Thursday, January 14, 2010

Living Your Yoga @ Mount Madonna Center

Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., P.T., led a four day yoga retreat from January 8-12, 2010 at Mount Madonna Center in Watsonville, California.  My expression of joy and gratitude for the gift of attending this retreat is contained herein.

I.  The Encapsulated Experience

The "Living Your Yoga" retreat was based in part on Judith's book, A Year of Living Your Yoga.  Those of us who attended experienced both refuge and stimulation of the mind, body and spirit in a uniquely supportive and nourishing environment.  The expertise and insight of Judith Lasater and her gifted colleagues blended harmoniously with the enlightened mission of the Mount Madonna Center, providing an extraordinary opportunity for holistic restoration. 

II.  Personal Perspective

I came into the retreat as a relative neophyte.  My own experience with yoga consists of a decade of sporadic gym yoga classes in NYC and Paris as a younger woman, one excellent pre-natal yoga class at a reputable studio in Brooklyn, then more recently 4 months of regular attendance at Vinyasa and Hatha yoga classes at New York Sports Clubs.  Gym yoga has been a convenient option for me since I have a one-year old and a three-year old and my gym has child care options.  I have practiced at home with DVDs, yet have not had the option of premium, individualized instruction.  I chose the "Living Your Yoga" retreat based on Judith's outstanding credentials and longstanding reputation as a teacher of yoga, East/West psychology and spirituality, kinesiology and the fundamentals of health and healing.  Even through my brief experience with gym yoga, I have noticed significant improvements in my energy levels, immune system and musculoskeletal function.  When my husband offered me a personal getaway as a Christmas present, I chose a yoga retreat rather than a spa experience or a silent retreat.  I love any opportunity to travel and the natural beauty of the Santa Cruz Mountains enticed me.  I booked the retreat within a day of his kind offer.  Bless his soul for providing me with the opportunity!

III.  Judith Lasater

You can find a wealth of information on Judith's background, teachings, writings and schedule on her website,  As quoted from one of her informational retreat cards, "Judith Hanson Lasater holds a Ph.D. in East-West psychology and is a physical therapist.  She has been teaching yoga since 1971 and is the author of eight books, including Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana."

Judith radiates an uplifting persona and energy.  She is a powerful presence.  Like many gifted women, she is brilliant yet relentlessly self-deprecating.  Personally, I relish self-deprecating humor.  For me, Judith's distinguishing characteristic was her immediate ability to penetrate the surface of a student in order to confront that student's obstacles head-on.  She possesses the spirit of a warrior in a female body, with the acquired ability to harness her razor sharp insight so that it edifies rather than cripples her students.  For example, after Judith adjusted me in a particular asana and I thanked her for showing me the "correct" asana, she informed me that she doesn't like to use words such as "correct" because of the implication that someone else is "incorrect" or wrong.  Judith managed to work this little piece of wisdom into the group instruction, while looking right at me: "You know how we bomb people with our minds?  Do you ever do that?  You can be driving along and someone cuts you off, and you bomb that person with your mind."  I understood her message this way; believing firmly that we are right about something can cause violent thoughts, actions and words to arise.  Bombing people with my mind is undoubtedly my greatest fault.  Did I just write "undoubtedly?"  Oh well.  Thank you, Judith. 

As I told Carol Banquer, one of Judith's longtime friends I happened to meet in the hot tub one afternoon, Judith has managed to balance 1) high level analytical reasoning and 2) intuitive knowledge that originates from the heart.  This is a rare and precious quality.  I aspire to attain it one day.  Carol told me, "she has a few years on you." 

True power calls for equilibrium between authority and deference, with a slight penchant for authority. Having navigated years of motherhood, marriage and professional achievement with a high degree of success, Judith has earned true power. 

IV. Program Messages

A significant portion of Judith's teaching focused on anatomy and kinesiology.  A good number of nurses, physical therapists and yoga teachers attended the retreat for continuing education.  Since my academic background is in literature and law, the anatomy lectures caused my eyes to glaze over a bit.  However, I do remember the term, "acetabulum" and I will try to adjust myself to maximize the fit between convexity and concavity.  I truly wish that my athletic DPT sister-in-law could have teleported into these lectures. 

