Yoga in the wilderness

Montana Health Journal

The Feathered Pipe Ranch near Helena provides remote solitude, peace and yoga

By Andy Vantrease/for Montana Health Journal

Deep in the lodgepole pines and birch trees near Helena, Montana, people wake to sunlight beaming through the clear do­­me of a custom-built yurt.

They walk gravel paths to morning meditation, eat breakfast in silence, practice yoga twice a day, drink tea and listen to stories by the campfire, and close out the night with a sauna, hot tub or massage session. This is a typical retreat schedule at the Feathered Pipe Ranch, a healing center known for world-renowned teachers and quiet time filled with the sights and sounds of nature.

Baxter Bell, an Oakland-based yoga instructor, medical acupuncturist and former family physician, has been visiting the Feathered Pipe Ranch for 16 years, beginning as a student and growing his practice and experience to that of a seasoned retreat leader.
Bell first visited the ranch for a retreat guided by Judith Hanson Lasater, a veteran yoga instructor who has been teaching at the ranch since it opened in 1975. At the time, he had an idea brewing – to leave his family medicine practice of 11 years and start studying yoga full time. The ranch allowed him space to quiet his mind and ruminate on this exciting, yet fearful idea, without outside distractions or influences. “This was the biggest decision I’d ever had to make, even more than my decision to go into medicine because I had thought about that my whole life growing up, and I was on that educational path for so long,” Bell says. “This was taking a left turn and heading off into the woods without a clear map. Yet, I was met with such acceptance and support here, it gave me the confidence to fulfill the idea.”

The Feathered Pipe Ranch founder, India Supera, took Bell under her wing for several years after his initial visit. As Bell reflects on their friendship over the years, he describes Supera as a grandmother figure. “She’s incredibly nurturing and really believed in me,” Bell said. “I was at the ranch one year as a student, and she asked the lead instructor if she would mind if I co-taught with her.”

After 45 minutes of discussion on shoulder alignment and safety, during one class Bell instructed his class of 14 students to stand up and get their blood flowing. He has a comical analogy for most wrist stretches – propeller hands, hypnotist hands, concert director hands, and he believes that small, simple movements every hour throughout the day may improve aches and pains. The retreat guests ranged from 30 to 70 years old and came from all over the country.
One couple from Florida – Margit, a yoga and tennis instructor, and Brian, a software support manager – were celebrating Margit’s 40th birthday. What started as a week of uncertainty for Brian, having no prior experience with yoga, culminated in a wealth of knowledge and relaxation. “Going into it I figured I would have to cheat off my neighbors with every pose, but the instruction was so clear, and it was such a laid back atmosphere,” Brian said. “Throughout the week, they emphasized that each of us will have differences and encouraged us to have fun, rather than worry about doing every pose correctly.”

On recent retreats, Bell has had Melina Meza by his side as a nutritionist, Ayurvedic health educator, yoga instructor and photographer. Meza, who moved from Seattle to Oakland to grow her career in the Bay area, pioneered Seasonal Vinyasa, an innovative, multi-disciplined approach to wellbeing. 

Last year was Meza’s third year co-teaching The Whole Enchilada, a week-long retreat at the Feathered Pipe Ranch that was designed to highlight Bell's and her experience in yoga, Ayurvedic lifestyle, nutrition and medicine. Since 1975, Supera has built Feathered Pipe Ranch into a place where people can come to get quiet and be inspired by the natural world. When she inherited the land from her late friend Jerry Duncan, Supera was hesitant to keep it, as she was only 24 years old and had not yet finished her world travels. She returned to the ashram in India where she had spent the previous four years, and asked her guru, Sai Baba, what she should do with the ranch. “He told me, ‘There are too many followers in this world. Go back and make this a place for leaders,’” she recalls.

With help from a core group of intellectuals, artists, yoga teachers, and other kindred spirits, Feathered Pipe Ranch became one of the most sought after retreats centers in America. As yoga grew in popularity, the group established the California Yoga Teachers Association, as well as the Institute for Yoga Teacher Education. The institute became the Iyengar Institute, which continues to operate today as the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco. The California Yoga Teachers Association then founded the widely recognized Yoga Journal.

Bell and Meza will teach together at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in summer 2017 to teach guests to align their routines with nature, move in a way that’s safe for their bodies and listen to their inner voices.
“The Feathered Pipe feels like a home,” Meza said as she glanced around the room. “Whether it’s the games, the books, the way things aren’t overly formal and detailed, this is a place where people live year round. It has a lot of love and a lot of character. This is a home to many.”

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