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Yoga West

Far from the stresses of home, finding tranquillity at two retreats designed to bring out the best in body and soul.

July 29, 2001|SUSAN SPANO | Times Travel Writer

HELENA, Mont. — 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.

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