In addition to teaching active and restorative asanas, the remainder of Judith's instruction focused on spiritual and psychological principles that help us to reach a place of peace and self-love, or as Judith would say, "positive unconditional self regard."  I will list a few of her quotes and insights.  First of all, our mantra at the beginning of each class was, "Yoga citta vrtti nirodah," which translates as "Yoga is the resolution of the agitations of the mind."  One quote she gave us originated from another spiritual teacher, Yvonne Rand, a Soto Zen priest: "Does what I'm about to do take care of myself?"  I found that one to be particularly helpful.  To assist us in the arena of our relationships, Judith advised us thus: "Translate everything everyone says to you as "please" or "thank you."  As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, "how wonderful" if we could manage to do this.  Along these same lines, Judith gave us an enlightened elaboration of this sound bit of counsel: "Stop giving advice."  Don't you just love the irony of advising people to stop giving advice?  I do love the irony, and I definitely need to stop giving advice.  On a very healthy and practical note, Judith challenged us to go to bed 30 minutes earlier each night to address the huge problem of sleep deprivation in our culture.  My favorite original quote that Judith imparted to us was, "how human of me!"  As I have been told in the past by lay Buddhist instructors, we would be wise to accept all of our thoughts, feelings and actions as they arise rather than entering into a negative cycle of judgment.  Inevitably, we are going to experience thoughts, perform actions and speak words that later disappoint us.  Not one of us is perfect.  Since I have been saying, "how human of me," I am feeling much better about myself. 

V. Mount Madonna Center

The Mount Madonna Center is an integrated creative and spiritual community covering 355 acres of the Santa Cruz Mountains between Gilroy and Watsonville, California.  The community is inspired by Baba Hari Dass and sponsored by the Hanuman Fellowship.  For detailed information and photos, please visit the website at

Baba Hari Dass is a monk and master yogi who has lived in the United States since 1971.  He was born in 1923 near Almora, India in the state of Uttarakhand which borders Tibet on the north and Nepal on the east.  He was classically trained in the traditions of Ashtanga Yoga and has maintained a vow of silence since 1952.  According to some of the community members I met during the retreat at the center, he began his spiritual quest at the age of six.  Baba Hari Dass is more commonly known to the Mount Madonna community members as "Baba-ji."  He communicates with a chalkboard.  He has authored many books himself, and he agreed to mentor a pregnant student, Jeannine Parvati, so that she could continue practicing asanas in spite of the traditional male yogic proscriptions against it.  As a result, the first book in the Western world on prenatal yoga was published in 1974, Prenatal Yoga and Natural Childbirth.  Baba-ji is now living at the Mount Madonna Center and presides over philosophy classes there.  I was told that if I approached him for a mantra, I may have the opportunity to receive one the following day.  Unfortunately I did not get the chance to see Baba-ji during the retreat, and honestly I am probably not spiritually developed enough to have fully appreciated his presence.  Perhaps I will see him some day in the future and have the honor of asking him for a mantra. 

The founding principle of the Mount Madonna Center is selfless service, hence all of the community members cooperate, volunteering their individual efforts and time to foster an effective environment for yogic practice, spiritual development, ecological preservation, education and hospitality.  I noticed many single community members earning certification to teach yoga, massage or a Master's degree in Ayurvedic medicine.  Additionally, I saw families with children living in the community and noticed that there was a school for kindergarten through high school aged children.  Every community member I met spoke to me readily about his or her own experience and answered my questions about the community's shared values.  I felt very welcome and safe during my stay. 

Three notable highlights of the visit were the Kaya Kalpa Wellness Center, the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple and the Oaks Cabins. 

The Kaya Kalpa Wellness Center provides high quality holistic health, massage and body treatments based on Ayurvedic medicinal principles.  I received an Abhyanga massage with a Marma point face add-on.  My treatment lasted nearly two hours and was exceptionally balancing and therapeutic.  As I learned, Ayurvedic massage uses a large quantity of oil, but in spite of the amount of product used, the extensive experience of the therapist and the duration of the treatment, I was charged the customary price of a one hour Swedish massage with an add-on in the New York area (where I currently live).  This is a definite incentive to return! 

The Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple is a sacred place of worship used primarily by the residents of the community and many Hindu visitors, although it is open to the public.  As the name implies, the temple is dedicated to Hanuman, a Hindu deity.  Hanuman is sometimes referred to as The Monkey God.  I was told that his primary quality is selfless service, as reflected in the values of the Mount Madonna Center.  As a visitor, I was invited to attend two daily services, one at 6:30 a.m. and the other at 6:00 p.m.  I attended three of the evening services.  These were joyful experiences of praise and worship of the Divine, complete with various musical instruments and beautiful bells hanging at multiple points across the entrance, perimeter and covering of the open air temple.  I especially enjoyed ringing the bells.  I also sang, or attempted to sing songs of praise which had been thoughtfully written out in the English alphabet with various accent marks to assist in pronunciation.  I was invigorated and inspired by these rhythmic chants, which I believe were the Hanuman Arati.  I plan to buy a CD containing the Hanuman Arati and the Hanuman Chalisa.  At the end of the service, everyone was invited to receive the tilak forehead mark and to partake of the Prasad, which consisted of sweet foods placed into the hands to be immediately consumed.  We were then invited to partake of blessed fruit from a large basket.  I interpreted this as receiving the bounty provided for us by the Divine following our material offerings along with our offerings of prayer and worship.  I loved the beauty and simplicity of the service and appreciated being allowed into a Hanuman temple as a woman since this is apparently forbidden in traditional Hindu practice. 

The Oaks Cabins are one of the lodging options for visitors to Mount Madonna Center.  Rather than sleeping in a dormitory with an indoor kitchen and plumbing, I chose a single cabin.  I was very pleased with this choice.  My cabin had hardwood floors and a lovely wood vaulted ceiling.  It contained two firm single beds with comfortable bed linens.  The cabin had indoor and outdoor lighting along with baseboard heating controlled by a thermostat.  There was a shared bath house within short walking distance of the cabins complete with very clean toilets, sinks, showers and herbal bath products.  Since I enjoy camping, this was more than comfortable for me.  I saw deer walking around my cabin daily and enjoyed hiking up and down the trail leading to and from the central buildings.  In my opinion, even a non-camper would enjoy the Oaks Cabins. 

Anyone can visit the Mount Madonna Center for a personal or family retreat and I highly recommend it. 

VI.  Attendees

In my final section, I would like to thank not only Judith Lasater, her assisting teachers and the members of the Mount Madonna Center, but also everyone else who participated in the retreat with me.  I met some extraordinarily bright, open and entertaining people.  I will list a few of them along with their professional web links. 

  • Michele Sahm, of Healthy Styles Inc. 
Michele is a beautiful, energetic mother, wife and business woman I met at the first retreat dinner.  I will not tell her age, but I would have never guessed that she was older than I am!  She is the National Marketing Director for JuicePlus+ and her website is  Michele was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis as a young woman, and it was through her child's pediatrician that she discovered the natural alternative health products she now sells.  She was fortunate enough to have Dr. William Sears as her family pediatrician.  As many of you know, Dr. Sears, along with his two pediatrician sons, are brilliant innovators in pediatric medicine and William Sears a.k.a. Dr. Bill founded the now widely popular philosophy of Attachment Parenting.  When Dr. Sears recommended JuicePlus+ products to Michele, she was hooked and has been taking them ever since to treat her RA.  In addition, she is savvy about nutrition and like me, she practices Vinyasa yoga as one of several yogic practices.  Her new vision is to open her own studio after getting certified to teach yoga.  To watch her practice the asanas, one would already believe her to be a teacher.  What amazes me is that she has achieved this level of physical health and balance after many years of living with RA. 

