Pioneering international yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater reflects on the expansion of yoga in America, the unparalleled experience of motherhood and the memories that still make her smile after nearly 45 years of teaching at the Feathered Pipe Ranch.
After almost half a century of teaching yoga, I thought it’d be fun to reflect on how you discovered yoga and began this journey into the practice.
It was spring, and I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. I was walking along the drag—the university street with all the coffee shops, bookstores and restaurants—thinking about getting a job because I didn’t want to be a teaching assistant again. I walked by the YWCA, and the energy of the place literally just pulled me in.
I made a sudden right turn—what I now call “the right-hand turn that changed my life”—and I walked up to the desk and asked if they had any part-time job openings. Everyone stopped working and looked at me. One woman said, “We just got out of a staff meeting 10 minutes ago and decided we needed to hire a program associate. How did you know?”
I got the job and they had just started a yoga program, so I started taking yoga. About 10 months later, the yoga teachers were moving to Seattle, and they asked me to take over the program—with no formal training besides a tremendous love of yoga, a ton of reading and a dedicated daily practice. I taught from July to December then got married to Ike in January and moved to California, where I kept teaching yoga and went to physical therapy school at UCSF. In 1974, a group of us founded the Institute for Yoga Teacher Education, and in 1975, we started the Yoga Journal and held the first yoga retreat at the Feathered Pipe Ranch.
How did you know about the Ranch?
In those days, yoga wasn’t very popular, so when I moved to the Bay Area, it didn’t take long to meet everyone who did yoga. I befriended William Staniger, who knew India through Sai Baba, and he told me about India inheriting the Ranch and their plans to host yoga workshops. I already knew Heidi Goldman at the time, and we asked her boyfriend Tom Ryan to housesit while we went to Montana to teach a three-week workshop.
When Ike and I went back to Berkeley, he and Tom stayed up half the night talking about the Ranch. Several days later, Tom got in his old beat up pickup truck and drove to Montana and never left. He pretty much got out of the truck and started repairing things right away!
In Berkeley, I had also met a man named Paul Superak, who turned out to be Laughing Water. We became good friends and he eventually moved into our spare bedroom. We were up in the Berkeley hills to watch the full eclipse of the moon on Buddha’s birthday, and we invited him to come to the Ranch. He agreed and said he could come be the cook. So we took him with us that summer and he also never left. He started the Real Food Store, married India and together they had Crystal! Life works in magical ways like that.
Quick rewind: Can you tell me more about the creation of the Yoga Journal?
Ike and I were on the board of a local organization called the California Yoga Teachers Association, and at this time, there were not specialty magazines for every craft or industry like there are now. Ike got this idea that we should have a yoga magazine, so he said to the board, “Anybody who’s interested in helping make a yoga magazine, come to our house on Sunday afternoon.”
We met in our living room—Jean Gerardo, William Staniger, Janice Paulsen, Ike and I. None of us had done a magazine before, but nobody told us we couldn’t do it. Plus, Janice Paulson had this new shiny thing called a MasterCard with a $500 limit, so that’s how we started the Yoga Journal and ran it out of the house in San Francisco where William worked on Holistic Life Institute—the organization that later became Feathered Pipe Foundation. William was the editor; he and Janice did the layout. I wrote the asana column, and we started sending it to people on the California Yoga Teachers Association mailing list.
The Ranch, Holistic Life Foundation and Yoga Journal formed a tripod, a three-legged stool of sorts—all helping each other to raise awareness for yoga and increase access to the teachings that we believed in and benefited from. We were a bunch of kids figuring it out, and we all had our hands in multiple ventures in those days, building many things that had never been attempted before.
I imagine you’ve witnessed a great deal of change in the yoga scene since 1975. What, if anything, has remained the same throughout the decades?
Well, the Ranch itself is a great example of the preservation of yoga in its entirety. The heart of the Ranch has never changed. The love, the way your heart feels when you turn off the highway onto Colorado Gulch Road, eventually circling around and seeing the beautiful lake and the lodge. The land hasn’t been spoiled or commercialized; it’s still rustic chic. Now, although it seems like everyone does yoga—and defines it as the physical postures—the Feathered Pipe has held onto the idea of yoga as service, devotion, meditation, as well as asana and ceremony. When the boom of the industry has led to practice that’s, as we say in Texas, “a mile wide and an inch deep,” the teachers and teachings at the Ranch help us dig a deep well and take our yoga off the mat.
