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Home & Garden

Building a Dream

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Photo: Matt Lou

For more than a decade, I’ve been building a yurt dream. I did the first yoga teacher training in a 30-foot yurt at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California; later, I taught my own first yoga workshop in a yurt. In recent years, I’ve regularly taught workshops at the yurt at Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin County, California. And for six summers, I’ve taken a personal retreat in a yurt right on the Alaskan seashore, where the reverberation of the waves fills my days and nights.

Last summer my yurt dream became so powerful I had to act on it. I’d just returned from my summer yurt retreat to Alaska. With the echo of the waves still in my mind, I was all set to sell everything, leave my home in California, and head north … and then I decided I didn’t really want to completely uproot my very good life in the Bay Area. Instead, I decided to search for an option closer to home.

Fortunately, my parents own a secluded retreat center in Northern California, Wilbur Hot Springs, so I had a magnificent natural setting at my fingertips—a place to build a retreat that I could share with others in a way that would provide a return on my investment.

I knew I wanted to build my yurt in a way that embodied all the values I associate with my yurt memories: a retreat-like atmosphere of quiet and solitude; beauty in the setting, the details of architecture, furnishings, the fit of the yurt in the landscape; and respect for the natural world (accomplished by using salvaged and recycled materials and building with low impact on the land).

As my first step, I contacted a good friend who’s a designer, Mark Samuel, and asked him to help me with the plans. Then I enlisted a good friend from Esalen, the gifted builder Matt Lou. Mark and I spent months choosing a site that would nestle into the landscape, picking the yurt size, deciding on the yurt’s orientation, and placing windows and doors. We went through my list of “needs and wants” and began to flesh out what I wanted in a retreat space.

After two months of planning, Matt came on board and the building began. I was very happy to find we could put the yurt on pier blocks, which is very low impact. The yurt went up quickly, in just 10 days or so, and then, well, as with most construction projects, other “needs” appeared. I wanted a mudroom for shoes and coats. And of course there had to be a bathroom. These outbuildings took much more time and thought than I had expected; they required siding and roofs and windows and more. Many choices and options.

We used as many reclaimed materials as possible. I was able to get the doors and windows for the mudroom at a salvage yard in Berkeley; old barn wood from our property provided the siding. We didn’t have any metal roofing to recycle, so we put on a new metal roof—and then, as Matt said, we had to “put the ugly on it”—meaning that he painted the metal with two colors of stain to give it a weathered look, almost like it verdigrised copper. (In fact, a visiting builder commented how much he liked our “copper” downspouts.) The stain not only gives the roof a weathered look, it also helps minimize the glare of our bright summer sun.

Mark wanted to integrate the yurt not just into the landscape but also with the existing Wilbur buildings. He came up with the idea of a fence that would connect physically and stylistically with the Wilbur bathhouse. Matt took Mark’s idea and implemented it with such artfulness and detailing that the fence became the highlight of the project for me. Not only does it tie in with the feel of the bathhouse, it blends with the curves of the land and creates exactly the sense of privacy and sanctuary that I wanted.

With the exterior finished, we focused on creating interiors that would reinforce the retreat atmosphere. My friend Dan Donovan hand-built the kitchen. With vertical-grain Doug fir cabinets and a black walnut counter built into the curve of the yurt, it adds up to a gorgeous art piece. In decorating the rest of the yurt, I accentuated its cozy, restful simplicity with the Asian flare of furniture imported from Mongolia, the place where yurts originated.

And with that, my yurt dream has neared completion. Now I have the retreat in nature I so crave after all I give in my work as a yoga teacher. And on top of that, I’m happy that I can offer others a chance to come to Wilbur and experience that same sense of retreat and rejuvenation—to experience a yurt dream of their own.

Sarana Miller studied with Rodney Yee, Thomas Fortel, Ana Forrest, Sarah Powers, and Jai Uttal. She teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and is a Yoga Journal staff yoga instructor. She also holds workshops throughout the year at Wilbur Hot Springs, Esalen Institute, and in Mexico and Alaska.