I love the sound of "om," the Sanskrit word used in chanting. Voiced in a long exhalation at the beginning of yoga class, it focuses my attention inward and reverberates pleasingly in my mind.
Even though I own a yoga mat, I'm no expert. I can't even get my heels to the floor in downward-facing dog, one of yoga's most basic postures. I sometimes cry in dead bug pose. (Teachers say that certain yoga postures, or asanas, release emotions we don't know we have.) I like the tone and strength yoga brings to my body, the ditsy New Age music, the loose clothes. I even like it when I cry.
So I had no trouble embracing the idea of attending two recent yoga retreats, one at Inner Harmony, atop a 9,300-foot mountain in southwestern Utah, and the other at Feathered Pipe Ranch, tucked into the Rockies near here. These retreat centers, like others in the U.S. and abroad, offer weeklong programs, usually in the summer, taught by some of America's most distinguished yogis. There are retreat centers for yoga in California, of course. But I wanted to get a little farther away to do what serious yoga students, trainee teachers, adventurous novices and dilettantes like me do at such places: sweat and groan through six hours of class daily, eat healthful food, hike the Western wilderness, swim, nap, make brief but intimate friendships and write in a journal.
In a way, yoga retreats are like spas, but with less pampering and more rustic accommodations in cabins, dorms, tents, tepees and yurts. And they're more challenging than a spa.
"I'm going to wring you out," Baron Baptiste, the high-powered yoga teacher from Cambridge, Mass., promised at the Feathered Pipe orientation. Then he laughed mischievously.
If this sounds more like masochism than a vacation, imagine yourself after the wringing out. I felt clean, calm and strong at the end of my week at Inner Harmony. After another at Feathered Pipe, I felt tough and ready.
As many as 20 million Americans practice yoga in pursuit of physical or mental fitness, with a little om along the way. "When we do yoga at home, we're basically trying to reduce stress and negative influences," said Rod Stryker, the charismatic L.A. yogi who taught at Inner Harmony. "But at a retreat, people get a chance to experience the reach of yoga. It's more than just a way to feel good; it's a way to improve the quality of life."
Accomplished Indian yogis who know how to tap into the semi-abstracted state of consciousness that leads to union with the absolute, which is classical yoga's aim, could meditate or hold a pose on a busy Calcutta road. For those less accomplished, yoga can be particularly pleasing and productive when done in a bucolic place like Utah's Wasatch Mountains or the western Rockies of Montana.
The Inner Harmony retreat center sits at the northern threshold of Bryce and Zion canyons, with sweeping panoramas of the Great Basin to the west and rock-faced Brian Head ski resort to the east.
John Epert, a retired food distributor who took up yoga to ease his sciatica, and his wife, Lynne, a yoga instructor, bought the place in 1980. The 70-acre spread had only a cabin with no electricity or plumbing, but they soon found it conducive to yoga getaways with friends and favorite teachers. With the help of 22-year-old daughter Hope, a massage therapist, they opened a full-fledged retreat center in 1996.
Inner Harmony can accommodate 58 guests. The facilities, which still have a woodsy, work-in-progress look, include a wing of private rooms and another of dormitory-style accommodations, an oak-floored 1,800-square-foot yoga studio, a grand staircase of decks with hot tubs that hang against the mountainside, a unisex bathhouse and an enclave of 12 canvas-covered yurts that look like something out of a Pottery Barn catalog.
I stayed in the last yurt along the wood-chip path. It had a double bed, carpeted floor, armoire, ceiling fan and phone. Epert, an endearing man who is always in the middle of a project, plans to give the yurts Internet access because he thinks people feel secure when they know they're connected. I felt secure in mine and slept soundly, lulled by the sound of chirping birds, wind in the aspens and the occasional wisp of rain. The meals were gourmet--tofu Dijon, nori -crusted salmon, oyster mushroom bisque and lentil pate--and it was over such feasts that I got to know my classmates. There were eight men, or yogis, and 35 women, or yoginis, mostly in their 30s and 40s, from as far afield as Little Rock, Ark., and Charleston, S.C., along with me and my friend Sandra Boynton, who had come from the East Coast to deepen her well-established practice and help me with my downward-facing dog.
