Stretching Wide: The Growth of Yoga in Montana

Montana Yoga Retreats

Finding your Zen in Montana


By Darren Guyaz/for Montana Living

MONTANA LIVING — "You want me to do what?" I thought to myself when the instructor asked students in the yoga class to sit in the lotus position, both feet turned skyward resting upon their inner thighs.

I sincerely doubted my body would actually contort into this position. This was more than ten years ago, and I vividly recall the first yoga class I took. Yoga was barely a recognizable word at that time in Montana.

People confused it with the little green-eared Star Wars sage. "What about Yoda?" they would ask me. "Yoga." I said biting my lip. "I think it's from India and it feels pretty darn good, you know." I felt I had to defend this newfound practice and justify the few hours a week I spent twisting my body into bizarre shapes and resting supine on the floor. But over the course of many classes, frustration and, to be frank, a little bit of pain, I finally conquered the challenge presented to me on the first day: Half-lotus first (one foot on one thigh) and eventually full-lotus.

And this was only the beginning for myself - and for yoga in Montana. Ten years later yoga has become as mainstream as martial arts, fitness classes and the Atkins diet. Everyone's heard of it or knows someone who's spending hours a week in positions (as I had learned later) that contribute not only to physical well-being but to increased mental and emotional health. Everyone who has engaged and persisted with classes seems to be happier these days. So what's the secret?

 Yoga was conceived thousands of years ago in the Indus Valley, the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent that is present-day Pakistan. The word yoga - translated as "yoking" or "discipline" - first appeared more than 3,500 years ago in the Vedas, the sacred scripts of Brahmanism, a complex religious tradition that was the precursor to modern-day Hinduism. Only a nascent discipline in the Vedas, Yoga became more prominent in the Upanishads, the sacred revelations of ancient Hinduism, where it referred to a path taken to achieve liberation or enlightenment. According to one of the authors of the Upanishads, "The oneness of the breath and mind, and likewise of the senses and the relinquishment of all conditions of existence - this is designated as yoga."

Over the centuries yoga grew out of the Upanishads into its own philosophy and practice, a practice distinct and separate from Hinduism. Many different schools, philosophical approaches and teachers of yoga surfaced, the most notable perhaps being Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra. Revered as the father of modern yoga, he is considered to have been the first one to successfully codify the concepts of an ancient, oral tradition. Most yoga teachers today are familiar with the Yoga Sutra, a compilation of 195 sutras (aphorisms) providing the first practical treatise on daily living. Time, however, brought further division and morphing of styles, some radically departing from Patanjali's philosophical ideals, such as tantra and hatha yoga.


From hatha yoga have come the physical postures the Western world now embraces. Hatha, a combination of "ha" meaning sun, and "tha" meaning moon, represents the union of opposites and additionally translates as a force or determined effort. Yoga, as mentioned before, means yoke or joining together. Hatha yoga therefore, according to Linda Sparrowe, author of Yoga: A Yoga Journal Book, "implies that it takes a lot of strength, discipline, and effort to unify opposing forces and to bring together the body and the mind."

Within the realm of hatha yoga, America has primarily adopted the physical poses, called asanas. The common perception of yoga until more recently - stretching on the mats at the local health club - diverged from the mental, emotional, and spiritual elements that were historically practiced in the hatha tradition, but also contributed to the growth of yoga nationwide. Yoga sprung to its feet in health clubs, dance studios and any available rental space during the '80s and '90s.

But now that the public perception is changing and yoga has been adopted into mainstream lexicon as an art form that encompasses both body and mind - especially within the last few years - yoga studios are becoming equally widespread - especially in Montana, where people from around the world are coming to find outer peace, as well as inner peace.

"People are first attracted to yoga for the physical sensation," says Kim Schleicher, the director of research and development at the Feathered Pipe Foundation near Helena, Montana. For more than 30 years the ranch and retreat center has offered yoga workshops, attracting people from all over the world with big-name teachers. Many instructors who now teach throughout Montana have begun here. "But over time they become interested in deepening their practice on a more spiritual level," Schleicher says.

