Woman of the Year: Chris Furtak

Eight years ago Chris Furtak hadn’t lifted her body off the floor in Crow pose. She’d not stretched her back in Downward Dog. Nor had turned upside down in Shoulder Stand. She worked out everyday at the gym, sweating away and maintaining her fitness level. Until she read an article that espoused the health benefits of yoga and decided to give it a try.

“It was kind of an accident,” Chris says of her entry into the world of yoga that has become her life. Now sixty-five years old, Chris teaches ten classes a week at her home studio to about 100 people.

Chris, and her husband Paul, have converted their west Bozeman home into a yoga studio that has a calming, but at the same time, energizing feel. Chris calls the studio Aspen Ark after the twenty-plus aspen trees surrounding the house and the feeling of refuge and gathering she hopes it provides.

The rough cut walls are supported by reused timbers from a bridge in Oregon and adorned with wooden masks, crosses and tiny white lights. A fountain drips water in the background and everything is stored neatly away in baskets.

Above the once living room, now yoga practice area, is a loft that holds Chris’s looms and craft supplies as well as the new living room and a bedroom. After getting into a yoga practice, Chris and Paul replaced their couch with floor cushions which more comfortably supported their yoga-trained bodies. “We’re like hippies,” Chris laughs.

But more than teaching poses, or asanas, Chris exemplifies the spirit of yoga by living her life simply and giving back to the community and the world. “I’ve been so lucky,” she says, “It’s time to give back”.

Yoga student Jeanne Miller says, “There are hundreds of yoga teachers in Bozeman, but (Chris) donates all her money to charities and it’s infectious.”

In fact, Miller and other students have been inspired to give more because of Chris’philanthropic spirit. Her giving is the pebble that has created ripples of generosity in the lives of her students.

There are eight limbs of Buddhism—including loving kindness, breathing, concentration, mediation and the physical postures—and Chris is especially strong on loving kindness. Her yoga classes are given on a $5-$10 donation basis and all the money she collects—minus costs for the yummy organic snacks she serves and yoga props and materials—is given to charity.

Last year Chris and her students gave $10,600 to Heifer Project International and Bread for the Journey International. Both programs exemplify what Chris believes: helping people to live better lives. Heifer Project International helps impoverished families become more self sufficient through gifts of livestock and the training of their care.

Less well known is Bread for the Journey International which teaches neighborhood philanthropy through seed grant giving, practical assistance and encouragement to new projects which build and strengthen the local community.

“Chris lives what she preaches,” says another student, Carol Merica. “Being around someone like that makes you want to be a better person.”

Chris also gets the wish list from the Livingston Humane Society and passes it out in class. Students bring the items on the list and Chris and Paul deliver it the shelter where they recently adopted two new puppies. “I think they were kind of surprised when we pulled up with a truckload of stuff from their wish list,” laughs Chris.

During a yoga class Chris might mention the food bank is low or that someone needs assistance. “If someone needs something,” says Miller, “Chris tells us and everyone can pitch in.” “She makes it easy for others to give,” adds Merica.

Chris’s giving nature stems partly from her upbringing on a dryland wheat farm near Lewistown. She recalls a feeling of mutual dependence where neighbors helped neighbors regardless of differences.

As an adult, Chris ran a yarn store, sold handmade goods at crafts fairs and taught elementary school before coming to yoga.

After training briefly in Seattle, Chris decided to teach herslf yoga. She reads everything she can find on the subject, watches videos and attends the annual Yoga Journal conference. While many in the yoga field are concerned with their teaching lineage, Chris describes herself as “mongrel self-taught” and avoids the politics and divisions sometimes found in mainstream yoga.

“I think she’s a really great teacher,” says Miller, “And she’s kind of fiesty.” Merica agrees, “She’s an amazing teacher, and really devoted to what she does.”

Chris’s classes incorporate teachings from yoga leaders across the board. One day students may focus on Baron Baptiste, while another day the practice may be based on ancient texts.

Each solstice and equinox is celebrated with 108 sun salutes (a series of postures). Students on mats fill the room and move through forward bends, downward dogs, planks, chatarangas, cobras and more while Chris calls out the movements and Paul keeps count by moving pennies and dimes back and forth.

But yoga isn’t just about helping others; it’s improved Chris’s life, as well. “It’s kind of restored me to myself. Yoga is like a thread that gets you through the maze, and boy, this world is like a maze to me.”

Inspired by Chris Furtak? Contact either of the following organizations:
Heifer Project International @ www.heifer.org
Bread for the Journey @ www.breadforthejourney.org

Balance
February 28, 2006

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