  • Sonja Bjelland, Editor/Founder of
Sonja's new website, is a brand spanking new enterprise dedicated to guiding seekers of yoga, spa and wellness retreats to the perfect getaway.  Her business card reads, "Find Your Escape."  Sonja attended my undergraduate alma mater for journalism school: The University of Missouri-Columbia (Mizzou-Rah!)  Now that is one elite J-School.  Ever heard of the Mizzou-Mafia?  If not, ask around the industry.  Ms. Bjelland is currently taking time out of the journalism world to start up her new site.  I love her vision, so I plan to do some East Coast volunteer research for her since she currently resides in SoCal. 

  • Judy McNeely, co-founder of
Judy co-founded a web business with her husband Dennis assisting prospective college students to connect with their unique gifts, talents and desires, ultimately leading them to a good college and a well-suited career path.  I immediately connected with Judy since she was wearing a tee-shirt that read, "Comment vous sentez- vous aujourd'hui?"  We began conversing in French and I discovered that Judy was formerly a French me!  We got some stares, but that was fine with us.  Judy started up following her retirement from teaching.  She said some flattering and uplifting words to me that I will not forget.  I told her that in my opinion her spiritual gift is the edification of others.  Everyone can see her open heart in her smile, and I would have loved the benefit of her guidance when I made my first choice of vocation.  She revealed her vision for me: teaching law and French in high school!  I have worked as a lawyer and taught French in college, yet her idea is a better fit for me as a mother.  In spite of Judy's suggestion, writing is the next career that I plan to manifest.  An example of Judy's ever-young spirit: we shared the comical and exhilarating experience of hiking in a dense fog in the dark with one small LED flashlight.  Her comment to me the next day was, "Last night was a blast!"  I told her how I loved "night hiking" back in high school. 

In parting, I cannot fail to mention Kirsten Ferries, a soulful and kind non-profit professional and volunteer, who also happens to be a mother and wife...AND... the endlessly entertaining Mr. Kam Mofid, the film buff, engineer and former executive who never failed to work a movie line into any conversation.  Thanks to Kam, I learned a bit about Zoroastrianism and Iranian culture as well as green technology and off-the-beaten-path travel ideas.  One of the high points of my retreat was a pre-breakfast hike with Kirsten and Kam to a nearby Buddhist monastery. 

I hope to see some or all of my new retreat friends again, and I will think fondly of them as I recover from what Judith Lasater calls "retreat syndrome."  Clearly, if you are looking for an excellent yoga workshop, seek out Judith Lasater, Mount Madonna, or both!  If you do find a good retreat, make sure you tell Sonja Bjelland about it:

Signing off as a California dreamer planted here in New York,


Michelle Garrison Hough

P.S., please enjoy the following photos of Judith, her assistants, classroom instruction and some gorgeous views from Mount Madonna:


  1. cool. glad it was fun! hopefully you feel more centered, as they say in yoga talk. -jenna

  2. It was great to meet you! Hope you enjoyed the rest of the program!

  3. Thank you for this exuberant personal view of the retreat, and a nice summary of its features.
    I just wanted to slightly adjust the quote from Yvonne Rand so that it reflects what I remember as its main strength: "Does what I am about to do include taking care of myself." I think the word "include" is vital here, as women,in particular, often find they are considering everyone else but themselves. This allows us to think of others, but put ourselves firmly in the picture too.

  4. Michelle-

    I am so honored to be reading your amazing descriptive write up! Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a beautiful piece on the yoga retreat at Mt. Madonna. You have a gift for words.

    It has a pleasure to meet you and to assist Judith this last weekend. I am hoping to meet you again at another retreat - perhaps Montana some summer when you can leave the kiddies for an entire week!

    Laurie Broderick-Burr

  5. What a treat to receive this summary of the retreat from your prespective! I enjoyed it very much. Wish we had connected at the retreat...maybe at the next one.
    Sara Blakeslee

  6. Nice posting. Do you know about these yoga books?

  7. Dear Michelle,
    Thank you for sharing the link to this wonderful account. One of the many highlights of my stay was meeting you. I was telling my best friend about you when I got home. I so admire your perseverance and self-confidence, especially in light of the personal challenges you have had. And I see that you are a natural at writing. I hope you will let us know when your book is published. May your path be free of obstacles and may your healing be complete.

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