"The community is so willing to be educated. Once they realize it's not a religion, they feel much more comfortable," says Dana Stoddard, director of Montana Bliss, a yoga studio in Bigfork, Montana.
Even in places as remote as Roundup, Montana, yoga is blossoming. Jennifer Pisle is director of a new yoga studio in Roundup, and says yoga is becoming mainstream even in Montana, where trends from other parts of the country are slow to materialize. "There have been misconceptions about what yoga really is," she says. "It has had a religious label on it for years. Now people are starting to develop a better attitude toward yoga and realize it is very spiritual but not necessarily religious. And every person comes for certain reasons: for physical pain, to help find balance, to relax. But you get so many more benefits that affect your mind, your heart, your spirit. It touches our lives in ways that none of us could ever imagine."

I can attest to benefits beyond the physical. Every time I walk away from a yoga class, I notice not only my shoulders more relaxed, but my thoughts are less chaotic and distracting (at least for a short while after), my disposition tends to be a little happier than normal, and I just feel, for lack of better words, lighter. Unfortunately, this lightness never lasts as long as I'd like it to. Maybe if I practiced more frequently and determinedly I would enjoy longer lasting repercussions.

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Either way, the benefits are understated. "[Yoga] practice creates a ripple effect in the community," smiles Meg Lattanzio, director of Bikram's Yoga College of India, in Missoula. "The benefits extend to your partner, your family and friends, your workplace and ultimately your community." 

"This is so true," I agree, thinking quietly to myself as Meg continues to expound on the multiple benefits yoga can bring to one's life: a healthier and more resilient body, developing a relationship with yourself, increased self-confidence and giving you a direction in life. Her words snap me back to attention. "...and the more you become flexible in your body, the more you become flexible in your mind," she finishes. I feel more relaxed already.

The Western fascination with Eastern culture dates back to when Alexander the Great's empire opened the far reaches of Persia and India, according to yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein. But not until the turn of the 20th century did yoga reach the shores of America. The year 1893 brought the first Indian spiritual teacher of yoga, Swami Vivekananda, to America. Many teachers followed, gradually disseminating the word, speaking of the benefits, the philosophies and the physical practices.
Through the first half of the 1900s, the physiological benefits of hatha yoga began to catch the attention of scientists and medical doctors. The physical postures of yoga, the asanas, inspired one particular man, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, to develop a richer, more comprehensive system of asana and pranayama (breath control) techniques.

Krishnamacharya, according to Sparrowe, "has become the undisputed father of modern-day hatha yoga." He, more than anyone else, has influenced the wide range of physical styles, postures, and the yoga-fitness obsession that has become the craze of the nation. His pupils included B.K.S. Iyengar, who developed his own style of yoga, Iyengar Yoga, now one of the most recognized schools of yoga worldwide; Pattabhi Jois, who continued on to develop the school of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga; and Indra Devi.

She is the "First Lady of Yoga" in America who popularized yoga among women, catering to the Hollywood crowd and teaching to an international audience from the Soviet Union to Argentina, Vietnam to India.
Krishnamacharya's son, Desikachar, eventually went on to develop a style of his own - Viniyoga - based upon his father's teachings. Other yoga styles such as Bikram's, Kundalini, and Scaravelli also evolved from Krishnamacharya's hatha yoga, borrowing and transforming many of his asanas and pranayamas into their own unique, beneficial styles.

The yoga trend took off dramatically within the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, gently stretching its fingers far beyond major metropolitan areas into the rolling hills of rural America. The younger generation at the time yearned for more spiritual and transcendental experiences and yoga was one vehicle of opportunity embraced by many. Montana actually has seen yoga within its borders for more than 40 years. Marlene Burke, a Great Falls native turning 72 this coming December, can vouch yoga is not new to this state. Living in Helena at the time, she first read about yoga in Redbook magazine in the mid-1960s, inspiring her to begin practicing.

"There were classes in Helena, taught from time to time," she recalls. "But after I went to a yoga retreat in Mexico and came back to Missoula, a few friends of mine said to me, 'Now you can teach. We'll come over to your house every Tuesday and Thursday and you can teach us.'" Teach she did. And has continued to teach to this day. She became the first yoga instructor to teach at the University of Montana in Missoula and with the adult education program during the early 1970s. Today she continues to teach at the Yoga Fitness Center in Missoula and there seems to be no end in sight.
Does yoga increase your longevity? Very likely: Indra Devi continued a devout yoga practice beyond her 100th year, living to be 102.

