Led by The Yoga Room, the Flathead Valley has an unusually high number of instructors who have completed the demanding Iyengar certification process, helping make the region’s yoga community a model for the state
Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Mandy Mohler
The yoga class was at 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, right down the street from where Kisa Davison lived with her family outside of Portland, Oregon. At home, a maelstrom of motherhood raged. She and her husband, Travis, had four kids in diapers. Their eldest had been fighting a debilitating seizure disorder complete with drug trials, optimistic remissions, and world-crushing relapses since he was six months old. Meanwhile, the Davisons’ construction business was floundering, and she was regularly having panic attacks, the kind where the room goes dark. It had taken a stern scolding from her mother for Davison to pull herself away for this 90-minute yoga class.
She walked into Rushing Water Yoga Studio, where Paul Cheek greeted her with a “smile as wide as Texas.” Cheek, a certified Iyengar yoga teacher, was patient and kind. Perhaps he could tell she was in crisis. She didn’t know what Iyengar yoga was, but he asked her to “observe, to try it out, to pause, to reconsider, and to regroup,” she recalled. The class demanded such supreme concentration to detail, she said, that by the time she returned to her minivan in the parking lot, she had forgotten about the “desperation, loneliness, hopelessness, and unworthiness that made each day increasingly more difficult to bear.”
Then she saw the Post-It note on the steering wheel with a list of groceries to buy and her “whole world came crashing down.” She decided, okay, today’s not the day I’m going to kill myself. Her kids were the reason to keep living, but Iyengar yoga was the way she would make it through. Cheek, whom Davison has described as “the embodiment of pure happiness,” would show her how.
“Paul’s laughter, his attention to detail, and his devotion to making things better were brought forward through the method in which he taught me yoga,” Davison said. “You see, that method of teaching and learning is what we call the Iyengar method. But, it is yoga … it asks us to go about learning yoga in a yogic way. The Iyengar method works because it is authentic.”
Every teacher has a teacher, including B.K.S. Iyengar, who studied in India with the “Father of Modern Yoga,” Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, before establishing in the 1970s his own school of yoga. Practitioners readily embraced its innovative integration of props, meticulous focus on posture, accessibility for all levels, and philosophical underpinnings drawn from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Among traditions in the United States, Iyengar yoga is unique for its commitment to the robust lineage system that preserves the methodology, and for its demanding, years-long process for certification.
Though B.K.S. Iyengar died from congestive heart failure a few years back, he would have turned 100 this year. His institute, now directed by his children, is based in Pune, India, but his teachings have spread across the world. Yet it hadn’t made inroads to Northwest Montana a decade ago, when Kisa and Travis moved their family from Portland to Kalispell to chase a work opportunity. By then, Davison’s yoga practice had grown from a lifeline into a way of life. The teachers with whom she had pursued advanced studies in Oregon told her she would have to make her own way in Montana. “You’ll just have to build it yourself,” one mentor said. Luckily, Davison, a charismatic, commanding, and committed student, was well-suited for the challenge.Twenty-five years ago, Davison, the daughter of a plumber and an artist from Dodge City, Kansas, borrowed Richard Hittleman’s “28 Days to Yoga,” from the library. Her grandmother had thought it would help with her scoliosis. When she had to return it, she bought her own copy. “I was intrigued by the postures, I was intrigued by the philosophy,” she said. “I was blown away by how big it was. But I’m also 19 and in college and having a lot of fun trying to discover who I am.” Still, she practiced “every chance” she got.
A few years later, in Oregon, she began attending a yoga class — though not yet Iyengar — to stay active while she was pregnant with her first child. That same year, Travis discovered jiu-jitsu, which he describes as “his yoga.” In December 1999, Davison delivered Ted. Days after his six-month checkup, the infant began having seizures. The doctors were preparing for his death, but then they found a medication that worked.
Then Davison got pregnant again, and she went back to the yoga mat, but she was put on bedrest and gave birth to premature twins. Ted’s seizures came back, worse than before — he was losing motor skills and language. A year and a half later came the fourth baby.
