W.Va. Yoga: Turns Out It Wasn't Such a Stretch

By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

They tried to make me go to yoga, I said no, no, no.

It's not that I doubt its effectiveness. I'm sure it really does provide mental and physical benefits, and profound insight into the human condition yada yada chakra blah blah namaste. But something about all that earnest, positive energy brings out the contrarian in me. The couple of times I've gone to classes, I kept fantasizing about whipping out an air horn.

Still, when a bunch of friends pitched the idea of a women's adventure weekend combining cross-country skiing, hiking and yoga in the West Virginia mountains a couple of weeks ago, I heard myself saying yes, yes, yes. Here was a chance to hang out in a glass-walled lodge overlooking the Appalachians. Owners Kent and Paula Baake promised cross-country and downhill ski excursions, hiking, a hot tub, homemade dinners and brunches, even a zipwire. I pictured us sitting around a crackling fire after dinner, drinking wine and sharing stories. Still, there was the little matter of the yoga -- excuse me, the "power vinyasa." The heck with finding inner peace. I'd be happy if I could just hold my own.

* * *

"Socks off! I want to see your toes," Paula commanded as we unrolled our mats in her gorgeous mountain studio. "Feel your feet, ground yourself. K.C.! Put the notebook away! I need you to be present."

Busted. It was our first yoga class at Rocky Mountain Ranch, and Paula, a petite Brazilian dynamo whose approach is half drill instructor, half revivalist preacher, had caught me taking notes in the middle of child's pose. I put my pen aside and tried to focus.

"Lift, lift, squeeze, right in here, yes, yes, breathe, yes, breathe, yes, presence," Paula continued. "Press your feet down. Fingers are wide open. Yes, breathe. K.C.! K.C.! K.C.! Why don't you try to really feel it, because it's an experience. K.C.! Your breathing! Thank you!"

Maddening yoga-speak aside, we were having fun. Five of us had driven up from Washington that afternoon, on mountain roads slick with rain. Three and a half hours later, after a desperate charge up the Baakes' mile-long, ice-coated driveway, we settled into the lodge and admired the wraparound views in the waning light.

The artfully designed building is perched on the top of South Fork Mountain at about 3,000 feet, outside the little town of Franklin. To the west loom North Fork Mountain, Spruce Knob and Dolly Sods; to the east, Virginia's Shenandoahs. As the resident mutts, Rocky and Apollo, arranged themselves in front of the wood-burning stove, Kent showed off the vistas. "Tomorrow we'll go up to the ridge," he promised. "You'll see what I'm talking about. The views are incredible."

What wasn't so incredible was the weather forecast -- freakishly warm for February, with the snow melting fast. So much for skiing. But no matter -- the eternally upbeat Paula and Kent couldn't wait to get us out on the hiking trails. You had to love the zeal of this couple, whose collective energy, if harnessed, could light up the entire Eastern Seaboard for a week. With their lean bodies, identical close-cropped hair and wide Chiclet smiles, they're a walking, talking ad for the good yoga life.

That night, sitting around the fire, Paula talked about her journey from Brazil 19 years ago, as a 19-year-old who spoke no English. She worked odd jobs, put herself through college, became a citizen, met Kent, got married, discovered yoga. Now they escape the city a dozen times a year to run various adventure retreats: cross-country skiing, rock-climbing, mountain biking, fear workshops.

Rock climbing and yoga "are great for fear," Paula explained. "You're going to get to stages where you get stuck and not want to move. But it's not the equipment or environment that matters -- it's what's in your head."

I found myself nodding enthusiastically. The Vulcan mind meld had begun.

* * *

"You see that mountain over there?" It was Saturday morning and Kent was pointing out the day's hike. "That's North Fork Mountain. We'll hike north-northeast all along that ridge. It'll be rolling terrain -- not a whole lot of vertical, but a lot of ups and downs. Just like life."

And just like our day, it turned out. Nancy ended up puncturing her car's oil pan on the way to the trailhead, so we spent a couple of unscheduled hours in town waiting for a tow truck. But that was just fine, because otherwise Mara and I wouldn't have discovered the joys of downtown Franklin. These included the impressive taxidermy display at Glover Auto Supply on Main Street. Olan Hedrick, 78, saw us gawking through the window and invited us in to see the rest of the collection, pointing out a dozen or so stuffed deer heads in full antler, various splayed squirrels, a rare white coyote, a turkey and a white raccoon (also rare). "Ya gotta go into the back room and see the big heads," he urged. Yup. They were big.

When we finally made it to the trailhead, navigating the icy terrain was fun -- like hiking on ice cubes. I cornered Paula and asked why she'd been so tough on me during yoga the night before. "Didn't you feel my love?" she said. She was dead serious.

Hours went by. Okay, maybe two. One of us whined a lot on the uphill parts. Okay, it was me. I knew I was being obnoxious, but I couldn't stop complaining. But my friends, all far more experienced than I in the outdoors, were patient, offering me water and encouragement. I even got a compliment of sorts from Barb about my yoga performance the night before. "Boy, if I'd had a glass of wine before a power yoga class it would've been a complete disaster."

* * *

Another day, another hike -- this time a loop trail on the ranch grounds. We were a little less perky this time, perhaps because we'd stayed up till all hours the night before playing word games. Now we ambled along happily with the dogs, past an old abandoned house, fields of ferns, stands of mountain laurel. We talked about our husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends, kids, bosses, colleagues, students. This time I didn't notice the inclines.

Back at the ranch, it was time for body analysis. At one point, Paula grabbed a hunk of my thigh to use as a visual aid for her lecture on "Jell-O issues." But wait! All four "corners" of my feet touched the mat -- apparently a good thing. Never have I beheld my toes with such delight.

Wrapping up, Paula spoke about body awareness and yoga's message of acceptance. "This is time to be you and be happy," she said. "This is it, this is what we have. If we're not comfortable in our own skin, it's a very sad life out there."

We sat in the lotus position one last time. "Invite in kindness, acceptance and compassion, and allow them to take you forward in life," Paula instructed. "Now, bowing to the teacher within, say namaste."


* Adventure yoga retreats are offered year-round at Rocky Mountain Ranch in Franklin, W.Va., about a 3 1/2 -hour drive from Washington. Costs range from $300 to $450 and include lodging, yoga and most meals. Info: 571-436-6158, http://www.dancingmindyoga.com.

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