Denise Barack

When I was in college we met in consciousness raising (CR) groups and talked about the value in meeting as women, in groups of just women, even as we were part of a community that included men. Men as classmates, men as teachers, men as coworkers. I went to school at Vassar College, which of course has a strong history of developing the minds and spirits of women, so the conversation in the CR always circled back to whether in the company of men, women naturally drew back. The idea, we said, was to find spaces in our lives where we could physically retreat from men, because this was where we could nourish ourselves and cultivate our voices.

By now it’s not just therapeutic and empowering spending time with women – whether it’s with my women friends or at an event for women or an event that attracts large numbers of women – the after effect is nearly meditative.

But here’s the question.

Is meditative enough?

Sure you can’t pour from an empty cup, so yeah, women know that we need to work on finding ways to take care of ourselves, to continue to build our resilience, our strength, our power, in order to care for others.

But it’s more than that.

“I understand there’s no separation, that everything is connected,” Denise Barack told me in our conversation about Kripalu’s upcoming Women’s Week.

“This is a call to both solidarity and action.”

On any given weekend at Kripalu, about 650 guests travel to the sprawling campus near the grounds of Tanglewood in Stockbridge, Mass., to participate in multiple workshops, each happening at the same time and all focusing on subjects relating to health and wellness. Yet at the core of Kripalu’s programming is yoga, perhaps the best yoga you’ll ever experience in your life. I’ve been to Kripalu twice – and both times my focus was on running: yoga and running and trail running. And while I noticed most of the participants in all of the programs included many women, there were plenty of men, too.

So Kripalu’s upcoming Women’s Week – The Revolution Within: Women’s Week at Kripalu, November 10-15, 2019 – caught my attention. I reached out to Denise, who’s curating and moderating the weekday program, which is for women only and will take over the entire campus. No other programs or workshops will be happening during Women’s Week, and this is a first for Kripalu.

Why now?

I asked Denise. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation.

Carolee Belkin Walker: I’m so excited about Kripalu’s upcoming women’s week! But of course I think of every week as women’s week!

Denise Barack: Right! And I look forward to meeting you!

CBW: Before we get started, would you tell me about yourself and the background on “The Revolution Within?”

DB: Sure. I have been connected with Kripalu a long time. My son is now 32, and I moved to the Berkshires to be part of this community when I was pregnant with him. I’ve worked here the past 21 years or so, a couple of decades, mostly in the role of director of programming. But in recent years my role has changed where I’m now the director of program innovation, and I just love being able to curate things like Women’s Week and other conferences that bring together real visionary voices, convening together in conversation. This is the biggest we’ve done so far, and we’re expecting to sell out the Main Hall. It will be the only program going on at Kripalu at the time, which is unusual for Kripalu, because we usually offer our R&R retreats for men and women, so it will be much more intimate with only one group of several hundred women.

CBW: The times I’ve been to Kripalu you’ve always had multiple programs going on at the same time. This is a first for Kripalu, right?

DB: It is. And it should be a pretty potent space, I think, with a lot of amazing, visionary presenters. But not just the presenters. This is an opportunity for us to bring women together to learn from one another. We have the wisdom. We have so much to offer one another in terms of life experience and diversity of perspective. And so we’re looking forward to a very broad spectrum of participants coming to this. And that’s why we’ll be offering seven different tracks or areas of interests. Some women might be drawn for the writing, others may be looking at sensuality and embodiment. We’re trying to create something that’s very intentional as a way to have both supportive small-group experiences and then be in the larger field with plenary keynotes in the evenings and then lots and lots of choices throughout the day.

We’re at an unprecedented moment in history where women are so actively engaged, and enraged. Record numbers, you know, so we’ve never really held so much power to shape the future.

CBW: Tell me about the process of thinking about coming up with the idea for the seven tracks and then about planning the week. I’m sure you could’ve gone in many different directions.

DB: Definitely. And I’ve put out a lot of invitations to people where it just wasn’t the right time or place. Unfortunately, we won’t have Michelle Obama here! But I am looking at the timing. This is taking place a year after the historic midterm elections and therefore it’s a year before the 2020 presidential election. It just feels like it is a potent time to bring women together to have these kinds of conversations. We’re at an unprecedented moment in history where women are so actively engaged, and enraged. Record numbers, you know, so we’ve never really held so much power to shape the future.

And looking at the time of year, it’s a few weeks before Thanksgiving. There’s so much to be grateful for today even though there’s so much we want to change. But the fact that we have the freedom to convene and express and explore all these different perspectives is pretty remarkable considering the history of women’s rights in this country.

Hopefully women who attend will return home with something completely unique. It’ll be interesting to follow up later. I’m hoping to see how this week of being together actually inspires change. And that change could be just ripples – it may not look like outer, big change in the world. Not everybody’s going to run for Congress. Ripples, as you know, from Kripalu, they continue. There’s no end to that wave action that goes out from someone’s life perspective being changed from being here. Part of that is not just what we’re going to be awakening women to, but also it’s about awakening within ourselves. The idea of thriving, the idea of what is it truly to nourish that voice within, to hear and respect that voice within, even as we are honoring and respecting other voices that are quite different from our own.

