Stephen Cope: Twenty-Five Years of Transformation
Photo Credit: Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
At the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, where he founded and leads the Institute for Extraordinary Living, Stephen Cope has been a yoga pioneer who’s helped bring the practice to schools, veterans groups, and hospitals. A psychotherapist and yogi, his latest book is The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.
Over the past 25 years, yoga has gone from “fringe” to mainstream. There’s a yoga studio on every corner. But has something been lost as a result? Americans are practical people, and yoga is a practical way to cultivate well-being, so it naturally took hold. Even if someone practices because it’s trendy, the practice itself begins to transform you; and if you stick with it, it digs deep into your heart, body, and mind.
How is it transformative?
Yoga induces self-regulation, which is the ability to manage feelings, thoughts, and quiet the mind. This means we’re able to experience our feelings fully—whatever they may be—and make wise choices about how to act so we’re not blown around by feelings like a leaf in the wind. It’s a concentration practice. In ancient tradition, yoga postures were meant to prepare for meditation—they’re part of a larger strategy to help settle the mind so inner wisdom can become clear. It helps us to be the fully alive human beings we’re capable of being.
What have we learned about yoga’s effect on the brain?
Yoga changes the function and structure of the brain, and it changes the physiology of the body. Regular yoga practice improves the brain’s neurotransmitters, which promotes feelings of well-being. It develops the so-called executive functions such as thinking-through, reducing impulsiveness, delaying gratification, and developing perspective. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “rest and relax” system as opposed to the “fight or flight” system.
How have you seen the yoga community change over the 25 years you’ve been at Kripalu?
In the early days, people wore saris and traditional Indian garb, and we felt very exotic—eating Indian feasts and chanting. But then we asked: “What’s the essence of yoga?” Now we’ve adopted the real heart and guts of the practice, both on and off the mat. Also, in the beginning, teachers were initially highly idealized and romanticized, which led to some scandals. But we’ve learned some great lessons, and we’re testing our teachers and leaders more and not projecting so much. It’s a healthy trend.