Known for its expansive prairies, snow-capped peaks and abundant wildlife, Montana has been a retreat destination for decades. Yet, in the grand scheme of the international yoga community, it’s still a hidden gem—just the way we like it.
From Emigrant to Helena to Wolf Creek, part of the allure of a yoga retreat in Montana is the juxtaposition of cowboys and goddesses, frosty mornings and heated Vinyasa, elk steak tacos and lentil soup. But if you look deeper, these differences make the Treasure State truly unique, a blending of cultures and landscapes that allows you to release expectations and be yourself.
These three retreat destinations, distinct in their offerings, provide guests the opportunity to hold everything as sacred and reconnect with nature as the greatest teacher.
Feathered Pipe Ranch: A Family Affair
After a full day of yoga instruction, guests congregate at the picnic table overlooking the lake, plates brimming with falafel, spanakopita, fresh fig salad and baklava. Howard Levin, an architect, designer, former Feathered Pipe Ranch manager and abundant source of entertaining stories, is recalling his time at Sai Baba’s ashram in India, where he came to know the retreat’s founder, India Supera, 45 years prior. Ilan and Luna, Supera’s grandchildren, finish their dinners and execute one last cannonball into the water before daylight disappears, and Tom Ryan, the self-taught master carpenter who built most of the structures on the property, strolls in with his black lab Ringo.
It’s no secret: once you’re here, you’re family—and it’s been that way since the beginning. Supera inherited 110 acres west of Helena from her late friend Jerry Duncan in the early 1970s and began hosting retreats shortly thereafter. At 24 years old and no formal higher education, Supera was unsure of how to run an organization, but there was something larger at play. “We were known as the hippies at the end of the gulch, and we were busy with life-changing work in the world,” Supera says. “We had the ‘If you build it, they will come’ mentality, and we knew that every instance of positive change is important in the lives of our children and grandchildren.”
Tents, cabins, tipis and yurts dot the mountain terrain and are connected by easy foot trails and solar lamps. Prayer flags wave between the ponderosa pines at the Stupa that overlooks the lake, and the crackle of the campfire carries into the night. Retreats vary each summer and cover a variety of yoga and wellness studies: Iyengar, Hatha, Ashtanga and Bhakti yoga, personal training and fitness, divine feminine connection, dance and ancient ritual. Jennifer Daly, a Chinese Medicine practitioner specializing in acupressure, osteopathic manual therapy and sound healing, has been working at the Feathered Pipe Ranch for 13 summers. “People come from all over and they’re welcomed in as they are, invited to use the vibration of the land, the nature, the workshop instruction and bodywork to assist in their growth and unfolding,” says Daly. “I’ve seen deep transformation happen here, not only individually but collectively.”
Well-known yoga instructors Rodney Yee, Erich Schiffmann, Patricia Walden and Judith Hanson Lasater got their starts at the Ranch. These days, you can study with the next generation: Baxter Bell, Melina Meza, J. Brown, Nat Kendall and Gernot Huber, among others. “The Feathered Pipe perfectly joins the beauty of nature with an unparalleled caliber of teaching,” says Susan Smiley, a Bozeman business owner. “After almost 10 years, I still visit in the summer to see old friends. There’s a real open door policy.”
Anne Jablonski, president of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, the 501(3)(c) that supports the retreat center, remembers how she felt arriving for the first time 15 years ago. “India was busy sweeping the lodge floor when I wandered in and she exclaimed, “Oh, gosh I’m so glad you’re here!”” recalls Jablonski. “I thought she’d mistaken me for someone she knew, but I quickly learned that everyone is embraced immediately—and forever—as family once they set foot on the Ranch.”
Blacktail Ranch: History Preserved
Just 50 miles north in Wolf Creek, the Blacktail Ranch sits on 8,000 acres at the base of the Continental Divide, where the Rocky Mountains meet the prairie. It’s a working dude ranch, home to 34 horses, several cattle dogs, chickens and a healthy population of deer, elk, bear and other wildlife. “Just the other day, we were wrangling bears,” jokes Dan Burggraff, head wrangler at Blacktail Ranch. “We came across him on a trail ride with the guests, and usually the bear run away from our groups but this young one was persistent and curious. It’s always exciting here.”