CBW: When I was first reading about the program, I was struck by the initial language and the focus on the revolution “within.” In my own life and my own practice, I spend a lot of time thinking about and valuing and cultivating resilience, so that as I face challenges as I get older, either in my health or in my work, that I’m in a better place to kind of roll with it. So I’m wondering if you could talk about the value or the role that you intend to play in fostering resilience and ultimately empowerment through resilience.

This revolutionary work that we’re calling forth is the yoking of the deep work within and on our mats to wherever we’re socially engaged, to try to also meet the need for democracy and justice today in the world, beyond our mat and beyond what’s within.

DB: I love that that’s what lit you. You asked about the curation of this. At first there was so much to look at. I read some great books about women’s rage, women’s anger. And the more I started looking at that outward focus, the more I realized, particularly since we’re hosting this at Kripalu, which has always offered this very neutral, nonpartisan ecumenical sanctuary for inquiry and transformation, is that we are a yoga-based container for a call to action, however someone takes that back into the world. And in recognizing that the root of yoga means not just to come together to unite and make whole but to understand there’s no separation, that everything is connected, this revolutionary work that we’re calling forth is the yoking, so to speak, of the deep work within and on our mats – which is the resilience work –  to wherever we’re socially engaged, you know, to try to also meet the need for democracy and justice today in the world, beyond our mat and beyond what’s within.

One has to start there, and we have some gorgeous teachers who are going to be almost poetically looking at this because it’s their deep work.

I remember yoga teacher and spiritual activist Seane Corn saying that “if you point a finger outward, there’s three fingers pointing back at you,” and she’s just come out with a book on this topic called Revolution of the Soul that is going to be the basis of what she offers in a very inspiring keynote session. Really looking at what it means to begin within. The revolution inside. Inside-out work. It’s not just staying inside, it’s inside-out.

But there’s new voices that we’re bringing in to Kripalu, too, who are also speaking to this. Valarie Kaur is someone who’ll be a household name at some point where people start to hear her expression of what she calls “Revolutionary Love.” She’s looking at how these times are so dark, and yet as a mother is trying to challenge us to think about it, “not as the darkness of the tomb, but rather the darkness of a womb” that we, through labor, can breathe and push through to birth a new era, a new future. And so to do that, we need strength, we need resources. But ultimately what she’s talking about is coming from a place of what she calls revolutionary love. And it’s love for the world, it’s love for ourselves.

She’s quite inspiring as is another new voice for Kripalu, Zainab Salbi, who founded Women for Women, an international philanthropy organization, and has been an MSNBC commentator. Zainab has written a book looking at the idea that we have to change ourselves first before we can change the world. But she’s speaking in particular about forgiveness and really owning our part in what the outer manifestation of our reality is.

CBW: Sounds intense.

DB: There’s going to be some real personal work involved with just even receiving the keynote messages of some of these luminaries.

Because we cannot explore women’s work without addressing race work, another night we have the highly respected Peggy McIntosh talking about white privilege, and she’ll be followed by the Rev. angel Kyodo williams who’s also addressing how racism has harmed us all in various ways, the idea that we are part of a larger system in society and how important it is for our collective liberation to see with clearer eyes.

So there’s a lot of eye opening that’s going to happen during the week. And I’m excited about that because we’re doing it in a container where we’re providing the kind of opportunity for this not to be jarring or divisive. Our core competency at Kripalu is wellness and self inquiry. And so there’s a nourishing environment that really does, like you said earlier, support transformation. One of our presenters, Kate Johnson, has worked for a decade with frontline activists, and as we were back and forth working on the copy for her program, she was talking about how it’s really overwhelming sometimes to show up for another’s liberation. It’s sacred work and very overwhelming. And so that kind of deep solidarity absolutely requires that we each cultivate our inner resources, our inner resilience as you call it.

CBW: How is the week going to be structured? I saw on the website that participants will need to choose a particular path or focus.

DB: We have seven portals into the week, and when you register for the week, you’ll need to register for one of the seven main programs that will take place each morning. The full schedule is available on the Kripalu website.

CBW: Can you say more about the seven tracks? It looks like you’ve got presenters coming in from all over the world.

DB: We are so honored to have Angela Farmer here from Lesvos, Greece, leading the track on Inner Body Activism, where she’ll be focusing on this idea of thriving. She’s looking at how, as women, we naturally care about others, and, sometimes we can get unbalanced. She calls her style of yoga, which is a lot about unlearning and undoing, “inner body activism.” This is essentially what happens when you’re really attuned to yourself – you begin to act from a really deep inner place of stability and compassion, rather than outer ideals.

As women, we naturally care about others, and, sometimes we can get unbalanced.

