JASPER -- The same breeze that lifts her great black Friesian's rippled mane is plucking at Holly Krepps' hair, too, as she tries to explain why horses are "the best" teachers at Circle Yoga Shala.
A horse is a 1,500-pound immediate feedback loop, she says. "They will mirror your internal state. They're prey animals, and so their sensory abilities are like ours and then magnified exponentially. They really require you to be fully present and clear for them to be able to trust you."
Two of her three horses have histories of abuse and can be skittish with some people.
"If you're not congruent," she says. "So you could be happy inside or you could be grieving inside or you could be scared to death inside. They don't have a problem, it seems from my experience, with what's going on inside. It's when your outsides don't match. ...
"These horses, because they haven't been reduced down to what I would call dumb trail horses, they really demand respect, which means you've got to fully come into your -- hey, hey, hey?"
Across the pasture, the black horse is baring his teeth and lashing his back with his tail. Massively graceful, he runs to Krepps like a worried puppy. She stands on tiptoes to reach across his twitching back. For just a second the horsefly that was tormenting him is a bottle-green cylinder on the dirt, and then it's smushed under her foot.
From the top of his withers down to the volleyball-circumference of his hooves, Zwarte stands 5 1/2 feet tall -- 16.1 hands. If he wasn't aware of her presence, he might crush her.
And so could Honey, her Palomino, who rumbles with delight and presses against a sun-warmed pasture fence when Krepps' fingers massage her rump.
"I rescued her from out of Aurora, Mo.," she says, kneading her way indulgently along the swaying animal's spine. "She came with a lot of emotional scars. She's really loving and she wants to be trusting, but she was dangerous and at times still can be, because she reacts so quickly to old traumas."
Honey was injured and needed injections. But when people approached her holding anything, if she couldn't run away, she reared and lashed the space between them with her hooves. "She was going to end up lame," Krepps says.
Rather than tricking the horse into letting her get close enough to jab in a needle, Krepps stood calmly near her in the open pasture, practicing a skill she has used for 25 years during meditation: presence.
The first time, Honey took about 40 minutes to relax. Then Krepps walked behind the horse and stood back there as long as it took for Honey's panic to subside. And then she stood beside her, and then to her other side, and on and on, all around the animal, waiting for that living mirror to reflect her own calm. Eventually she was able easily to inject the horse's neck.
Her husband, Matthew, would tease her: "Are you a statue in the pasture all day today?"
Because Krepps knows how to be present, to be simply "here," Honey now works with the yoga teachers who come to this sunny farm beside a red-dirt road in the Ozarks in search of teaching certifications. She helps them hear what their body language is shouting.
SERVICE AND TRUTH
Krepps is a daughter of an old Little Rock family, and you hear it in her voice -- Southern but not flamboyantly so, and light. Hornibrooks have been prominent in the city since the 1800s.
"Her voice is soft but it's mixed in with that confidence," Matthew Krepps says. "I would say it's steady, in certain ways.
"What I know about her that contributes to this vibe that comes out of her, is that, No. 1, she's really passionate and devoted. She has a lot of the experience of purpose in life. She's not searching for what her soul is for. She knows. That's the kind of passion it is, it's discerning. She has to do self-inquiry, like, all the time to be a yoga teacher. So you have this passionate thing and then you have this self-reflective thing that really is present in her, and then the other part of her character and her life -- and all of her actions and how she talks -- is service."
Her role model for that is her father, Pete Hornibrook, president and chief executive officer of Coldwell Banker Commercial RPM Group, and vice chairman of the Little Rock Water Reclamation Commission. Less known are his decades of service with substance abuse programs and panels. Her mother, Judy Fagan, is the daughter of the late state Sen. Ellis Fagan Jr. She's a community activist and substance abuse counselor in north-central Arkansas.
"My parents have been divorced since I was 4 but I've been in relationship with both of them, and they both informed my life in different ways," Holly Krepps says.
They lived on rural Cloverhill Road, at what was then the end of Interstate 630, when she was little. Her mother brought home goats, ducks, a pig. The animals wound up at the Little Rock Zoo, and so "I spent a lot of time in the zoo," Krepps says. Her mother talked to the polar bears.
