Welcome to Part 2 of my interview with Stephen Cope of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. For Part 1, see How To Live an Extraordinary Life. ~ Kripalu’s Stephen Cope.
Stephen Cope is a psychotherapist and senior Kripalu Yoga teacher. He is the author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living and the Director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living.
BOB: Tell me more about the work you’re doing here at Kripalu.
STEPHEN: I am so lit up by the possibility of Yoga changing the world. I am actually at a position to do something about it. I really feel strongly Gandhi’s admonition to take yourself to zero, with your own obsessive concerns, with your own comfort, and so forth.
Gandhi was brilliant. He was all about unity of action, like how do you organize, aim and unify your life force in a way that it can change the world. So I love the story of Gandhi – it’s a very systematic divestment of all his stuff.
You know the story about the jewels and his wife. At the end of this life, Gandhi had a pair of spectacles – if you read the story closely, you will see it was a struggle. It was not that easy to let go – he was not born in a loincloth – he was a barrister. Both he and his wife had a longing for good things and when he lived in South Africa, he made a good living.
BOB: How has that affected your life?
STEPHEN: To watch him understand the power that you gain by divesting oneself of all attachments and physical things has been really inspiring to me. At my age, I am slowly divesting myself of all my stuff. It just so happens that I come from a long line of people going all the way back to the Mayflower. My mother ended up inheriting tons of art, antiques and silver, so I have stuff.
I am slowly giving it all away to my nieces and nephews, my siblings, because I’ve had it. I have used it, and now I am really fascinated by simplification and the power that simplification brings, so you can focus your energy towards your dharma.
BOB: Is this also true of the other exemplars of the Bhagavad Gita in your upcoming book?
STEPHEN: Yes. This is one of the reasons why I love Susan B. Anthony. She methodically simplified her life and narrowed down her articulation of her dharma, which was vote for women. She had a really wide bandwidth of interests as an activist and she figured out that you have to focus that, not in a narrow way, but in a really clear way. She finally focused it on the vote, she narrowed down the way she dressed, and she narrowed down the way she ate.
She became a masterful speaker, very intentionally and deliberately. She mastered all the tools that she needed, and then she slowly gave all her life energy to all of her tasks. She knew that it was not just about her. She knew that it would not happen in her lifetime, which it didn’t, but she is a brilliant example of this simplification, focusing – she became a guided missile of energy. I used to think of her as a wizened spinster, but she was a seriously smart and tough woman.
If you look at all the exemplars in my book, you will see the same kind of narrowing, focusing, winnowing simplification. Robert Frost, who had a brilliant teaching career, and never really was a published poet until he was 38, at which point he gave up all of the rest of his careers. He said “OK, I believe my dharma is to be a poet, whether I will be successful or not, but I am giving up everything I have got to it”.
These stories have convinced me that the experiment I want to do with my life next is to simplify, narrow, focus, and bring all my energy to the dharma.
The other book that I read, and love, is the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching is all about how can you use what life brings you, and what life has brought me is this involvement with the science edge of Yoga right now. So yogis are 25 years behind the Buddhas in terms of scientific investigation of the facts and mechanisms of Yoga.
We are standing on the shoulders of the Dalai Lama and Jon Kabat-Zinn and all the Buddhas who have developed profound understandings of primarily intentional training, meditation and what it does to the brain – and yet, Yoga, as a discipline, brings in some new pieces. Yoga has both a bottom-up and top-down strategy. The top-down strategy is essentially the same as the Buddha’s, it is intentional training. It has all these astounding effects on the mind.
BOB: Explain the bottoms-up part.
The bottom-up strategy is a direct intervention into the physiology of the body. Yoga postures have profound effects that we do not yet understand – why it changes the physiology of the brain, why it changes the structure and function of the brain, it’s role in neurotransmitters, gathering serotonin, blocking glutamate which creates upset brain, effects on heart, breathing rate, you name it.
What happens is that with this bottom-up strategy, you change the physiology of the body in such a way that you can really begin to practice the intentional training with a lot more power. And that is, of course, what the Yoga Sutras say. But we do not understand exactly how this works or why it works.
Right now, we are at the turning point of yoga. All of a sudden, there is a tremendous amount of interest and money for potential collaborations about yoga research. We just happen to have started this institute five years ago in collaboration with a Harvard doctor.
Here I sit at a time where I was planning to go off and write books for the rest of my life, play more piano – I have a stack of books in my head that I want to write and read.
But right now, I am in a situation where we are a prime program at the schools and it is changing kids’ lives. Once you begin to understand the crisis of the American schools – do you have kids?
BOB: I have three kids and four grandkids.
STEPHEN: So then you know enough about it to get as freaked out as I am.
BOB: Not only that but my wife is an education consultant who is in the schools all the time developing teachers. So I hear about it every day.
STEPHEN: I am convinced that our culture is dying from the bottom up. I have seen, because we have been in schools now for four years, a variety of type of schools. Our intention is to be in relation with at least four different kinds of schools on the school demographic – a large suburban upper middle class school, an inner city school with incredibly challenging demographic in terms of poverty, dropout rate, etc., a private school and a rural school.
We have different strategies – the deep strategy is to be in relationship with at least four schools with profoundly different demographic, to refine their curriculum so it addresses their particular problems, to study with our Harvard team of scientists, and when we have a curriculum that we know works, we know why it works and we have the evidence base, then we scale it out to the whole country through our yoga teacher training program. We have 7,000 yoga teachers all over the world. We teach the very best of our yoga teachers how to take this program into the schools.
BOB: So, the strategy is to figure it out and then spread it?
STEPHEN: That’s right. Figuring it out is important for scientific credibility; you have got to have evidence. There is a lot of yoga in schools in America, but there is no good research.