The program led by Alexandra Roxo will explore the modern day intersection of spirituality and sensuality,  and longtime Kripalu teachers Coby Kozlowski and Toni Bergins will co-lead a playful program embracing the power of dance, ritual, and devotional movement.

I’m very excited that two other longtime and beloved Kripalu teachers and co-founders of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance,  Jana Long  and Maya Breuer, who also created the Yoga Retreat for Women of Color at Kripalu, will co-lead a program on inclusivity that is for women of all backgrounds, all hues, and all persuasions to come together, mostly through yoga, to honor different perspectives and how to hold space for others with respect. They will dig more deeply into social constructs of inclusivity, looking at developing cultural competencies that support change.

And Kate Johnson, who I had mentioned earlier, has been doing some amazing work helping change makers in society. She’ll be offering the meditation program option for the week, to help us learn how in these dark and different times to meet it with fierce compassion. How to turn our beautiful intentions into compassionate actions through mindfulness experience.

Another popular Kripalu presenter, Nancy Aronie, will be leading the writing program, looking at all the shadows that we carry around inside us and how we can free them and illuminate them in written form onto a page. And finally, because Ayurveda offers such wisdom for stressful times, Dr. Claudia Welch, an international Ayurvedic practitioner, will lead a program she calls “Being Medicine.”  

CBW: So how will the days be structured around the tracks, or programs?

DB: The separate programs I just mentioned will run for three hours each day on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Then there will be a gathering for all of the participants on Friday morning with a closing panel of teachers.

CBW: Will each day have plenty of time for yoga?

DB: Yes. There’ll be Kripalu yoga in the mornings before breakfast and in the afternoon, as well as daily opportunities for deep rest with Yoga Nidra. And so many other optional choices each afternoon!  The best way to understand the breadth of offerings this week is by downloading the pdf schedule on the website.

Not everyone will come for the traditional asana-based yoga.  I want to mention that we’re embracing something that is inclusive, diverse, multiracial, multicultural, and even nonpartisan. We don’t expect everyone to be “like-minded.” It’s going to be welcoming of every point of view, and every financial class as we’re offering scholarships. We’re welcoming women of every political philosophy and every level of engagement of activism.

We’re welcoming women of every political philosophy and every level of engagement of activism.

CBW: Thinking about inclusivity, Kripalu welcomes men and women in all of its programs throughout the year. But at some point you must have talked about the value in excluding men, in making the entire week at Kripalu for women only, which is a first for Kripalu.

DB: Yes we did. But although this is the first time a women-only program will take over the entire campus, throughout the decades Kripalu has offered programs just for women.

CBW: What’s the thinking behind that?

DB: There’s something powerful that happens when men can witness women and women can be witnessed by men. But that’s not what’s happening here. This is an opportunity for women to feel they have their full voice. I think sometimes women do not express themselves in the same way in front of men. And so we’re trying to remove any obstacles to that within the actual retreat experience because we want all women’s voices heard.

Actually during one of the afternoon plenary sessions, we’re doing something that is going to be so great.

On Monday afternoon, we’ll be bringing together Carol Gilligan, the author of In a Different Voice, and Tina Packer, the founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., to lead an experiential session about what it means to claim your voice. In Carol’s latest book, The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy’s Future – she talks about how political change really depends on psychological transformation. And that’s the approach we’ll be taking in this amazing session. For there to be change outside, it has to happen within first.

There’ll be a voice coach embedded in the audience and we’ll be able to interact with Tina on a large screen, since she’s going to be livestreamed from Portland, Oregon, having just completed her profound performance/masterclass, “Women of Will.” We’ve done this before with other presenters where they can actually be set up on a live-screen where they can see and interact with the audience.

CBW: I wanted to ask you about that, Denise. What is the philosophy behind or the value in this kind of intense retreat. Many women will be taking off time from work to attend, and some may even travel great distances and at great expense. Many of us practice yoga in our communities and meditate at home. What is the idea behind coming together at a place like Kripalu?

DB: Well it’s definitely not a retreat from the world. We’re all going back to the world after our time together. But it is a retreat into something very deep, profound, nourishing. There are retreats that are gorgeous, you know, in their solitude or silence. This is not that kind of retreat. This is a retreat into the heart of something that lives within women collectively and needs to be expressed.

CBW: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Denise, and offering such a helpful preview of what sounds like an amazing week. I can’t wait!

DB: My pleasure, Carolee. Thanks so much.

Listen to the conversation with Denise Barack on My Brain on Endorphins on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher or on whatever platform you use to stream podcasts.

Carolee Belkin Walker, author of Getting My Bounce Back, is a wellness blogger and freelance journalist whose work also appears in the Washington Post, Women’s Running, the Chicago Tribune, the Toronto Sun, the Huffington Post, and others. She is the host of “My Brain on Endorphins” podcast, which is available on Stitcher and iTunes. Walker lives in Washington, D.C.