Inside the Kula Kamala Foundation
In a quiet corner of Berks County, on a rural road with a name reflecting the craftsmen of a century ago who worked and lived there, in a school that’s seen several generations come and go, something very new and yet very ancient has taken residence.
Passersby will see a small emblem on what remains the unassuming entrance to the solid brick structure; they’ll also see a spare string of green lights hugging one side of the building as they turn into the half-circle drive.
Though there’s not a lot of signage, the signs folks get when they enter the Kula Kamala Foundation, located in the former Alsace School at 17 Basket Rd., are all as positive and peaceful as anyone could wish for in this second decade of the 21st century.
Sudha and Ed Allitt of New Jersey established the foundation in 2008. The organization focuses on serious therapeutic yoga education – coordinating, implementing and supporting it. While everyone – from the public at large to individuals and groups in the medical and special needs communities – can be the beneficiaries of practicing yoga and attendant mindfulness, the foundation also offers something else pretty serious: the training of certified yoga teachers.
To say that the couple, especially Sudha, have a passion for yoga and its benefits is an understatement of significant proportions.
But to say that Sudha had long planned to concentrate on yoga as her profession is also inaccurate.
A Chance Discovery
You might say the ancient art found her.
“I was going to be a lawyer, but the universe said ‘no,’” she relates with a broad smile.
It was a place of chronic illness that brought yoga and its healing to Sudha in the most personal of ways.
Just after the turn of the century, Sudha found herself in dire straits. It was initially thought she’d had a series of small strokes. But it was a debilitating attack of Lyme disease coupled with a concurrent onslaught of ehrlichiosis, which decimates the immune system, that changed her from a healthy individual to a bed-ridden invalid. Three surgeries ensued and the road to recovery was slow.
As she slowly started getting better, her husband, Ed, suggested that she consider integrating her practice of yoga, which she initially undertook in her 20s, into the recovery process.
That interest and her increasing wellness have led to the overarching role yoga now plays in her life.
And lest one think this dedication is anything less than serious or erudite, well, consider Sudha’s impressive educational and professional credentials: she holds a doctorate in anthropology with a specialization in biological archaeology, including the relationship between diet and disease, human and companion animal interaction, social power structures, and power’s impact on gender roles.
She also bears the title of Yoga Acharya and is a 500E-RYT. She is registered with the Yoga Alliance and is a registered Certified Professional Yoga Therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapists. She has logged more than 3,000 hours of advanced training in yoga, studying in both the U.S. and in India.
Adding to all this, Sudha is also a Reiki and Thai Yoga practitioner, a lifestyle and spiritual counselor, and an Ayurveda Health practitioner.
She plans to seek Middle States accreditation to train teachers.
And she retains her connection to New Jersey as she is a professor of holistic science at Georgian Court University and has offered holistic programming through Monmouth University, Ocean County Community College, and Brookdale Community College.
Through the Kula Kamala Yoga School of Yoga, Sudha has trained more than 100 individuals in the art and science of yoga and Professional Yoga Therapy.
In 2008, Sudha presented a program proposal to the Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, NJ, detailing the implementation of yoga therapy techniques (including proper breathing techniques and posture, mindfulness, flexibility, and concentration practices) for treating patients, even those bedridden as she had once been. Her proposal moved on to a board presentation, and the directors approved it unanimously.
While working at Deborah, she and the foundation continued to expand their collective horizons by working with mental health organizations, at-risk youth, seniors, and persons afflicted with dementia, diabetes, heart, or cancer issues.
“There’s really no limit,” she says. “Yoga techniques can be applied to so many things.”
The couple had opened a yoga school in Lakehurst, NJ, in 2007. In addition to the general classes, the school began offering a course called “Yoga, A Positive Coping Mechanism to Managing PTSD: Psychological Health and Well-Being for Military Personnel and Families” to the military population at Lakehurst Naval Base. Through this program, members of the military and others in government service learned how to lessen stress – and better cope with PTSD. She says more than 60 individuals went through the program.
On the Move
As the Kula Kamala Foundation outreach expanded, the couple knew it was time to expand their base of operations. Ed, an architect, began checking out the greater eastern U.S. real estate market in search of a convenient, yet quieter, area for a school and retreat. It was in the midst of a January 2015 snowstorm that resulted in the cancellation of client appointments that Ed spotted what would become their home base – the former Alsace Consolidated School in Alsace Township.
“Ed showed it to me on the computer and, with three-and-one-half feet of snow on the ground, we drove out here that weekend and a local school representative walked us around and through the school,” Sudha says.
