I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover I had not lived.
–Henry David ThoreauAbove photo credit Erin Arvella –
Yoga at Sunset on the Summit above the Continental Divide #Feathered Pipe Ranch
I hear my father’s voice when I see the above quote by Henry David Thoreau. Somewhere in the background, I hear the bold sound track of The Pines of Rome. In the mid 1960s, my Dad took a sabbatical from teaching high school. He was awarded a John Hay Fellowship to study in a Masters program at Harvard. Our family of 5 ventured from home in a used Country Squire station wagon, filled with the belongings that would serve us for the year. On one very long day, we drove from our modest suburban Philadelphia home to Massachusetts to live in a 2 bedroom apartment in Cambridge.
In addition to his graduate studies, my Dad spent his free time documenting what life may have been like for the early American writers he discussed in his high school American Studies program. With Kodachrome slides, taped pieces of music, quoted writings of Thoreau and his contemporaries, Dad brought to life, through his unique multimedia presentation, the natural setting that those early American philosophers may have experienced. Lessons from Concord, Merrimack and Walden Pond shaped my preadolescent view of the world beyond suburban Philly.
That year was transformational for me. I was in an integrated elementary school. I saw my first hippie, with long hair and a guitar slung over his shoulder offering the sign of peace to all who passed him on Mass Ave. I listened to Dad’s former high school students discuss the state of the world and recount tales of their college life in Boston. I found joy in reading for pleasure, thanks to an inspirational 6th Grade teacher at The Peabody Elementary School. What I remember most, though, is the many early mornings we were rousted, pre-dawn, so Dad could capture seasonal sunrise photos at Walden Pond in all its splendor.
Those early morning treks through the woods were likely responsible for my summer escapes to Girl Scout Camp in the Poconos in subsequent years. I learned nature was to be appreciated. Quite honestly, though, as I matured into my teen years, I preferred living with modern conveniences. I couldn’t relate to Thoreau’s desire to live on his own surrounded by Nature. Sure, I loved a good sunrise or sunset over a body of water, an occasional walk in a park, but I didn’t like to deal with outhouses, camping and all sorts of critters that one encounters in an isolated natural setting.
Flash forward fifty plus years…as I approached my medicare birthday, an email pops into my inbox – one of my favorite yoga teachers, Judith Hanson Lasater is offering a Restorative Yoga Camp with her daughter, Lizzie, at a place called Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana. My husband, who was recovering from extended heart surgery, encouraged me to check it out and thought it would be a good retreat from the many months of worry, we had both endured.
As I read about the ranch, my thoughts took a turn – “I’m too old to take this type of vacation.” “It will be too rustic.” “I won’t be able to explore the area ’cause I can’t walk on uneven terrain.” “It’s been a really long time since I hung out with hippies.” An inner voice hushed those rants and said – “Go for it.”
I thought of Thoreau, who in addition to being an avid naturalist was an early adopter of yoga. He was 28 when he went to the woods. I’m 65. He went for two years, I’m only going for a week. He died at 45. I’m still alive and maybe I will live for another decade, or longer. An echo called to me… if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discovered I had not lived…
I signed up!
My week at the ranch offered many life lessons and several firsts. I accepted the challenge to release my time tethers – to not wear a watch or bring my iPhone everywhere. I shed my fear of exploring the wilderness after kind souls agreed to walk slowly with me through an unpaved hilly grassland to see the view of the continental divide at a summit which also overlooked the ranch. I woke at dawn to take silent hikes before breakfast. I felt the purification of release as I set a deep intention to live my life from a place of Love in a Cree Sweat Lodge ceremony. (How’s that for a hippie mantra?)
From my place of connection to stillness in this natural surrounding, a tentative voice awakened. It suggested what may be possible, rather than habitual mantras which chant what is no longer possible. As I opened to the ease that comes from stillness, I found myself releasing into a yoga pose which I had considered beyond my age and physical capability.
Back at home in suburban DC, my husband and I began to take walks in small wooded areas in our neighborhood. I continued to experiment with my yoga practice and reflect on the lessons I learned in restorative classes at the ranch. I’m blessed to share some of these lessons with my yoga students. The hushed whispers of the Pine and Aspens are miles away from me, but the lessons of stillness remain. I am grateful to have had this walk in the woods and lived this experience.