Heidi Goldman, member of the core founding group and former director of yoga programs for the Feathered Pipe Foundation, was hugely instrumental in making the Feathered Pipe Ranch an epicenter for the exploration and distillation of yoga in America. Heidi reflects on the early days at the Ranch, where her dreams of bringing body and heart-centered teachings to the world were inspired and facilitated.
Tell me how you discovered yoga—or rather, how yoga discovered you?
My mother took me to my first yoga class in 1968 with Debbie Kahan. I was 16 and it just touched all these different places—the movement, the spiritual component. I enjoyed it but I kind of put it in my back pocket. A few years later, I went off to study graphic arts and photography at Emerson College in Boston, and one night I took a class at the Unitarian Church in Harvard Square. The teacher’s name was John—people always remember their first yoga teachers because they have such a big impact on you. When he put us into savasana, I sunk deep, deep into myself, and when I came out of that, I thought, “Oh, my God. This is it. There’s a way to get to this other dimension, this feeling, without using substances or anything external.”
From then on, yoga was such a big part of my life. I did an exchange program with the San Francisco Art Institute to finish my bachelor’s degree, and that’s where I met Judith Lasater, Rama Jyoti Vernon, Felicity Hall, Ramanand Patel, Laughing Water and many others who became my teachers and friends. The year after I graduated college, I lived at Rama Jyoti’s guesthouse, helped out with her kids and took every class I could find—asana, chanting, dharma talks by visiting Swamis. I immersed myself in yoga.
In 1975, a core group of us started the Yoga Journal, and I was able to use my art background as a photographer along with Chris Wentworth, which was very fun. They also began the first ever yoga teacher training at the California Yoga Teacher’s Association (CYTA)—what later became the Iyengar Yoga Institute of California—and I graduated in the first class of teachers. We were all so new to it, the guinea pigs, yet I knew it’s what I wanted to do with my life.
Where did the Ranch enter into the scene?
My boyfriend at the time, Tom Ryan, went to Montana to be the caretaker of the property, and having been inspired by Judith, I had gone to Connecticut to study Physical Therapy. I wanted the scientific background with plenty of anatomy and physiology if I was going to make yoga my career. Well, Tom was writing me letters and telling me all about the amazing Ranch, how everyone is huddled around the woodstove planning and dreaming. I was trying my hardest to stick to my plan of school, but it really felt like the world was waiting for me.
Around Thanksgiving, I took my mother’s car without her knowing, and drove it to the hotel, left it there with the keys on the seat, and hopped a plane to Montana. I put it all on a credit card, and told her after I was gone where she could find her car! That was a short trip and I had to return home for a family emergency that winter, but I ended up back at the Ranch full time in the Spring of 1976. I was 24 years old when I decided to say goodbye to PT school and take up my dream of making yoga full time.
What was your role at the Feathered Pipe and how did it support your devotion to yoga?
I helped run the kitchen for the first two years or so—creating recipes and menus, shopping for food, scheduling staff shifts and retreat offerings, cooking, cleaning, washing dishes. Anything that needed to be done, I was there and willing to take it on. It’s not like I had experience, but Gail Wilson was a fabulous cook and manager, and I was brought up in a business-minded family, so I knew how to keep a tight budget. We all had a huge heart for service, too. India and I were always teased because we never thought there was enough food for the guests, and fifteen minutes before each meal we’d be trying to add to the menus. Of course, if you’ve ever been to the Ranch, you know there is always more than enough food! It was a silly shared paranoia, and the others would aim to keep us out of the kitchen until after the meals had been served.
I also lead workshops in those first several years—I’d teach yoga, India would teach foot reflexology and healing, and Laughing Water shared his extensive knowledge and passion for nutrition. Eventually, sometime around 1978 or so, I completely shifted out of the kitchen and became the co-director of Holistic Life Seminars with Jim Hess, which was part of Holistic Life Foundation (before the Feathered Pipe Foundation name). The following year I started my own portion of the ranch programs, booking yoga teachers through a business I called Yoga Vacations and Professional Training Seminar Services. India still ran the alternative programs like the Joseph Campbell’s and John Lily’s—she loved the esoteric teachings—and together, we offered a lot of fun programs.
Things were simple back then: We advertised in the Yoga Journal, East West Times, New Age Journal and Vegetarian Times. Laughing Water helped me write the copy for brochures and mailings because he understood advertising and was a great writer. I invited my teachers and friends who were originally Iyengar teachers then we moved into other traditions like Ashtanga with Richard Freeman and Beryl Bender Burch. The teacher would bring 25 people and we’d get 25 more people—and the retreats were full of eager guests ready to deepen their relationships to themselves and each other.