That host was affiliated with the Berks County Intermediate Unit (BCIU) which had last operated the school as a center for at-risk children. For most of its existence, however, the Alsace Consolidated School was the local public school, built in 1932 and enlarged two decades later. George M. Meiser IX, the unofficial historian of Berks County, served many years as its principal.
The BCIU had just recently listed the building for sale on eBay.
For the Allitts, it was love at first sight. They saw its potential as an ashram, as well as a teaching facility, and they purchased the building in March of 2015.
Ashram in Alsace
For more than a year, with the help of family, friends, students, and volunteers, and with Ed’s architectural and design lead married with Sudha’s spiritual vision, work dramatically transformed the interior. Meiser, spotting the activity, stopped by to share some of his memories of the school, which Ed documented in video clips. The building opened as Kula Kamala in May of 2016.
One part is residential. Indeed, the Allitts now call it their home, and there is a residential hall for live-in interns.
There are also dormitories, replete with bunk beds and spiritual murals, to house up to two dozen students on days-long retreats.
The students (whose ages cross the spectrum) respect the "free" spirit of the ashram – alcohol-free, smoke-free, drug-free, weapon-free, violence-free… and meat-free. Indeed, students may find themselves working in the on-site mounded gardens tended to throughout the year to help harvest the food that will be in their meals.
Strong, albeit muted, hues of purple, gold, green, yellow and orange dominate many of the rooms. Wall paintings and murals throughout feature images of Hindu deities. The first room completed was an expansive yet cozy meditation temple room which serves as a spiritual center for the building, its residents and its visitors.
In its less than one year of operation, Kula Kamala has had close to 1,000 new and returning students from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York participate in the many classes and retreats offered at the Basket Road facility. One of them was a former Alsace School student.
The Allitts continue outreach to the greater community just as they did in Toms River. They have partnered with the nearby centuries-old Zion Spies Evangelical Lutheran Church. For example, at the holidays, a community Christmas Eve vegan, gluten-free dinner was served and there were also showings of holiday movies that afternoon.
Community meals are offered weekly through the year. As in many of the classes, donations are requested according to the ability to pay.
In terms of educational outreach, Sudha developed a program that involves 60 second- and fifth-grade and some at-risk students and their teachers at Amanda Stout Elementary in the Reading School District. Tula Yoga Center in Exeter Township donated the mats the students use.
Applied in this program are some of the key principals of yoga: truth, trust, a sense of devotion, cleanliness, compassion, discipline, and above all doing no harm.
“When we work with the teachers and the kids, we talk about the foundation principals,” she says. “We do a lot of singing, postures, breathing, meditation and mindfulness.”
The feedback, Sudha says, has been more than encouraging. The children have embraced yoga, and teachers report seeing some practice it in the hallways with their friends. Time outs become, at the children’s’ choice, time in the meditation room instead. Absences, as well as outbursts, among the at-risk children have decreased. One student who previously was unable to get through an entire school day now does, and the change occurred in just a few months’ time. He was able to employ some of the practices of yoga to improve his behavior and bring himself back to functionality.
A Matter of Faiths
Sudha, who has immersed herself in the spirituality of Buddism and Hinduism, points to the fact that the word "yoga" evolved from the ancient word “yuj,” which means to unite.
“It’s between the self and whatever the self considers to be divine,” she says. “It’s not a denomination; it’s open to all faiths and traditions.
“No matter what religion you practice, yoga will deepen that faith.”
It is that tenant which may explain why Kula Kamala Foundation has touched nearly 10,000 lives in less than a decade of existence.
There’s also something spiritual when it comes to the Allitts “finding” the site of their ashram.
“We have a neighbor, David Dragonfly, who lives around the corner,” says Ed. “After we put the ohm symbol on the window, he saw it and gave us a call.
“He [David] and his wife had experience with an ashram early on, and he said he wished there was an ashram around the corner. I think there was a power there that manifested this trip [to find the building]; once you clear yourself through yoga, you open yourself up to that power.”
David is not just a neighbor now; he is the facility’s volunteer coordinator and the two couples have become friends. Another example of the unity brought about by yoga.
Though Berks County is still opening itself up to the Allitts – and vice versa – Ed and Sudha are very pleased with their decision to settle their foundation here. They hope to partner with other nonprofits to enhance the quality of countians’ lives.
“Science shows that yoga has great healing powers to help individuals feel more confident and less lonely and to experience a healthier self,” she says. “When individuals are healthier, the community is healthier.”
For more information about the foundation or to make donations, visit kulakamalafoundation.org or contact the Allitts at 484.509.5073.