Breakfast with The Eagle: Barbara Vacarr on ancient practices, modern goals

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HOUSATONIC — "Mindfulness." A term that's either a gift from the ancients, or a marketing ploy. What is it really?

I had that on my list to ask Barbara Vacarr, when she and I placed ourselves in Craig Bero's care on a recent morning, sunlight slanting through front windows at the proprietor's Pleasant and Main Cafe in Housatonic.

We had the big dining room to ourselves. Due to the early hour, perhaps. Or because it was a weekday in a working village. The air was nippy in the grand old wooden building, a former hardware store. But the setting was right to wax philosophical with a woman who thinks for a living as CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge.

I learned, over Bero's spread of crepes, omelets, croissants and French toast (call that "bellyfulness"), that I was sharing a table with a woman who has been thinking since she was a child about the human condition — and feeling called to its repair.

Such is life in a family of Holocaust survivors.

"I grew up as the person in my family who carried the story, of the history of that family, and was trying to work it out," she said. "I think I've always been drawn to where pain lives, and wanting to do something about it."

Years later, after breaking away from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish upbringing, Vacarr says she absorbed a lesson often taught to students of psychology. Work in the field, the lesson asserts, calls for practitioners to do three things: help themselves, their families and the world.

"And if those three intentions are using you, it's going to be problematic," she said.

And so she served — and serves still, in work that stretches from nearly three decades in higher education, including as president of Goddard College in Vermont, to leadership of one of the nation's foremost homes for the practice of yoga.

Today, engaged in another sort of higher ed from her perch at Kripalu, she works to bring yoga's benefits of insight and self-regulation to people who might never experience them.

The center has provided at least $250,000 in scholarships for training to residents of Berkshire County, including school programs in Pittsfield. Nationally, Kripalu's RISE venture is seeding what it views as tools for better living in workplaces, schools, police departments and even high-flying financial firms.

"If I can do anything, it's to help the community understand what Kripalu is today. Kripalu is really making a difference out in the world."

She does it now, at 62, freed from career concerns.

"This is truly my legacy work. The beauty of this position, and I've never experienced it quite like this before, is I'm not building a resume any more. So I'm not thinking about what I'm doing as taking me to the next position, or how it has to look," she said. "It's really about, from a deep, core place inside of me, wanting to do good work and the right work and create stability and realize all that potential for Kripalu. It's liberating in that way, it really is."

What makes her the leader she is?

"My thinking out of the box," she ventured, pouncing on this and every question I floated, as we sat surrounded by the cafe's decorated tables and shelves crowded with antiques. I saw how time spent in meditation can chisel self-awareness. "My being a little bit quirky. Seeing the mystery in things. All of that comes from what some would call a nontraditional route."

The mission

Kripalu's mission, shared by its nearly 500 employees, is to export the wisdom, and wellness, that can come through the practice of yoga.

I asked Vacarr to explain what that is. She acknowledged that even amid a proliferation of yoga studios, it isn't well understood.

"It's not about the exercise. It's not about the positions that you put your body in. It's not about pushing your body into a `pretzel' position," she said. "It's about a way of being, what I think about as creating greater calm, clarity, connection, compassion. But it's constantly about developing a way of being in the world."

"Yoga is in the mainstream culture. Does that mean the mainstream culture understands the full scope of what yoga is and can do and what its impact is on the brain and on our health?

She answers her own question: "No."

"We have tons of sound bites about it. And I'd say that is one of the greatest challenges right now. I came to Kripalu because I believe there is such unbelievable potential and now is the time. Yoga creates space where for me it's about becoming much more of an observer before I react, before everything gets triggered. And that creates resilience."

"Resilience" is the first word in the acronym RISE, the program in which Kripalu is delivering lessons about yoga's ability to reduce stress in people's lives, from students to corrections officers. (The other three words are Integration, Self-Awareness and Engagement.)

Vacarr says resilience enables a person to bounce back from setbacks, using tools, including measured breathing, that help people not succumb to reactions, like "fight or flight," that undermine self-control.

"If I'm not constantly reacting from a place of stress, then my ability to bounce back becomes much greater," Vacarr said.

As simple as breathing?

"In any stressful situation, if we just stop and breathe, instead of feeling like `I've got to do something this second' all of a sudden a whole landscape of creative possibilities opens up. But if we hold our breath, which is what we tend to do automatically under stress, we can't think as clearly."

"How that ripples out into people's lives is profound. And I would say the two things I see happen for people is that they feel much more connected to themselves and much more compassion for themselves. And that leads us to be more compassionate to others."

I asked Vacarr if she's learned things through yoga she didn't get in her doctoral work in psychology. She holds a Ph.D. from Lesley University.

"Oh my God yes," she said.

"Out of the box" thinker that she is, Vacarr steered her training toward non-Western cultures, intent on finding new ways to aid people.

That helped her sort out the difference between "self-actualization," a psychology term that measures people by what they do, and "self-awareness." Vacarr prefers the latter.

"We're human beings, not human `doings,'" she said.

'Full of mind'

"To me, mindfulness is relatively simple," Vacarr said, when we got to my question about that. "It is the integration of reason and emotion. When I'm mindful, my reason and emotion are in a harmonious balance with one another. Full of mind."

Why is it hard to achieve?

"There is so much stimulation all the time," she said. "The stimulation is designed, actually, to provoke. If you think about what it takes to capture people's attention now, it has to be pretty provocative."

"Just think about all the noise that's always there. It's really hard to be mindful. We're living in a society and in a world that is un-self-regulated. The best demonstration of it is the whole tweeting thing," she said. "The not being able to regulate, literally, your ability to control your impulse to press a button."

Many who practice yoga set intentions for themselves, to reinforce mindfulness.

I asked Vacarr if she'd set one for her breakfast with The Eagle.

"To have fun," she said. "That was the intention. `Be yourself' and have fun."

I asked her about New Year's resolutions — wondering how they are different from the shorter term setting of an intention.

"Intention feels to me more like, the energy I want to bring to this is `X.' Resolution commits me to an outcome," she said. "You can go into something with an intention, and then whatever happens in that changes the intention. But if I'm resolved to do this, then I might not be willing to be fluid about changing my intention."

"But intentions change, and they should."

Why is having compassion for oneself such an important principle in yoga?

"We're living in a world that is devoid of compassion in the places that it's most needed. I believe, and this is as a psychologist and a meditator and someone who strives to be an evolved human being, I don't believe that you can love or have compassion for anybody else if you don't have it for yourself."

When people don't feel compassion for themselves, they punish others. "And we're doing that, horribly."

Larry Parnass can be reached at, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.

On the menu ...

Where we ate: Pleasant and Main Cafe, 1063 Main St., Housatonic. 413-274-6303.

What Barbara Zacarr ordered: Well, owner and chef Craig Bero decided for her, knowing what she likes. It was a Provencal ratatouille omelet with salad, homefries from four types of potatoes, orange juice and a mocha latte, plus lots of extras Bero ferried to the table, including muffins, croissants and a key lime crepe he was testing.

What she's looking forward to: Getting snowed-in with her grandchildren and traveling with her husband.

Price: About $15 plus tax.


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