Though the retreat was billed for all levels, I soon discovered that about half the people were highly advanced, somewhat cliquish yoga teachers who had chosen Stryker as their guru and were attending specifically to study with him. (One even called herself a "yoga retreat junkie.") A dozen or so were intermediate practitioners, sharing and friendly. And there was a handful of beginners, including a middle-aged man from Long Island, N.Y. When I asked him why he'd come, he glowered at his wife and said, "She got me in a weak moment."
Our days started at 7, when those of us still addicted to caffeine ran for the coffee machine before assembling in the yoga studio. There we had an hour of meditation led by Stryker, a handsome former actor in his mid-40s who trained Bette Midler and Drew Barrymore and is married to model Cheryl Tiegs.
In difficult, twisted-up asanas, he is a thing of beauty. He has other gifts too: his clear voice and his way of describing what we were meant to be thinking and feeling as we sat perfectly still for 45 minutes at a stretch in cross-legged lotus posture. Halfway through a meditation session, he would say, "You are calm and incredibly aware," and for no reason I understood, I actually felt that way.
Breakfast came next, followed by 21/2 hours of asana class, with our mats spread in rows on the floor, yoga props such as blocks and straps, water bottles and towels for mopping up the sweat. Stryker's style, which he calls Pure Yoga, is difficult, spiritual and esoteric, involving breathing exercises (for instance, in one nostril and out the other, sometimes to a metronome), chanting and, of course, the postures, from basic child's pose and downward-facing dog to handstands and backbends, some held as long as seven minutes.
Together with the novices (who were clearly in over their heads), I couldn't do much and became so sore that I always took two ibuprofen before asana practice. But I kept trying and eventually started looking forward to classes.
Those who wanted to walked with Epert in the early afternoon. One day we scrapped the schedule and went by bus for a hike in Zion National Park, where we had a veggie burger barbecue. Later we were reinvigorated in the Virgin River at Pah Tempe Mineral Hot Springs in the town of Hurricane.
Usually there was a second 21/2-hour class before dinner, followed by an evening program such as a question-and-answer session with Stryker, hot tubbing, laundering our sweaty yoga togs (the free washer and dryer were crucial) or stargazing.
The true stars of the schedule were our two late-afternoon sessions of yoga nidra , a deeply relaxing, healing meditation technique that doesn't require concentration and is seldom practiced in the West. For it, we brought blankets and pillows into the studio, slumber party style, made ourselves comfortable and lay as still as marble effigies for more than an hour while Stryker guided our thoughts. Part of the beauty of yoga nidra , Stryker said, is that it works even if you fall asleep and start to snore.
After our last yoga nidra practice, I mentioned I was on the way to Feathered Pipe Ranch, and my classmates, familiar with Baptiste's hard-driving, athletically challenging "power yoga boot camps," were appalled. Stryker raised an eyebrow and said only, "You are going to be a wet noodle."
No wonder I arrived at the 110-acre ranch at the end of Colorado Gulch shaking in my sandals. I'd reserved a tent on a platform in the piney woods, with a lantern, lawn chair and foam pad for my sleeping bag, near the retreat center's five tepees and three yurts. But when I saw it, I decided the tent was too far from the bathhouse and a little buggy. Fortunately, dorm space in the lodge and a room with a private bath connected to the director's cottage were available. (Altogether, the retreat can accommodate about 60 people.) I didn't regret the private room's higher cost.
This wet noodle needed all the comfort she could get.
Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy Feathered Pipe as much as Inner Harmony. This was more diverting, a funky, atmospheric place, part summer camp, part commune, built around a small artificial lake about 10 miles west of Helena. Here I found an Adirondack-style lodge backed by a broad lawn leading down to the lake. The lodge houses four dorm rooms, a kitchen and a high-ceilinged studio with a huge stone fireplace, perhaps the only yoga space in the world decorated with an elk head.
That's pure India Supera, who is director of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps Montana AIDS sufferers, educates refugee Tibetan children and has been sponsoring yoga retreats at the ranch every summer since 1975.
Besides the yoga, highlights of my stay included a stiflingly hot hour in a Chippewa-Cree sweat lodge; a stiff early morning hike to a wide-open meadow high in the Rockies; a session with Edie Resto, a massage therapist and natural healer who used acupuncture and a laser gun to soothe my pulled hamstring; and a campfire chat with Supera about how Feathered Pipe Ranch came to be.