Many yogis and students over the centuries have lived well into their nineties and beyond. According to Dr. Paul Galbraith, author of "Reversing Aging," yoga affects the brain, glands, spine and internal organs, all of which play a decisive role in aging. Additionally, he continues, yoga produces increased immunity against disease, increased vitality, rejuvenates the glands that prevent premature aging and extends sexual virility. Yoga even reduces wrinkles via firmer facial muscles. And it's never too late to start. A relatively new 74-year-old student has seen how yoga has changed her life, mentions Deb Poole, director of the Great Falls Yoga Center. "When she's sitting at the park, she's comfortable on the grass while others her age are sitting in chairs. In fact she's almost doing headstands now."

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Though yoga came to Montana more than 40 years ago, the surge in teachers, styles, studios and practitioners has come within the past decade and most significantly within the past few years. Nancy Ruby, director of YogaMotion in Bozeman and a teacher of yoga for more than 22 years has witnessed the growth firsthand. Bozeman residents could partake in a few classes a week offered at local health clubs in the early 1980s. Recently the choice has becoming a little overwhelming: More than five yoga studios, numerous fitness centers, multiple university classes, and a teacher-training program for YogaMotion (a unique style created by Nancy Ruby that combines Iyengar, Viniyoga, Ashtanga and Anusara).

"It gives the community a chance to get together in a really healthy way," explains Ruby. "It gives people the opportunity to become comfortable in their body, clear in their mind and peaceful in their spirit."
According to Barry Minkin, author of Future in Sight: The 100 Most Important Global Business Trends (Macmillan, 1995), the rapid growth of yoga has close ties to other American trends. The increased focus on fitness, growing interest in Eastern culture, including the connection between mind and body, and the emphasis placed on maintaining flexibility by groups such as the American Academy of Sports Medicine have all contributed to yoga's expansion, cites Minkin.

But perhaps the main reason yoga is gaining in popularity comes down to one simple truth: "We never walk out of the studio not feeling better," Poole tells me.
Isn't that the truth. Believe me (and countless other students and teachers). You walk out a different person than when you entered. I've walked in tired and walked out more energetic. I've walked in stressed and walked out peaceful. I've walked in happy and walked out happier. "It's about you learning about yourself," Vicki Bernstein, a yoga practitioner and Pilates instructor at the Whitefish Yoga Center, tells me. "There's something that can help us when we connect to who we are inside as individuals."

And to be honest, not one style is really better than another. No matter which style you choose, each can benefit you in a positive way depending on what you're looking for. "People ask me, 'What is yoga?'" explains Pisle who teaches YogaFit, a modified style of yoga tailored to the fitness industry and to people with physical limitations. "It's like dancing. There are hundreds of dance styles but you need to find the one that fits you whether it be country, disco or ballet."

And hundreds of yoga styles may be headed our way - in part because the trend is maturing, according to Minkin. When a trend matures, fragmentation occurs. "The providers of the good or service feel a need to differentiate themselves, to market in different ways," he says. The number of differentiations seems limitless. Everything from "boga," a combination of boxing and yoga, to Yogilates (Pilates and yoga) and hip-hop yoga are springing up nationwide - in addition to traditional yoga and newly formed hybrids, modifying and combining the older styles.
What does all of this mean for Montana? More yoga. Plain and simple. Instructors welcome it, the long-time residents and influx of new residents to the state demand it, and, as appropriately put, "People need it," Lattanzio emphasizes. "We crave a deeper connection to remember that we are alive."
Amen to that.

Five Things to Know Before You Go

By Darren Guyaz

1. Start with your mind. Leave it open and go without any expectations. I'd recommend this to anyone starting anything new. Yoga is no exception. And give it some time - a few weeks or months will give you time to become accustomed to the style you choose. Maybe visit a class ahead of time to see what style appeals most.

2. First class or hundredth class, go well-hydrated and on an empty stomach. Regardless if you sweat or not, yoga is a physical activity and your body needs replenishing of liquids before and after. And your stomach will thank you if it's not full of lunch.

3. You don't have to be flexible to go to class - only in your mind. No matter what your age or physical prowess, yoga is available and beneficial to EVERYONE. No exceptions. Check for yoga classes in your area that may cater to a particular age group or physical ability level. Flexibility comes with repetition and practice.

4. Communicate! With yourself, but more importantly with your teacher. If you have any past or present injuries, disabilities, limitations, fears or expectations, tell your instructor before you even begin so that he or she may guide you in what's appropriate or not. Yoga is very personal and individual. Don't be afraid to speak out.

5. Except for the above recommendations, there is little you can do except show up for class with the appropriate clothing and a good attitude. "You really can't go very prepared," says Meg Lattanzio. "Just be patient and have fun."

