For thousands of years, people have traveled to global power spots like Machu Picchu and the Egyptian pyramids to investigate the mysterious energy of lands said to help heal the body, increase creativity and awaken the soul’s purpose. For those looking to visit a domestic destination of equal transformative potential, The Feathered Pipe Ranch in Helena, Montana, is one of these sacred sites, and just so happens to host some of the best yoga retreats in the country.
Surrounded by more than 100,000 acres of natural forest, the Feathered Pipe Ranch sits in a valley on the Eastern side of the continental divide, an energy vortex nestled tightly within the Rocky Mountains. With untouched wilderness and abundant wildlife, spring water flowing from every faucet and clean, crisp air, natural order is protected at the Ranch.
“People of all walks of life have been making pilgrimage to this spot since the 1970s to experience the power of the land and the nature,” says India Supera, Founder and Executive Director of the Feathered Pipe Ranch. “Montana connects heaven with earth, and we attract the greatest teachers and guides.”
Many of today’s foremost voices on yoga, meditation, wellness, and health have come through the doors at the Ranch: Joseph Campbell, Seane Corn, Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, Rodney Yee, Patricia Walden, Erich Schiffmann and Judith Hanson Lasater, to name a few.
One of the newest additions to the Ranch family is J. Brown, a yoga instructor, writer and founder of Abyhasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. As a city boy, Brown admittedly wasn’t sure what to expect for his first retreat, yet signs continued to confirm the calling to Montana. “I was doing a podcast with Erich Schiffmann and mentioned to him that I had been contacted by the Feathered Pipe Ranch,” says Brown. “He basically said – ‘You have to go. Don’t ask questions, just go’.”
Brown quickly understood Schiffmann’s advocacy. “When I arrived, it felt like my body began operating on a totally different frequency than what I’m used to in New York City,” Brown says. “It is so remote, away from everything – even the definitions of who and what I am.”
Brown’s non-dualistic approach is revolutionary and refreshing on the modern yoga scene. His mission is to transform the mindsets of his students, or friends, as he refers to those who attend his classes. Brown begins his ‘Gentle is the New Advanced’ program with the history and philosophy of yoga to supply context for practice then introduces attention to the breath, the most tangible source of life. Asana postures are at the bottom of the to-do list, creating a space free of competition and physical expectations. The goal of his teachings? To be gentle, find balance and joy, and learn to set healthy boundaries and stay within them.
“Everything about our world encourages us to strive for more, to progress and push ourselves past our edges to attain some unknown thing,” says Brown. “If we take a step back and see that we are all mystical beings on this earth, surrounded by infinite space, we don’t need liberation, enlightenment or to be realized. We are whole, and yoga can help us to live that and be okay in our lives.”
Brown begins the dialogue by sharing his own story, offering a transparency and trust that trickles into every discussion thereafter. “I was 16 years old, standing in a hospital room where my mother had been for months, battling terminal leukemia. Until then, I had not been emotionally capable of seeing her this way, but was forced to go because they thought she might not make it through the night. My mother and sister were panicked and hysterical, and I suddenly had a moment of clarity and calmness, a sentiment that I had never felt before as a hyperactive and scattered kid. I grabbed my mother by the gown and locked eyes with her. I said, ‘Mom, I love you very much and I’m going to do great things in my life and make you proud of me.’ Then I walked out, and it was the last time I saw her.”
In the years following, Brown moved from LA to New York and graduated with a Fine Arts degree from NYU. He fell into a state of disillusionment and despair, searching for the poise and soberness he had felt at his mother’s bedside. “I hit a very low point and the only two things that made me feel slightly better were yoga and bass guitar,” says Brown. “I dove into them obsessively because they were preventing me from ending my life, and I couldn’t break the promise to my mom.”
Brown practiced and taught Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga for years, yet he was in chronic pain, still grieving his mom’s death and was, by all accounts, miserable. “If this is how I feel as a yoga teacher, how was I supposed to help anyone?” he recalls thinking.
