Monday February 21, 2011

STOCKBRIDGE -- Following a top-level management shakeup, the 150-acre Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, which attracts about 32,000 visitors a year to its new-age retreat overlooking Stockbridge Bowl, is reinventing itself with a goal of dramatically expanding its impact regionally and nationally.

David Surrenda, 64, an entrepreneur and specialist on holistic practices in the workplace, was named the organization's new CEO in October 2010 and is now conducting a top-to-bottom review of operations.

"This is a year of careful self-examination for the institution," Surrenda emphasized during a wide-ranging interview with The Eagle. The study covers marketing, fundraising, curriculum and deployment of the staff.

The Great Recession forced more than 60 layoffs at Kripalu, major budget cutbacks, stringent cost controls and deferred maintenance projects. Salaries, frozen for several years, are being reviewed by a compensation specialist for potential upgrades.

Surrenda, a New York City native who attended camp just across the New York state line and listened to Boston Pops concerts at Tanglewood in the mid-1950s, earned his doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1969.

Working at the VA hospitals in Northampton and in Palo Alto, Calif., he treated Vietnam War veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He went on to lead holistic-oriented academic programs, first at the Orinda, Calif., campus of John F. Kennedy University and, since 1987, as director at a consulting firm, the Leadership Edge, in Oakland.

Kripalu is among the largest employers in South Berkshire, with 399 people on its payroll, the equivalent of about 300 full-timers. Including its six-story annex, completed three years ago, 700 guests at a time can be accommodated.

The retreat bills itself as the largest holistic and yoga center in North America, offering more than 800 programs each year on health, personal growth and spirituality. It trains and graduates at least 500 yoga teachers a year, conducts research at its Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, has 30 affiliated yoga studios and 6,000 certified yoga alumni.

Some Kripalu devotees call it the Mother Ship, while the busy programming office is referred to as Mission Control.

Asked what brought him to Stockbridge, Surrenda responded: "Here's a chance to be able to reach a large number of people ... teaching them to be more self-reliant, self-regulating, to take care of their health in a more effective way."

Surrenda decries flaws in education, a health system "under incredible stress," a compromised environment and the scarcity of jobs.

"We can either wait for the government to fix those things, which I don't think anybody's really believing in anymore, or we can build our own resilience and strength from the inside out to be more effective," he said.

Surrenda lists yoga, meditation and "mindfulness" practices among those tools.

"This is one of those places which is well-positioned to be able to take what it's learned, to distribute and share those things with a broader audience," he said. "My hope is to be able to have Kripalu go beyond the beautiful boundaries of this wonderful area and have it reach out to a larger population."

His ambitious goals include partnerships with other institutions in the area, including Berkshire Health Systems and individual health professionals. Nursing homes, schools, community centers, and even Weight Watchers International are on his list for exploratory discussions.

Surrenda said he has already met with Boston-area hospital leaders, including Massachusetts General, as well as hospital systems in the San Francisco Bay area.

"Something about the American lifestyle, between stress, nutrition, the way we manage ourselves, less exercise, has resulted in a series of health issues that are a major threat to our economy in the future," he said. "We know the continued rate of increase in costs of health care at 19 percent is going to crush the budget ... eight or nine years of those kinds of increases are going to kill us."

"Our intention is to become partners and friends with Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow, Shakespeare & Company, etc., and find ways to build working relationships so they see us as part of their constituency," Surrenda said.

He is working with Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington on a "yoga in the schools" program.

Aside from the need to boost revenues and contributions, Surrenda is prioritizing improvements to dining facilities and upgrading of spa facilities and classrooms.

His predecessors, the executive team of Patton and Mary Sarley, drew total compensation of $538,000 in the 2009 tax year. Surrenda said he is earning a base salary of about $200,000, with potential bonuses based on results. The retreat also has a new Board of Trustees chairman, Lisette Cooper, founder and head of Athena Capital Advisors in Boston.

Kripalu, which originated as an ashram led by yogi Amrit Desai in 1972 at two remote locations in Pennsylvania, relocated to Stockbridge in 1983 on the site of the former Shadowbrook Jesuit novitiate, which was closed in 1970, 14 years after the original 1893 mansion was rebuilt following a devastating fire.

The guru, married with three children, was forced to resign in October 1994 after admitting to inappropriate sexual liaisons with three female acolytes, violating his oath of celibacy. It was also discovered that he was earning well over $200,000 a year as spiritual leader, author and lecturer, in contrast to his claims of purity and asceticism. Many of the 350 residents left after the scandal, and Kripalu morphed into a retreat and educational facility.

By the Numbers...

Visitors, annually: 32,000

Capacity, daily: 700

Staff: 399 (300 full-time equivalent)

Expenses, 2009: $24.4 million

Revenue, 2009: $25.5 million

Surplus, 2009: $1.1 million

Total compensation, benefits (management, staff): $12.2 million

Liabilities: $25.1 million

Assets (including land, buildings): $39.1 million.

Annual payments-in-lieu-of-taxes to Stockbridge: $30,000 (increasing 3 percent a year)

Sources: IRS Form 990 filing, tax year 2009; CEO David Surrenda.

Subject

YOGA (90%); POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (90%); CURRICULA (77%); TEACHING & TEACHERS (75%); LAYOFFS (75%); WAGES & SALARIES (74%); RESEARCH (74%); EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION EMPLOYEES (74%); CONSULTING SERVICES (73%); VETERANS (71%); EXECUTIVE MOVES (71%); RECESSION (70%); ECONOMIC NEWS (70%); FUNDRAISING (69%); PSYCHOLOGY (66%); VETERANS HEALTH CARE (66%); VIETNAM WAR (65%); BUDGET CUTS (54%)

Geographic

SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA, CA, USA (90%); NEW YORK, NY, USA (79%); BOSTON, MA, USA (79%) CALIFORNIA, USA (93%); NEW YORK, USA (91%); MASSACHUSETTS, USA (79%); NORTHEAST USA (75%) UNITED STATES (93%); NORTH AMERICA (79%)