Krepps was the girl in junior high who doodled mares and stallions on blue-lined notebook paper. She didn't have a horse; she hung around stables on rural Arkansas 10 and mucked stalls so she could ride.
Like her three siblings, she attended Catholic grade schools. But she left the church as a teenager, angry about what she saw as inconsistent teachings on women's rights. "And that was difficult for my family, who are very, very deeply religious."
At age 27, she underwent a crisis that healed her relationships. Her life looked great, from the outside. Working in advertising and broadcast media let her provide, as a single mother, dual-income-level advantages for her son, Rex French. She had an "amazing" home. She could support charities. "I really appreciate my time in corporate America and that whole world. And I respect it," she says.
But it didn't feel "real, for me." She took up meditation and journaling.
Looking inward, she saw wreckage.
She decided to take a year-long class at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Catholic Church that was meant for new converts. Sister LeeAnn McNally told her she was OK. And she was fascinated to learn about mystics like John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Theresa of Avila.
"I still believed in why I left, but I wasn't angry anymore," Krepps says.
And ironically or not, the class introduced her to yoga, through a Portuguese chaplain at then St. Vincent Infirmary, the Rev. Ignatius Gomes. He knew the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. "He gave me permission to turn to the eastern texts and would map the perennial wisdom to what I understood of the universal teaching of Catholicism. That really moved me into the yoga tradition as a whole."
One day "I sat down to do my prayer and meditation and almost instantly I received this vision that was so clear. It wasn't like imagination. It wasn't distracted. It was just a really clear vision, and I was sitting on the ground in a circle of people. It was very casual. And I knew it was some type of a teaching facility. I knew it was my land."
She wrote about it in her journal and put it away.
Matthew and Holly met because she was hungry.
She'd just spent a week in Santa Cruz, N.M., with her first teacher, Shri Anandi Ma, where the diet was "a lot of quinoa. And I thought, man, I'm really hungry."
So she stopped at the now-closed Beans Grains & Things, a whole foods grocery that her friend Gary Eklund had recently moved to Rodney Parham Road. "I found this sack of quinoa and it was like -- sigh -- Well, how? How do you make this taste good? So I took it to the deli and said, 'Somebody tell me how to make this?' And everybody looked at me like deer in headlights and said, 'Let's get the cook.'"
The cook was Matthew.
They went for lunch at a vegetarian place owned by the poet Redhawk, and there began a conversation about their different but consilient approaches to yoga that continues today.
"I'm kind of like a grumpy hermit, in a certain way," Matthew jokes. "She talks to people and always is able to quickly form a relationship with them in a way that I think is really useful and beautiful." He also forms relationships, of course, but he doesn't see meeting people as a strength of his.
"No one would ever know about me or the farm if it wasn't for Holly," he says.
The couple bought Barefoot Studio from its founder, Catherine R̶o̶g̶e̶r̶s̶ Rodgers*. Holly managed the business while also staying home with their son, Noah (who has grown up to be a bull rider). They had a farmhouse about 40 minutes from Little Rock at Plumerville, where Matthew's parents live.
Pat Riley Jr., then owner of Little Rock Athletic Club, tried their intro class even though he'd done yoga for 15 years. The "clarity and competence of their teaching" wasn't like anything he'd experienced. He became a regular in classes taught by Matt or Holly, and then their friend; and he partnered with Barefoot to give his members a discount.
One day, "like somebody turning on a light switch," Holly remembered her vision. "I was like, 'I'm supposed to be finding land!'"
But teaching hadn't made them wealthy. They couldn't just up and buy land.
Five years went by as they moved Barefoot from Kavanaugh Boulevard to its current storefront in Riverdale. Clients would bring up the idea of investing with them in a retreat center, but the ideas one by one fell through. Finally she told Matthew she was giving up.
The next day a friend called to suggest an existing retreat might be for sale in the Ozarks.
After four months of negotiations, that idea also fell through, but it prompted her to look at the website greenhomesforsale.com -- and there was a farm on Shiloh Mountain.
Which they couldn't afford.