On the cusp of quitting yoga, Brown traveled to India, where he found a rare and special teacher in Swami P. Saraswati, and through many meetings learned that yoga practice is not a linear progression towards achieving certain poses, but rather a process of learning how to take care of oneself as a whole. “Swami had me do simple wrist rolls then stopped and asked me how I felt,” says Brown. “Each time I would wax poetic about anatomy and expect more challenging poses (that never came). On the third day, we did the same thing and upon being asked how I felt, I blurted out, ‘I have no idea!’ Swami smiled widely, and it dawned on me that the poses didn’t really matter. Up until that moment, I hadn’t associated yoga with my emotional being at all. I was so disconnected from it.”
Brown ultimately found his way to an entirely therapeutic orientation in the tradition of TKV Desikachar and T Krishnamacharya, and currently studies with Mark Whitwell, Leslie Kaminoff, Amy Matthews and Gary Kraftsow. “By simplifying, slowing and centering my practice on breath, I was able to cultivate a more measured and patient mode of engagement and a different context for my practice where I was no longer trying to transcend my difficulties but rather learning how to ease them and just enjoy the fact that I am here,” Brown says.
Enjoying life isn’t hard to do at The Feathered Pipe Ranch. Prayer flags – some bright and crisp, others faded and wind-ripped – wave between the ponderosa pines at the Stupa that overlooks the lake. A resident rabbit – aptly named ‘Buddha Bunny’ – inhabits the rocks and watches over morning meditations and quiet contemplations. Tents, cabins, tipis, and yurts dot the mountain terrain and are connected by easy foot trails and solar lamps.
The Ranch hosts one retreat per week in the summer months, creating intimate and heartfelt connection with plenty of down time to canoe, hike, nap and hear stories from long-time staff members – tales that shift the most skeptical minds to believe in divine intervention.
Anne-Marie Corley, a yoga teacher, writer and veteran of the United States Air Force, describes her time at the Ranch as a huge sigh of relief. “This week gave me permission to relax, to not need to do anything but be alive, because I am whole, and I just needed to see it,” Corley says. “Having come with a fair amount of distress, I felt really held by the entire group, by the retreat space, by the incredibly nourishing meals and by J.’s philosophy of breathing and moving to get us into our lives, not doing so to escape them. It was just all so beautifully woven together.”
Creating space for guests to have their own experiences goes far beyond the idea that there is one correct way to do things. Brown actively encourages students to incorporate props when necessary, modify poses and even change the shape of or avoid certain poses altogether. “We’re looking for a balance point rather than a maximum,” says Brown. “If you can’t have facility of breath with the movement you’re doing, ease up. This may not make for the best Instagram photo, but it’s safe, strengthening and functional.”
Zane Williams, a photographer who has been visiting and working with the Feathered Pipe Ranch for 25 years, gravitated to Brown’s teachings immediately. “I knew after the first morning class that J. was unlike any other teacher I have had in my 35-plus years of yoga,” Williams admits. “Breath was the work of the practice, the teacher-student relationship entered a new post-lineage time, and seeking or striving for ‘advanced’ poses would be placed on an ‘only-if-joyful’ basis. J. teaches yoga that is about self-discovery and developing a truly personal (home) practice.”
By the end of the week, Williams recognized that moving forward, his yoga will no longer be primarily a pursuit of form, but a practice centered around breath facility, with form following. “This was beyond any expectation I had going into the retreat,” Williams says. “Everything will be different now.”
Brown describes his own recent transition, moving from New York City to Easton, PA and preparing to close his Brooklyn yoga studio after 10 years. His personal practice continues to evolve and with it, his approach to teaching. “As a teacher, I get to witness others as they reconcile their situations and come to reverence for life’s majesty,” Brown says. “Playing some role in facilitating people discovering yoga and health reaffirms everything I hold dear.”
Neil Boyd, Vice President of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, says, “Once you’ve been to the Feathered Pipe, you’re family.” In alignment with this accolade, Brown has scheduled his retreat for 2018 and plans to return with his wife and two daughters, to share in the magic, and to hold space for old and new friends with nurturing intimacy, humor and individual care. “This was my first retreat and I put a lot of work into it,” says Brown. “But I had powerful assistance from this land. It created the space for transformation and truly aided in the experience.”
Published in August 2017 by LA YOGA: https://layoga.com/community/festivals-retreats/finding-balance-and-joy-at-the-feathered-pipe-ranch/