Where Yoga and Zen Meet

Yoga and Buddhism stem from the same Indian lineage yet remain distinct spiritual paths. Still, there’s natural crossover between the two disciplines, and mutual respect among practitioners of each. This relationship is beautifully celebrated at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center–an oasis of mindfulness nestled some 20 miles inland from California’s Big Sur coastline in the Ventana Wilderness.

Photo of Tassajara’s yoga studio courtesy of Margo Moritz

While Tassajara primarily serves as a Zen teaching monastery, from April through September, its doors open to the public to enjoy the site’s natural hot springs, abundant hiking trails, meditation instruction, and some seriously delicious vegetarian food (mealtime is a much-anticipated event here). Guests attend workshops that explore mindfulness as it relates to relationship-building, cooking, art, writing–and yoga, which has become one of the most popular workshop themes. The folks behind Tassajara, a branch of the San Francisco Zen Center, have made such a commitment to its yoga program that they just built a gorgeous eco-friendly studio, complete with cork flooring heated by piped hot-spring water, solar electricity, tons of natural light–it’s even stocked with Manduka Eko-Lite mats.

On a recent visit, I had the good fortune to test-drive the just-opened studio in a class with San Francisco’s Diego del Sol, who was teaching a three-day yoga and Zen retreat with Tassajara’s head of practice, Greg Fain. The class was great, and pretty intense. I’ll admit, somewhere during our umpteenth Sun Salutation variation, my mindfulness strayed into a daydream about a post-class soak in the hot springs. But then, Savasana. Pure sensation. Nothing but idle awareness of the sound of Tassajara Creek rolling by and dappled sunlight playing across my closed eyelids. I think I reached a Zen state!

Combined with endless surprises from the world-famous kitchen (what 1970s vegetarian didn’t own the Tassajara Bread Book, not to mention the center’s gorgeous contemporary cookbooks), stunning natural beauty, and absolute serenity, this is a destination yoga retreat center well worth the drive. And what a drive it is. Tassajara is located in a canyon, 14 miles down a winding, unpaved mountain road. (There’s a shuttle for those without 4-wheel drive or who are squeamish about off-road adventures.)

Three years ago, the center was threatened by a summer wildfire that swept through Big Sur, eventually taking out 162,818 acres. The fascinating story of a heroic band of Tassajara residents who stayed behind to defend the property is chronicled in a new book, Fire Monks, out in July. Lucky for all of us, Tassajara still stands, ready to share its bounty with anyone willing to venture deep into the forest–and into their own hearts.