An important part of the job, for me, was being a hostess presence in the room and experiencing the programs firsthand, so I’d be able to attend to the guests and teachers—and because I’m a workshop junkie and lifelong student! I was pretty much in the yoga room eight hours a day, four months a year, from 1976-1990. It was a fabulous position to be in, to see what teachers were doing, the similarities and differences between philosophies, approaches, styles of communicating, catching on to the trends as new research surfaced.
I gained so much knowledge there, made so many connections with lovely people, and got to be a part of group that was truly committed to people’s wellbeing. India introduced me to Sai Baba’s teachings early on. I owe her so much and am honored to have worked alongside this amazing, wonderful, courageous, and spiritually-devoted woman. Words can’t express the respect and love I have for India. Because of my Sai Baba connect and India’s influence, I developed a strong mediation practice and Bhakti practice during that time, too. It was all so enriching, and we followed our curiosities. We were on the cutting edge and kept the most amazing company—Judith Hanson Lasater, Rama Jyoti Vernon, Angela Farmer, John Friend, Patricia Walden, John Schumacher and so many others of all yoga traditions. What a dream, right?
It does sound ideal! How have those practices continued to influence your life?
When I parted ways from the Ranch in the formal sense, I wanted to bring the teachings of yoga to a wider audience, specifically to the blue-collar, working class. So, I took everything I learned and started a business focusing on ergonomics, back injury prevention and safety. I never dared to call it yoga, because at the time, that word was associated only with yogis, but everything I taught was based on safe and healthy body mechanics and movements from my trainings. One time, a man came up to me after a training I was giving at a mining company and said, “You know, this is kind of like yoga.” And I lost sleep that night because I thought I’d be “found out,” trying to bring this practice of yoga to the masses! Back then, it wasn’t as accepted as it is now, you know.
No matter what I called it, the limbs of yoga—the movements, the self-inquiry, the devotion, the philosophy—have always shaped my life. What I learned all those years at the Ranch, and what I continue to explore, is how yoga can bring out the parts of me that are asking to be expressed. I’m a type-A person and my practice used to be fiery, rigid and very physically challenging, but over time, I gravitated toward a practice that complemented the softer, receptive side of me. I want my yoga practice to cultivate the inner child, to call upon the inner wisdom, the quiet, the peace, the balance so I can bring that into my everyday life. I’m interested in how to experience freedom without having to struggle through pain and discomfort and strict alignments, to experience peace in a more natural and easeful way. These days, that looks like props, breath work, exercise balls of many different sizes and fullness (I call this YES! Yoga), and using balloons to support my body.
Each time I come to my personal practice or I’m teaching a class, I have to ask, “Who is it that’s coming to the mat today? What do I need?” I could have an entire sequence lined up, but if I sink down and realize that my neck is tweaked from sleeping funny the night before, it’s up to me to explore that and adapt my practice to be gentle in that area. Before I know it, I could be doing an entirely different sequence than I originally planned. Not only is that okay, but it’s necessary to adapt, to notice the change and to bring that exact sentiment into life as events unfold outside of our control. To be receptive to the unknown and the mystery of life.
The only commitment is to begin. And begin again. And again.
That’s a beautiful lesson—and as timely as ever. Before we wrap up, can you share one memory of the Ranch that makes you smile to this day?
Oh, let’s see… there are so many funny memories from those days at the Ranch. Stories of group fastings and detoxes with different nutritionists and doctors that came through—we had weird diets because we were always experimenting. The day that my son Sean and a retreat group got stuck on the river with Tom McBride—that was eventful.
You know, one thing that made the Ranch special was that we were blessed with wonderful, knowledgeable teachers who also liked to have fun and be silly: I remember one year going to class and there in the middle of the lake was the “Loch Ness Monster” and a blow-up Dinosaur raft. George Purvis and Dean Learner had put them there, for laughs and for horsing around between sessions. We always found ways to have fun, and the Ranch made that so easy.
Another year, it rained the entire summer except for four days—OY! Each day I thought it can’t possibly rain again… but it did. We had people sleeping in tipis and tents, and we were drying sleeping bags often that summer. The people who stayed outside were hearty and knew to expect anything, but it was hard on India and I and the staff because we always wanted it to be sweet and smooth for our guests.
Montana, and the Ranch especially, is a magical place in so many ways. I feel so lucky to have raised my kids Sean and Aimee there and to have been a part of a place that really was one of the first designated yoga retreat centers in the country. Me, Tom, India, Laughing Water and many, many others put our hearts and souls into it, and I love it just as much now as I did then.
The Ranch is a part of me and always will be—a love that runs deep, deep into my bones.
*Special thanks to freelance writer Andy Vantrease for doing this interview!