But the owner wanted to work with them. In 2009 they sold Barefoot to Breezy Osborne. Also they sold their home and everything else they owned, and with a partner, Louanne Lawson, bought the seriously ramshackle farm.
Her father, who saw all the risk in the venture, was "so worried -- it looked unstable," she says. "It looked insane. But he was all-in. I am so grateful that he was all-in."
It took many hands, supervised by a mountain carpenter, to strip down and shovel out the offal-filled barn, which for 25 years had housed poultry and was surrounded on three sides by coops.
Soon they were flat broke. "Friends asked us, 'Do you need an intervention?'" she remembers, not joking.
Riley is proud of how creatively they scrounged rocks and timber and figured out how to live off the land. "My partner, Debbie Milam, and I built a small house on property right next door to Matt and Holly so we could visit them regularly. So we've had a ringside seat to watch the amazing evolution of their property into a unique and first-class yoga retreat center."
Today the shala (a Sanskrit word meaning school) is registered with Yoga Alliance, has housing for 20 practitioners and certification programs in 200-, 500- and 800-hour increments. Their 800-hour program is being considered for certification by the 3,500-member International Association of Yoga Therapists, which is based in Little Rock. If accepted, Circle Yoga Shala will be the first yoga therapy school in Arkansas.
"When I look at them and their journey of the past seven years I think of the Thoreau quote about going to the woods to live deliberately .... I would say, though, that their experiment is perhaps even more daunting than Walden because they choose to live their life and do their work in a community of practitioners," Riley says.
"Living with others while deliberately working on oneself is challenging, to say the least."
Matthew Krepps says, "We really consider and define health in terms of our response to difficulty."
By 52, a woman's difficulties begin to pile up: familiar roles slip away. There are the worries of an aging body. Loved ones die, of diseases or age or violence. Grief becomes a companion.
And meanwhile, squash beetles have gotten into the garden or a storm has flooded the residence hall.
Holly Krepps seeks joy in surrender.
"Reality is happening all the time," she says. "I may not like it. And I may not agree with it. And I may not understand it. But that doesn't keep it from happening. Yoga for me has been the practice of learning to say 'yes.' To say yes to what's happening. That doesn't mean I condone it. That doesn't mean I agree with it. That doesn't mean I don't suffer as a result of it. But how do I say yes so that I can actually be with it, in the fullness of it?"
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Dec. 13, 1964, Little Rock
I WANT TO EAT the food I grow.
I WILL BLESS THE DAY I: I am already blessed! Both of my sons are independent and fully capable. To sum them up, they’re both radically fearless and service-oriented with amazing work ethics. If life was to take me out today I would know I am leaving two amazing, contributing beings on this planet who can take care of themselves. How can you be more blessed than that?
MY FANTASY GATHERING WOULD INCLUDE Krishnamacharya, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, St. Theresa of Avila and my husband. That would be a really dynamic gathering.
FUN IS my life.
WHAT KIND OF SHOES DO YOU LIKE? I prefer to be barefoot, but when not, you will see me in boots. I have a lot of boots, more than can be explained to my husband.
WORK ON A FARM IS soulful. It’s a full engagement in the cycles of life.
THE SECRET OF LIFE IS say “yes” to what’s real. Say “yes” to what’s happening.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: audacious
She is thinking about her family, and there are tears in her eyes.
"I open to the fullness of it, and so sadness can happen, but at the same time a fundamental happiness is present. Grief can happen, but at the same time, I can be fully present in life."
She can live on a farm and manage a school and do the creative work demanded by her budget and her yoga and relax.
“She has a lot of the experience of purpose in life. She’s not searching for what her soul is for. She knows.” — Matthew Krepps
"This is not an idealistic life," she says. "It's a soulful one, but it's not idealistic." She laughs, delighted. "Well, I can't turn back. I'm in so deep there's no way I can turn back. I can't go anywhere else. I'm done. I'm here.
High Profile on 08/27/2017
*CORRECTION: Catherine Rodgers founded Barefoot Studio in Little Rock. Her last name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.
Print Headline: Holly Hornibrook Krepps; Holly Krepps and her husband sold everything they owned and moved far up in the hills to found a school for yoga teachers.