One of my favorite stories that gives people an idea of the peace found at the Ranch: One summer afternoon, I was walking up to the teacher’s cabin, and I passed by the honeymoon cabin, which had a couch on an open porch in those days. I saw something on the couch, and as I got closer, I realized it was a deer, sound asleep with its head on the armrest and its feet stretched straight out toward the road. Of course it was before cell phone cameras, so I just stood there drinking it in. I’ve told a lot of people about it, and some don’t believe me because they can’t even imagine that kind of tranquility.
I also reflect on memories of Tuffy Ananda, a kitten that India found in the garbage in town. He grew into a massive black cat with big yellow eyes, and he was the most amazing cat I’ve ever met. You could hold him up under his arms and he would hang down, his entire body totally relaxed. After dinner each night, Laughing Water and I had a ritual to walk around the lake three times, and Tuffy walked with us every night, the entire route.
India, Laughing Water, Tom and Heidi—those who were there in the beginning and those who came later—can take a lot of the credit for this place. There’s a core group of people who’ve really held the vision of the Ranch—board members, people who have given time and money and their love to preserve the essence. It’s really a strong community that has always stepped up when needed.
Tell me more about your relationship with India over the years.
India is like a sister to me. We’ve had so many adventures together, but one of the most wonderful experiences has been raising our babies together and being mothers at the same time. India had Crystal in September 1977, and I had my first child, Miles, in October. Every summer, I brought Miles, Kam and Lizzie after they were born, and they grew up with Crystal, Winter and Josh. It was such a fruitful environment for children, where people were focused on their higher values and there was a community and we were free to be curious about the world.
Later in our lives, India and I would talk about how special it was to have our daughters involved in the work we do. It’s an incredible mystery of life because you can’t make somebody take a particular path, no matter how much you want them to follow in your footsteps. Especially with yoga and spiritual practice, the whole power of the practice is choosing it. To watch Lizzie and Crystal and Winter grow up through the Ranch then decide to get involved in this work is beyond wonderful.
My friendship with India felt more like family, and her kids and grandkids feel like godchildren. In 2021, Lizzie will bring her boys to the Ranch, and they’ll be talking a bit by then and big enough to sit in the boat with a life vest and make everyone smile. I can’t wait to introduce them to this extended family.
Throughout your career, you’ve taught all over the world. What makes the Feathered Pipe Ranch different than other retreat centers?
The retreats at the Ranch are smaller than the others I teach, so I can really give ample time and attention and props to each student. Yoga practice is important, but it doesn’t have to be so serious—above all, I want people to have a good time.
We have a morning class from 9:30am – 12:15pm then take a break, lie on the grass, take a nap, read a book until our late-afternoon restorative class. Then we have dinner and a few evening programs like a teacher’s Q&A, story sharing and always a talent show the Friday night before people leave. Some people actually have phenomenal talent, but everyone can do silly things—tell jokes, make flower arrangements, perform skits, play music, sing opera. It’s the easiest audience you’ll ever have because we’ve all had an amazing week, and we’re full of chocolate cake and delicious dinner and smiling from ear-to-ear. It’s like summer camp for grown ups where yoga is the base and you have a space to take refuge.
This place really brings people together in such a special way. I remember five or six years ago, two students were sitting at dinner at one of my retreats and after a short conversation, they figured out that they were third cousins!
Another time, I was teaching in Alaska, and after my workshop, I went on a rafting trip with a longtime student and friend who I originally met at the Ranch (and had been coming to my workshops for at least 10 years). Our rafting guide asked us how we knew each other, and we told him we met through yoga. He replied, “My girlfriend teaches yoga. She learned at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Helena, Montana.”
We started laughing so hard. Here we were, floating down a river in middle-of-nowhere Alaska, and the common thread between us all was the tiny retreat center in central Montana. That’s when you start to truly realize the Ranch’s influence on the world—and I’ve always been grateful to be a part of it.
*Special thanks to freelance writer Andy Vantrease for doing this interview!