***Compiled by recommendations from Meg Lattanzio, director of the Bikram's Yoga College of India in Missoula, MT. Appropriate for any style of yoga.


What Style to Choose? By Darren Guyaz
Yoga has become more and more diversified in recent years. With so many styles and so many more on the way, here's a brief list to guide you in the right direction.

General Hatha Yoga: Focuses on physical well-being with the intent to balance the mind, body and spirit through the various poses. The basis for many varying styles.
Ananda Yoga: A relatively gentle, inward experience  - not athletic or aerobic - that uses physical poses and breath to awaken, experience and direct the subtle energies within oneself.
Anusara Yoga: A combination of Hatha Yoga and biochemical principles that emphasize an open heart, attitude, action and grace.
Ashtanga Yoga: For a serious workout. Posture and breathing lead to increased flexibility, strength and stamina, flowing from one posture to the next. Power Yoga is based on Ashtanga.
Bikram's Yoga: Hot stuff. Practiced in a humidified room heated to more than 100 degrees, Bikram's is designed to warm-up and cleanse the body of toxins, providing utmost flexibility.
Integral Yoga: Emphasizes breath and meditation, as well as physical postures. Eight main goals focus upon strengthening the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects.
Iyengar Yoga: Characterized by the intensive use of props (to provide additional support and minimize the risk of injury) and focusing on detail, posture and alignment.
Kundalini Yoga: Focuses on the controlled release of energy that is stored at the base of the spine. Involves classic poses, chanting, coordination of breath and movement, and meditation.
Viniyoga: Makes use of modified poses to meet the specific needs of an individual. Emphasizes the coordination of breath and movement to promote well-being, strength, healing and flexibility.
YogaFit: Tailored to the fitness industry and well-rounded for a variety of ages, abilities and those with physical limitations. Focused on the physical postures to promote well-being.
YogaMotion: A combination of Iyengar, Vinyasa (flow through postures), Ashtanga and Anusara Yoga, and physiology. Focuses on a series of warm-up postures and releases to promote well-being.

Where to Explore

Big Sky Yoga Retreats

Margaret Burns-Vap saw how yoga changed the lives of many people in urban Washington, D.C.

Now that she lives in Big Sky, Mont., Burns-Vap wants to bring yoga to the people in the mountains. She recently opened Big Sky Yoga Retreats, a yoga retreat business based at the Big EZ Lodge in Big Sky. Based in Big Sky, she’ll be able to combine the mental and athletic benefits of yoga with traditional Montana sports like hiking, skiing and horseback riding, to give those sports enthusiasts a better way to enjoy their passions.

“Whether it’s running a marathon or skiing, yoga improves whatever you activities you do,” she said. Her first retreats will take place in fall 2007. Burns-Vap, who has run a D.C. yoga studio for five years, learned to ski later in life, so yoga helped her skills on the slopes, she said.

While her first retreat this fall will combine various outdoor activities with yoga, a retreat she’s working on for winter 2008 will focus particularly on skiing. Participants will enjoy skiing each day, along with specific yoga styles that will benefit their skiing.

Burns-Vap is excited to bring yoga to a mountain setting. Her husband hails from Missoula, so when it came time to make the move to Montana, Big Sky was their choice to raise a family. “It felt like a good place to call home,” she said.

She added that Montana is ready for more yoga offerings like hers. “I see a lot of opportunity here,” Burns-Vap said. “The market is very under-penetrated, but then I’m coming from a place where there’s a yoga studio on almost every block.”

On the Web:

Feathered Pipe Ranch

For more than 30 years, the Feathered Pipe Ranch near Helena has brought yoga teachers and practitioners to its secluded retreat.

Guests live in log cabins, yurts and tipis along a tranquil lake. The ranch focuses on yoga, meditation and personal growth, and it offers workshops throughout the summer. In winter, the ranch takes people to warmer climes to practice the art of yoga. After a day of yoga at the Feathered Pipe Ranch, you can take part in a hot rock massage, chiropractic or acupressure.

On the Web:


Near the base of the Swan Mountains in Bigfork, children from five to 13 can experience meditation, yoga, outdoor exploration and the arts.

Time at montanabliss is split between yoga and art classes. It’s an effort to help bring peacefulness and serenity to school children, through yoga.

Three, one-week sessions from July to August, are available. Registration continues throughout the summer. Cost is $195 per week.

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