Ommmm On the Range In Montana

By Gretchen Cook
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 10, 2008

About the only time I wear a watch is during yoga class, so I can check how much I have left to endure. (Studios are usually devoid of clocks to discourage us not-in-the-moment types.) So imagine my surprise when I found myself signing up to accompany my sister on a six-day yoga retreat! Why? First, the Alaskan survival course I'd enrolled in had been canceled. Second, I'd be retreating to my favorite Rockies state: Montana.

The Feathered Pipe Ranch was a half-hour ride from the Helena airport, but as soon as I'd left the terminal, I was hit with all the remoteness and beauty this city dweller craves. I had worried that I'd be among humorless, New Age-y vegans, but the staff (mostly pierced and tattooed young locals) was warm and welcoming, and the campers were a mix of sophisticated professionals and down-to-earth fitness enthusiasts. Many of them knew one another from past pilgrimages, and all the whooping and hugging gave it a summer camp feel, as did the open-air communal dining area.

The accommodations ranged from cushy cabins to dorm rooms, as well as quaint-sounding tepees, tents and yurts. Unfortunately, my tepee was a little too quaint. It had a real bed (like the tents and yurts), but the top was open to the elements (and bugs) and I had to crawl through a tiny slit to enter it. I upgraded to a tent the next day to avoid the bugs and the scramble. The shared bathhouse was beautifully paneled and clean, and it had a sauna that's great on cold mornings, but it was a long hike from the tents. (The unisex arrangement might also give the modest pause.)

Although the 70-year-old ranch (it calls itself one of the oldest yoga retreat centers in the nation) is authentically rustic, the log and stone buildings are all tastefully modernized. The banister on the studio's spiral staircase is made from a single tree that was shaped for 20 years to fit the stairs precisely. It echoes the patience and dedication that made its remarkable owner, India Supera, such a success after she inherited the ranch in 1975 from a dying woman she'd cared for. At about $240 a day, all meals and top yoga instruction included, the retreat seemed like a great deal, which is why I'd booked quickly, not even checking the daily drill until I arrived: morning class, 9 to noon; afternoon class, 4 to 6.

Five hours a day?! Uh-oh. Still, I'd wanted a challenge (albeit more of the heart-stopping, rock-rappelling kind, not of the mind-numbing, pose-holding variety).

The five hours of yoga turned out to be more like six, but it also proved endurable, thanks to the teachers. Feathered Pipe draws luminaries from around the world, and mine was a renowned teacher of Iyengar, a precise practice that employs lots of props (blankets, cushions, blocks, etc.) and frequent "corrections." (The technique's inventor, B.K.S. Iyengar, has been known to correct his students with sharp whacks and an occasional kick.) Fans of the popular power, or flow, yoga form, whose studios rival Starbucks's ubiquity in Washington, often complain that Iyengar yoga is too slow and unchallenging. Although I agree that flow can be more fun, good Iyengar training will safeguard against the increasingly frequent injuries caused by rushing through poses in flow classes, where teachers have little opportunity for corrections. I did find the sessions trying, but my rapid improvement was a pleasant surprise.

So was the hiking. Although the area is not majestically rugged like Glacier or Yellowstone national parks, the rolling foothills are great to explore and wild enough to require bushwhacking. (Note to ranch: Provide better trail maps!) Wildlife abounds (I found a dozing deer in front of my tent one morning), but the area is remarkably rattlesnake- and bear-free for Montana. The lake was great for swimming, and the rope swing is a thrill, but it's not really big enough for kayaking.

No complaints about the food, however. The menu was mostly vegetarian that week, but it more than satisfied this carnivorous foodie, with dishes as hearty as portobello enchiladas and as adventurous as Indonesian coconut curry. The cooks accommodate all tastes, from pizza and beer to a big, bloody steak.

"We're not purists," Supera said. "We understand that everyone is an adult and they can make their own choices."

And sugar? No problem. Chocolate chip cookies were available 24-7 on my visit, as were such desserts as ranch-made ice cream, pies and pastries.

I left the ranch reluctantly, surprised at how quickly the time had passed. I'm also amazed by how much I've improved when I go to yoga class now. I don't start checking my watch until halfway through!

WHEN: Feathered Pipe Ranch workshops run June through September (, 406-442-8196).Then the action moves to India, where Sherri Baptiste and India Supera host a 20-day October trip that includes sightseeing plus four days at the ashram of Swami Veda Bharati, Baptiste's early guru, and five nights at an ayurvedic spa in Kerala. Cost, land only, is $5,995. For more information, call Linda Hays, 406-442-8196.

COST: Workshops vary, but a six-day stay, including all instruction, meals and activities, starts at $1,295. Rooms are dormitory-style (up to four people in a room) or are private with shared baths. You can choose to stay in a tepee, tent or yurt for privacy and share a bathhouse that includes a hot tub and sauna. Prices are for dorm rooms with baths, tents, tepees, yurts or cabins without a bath. A double room with a private bath is an additional $300 per person. A double room with shared bath is an additional $200.

GETTING THERE: Several carriers fly from Washington to Helena. Fares on United, for example, start at about $350. Feathered Pipe is 12 miles west of downtown Helena, and a shuttle service currently offers pickup and return for $60.

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