We invite you to join us as we sit down with friends, business partners, and eco-therapy experts, Natalie Pyrooz ’06, MES ’09 and Sierra Wagner ’07, to learn more about their journeys at Evergreen and work leading wilderness-based eco-therapy retreats. Alumni Programs is denoted as AP, Natalie Pyrooz is denoted as NP, and Sierra Wagner is denoted as SW in this interview.
AP: Tell us about yourselves, who is Sierra Wagner and Natalie Pyrooz, and how do you know each other?
SW: I am a woman living in the Russian River Watershed in Sonoma County, California where the Pomo tribe stewarded the land for centuries. I spend my time sharing my home with friends, being a yoga therapist, Thai massage therapist, and gardening. I love nature, travel, appreciate the arts and am an Evergreen alum! I am also so much more than that, our limited beliefs on gender, occupation, socioeconomic class, and more can hinder us when getting to know someone. I sit with the question, ‘who am I?’ quite often, and examine our essence and spirit to gain deeper understanding.
NP: I am based in rural northeastern California and have done a lot of travel in the states and around the world, working with many agencies and entities as a botanist and biologist. Having an opportunity to be on the land, being quiet, being by myself and with nature has had a strong imprint on who I am. In the last few years, I have moved increasingly into a healing space working with different modalities such as yoga, nature, mindfulness, and bringing it together within my business.
Sierra and I met in our first class at Evergreen! We were in a sustainable design course, and we were in a group together working on a project, community learning, and we were able to explore quite a bit together. I remember Sierra took me to some of my first yoga classes and we worked on collective art projects together.
SW: I am incredibly grateful that Natalie was originally from California, so it has been easier to stay in contact with her and our work together has happened due to being closer together. Currently we co-lead backpacking eco-therapy retreats into the wilderness that include centering meditation, Thai massage, nature walks/botany, nature Mandala meditation, and yoga. In the future, we hope to implement more accessible retreats for folks who are unable to backpack in the wilderness.
AP: What brought you to Evergreen?
SW: I was looking for an alternative education. I knew I wanted to do something different in a place that focused on sustainability and was in a natural, beautiful environment. I also am very hands-on and experiential. It just felt right, when you visit places sometimes you get a feeling, and you can't explain it, but it just felt right.
NP: After starting with a traditional college route, I stepped away, went to community college and was looking at how I could finish my undergraduate degree. I wanted something interdisciplinary: I love art, sustainability, science, and plants, and Evergreen was the place that was able to offer that kind of education. I then went on to do a master's degree in environmental studies in Evergreen’s MES program.
AP: Were there any classes or faculty that inspired you while at Evergreen?
SW: Natalie and I met in Sustainable Design which I took twice because I was looking at the intersection of art, design, and nature like Natalie, so that program inspired me. I did so much landscape design, furniture design, and earth art. One of the teachers I remember that touched my heart was Martha Rosemeyer who taught Ecological Agriculture. I did a Farm to Table program that got me in touch with my food for the first time. I started thinking critically about the food I eat. Over the last twenty years, beginning with that class, I have changed my diet and now practice veganism, preserve my own foods, and grow as much as I can. Martha was wonderful, and that program positively affected me. Student Activities were also influential because I was in leadership positions in student groups. It was an educational experience that opened doors for me.
NP: One of the best parts of Evergreen is the faculty! I worked a lot with Frederika Bowcutt. She was a botany faculty member and I enjoyed working with her because we had similar interests, bringing art and botany together. I worked on interpretive panels for the gardens she installed with students; I was at Evergreen this summer and they are still there! Lucia Harrison from the art faculty brought a lot of ecological concepts into art and opened a path for me to bridge what I loved, art and botany. There are so many faculty who are so inspiring though so it's hard to name them all, but these would be my highlights.
AP: Can you tell us more about your work with wilderness-based yoga and eco-therapy retreats?
SW: I knew from my first yoga class that yoga is a powerful practice and for years I wanted to take people on retreats and be outdoors. I wanted to integrate environmental education and conservation work into my yoga teaching. Since 2012, when I first started teaching full-time, I have incorporated Ahimsa – the yoga principle of nonviolence – into my teaching to help my students think critically about their impact on the planet. In 2021, I went to one of Natalie’s first yoga and backpacking retreats and that inspired me to see how to merge these two elements more. Nature supplies extra experiences of awe and wonder which are enlightening and wake up your senses and consciousness; it can make a big shift in a person's life. Yoga and nature do this already, but to bring them together and to consciously create mindfulness and therapeutic benefits can propel personal growth and respect for the environment. When people feel connected to the environment, they feel more compelled to protect it, that’s important to me as a conservationist. Being inspired by the beauty of nature, so you too can feel the beauty of your own nature is the essence of the work.
NP: I echo so much of what Sierra has to say. When I worked for the National Park Service from 2012-2014 in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, we would go out on seven–eight-day backpacking trips and I started to notice during these trips there was a pattern of what was going on in my mind. The first day when you go out and are climbing over the first mountain passes, in your mind the worries of everyday life are with you as you mull them over, like ‘did I send that email?’ or whatever it may be. The second day the mind gets quieter, and each successive day the mind quiets even more. Being in the backcountry there is no cell reception, so we were very disconnected from the world and immersed in nature. I was working with a group of all women on these trips, and it was very empowering to be with them and supporting one another. At the end of the trip when we would come back and cross the pass again the racing thoughts would come back.
