdy. (FEEL) You move a little closer.  (WATCH) You scoot right up to the edge, bend down and not only observe the beauty of the blossom, but also notice the beauty of the canyon below.  This is what working with the edge of a posture is like.  The edge is dynamic, not static…it always moving, generally a little closer, toward a deeper experience and expression of a posture.  Only the individual in the experience can determine that edge.  The teacher can’t determine it for you.  (A teacher can guess.  For example, if someone’s face is strained in Warrior I and the legs are violently shaking, chances are they’ve moved past an appropriate edge.)  In Kripalu yoga, you will be encouraged to identify your own edges and to honor them appropriately.  Only you can tell if a posture is strengthening or straining or if what you are experiencing is discomfort or pain…or if you’re just being a little lazy and could probably do a little more.  You are given the choice…yes, you have a choice!…to lessen or intensify the effort…or perhaps let go of it all together…to just surrender to what is…


3) Allow for integration.  Integration may be presented as either a release of a posture followed by a pause or transition, or the allowing of an energetic response to the experience, often referred to as a “prana response.” (Prana is literally translated as “life force” – wonder where George Lucas got it?) Notice how you feel.  Notice differences left to right.  What does your body naturally want to do in response?  Kripalu yoga recognizes each person’s innate body wisdom and invites them to listen to it, and to choose whether or not to follow it.

What is the result of this methodology?  Well, because there is no predetermined sequence or script, teachers have permission to design classes that are creative and spontaneous.  Classes that are transformative.  Classes that cultivate response-ability on and off the mat.  Kripalu yoga is about so much more than the postures and/or the sequence.  It’s about cultivating the ability to be present, to watch our experiences, and to choose our responses.  And the cool thing is….you can be in an Ashtanga class, a Bikram class, or any other type of yoga class and still be having a Kripalu experience!  Once you begin to learn to self-moderate, to self-guide, to self-regulate, to self-accept – you have truly entered the yoga matrix: Yoga integrates with every aspect of your life.

For more on what distinguishes Kripalu Yoga click here.