When the construction business began showing signs of stress, Davison earned her real estate license and picked up more work. At times, she found balance. “There was six months of bliss in there,” she said. But more often, she thought of driving straight into the Columbia River. “I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating,” Davison recalled. “There’s no Kisa. There’s no self. There’s only my job of keeping these kids alive.”
She found the tools to manage the chaos more gracefully as she dug, in earnest, into her practice of Iyengar yoga with Cheek at Rushing Waters. She pinched pennies to pay for classes. Eventually, Cheek approached Davison about teacher training.
“I recognized in Kisa, immediately, her abilities physically,” Cheek said. “But that’s a minor thing. It just so happens we use the physical postures to work on a spiritual thing … She was the kind of person I wanted to have in the Iyengar tradition. She took her practice seriously.”
To become certified as an Iyengar yoga teacher, a practitioner must undergo three years of regular study, and then three years of formal, in-person mentoring with two junior-level teachers before applying to undergo a formidable critical assessment by the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States. No 200- or 500-hour seminar will suffice. “Once a student learns what it takes to become certified, half of them don’t want to do it,” Cheek said. Davison said yes, “without missing a beat,” he remembers.
“I had a much bigger job to do: four human beings to keep alive, and one is fighting really hard,” Davison said. “There’s not any other challenge that comes close to that.”
And mentoring with Cheek would only deepen the benefits of her practice, which were already hard to overstate. Travis said he noticed that after Davison stepped off the yoga mat, she was “ready to find solutions, rather than crawl in a hole and cry. [She] had the energy and clarity of mind to conquer those things that seemed so overwhelming.”
Shortly after Davison began a six-month advanced studies course with Julie Lawrence, a Portland teacher with decades of experience, she and Travis accepted an opportunity to work on a new housing development in Kalispell. They moved a few months later, in July 2007, eager for a fresh start. Still, they worried about relocating somewhere without established jiu-jitsu or Iyengar communities.
Cheek recommended Davison pursue her certification in Montana as a way to hold herself accountable to her practice. But the state’s only junior-level Iyengar teachers, Judy Landecker and Charles Udell, were hours away in Helena. That was a logistical strain on Davison, still a young mother of young kids. So at first, she kept up her practice by filling in at studios around the Flathead Valley, teaching Iyengar-informed classes. Travis, meanwhile, led informal martial arts classes in their garage. The family budget remained tight, but they felt steadier than they had in Portland. Then came the real estate crash of 2008, squashing their growing business of building and selling homes.
“We lost everything,” Davison said.
But she kept returning to her yoga mat and held her center. In December 2008, Kisa and Travis opened a 750-square-foot Kalispell martial-arts training and fitness center called Straight Blast Gym. In the back, there was a storage room where Davison practiced. It didn’t matter that it was bare-bones; Iyengar students prefer to practice without distractions like music. Everyone called it her yoga room. Within a month, she began teaching the ju-jitsu trainees, and it became The Yoga Room of Montana. With all the family energy concentrated on this one business, Davison found the space to formally pursue her Iyengar certification. She traveled to Helena to study and, in 2010, finally passed the assessment.
“One of the things I saw in Kisa is that she can inspire people,” Cheek said. “It’s her charisma, her deep understanding of the topic, her enthusiasm … She has a lot of energy, and it’s positive energy. There’s a lot of teachers that don’t have that, even though we have all been trained in the same method … She’s good at recruiting, at instilling enthusiasm.”
Many of Davison’s regular students from other studios came to practice Iyengar yoga. They brought their friends, and student numbers grew. Davison, who was the studio’s only teacher for four years, realized, “We’ve got to add to our coaches. There’s too many students.”
It can be a long process to grow a studio from within, bringing up new students as teachers. Cheek, who is still based in the greater Portland area, has struggled to mentor new teachers who stick around. “I wish I would have found more people like Kisa,” he said. Currently, he is the sole Iyengar-certified teacher at Rushing Waters, which he’s owned for 15 years.
Lineage is the backbone of this school of yoga, and while it protects the quality of the methodology as it passes hands, it’s also a barrier of sorts for practitioners in an isolated corner of the Iyengar world. Then again, such obstacles require dedication and sacrifice fit for an Iyengar teacher. Davison identified students she thought would be good teachers, and encouraged them to mentor with the Helena teachers. She also launched a supplemental six-month advanced studies course, and, later, a full-blown apprenticeship. Both were modeled after programs designed by her Portland teachers. Without in-person guidance from an upper-level teacher, they wouldn’t necessarily have been approved by the Iyengar association as official teacher training, but Davison says she focused more on the practice than the red tape.