BOB: That way it would be less arbitrary for someone to suggest it in the schools.
STEPHEN: Exactly. So what we have done in our school programs is really understand that a lot of the effects of yoga are the effects of what scientists call self-regulation. It is a toolbox that helps kids to manage their emotions, their cognitions, their behaviors, their impulses; and so we are now making it very explicit that our yoga program is to help kids train in self-regulation, and schools eat that up because they don’t have a systematic way to help kids manage their emotions.
BOB: Are they approached by non-yoga systems that propose to do the same things? For example, if you went to a school, and the principal says, “OK, I’ve got this problem, I want to do something with my kids, and I want to give them a life skills program.” Tell me what that principal faces. Is yoga one of five things that the principal has to choose between, or do they tend to do a lot of things? Or is it a competition for the principal’s attention?
STEPHEN: For the most part, those principals have no options. They have no money for those programs, they have no clear support from their boards and superintendents. The most advanced schools in America are trying different things, like self-regulation programs, but not yoga-based.
BOB: If I were a principal, might I say, I could either do yoga, Wayne Dyer or Stephen Covey – don’t they look to the principal like the same thing? Are they so different that it is not a problem?
STEPHEN: They do, except there are very few.
BOB: So, the answer is there could be things out there that could compete, but nobody is doing it.
STEPHEN: Not that nobody is doing it – if you drill down into the Harvard Ed School, and some of the very top schools in Massachusetts, just now people are beginning to get it. There are some programs based on meditation, and some that are not based on contemplative practice at all. There are some of them out there, but you will be surprised at how few. Ask your wife about this.
BOB: And even if there are, yoga has its own unique properties – that is the reason for all the research.
STEPHEN: Increasingly, there is meditation going on in the schools. Meditation is great, but it does not have the bottom-up factor that we have. So what do you have with kids? Kids are by and large stuck in hyper-aroused states or internally disorganized states. So our strategy is suited for kids who cannot sit still for a class, much less meditation.
BOB: You have to be in a pretty good state of control to do any meditation.
STEPHEN: What we do notice is that kids do meditate at the end of all programs. They do 35 minutes of yoga, and then they do meditation and relaxation. The yoga prepares them for the meditation, and the meditation contains a lot of cognitive training that we want to give them.
In answer to your question, you will be surprised at the paucity of possibilities these principals have. So if we go to them and say “Hey, we have got this proven curriculum and here is the Harvard research that backs it up. Not only that, in your town, we have some private donors that will support this”, it’s a pretty easy sell to a lot of principals who are going crazy trying to figure out why no matter how good the curricula they offer their students, the kids are so disorganized and hyper-aroused.
BOB: The other thing you have going for you is this network of 7,000 teachers out there – if you had to send them out from here, then that would be a big obstacle. But in almost every city or town, you have people who would love to do this work which is already funded. They could not go and sell to the schools themselves, but you’re providing the funding, too.
STEPHEN: So we are going to create a credential. We are going to train only the very best of our teachers – the 500 hour or 1000 hour trained teachers. We really want the best of our teachers to scale this around the country. We will support them.
We have some very generous donors who are supporting our development of these programs. For me, it is such a high to be involved in a program that will teach the lives of thousands and thousands of kids. I just got back from an exhausting week in Boston where I was raising money, meeting with donors, doing presentations.
BOB: Not exactly a yoga retreat.
STEPHEN: My former self would have hated it, but now I am so lit up by the possibilities, and this is what dharma is.
BOB: Right, your dharma overrides your natural inclinations. Your natural inclination might be to go play the piano, but your dharma leads you to do this.
STEPHEN: It is so exciting, I cannot even believe it. And I’ve noticed I have more resilience, because if you have the view that this is dharma, then it gives you a certain kind of resilience to manage the aversive state that comes with “I’ve got another meeting”. That is one of the programs we are running. We are running six major programs that are filled with the possibility of changing people’s lives.
We have a PTSD program. We have an obesity program, a major problem in America. We work with elite musicians and athletes, and I’m a musician, so I really relate to that. We have a brain scanning study at Mass General. We are developing one of the very first curricula for yoga research. We are beginning an addictions recovery program.
My understanding of the Gita and my reading it and re-reading it has really changed my life. I understand what dharma is in a very visceral way. It is changing my life. I get little bits of what Gandhi meant when he said “Take yourself to zero”.
BOB: But we don’t have to be a Gandhi to learn from the Gita.
STEPHEN: Get yourself out of the way and feel the fulfillment in the amazing work you can do. The other thing I love about it is total teamwork. We have a team of almost 30, we have docs from Harvard, we have got graduate students, young kids just out of college, all wanting to make a difference, and working with smart young kids is such a cool thing for an old guy like me to be doing. I’m pretty lit up by the whole thing.
Not everybody can relate to all this.
BOB: Yes, I guess some people would say “Why are you working so hard?” at a time when even you previously thought you would be easing into a comfortable retirement.
STEPHEN: And that is a misunderstanding that we have in this culture. All of us thinking about retirement is full of misunderstandings about what is fulfilling in life. So the idea of what real fulfillment is that you finally get to the end of the trail and you relax – you have your own monogrammed swimming pool.
And you know, MihalyCsikszentmihalyi did a study of that, which he wrote about in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He put little beepers on people and he would randomly beep them and ask them a series of questions about what they were doing right then, how happy they were. He discovered that people were happier when they were involved in a task for which they were well suited.
BOB: And working their asses off…..
STEPHEN: And working their asses off. I love it.
(Many thanks to Elephant volunteer Soumyajeet Chattaraj
for his meticulous transcription of this interview.)