Kripalu Yoga In—and Outside—the Box
by Tresca Weinstein
Questions for Edi Pasalis on Kripalu’s standardized yoga curriculum—and what it means for yoga teachers.
In 1999, Edi Pasalis took a “flying leap” from her corporate job in services marketing and came to Kripalu for yoga teacher training. Since then, she has taught throughout the Boston area, attended Harvard Divinity School to study the spiritual impact of yoga, and created a business, I Do Yoga, supporting people through the wedding process using yoga and relaxation techniques; it won the Kripalu Yoga Entrepreneur Award in 2005. Now project leader for the development of Kripalu’s standardized curriculum, initiated by the Institute for Extraordinary Living (IEL), Edi says the motivating force for her involvement in the project is her desire to support yoga teachers in creating right livelihood. She spoke with Yoga Bulletin editor Tresca Weinstein about the new evidence-based curriculum and how it will benefit Kripalu Yoga teachers.
YB What will the standardized Kripalu Yoga curriculum be used for?
Edi The initial impulse to create a curriculum came from trying to do really good research on yoga. To do rigorous scientific research, you need to have a standardized intervention—that is, one that can be replicated—so that you can compare the results of one study to the results of another. Right now, in most yoga research, the intervention is created specifically for that project, which means the sample size of the study is very small, and thus the significance is less. The bigger sample size you have, the stronger the results, and you can get that bigger sample size when you can compare multiple studies with the same intervention. Along the way, as we’ve worked toward better research, we’ve realized the benefits of a standardized program are much broader—we’ve realized that through this process we are, in fact, creating an evidence-based yoga program for wellness, and this is great news for Kripalu and for teachers.
One of our hopes is that an evidence-based yoga program, a program that has been proven effective and can be replicated, will help yoga move more fully into the major systems in our communities—the health-care system, school systems, corporate organizational systems, mental-health systems. One of the reasons this project is exciting to me is because it has the possibility to leverage Kripalu’s size and organizational presence to begin a conversation with major systems in our country that individual teachers with their own programs would have a much harder time doing. It’s great to take yoga into a school, but it would be incredible to take yoga into a school system!
YB How is the curriculum being developed?
Edi It started with [IEL Director Stephen Cope] and the leadership of Kripalu putting everything that is Kripalu Yoga into a big pot, and then Stephen went off and made a program out of it. He did the very first run about two years ago; last year, he gave me his outline and, since then, we have been refining it in various settings, including several runs at Kripalu for Kripalu staff, including folks from the kitchen, finance, IT, marketing, all over. We have been learning a lot with each iteration. We learn from the general feedback participants have given us, from our experience as teachers, and from the in-depth interviews we’ve done with the help of a professional qualitative researcher of every participant who’s gone through the program. We’ve also been using scientifically validated questionnaires on a whole variety of issues from stress to mindfulness to positive affect and self-transcendence, having participants take the surveys before and after the program, to see how we’re doing on the research front. So we’re developing the program, we’re gathering case studies for marketing, we’re doing research—it’s a multi-pronged process of development, and we’re still in the early stages. We also want to hear teachers’ voices in this process. Sometime in 2011, we will start a more formal process for Kripalu Yoga teachers to offer their input into the curriculum and the marketing and the unfolding of this process. We’ll be making more information available about this as the plans are in place.
YB You’ve run the program for Kripalu staff, as you mentioned, as well as in a corporate setting. What kind of results have you seen thus far?
Edi The data is very preliminary and we can’t say anything definitive yet, but so far it is all very positive. Anything you would want to be reduced is being reduced-stress, distress, negative affect all go down as a result of the program. Anything you want to go up goes up—positive affect, emotional control, personal mastery, sense of spiritual transcendence, mindfulness, a whole host of positive factors we’re looking at. Plus, from the qualitative perspective, the stories we’re hearing in the interviews are really inspiring. Folks are feeling real benefits in their personal and their work lives. Eventually, we hope to track biomarkers—actual physical changes in people’s bodies—and scan for changes in the brain. Exciting!
YB One of the things that characterizes the Kripalu Yoga approach is the way every teacher makes it uniquely their own. Will there be room for that within the standardized curriculum?
Edi When you hear the phrase “standardized yoga curriculum,” the first thing that might come into your head is something like Bikram Yoga or Ashtanga, where there’s a very explicit sequence of postures that you never deviate from, and there’s a script for how you speak to those postures, and a certain temperature you have to have in the room—it’s all very, very precise. This curriculum is not built around that kind of standardization. We have an agenda for the course as a whole, we have an agenda for each session, we have suggested off-the-mat exercises like co-listening, support for the development of the theme of each week, and a basic plan for the asana and pranayama introduced. If scientists had it their way, we would have a curriculum that did look a bit more like a Bikram program, very precise and structured, because anything that’s done exactly the same way makes for stronger science. However, we also want to honor the need of the participants for a transformative experience and, as teachers, we know we need to respond to who is in the room, so we are creating that flexibility for teachers. We talked to the folks who created MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program), and one of the key things they told us was to create space within the program for teachers to bring themselves into the curriculum. We are going to be identifying key teaching points, or key learning points, for each session, but we will not be scripting what teachers need to say or forcing a teacher to speak something that is outside their own experience. Within the context of the program, we trust that teachers will tailor it to suit their audience. One tiny example that has already come up: whether to Om or not. We are not specifying whether you need to Om in this program. If it is appropriate in your setting to Om, you are welcome to. If you’re in a setting where it’s going to be off-putting to your students, you can choose other ways of gathering.
YB How will the program support teachers?
Edi I think a standardized, packaged yoga product is going to help yoga teachers a lot. At one time during my career in business I was a consultant for services marketing—I would go into companies and train them around how to market and sell services—and one of the key ways is to put something in a box. It’s not meant to replace all the customized offerings, which are very, very important; it’s simply one way to begin a relationship, begin a process of growth and transformation. I want to emphasize that. This eight-week program is not meant in any way to replace what Kripalu teachers are already offering, their own creative, unique, wonderful classes. It’s meant to add to what they have to offer. This program is designed to be a general yoga program for wellness, which means it’s going to be offered for a broad population and for a mainstream audience, so a teacher would have the possibility of offering it in a variety of settings in addition to a yoga studio. I imagine a teacher using this program as a way to invite yoga students who might not normally be interested in yoga to try a yoga program.
Also, any science we do for the program supports the teacher’s efforts to take Kripalu Yoga out into the world. The program will actually market itself because we’ll already have scientific proof of what it does, so it’s the program that does the selling rather than the teacher. I have spent the past 10 years as a teacher in the Boston community, and I know how effortful it is to market your work-I will be very happy for any product that helps make that easier. Plus scientific proof will help yoga teachers charge rates that make it feasible for them to continue to take yoga out into the world. We want to support teachers in being able to give themselves to this work, and thus giving more people access to yoga.