The story can take five minute or five hours, depending on how this runaway hippie girl, Earth mama, Renaissance woman feels. Supera inherited the ranch from a friend she met at an ashram in India. At first, locals called her and her Feathered Pipe friends "the hippies at the end of the gulch." They nearly went bankrupt in 1979, but they persevered and are among the more firmly established yoga retreats in North America.
The daily schedule is like Inner Harmony's, but the hikes are more strenuous, the accommodations more rustic. The food is fresh and plentiful, but not as gourmet. The yoga schedule at Feathered Pipe is more varied. And if you happen to come for a Baptiste boot camp, coffee and dairy products will be absent from your diet.
The group was more East Coast and younger than my group at Inner Harmony because the Cambridge yoga jock seems to attract people who don't yet know how it feels to have sagging breasts and spreading tummies. My boot camp had 33 yoginis and five yogis.
There is something distant and self-contained about Baptiste. But he brought two able assistants, Kate Churchill and Elizabeth Huntsman, who kept watchful eyes on all the students, pushing and correcting experts, helping beginners and occasionally rubbing analgesic oil on the backs of our necks.
Ultimately I had to admire Baptiste, a way-cool, self-assured thirtysomething who sets the style in his classes by wearing baggy gym shorts and a bandanna around his head. Beyond the hipness, Baptiste has the yoga chops. He was raised in San Francisco, scion of two generations of American yogis, and spent time at an ashram in India as a teenager. Later he taught yoga to football players, the Philadelphia Eagles, gave the Kennedys lessons at Hyannis Port, Mass., and founded a red-hot style of American power yoga involving charged, aerobically taxing movements.
I almost died in Baptiste's three-hour morning and afternoon classes, which, together with being reborn, is what he promised. While we held a particularly excruciating pose, balanced on our toes, he told dumb jokes. ("What do you call a Filipino yogi? A Manila folder.")
Now that I'm back at home and pursuing my yoga practice more restfully, I think of Stryker and Baptiste, and of Inner Harmony and Feathered Pipe, with affection and gratitude, a feeling that should come at the end of every yoga class. When the practice is done, you put your palms together next to your heart and say "Namaste," a salute that means many things.
To me it means I didn't quite make it to the absolute, but I had a lovely time trying.
Guidebook: Finding a Full Retreat
* Getting there: To get to Inner Harmony, you must fly into Cedar City, Utah. From LAX, connecting service is available on Delta. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $103. For Feathered Pipe, you must fly into Helena, Mont. Connecting service from LAX is on Delta and Alaska. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $324. Both resorts provide shuttle service from the airport.
* The retreats: Inner Harmony Retreat Center, P.O. Box 190086, Brian Head, UT 84719; telephone (435) 677-9923, fax (435) 677-2950, Internet http://www.innerharmonyyoga.com. The retreat is about 30 miles north of Cedar City, 185 miles northeast of Las Vegas and 250 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
Inner Harmony offers weeklong retreats from early June to mid-September. Accommodations include tents, yurts, dorms and private rooms (with baths). Rates range from $625 (for a tent) to $1,295 (for single occupancy of a room).
Feathered Pipe Ranch, P.O. Box 1682, Helena, MT 59624; tel. (406) 442-8196, fax (406) 442-8110, http://www.featheredpipe.com, has yoga seminars from mid-June to late September. Accommodations are in dorms, tepees, yurts, tents and double rooms (a few have private baths). Rates range from $995 to $1,499 (with a $200 to $300 surcharge per person for the doubles).
* For more information: Feathered Pipe Ranch and Inner Harmony are just two of the many yoga retreats in the U.S. and abroad. To find more, consult "Yoga Vacations: A Guide to International Yoga Retreats," by Annalisa Cunningham (John Muir Publications, 1999).
The base price for a retreat usually includes all classes, meals and accommodations. Transportation usually is not included. When you register, a retreat center should provide travel information and directions.
To make sure you'll be comfortable in class, take time to talk with staff members about the teacher and level of the program you're considering.
* For information on other sights in the states: Utah Travel Council, Council Hall/Capitol Hill, 300 N. State St., Salt Lake City, UT 84114; tel. (800) UTAH-FUN (882-4386), (800) 200-1160 or (801) 538-1030, fax (801) 538-1399, Internet http://www.utah.com.
Travel Montana, P.O. Box 200533, Helena, MT 59620-0533; tel. (800) VISIT-MT (847-4868) or (406) 444-2654, fax (406) 444-1800, http://www.visitmt.com.