Feathered Pipe Ranch

»The perfect all-round yoga retreat in Big Sky country«


When a small group of vegetarian, yoga-practicing, self-confessed hippies arrived in the 1970s Montana, the red-meat eating cowboy locals were understandably suspicious. Decades later, the Feathered Pipe Ranch is one of the region's main attractions, offering peace, reflection and world-class yoga against the forested backdrop of Big Sky country.

  • What we love
  • The million acres of national forest surrounding the ranch
  • Broad range of accommodation, from dorm to deluxe
  • Add-on activities, e.g. massage and horse-back riding
  • The total dedication of staff to yoga and guests
  • Great value for money
  • What to know
  • Slow Internet, spotty cell phone coverage and no TV
  • Privacy of visiting celebrities highly respected
  • Yurts are the most popular accommodation - book well in advance
  • Why go
  • More than 35 years of experience running great yoga retreats
  • Arguably the best yoga retreat in the United States
  • Flawless yoga getaway, all details attended to

Feathered Pipe Ranch was once a broke hippie hideaway in the cowboy stronghold of Montana. Now it's a favored hangout for stressed celebrities as well as more ordinary folk escaping the tweets and pings of a workaday world. The ranch specializes in stemming the tide of modern stress, one breath at a time. India Supera, founder and visionary of Feathered Pipe, succinctly illustrates modern living with its frenetic multi-tasking and constant attention to the future rather than the present. “If you don't think you're addicted to speed, try using a rotary phone.”

Although anyone who can’t quite give up speed-dial will have some scattered cell phone coverage, and Wi-Fi is available in most of the main areas, these are considered necessary tools rather than routine distractions. No radios or TV fill the crisp mountain air with chattering noise pollution. In fact, the most common noises are birdsong, wind in the trees, and the low, happy laughter of relaxed guests.

Tucked serenely in almost a million acres of national forest, Feathered Pipe is a testament to the patience and faith of its owners. The ranch buildings retain their log-cabin origins, although the fittings have been tastefully updated and modernized. The grounds are tended, but in a way that is an homage to the surrounding wilderness rather than an imposition of unrelated aesthetics. Even the banister of the spiral staircase in the main building is a complete tree, its growth gently shaped over 20 years to perfectly fit the many hands that have crossed it.

The ranch is something of a doorway to a pristine natural environment that is unmatched in the world. Feathered Pipe is often used as a kind of basecamp for dedicated hikers - there are literally days’ worth of trails snaking out in every direction - and there is very little except wilderness between Yellowstone National Park (3 hours drive south) and Glacier National Park (3 hours drive north). The location of Feathered Pipe alone makes it a must-visit retreat.

Feathered Pipe has always been a pioneer in the yoga world. They were really the first to bring asana to the United States in a structured and meaningful way. Ranch retreats are run by The Feathered Pipe Foundation, a non-profit offering scholarships for those with financial need for sometimes life-changing workshops like the Veteran’s Yoga Project. The core group of people who began Feathered Pipe were also instrumental in the creation of the California Yoga Teachers Association (which later founded the widely-read Yoga Journal) and the Institute for Yoga Teacher Education which later became the Iyengar Institute. This is more than a yoga retreat. It’s a movement.

This wasn’t always strictly the case, however. For a few years in the early 2000s, while Feathered Pipe was doing what it does best (bringing yoga to the lives of anyone who is drawn to the ranch), it became apparent that the world was moving on. More recently the retreat has shaken off the Savasana and once again taken its place at the leading edge of the yoga world. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying yoga simply because, as yoga great Eric Schiffman says “it makes your butt look good,” the Western world now understands asana and is ready to move deeper. Co-Executive Director Melissa McNair describes this deeper approach as “conversations about yoga” that go beyond simple dialogue and into considerations of where yoga can be woven into deeply personal and powerful tools for the individual. JV Bennett, also a Co-Executive Director, notes: “We ask ourselves: rather than recapture a ‘pure’ existing principle [of yoga], how do we make space for evolution and organic growth?” The answer is in a return to a greater diversity of programs such as shamanism and a deeper understanding of yogic living. “Feathered Pipe for most of its history had a wider spectrum of topics in its offerings with yoga as a prominent share of that. Regaining that spectrum and looking for the deeper conversations in yoga is where we're heading.”

All retreats run for 5 - 7 days, and each has a specific theme. Names like ‘The Music of Yoga, The Yoga of Music’ give an indication of the retreat's focus and all further information is given on Feathered Pipe's comprehensive and user-friendly website. Each retreat is led by an instructor who specializes in that theme, whether it is yoga to treat chronic illness, yoga as a tool for overcoming depression, or yoga as a means to achieving everyday happiness. The styles vary, from the occasional Iyengar or Vinyasa Flow retreat to the more usual general Hatha. Many of these are unabashedly New Age courses, counterbalancing other Feathered Pipe offerings that bring scientific rationale into the study of yoga and related fields.

Retreats take place either on the grounds of Feathered Pipe or very occasionally at Blacktail Ranch - an affiliated, similar ranch nearby. The average retreat-only cost is around US$100 per day. An extra fee is attached to an accommodation and food package, priced according to the accommodation style chosen, all of which are on the grounds of Feathered Pipe. The least expensive option is a dorm-style bed in the main building. The most expensive option is the deluxe Honeymoon Cabin tucked privately away in the forest but within easy reach of the steamy bathhouse and sauna. The most popular choice is a bed in a yurt, a traditional Mongolian tent-like structure that – in a departure from Mongolian tradition – is topped with a glass dome rather than an opening, letting in the morning sun and offering a clear view of Montana's star-speckled night sky. Yurts sleep two and are completely sealed from the elements.

All retreats at or near Feathered Pipe are summer retreats only. The harsh Montana winter does not lend itself well to peaceful reflection, so the on-site season runs only from May through September. This doesn't mean waiting for summer to participate in the Feathered Pipe schedule, however. Winter retreats are organized by Feathered Pipe, and conducted in locations as exotic as Mexico, Costa Rica, Ireland, and the Himalayas.

Feathered Pipe Ranch goes against the modern tide of some yoga retreats. Their focus is always on the outcome – inner harmony and peace – rather than the superficial trappings of looking good in Lycra or making a bundle of cash. This has been their way for over 35 years and if the number of repeat visitors is anything to judge by, their way is working extremely well as they evolve and refine their style. They've graduated from the Woodstock-era mantra of Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. These days the mantra is more likely to be Turn off the cellphone, Tune Inward, Drop into Child Pose... with subtly uplifting results for all who pass through their doors.

About the area: Helena

Helena is the sleepy former capital of the American Goldrush Era. Now in many ways it feels frozen in time, with its quaint shopfronts and activities centering around baseball games, barbecue, hay rides and family-oriented carnivals. Year-end winters are picturesque when viewed from behind double-glazed windows and a large mug of hot chocolate, but outside can be a well-below freezing experience. Spring and mid-year summers are the most popular time to visit, when the mercury settles somewhere between a pleasant 20 degrees C (68F) and a sweltering 35 degrees C (95F). This is cowboy country and the number of horse-back riding trails, hiking trails and ranches are a testament to the outdoor-loving, outdoor-living local history. Not an area for nightclubbers, this is nonetheless one of the country's most unspoiled natural treasures, and well-deserving of its reputation as an ideal location for anyone seeking tranquility and the tangy smell of truly clean air.

Image credit: Feathered Pipe Ranch

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