Kripalu breaks with volunteer group in dispute over benefits
STOCKBRIDGE — The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health has severed its ties with the separate, all-volunteer, 864-member Berkshire Kripalu Community nonprofit as of July 31 in a bitter dispute over the board members' and volunteers' access to the facility overlooking Stockbridge Bowl.
The unanimous decision by Kripalu's executive team to end the relationship that dates back to the founding of group in 1992 followed what the center's management described as "a good-faith dialogue with the BKC board for eight months to attempt to structure an agreement that worked."
But group leaders took issue with every aspect of Kripalu's version of the events leading to the sudden breakdown of talks Friday.
"It became very clear over the past eight months that the benefits BKC leadership expected were more than Kripalu can offer," said Erin Peck, senior vice president of people, culture and programs. "We weren't able to come to a mutually beneficial agreement."
According to Peck, the breaking point for Kripalu followed the discovery that the group's board members and about 30 volunteers who help check in guests on Fridays and check them out on Sundays "were being allowed by BKC unlimited, 24-hour access to Kripalu at no charge. We meet with them yearly, and we had never agreed to this."
She contended that the management learned last November that "benefits were being taken advantage of that we hadn't approved. That's when we knew we needed a new agreement."
But Peter Sibner of the group's board of directors denied "any abuse of benefits in any way, shape or form." On the contrary, he said in a phone interview, board members stopped accepting benefits from Kripalu last December.
He cited a 2009 written agreement that allowed board members and volunteers to attend yoga classes and obtain discounted meals "in recognition of work we do to further the mission of Kripalu."
The agreement was never interpreted by board members as granting unlimited access, Sibner said. "It was never the intention of the board to overuse benefits or take advantage of the system. We had an agreement for years that we don't go on weekends or busy times."
"The way we've been treated was very disrespectful and so insulting," said Dr. Melanie Levitan, a general practitioner at CHP-Lee Family Practice, and president of the group's board for 10 years.
She also cited the 2009 signed agreement between BKC and Kripalu outlining specific benefits including yoga classes, workshops, discounts and other activities.
However, a copy of the agreement provided to The Eagle also states that "the benefits provided to BKC members are determined by Kripalu management. These benefits are subject to change from time to time, depending on the needs of Kripalu. Kripalu management will communicate any benefit changes to the BKC president prior to implementation."
Levitan accused Kripalu leadership of lying when it said the group's board had refused to give up their benefits.
Sibner maintained that "we've tried to negotiate in good faith for several months, but in my opinion it was not a negotiation."
The new agreement offered to the group by Kripalu would have retained all current benefits, with some increase in offerings, but would not have allowed unlimited access for the board members and volunteers, Peck said.
The group's attorney, Kevin Kinne of the Pittsfield firm Cohen, Kinne, Valicenti and Cook, disputed the Kripalu management's description of ongoing discussions, noting that there had only been sporadic exchanges of emails and certified letters between early November and mid-May before talks began recently.
"On May 16, Kripalu sent us a proposed agreement including terms that had not been a part of any discussion," Kinne said in a phone interview.
"BKC was open to considering all reasonable terms," Kinne said. He described Kripalu's new agreement with a signing deadline last Friday as "non-negotiable; take it or leave it."
A key point that led to the breakdown in talks, Kinne said, was an insistence by Kripalu that the Berkshire Kripalu Community give up its trademarked name.
Kinne also cited another major hurdle — the interim deal offered by Kripalu last week specified a termination date of Dec. 31, "unless earlier terminated. Any extension of the term will be subject to the mutual written agreement of the parties."
"Kripalu had no interest in trying to revise the draft agreement, they were not open to any counteroffers and would not negotiate with BKC last Friday," Kinne said.
He said he had urged Kripalu to "reconsider and work together with BKC on the terms of a fair and mutually beneficial agreement and refrain from terminating the relationship. BKC still in good faith wants to negotiate these terms and still hopes to if Kripalu is open to a good-faith negotiation," he said.
Kinne also pointed out that the group sought to postpone further negotiations until Aug. 15, when Kripalu's new CEO, Barbara Vacaar, takes over from the current leader, David Lipsius, whose resignation takes effect the day before she arrives.
According to Peck, the Kripalu executive, "the last thing we want is to create disappointment in the community. We don't want to take anything away from Berkshire residents."
She described the main point of the new agreement first presented to the group in early May "was to eliminate special benefits for board and volunteers, to put them on a level playing field with the general membership so that board benefits would have been the same as the general membership."
This week, Kripalu is unveiling a new benefits program for Berkshire area residents.
The new program designates Wednesdays as Berkshire Day at Kripalu. Residents who live within 30 miles of the Stockbridge campus can download an application from the organization's website (kripalu.org/local) and present it to the front desk with a driver's license or utility bill proving residency.
The Wednesday offerings include a discount exceeding 50 percent, Peck stated, with day passes available for $50 that include all retreat and renewal programs from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. as well as three meals. Separate discounts are available for lunch, dinner and healing arts treatments for area residents who can't spend the entire day at Kripalu.
The new package is available to existing group members and anyone else in the community, Peck said.
As for the Berkshire Kripalu Community, Sibner said "we're working on a plan for the future, and there is a future for BKC; we're keeping the name and hoping to be able to provide some classes to members in the community," though not on site at Kripalu.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.