“I had to be creative; I had to be flexible,” she said. “I had to take what I could get when I could get it.”
The first crop of advanced study students formed a tight, supportive community six years ago, planting a deep seed for the growth of Iyengar yoga in Kalispell. And there was a steady stream of practitioners — potential teachers — stepping into the studio, in part because the Davisons ran their business like a business. Many yoga teachers are torn about the complications of commerce, if not reluctant to commodify their spiritual vocation.
“Yoga is not the first thing you think of when you want to make a living and feed a family,” Travis said. “Most people don’t; the instructor has to work a full-time job and teach it as a hobby in the evening … People tend to forget that Kisa is a very successful businesswoman.”
In 2014, Straight Blast Gym and The Yoga Room of Montana’s Whitefish location opened. A year later, certified Iyengar yoga teacher Jennie Williford moved to Kalispell from Rockford, Illinois. There, she had owned a studio and mentored three students to certification. Her husband had found a new job in the Flathead, and they’d already fallen in love with the area while backpacking and fishing on past vacations. The Yoga Room made the move a “no-brainer,” Williford recalled, particularly because Paul Cheek, Davison’s first teacher, is a personal friend. And, as she said, “[Kisa and Travis] have done an amazing job in sharing Iyengar yoga with the Flathead Valley, and created a business structure that is conducive to all the things Iyengar yoga might require: commitment, dedication, study, and tribe.”
Williford began practicing yoga generally in 1998, while at college in Texas, and committed to Iyengar in 2000. She earned her introductory certification in 2004, and after submitting to subsequent assessments in 2007, 2011, and 2015, is now a Junior Intermediate II-level teacher. In this tradition, she has found “benefits at a spiritual and mental level that I still have some trouble fully expressing … My transformation through yoga has been penetrating and obviously continues.”
“Jennie is an accomplished practitioner, she’s an accomplished teacher, and all-around an amazing woman,” Cheek said. Her arrival, he added, was like “a gift from God” to the Northwest Montana Iyengar yoga community. With a natural inclination toward the philosophy of Iyengar yoga, she has increased in the studio’s curriculum the visibility of yogic components beyond the physical poses. Now as the senior teacher at The Yoga Room, Williford carries a graciousness befitting of a humble conduit of tradition and forever-student.
Indeed, Williford’s arrival bolstered Julia Seaward, who in 2011 had become The Yoga Room’s second Iyengar-certified teacher. In 2017, she earned her Junior Intermediate 1 certification under Williford’s guidance. With that, the studio reached a critical mass of teaching expertise. Now, with two upper-level mentoring teachers on staff, it can independently support students studying for assessment. The Flathead Valley currently claims six Iyengar-certified teachers, the most in one region in Montana and an uncommon number per capita, compared even to cities like Calgary, Alberta. There’s still just two in Helena, and one in Bozeman. Now a veritable regional Iyengar study center, The Yoga Room is entering a newfound “growth phase,” Williford said. “Between me and Julia, we have a certification-assessment-preparation team. We’re growing teachers, and, hopefully, we’ll be able to sustain and grow more.”
A number of practitioners at The Yoga Room are now barreling toward certification in fall of 2018. And approximately 170 students are enrolled in committed six-month or two-year membership programs at the Whitefish and Kalispell locations. Like most Iyengar studios, the Yoga Room offers different levels of study, with practitioners starting in a class focused on building foundational skills. At their own pace, students can grow into a deeper, more comprehensive practice. This yoga is a process of progress, physically and mentally. Iyengar teachers hope that even subtle teachings of yogic philosophy in the very first class will spill over into their students’ daily lives.
“Since that day [I walked into Cheek’s studio,]” Davison said, “I’ve steadily improved my ability to handle the heat of life. My practice has also helped me to create a more manageable existence. I create fewer problems for myself and others. And the problems that I bump into through the course of a day are less overwhelming because I have a system. That system is Iyengar yoga.”