The Blacktail property was first homesteaded in 1886 by Gus Rittel and was turned into a guest ranch in 1987 by his grandson Tag Rittel and wife Sandra Renner. When Tag was a teenager, he and several friends discovered a cave on the property, and he spent his lifetime exploring and collecting artifacts for the on-site museum—an 11,300-year-old Goshen spear point, a short-faced bear skull, bones from a 27,000-year-old horse. Because of this rich history, the Blacktail Ranch is known for its ancient energy, attracting yoga instructors and spiritual leaders interested in teaching alongside the aide of the land.
“The Blacktail has all the elements of the chakra system—earth, water, fire, air, ether—so I develop retreats around those themes,” says JJ Gormley, a Virginia-based yoga instructor who has been teaching at the Blacktail Ranch since summer 2004. “The land is filled with reminders of Native Americans who inhabited the place long ago: an old medicine wheel, a sun wheel, tipi rings, and of course, the cave. The sacredness of this place is tangible.”
Legendary Earthkeeper, shamanic practitioner and author Brooke Medicine Eagle began leading retreats at the Blacktail Ranch in the early 1990s, and for years, filled the entire summer schedule with workshops on shamanism, native ceremony and ritual, and sacred ecology. “Brooke Medicine Eagle led six Eagle Song Camps and vision quests every summer, and through word of mouth, we became known as a location for yoga retreats and deep spiritual workshops,” says Renner. “Pat Kennedy, a Cree elder, also held several encampments here to teach the ceremonial songs and dances to the next generation. We just honored the 20th anniversary of these encampments last summer.”
Guests wake to rooster crows and a stampede of hooves as the wranglers herd the horses from the pasture to the barn. They walk the uphill path to the yoga room, known as the Hogan—a traditional Navajo hut—and following several hours of yoga instruction and a hearty lunch, Burggraff leads guests on horseback to the cave, where they explore petroglyphs and meditate in the cool, damp earth. “We don’t own the land; the land owns us,” Renner says. “We just take care of it until the next person comes along who loves it enough to do the same.”
Big Sky Yoga: Yeehaw and Namasté
Margaret Burns Vap, founder of Big Sky Yoga Retreats, stands in the center of the round corral across from Java Bean, a bay Tennessee Walking Horse, who patiently awaits her cues. She turns her body towards his hindquarters and raises her right hand as he begins trotting to the left. “Stay focused on the horse,” Burns Vap instructs. “Horses move away from pressure; tune in to him and use subtle energetic cues and gestures to direct him.”
In 2007, Burns Vap sold her yoga studio in D.C. and moved to Montana, founding BSYR after recognizing the overlap between yoga and natural horsemanship. “I was taking riding lessons when I first moved out here, and the teachings reminded me so much of being a new yoga student,” Burns Vap says. “The importance of breath, of authenticity, of balance and mental clarity—I had this living breathing animal instead of a yoga mat, and I had to learn to speak his language through my own energy and intentions.”
At B-Bar Ranch in Emigrant, a picturesque property adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, guests practice yoga twice a day, learn to groom, ride and communicate with horses and enjoy the camaraderie of likeminded women. Nicole Ross signed up for her first Cowgirl Yoga retreat in 2012, and has since attended and taught horsemanship at more than 12 retreats. “During one of my first retreats, Charlie, the horse I'd bonded with since the beginning, was snoozing in the sun,” Ross remembers. “To my surprise, he allowed me to come right up to him, lie down in the grass and stroke his face; it was such a magical moment. This retreat was the catalyst for my later move to Bozeman and the purchase of my first horse, Remington.”
Amalia Cochran, a critical care surgeon from Salt Lake City, UT and veteran retreater, appreciates BSYR’s restorative energy without the sense of striving that can sometimes coincide with yoga studies. “I always walk away ‘better’ in some way,” says Cochran. “But that growth and improvement are just an organic feature of being present at the retreat.”
Together with a team of yoga instructors, healers, wranglers and chefs, BSYR creates a dedicated space for women to connect and rediscover themselves. In addition to Cowgirl Yoga, Burns Vap pairs yoga with hiking, photography, creative arts and fly fishing for summer retreats around Montana. “We take strength from each other, from the nature, the food,” says Burns Vap. “We go home to our families and our jobs, and we’re more in tune to what we need to live happy and fulfilled lives.”
Published in March 2018 by Distinctly Montana Magazine: http://digital.distinctlymontana.com/i/952842-distinctly-montana-spring-2018/47?m4=