A few years later I did a deep dive into yoga and received my certifications. In yoga, the goal is to achieve stillness of the mind and that is what came so naturally in the wilderness. So, then I considered bringing people out on weeklong trips for yoga in the wilderness, so they too could experience stillness of the mind and while connecting with nature. Ever since I started, we have been learning and improving the trips. Sierra came on the first trip in 2021, which was everything that I had hoped for and more. People had these transformative experiences in nature. We moved through the lingering trauma of covid and separation of connections. We built trust, connection, and allowed our emotions to move through us. In the wilderness hiking in the backcountry, you experience this as you move.
Sierra began to collaborate with me to create these trips to enhance this work. It’s wonderful because we can support one another. If I need a break, I know that Sierra can take care of things for a while, and vice versa. We have each other there for checks and balances and bringing together different elements where each of us shine. I want to re-echo what Sierra said about building that connection with the wilderness. One of the reasons I got into that work was for my deep love for the earth. I want to recreate that experience for people through tactile connections. For example, one of the people who joined us this past spring on a trip was strongly impacted by the amount of trash in her bear canister at the end of the trip - since we pack it all out, and it was an eye-opening experience for her to see the amount of waste she had produced. That rippling effect can be important for awareness and discovery and is something we hope our clients can experience.
AP: What does Equality mean to you?
NP: I feel like equality means people aren't treated differently based on who they are and how they may present through their expression of being and opportunities are different based on your socio-economic background. Being able to succeed and thrive no matter your background.
SW: It means different things in different moments. It’s the practice of inclusion. In our work we include people by having multiple tiers of pricing so we can allow more economic groups to take part, and we know how important these immersive experiences are. Having groups of women going into the wilderness together and feeling safe and connected is an act of equality that many women in history have never been able to experience.
The other way I make meaning out of the idea of equality is through my work as a Yoga Therapist. I work with elderly populations, those with mobile disabilities and those on Medicaid.
AP: What challenges have you had to overcome working across the country and starting a business together?
SW: I have been running my business for twelve years since I became certified as a yoga teacher. About seven years ago I began diving deeper into Yoga Therapy, and it takes a lot of work, but has been a journey of passion. What challenges me is that yoga, Yoga Therapy, massage, and other practices in mindfulness aren't as highly valued as other medical professions. Covid was another challenge, yoga and massage were decimated. The three yoga studios I taught at closed their doors and never came back. It was a huge disruption and, as I think people can relate to, it was hard to work in an alternative environment. It wasn't that I don’t like remote work, I still teach remote classes two times per week, and I like that it is accessible, but it isn’t like I could bring all my work online, especially as a wilderness guide. You can't do that online.
NP: Since we have such a solid foundation as friends, knowing each other for almost twenty years, that has minimized the challenges that may come up between us as business partners. That’s not to say that starting a business with your friend is easy. We prioritize communication and address things as they come up, so we can openly talk and find the root of the challenge or differing opinions/perspectives. I am so grateful for our friendship. I just started founding my business in 2021; the challenges I have had personally are working with time management, structuring my days, and motivation. Having seen Sierra build her business I look to her as a mentor and as someone who I can reach out to for advice. We just took a backpacking trip on our own to scout locations and explore our friendship aside from the work. It was wonderful to see how well-rounded our connection is between business, friendship, and life.
AP: Who opened doors for you?
SW: So many people. I wouldn’t be here today without them. I started taking yoga classes when I was thirteen and I stayed with my first teacher for five years and saw her every week. When I was eighteen, with the encouragement of my teacher, I started teaching yoga. My teacher’s sister had a studio nearby and I got a slot to teach. In 2012, I completed an Anusara Yoga Immersion and Hatha Yoga teacher training. The teacher was a powerhouse; she knew her yoga like the back of her hand and opened the world of meditation and history/philosophy to me. We are so lucky to have these public lands too, we wouldn't be able to do this work without the conservationists who fought to protect public spaces that have opened the door to a lot of incredible experiences for me and our work.
NP: When I started my business, I worked with a coach and that gave me a lot of what I needed to go from dreaming to a place of doing and gave me a lot of foundational groundwork so that I could move forward. I also want to express gratitude for all the people who have come before us as pioneers in the wilderness, and especially women in the wilderness. Those who have made it safe for us to be there by ourselves and for the activists who work to preserve these spaces and tribes who stewarded those lands for centuries.
AP: What impact do you hope to make through your work?
SW: I was describing that a little already, but Natalie said it so beautifully about how the mind stills and becomes so peaceful in nature. Through my guidance, I hope that my clients can have that experience of wonder and awe in nature I spoke about earlier and protect the environment. Healing during our retreats is important, a lot of people work on healing interpersonal and societal trauma so they can replenish and come back to themselves in a way you can't do when there is so much stimulation. There is a realization that usually happens out there that we are fundamentally intertwined with the environment and are surviving with whatever is on our back. You get to take away what you want from the experience and re-approach your life from a new perspective. I hope to give people that new perspective.
NP: Sierra touched on so many important points and very eloquently. To that I want to add confidence, mental clarity, and recognizing how much inner strength you have. You can really discover who you are while you are in the backcountry. I don’t think there is a single person who doesn’t come out of it with a new understanding of their strength. These deep impacts that stay with people for years or their whole lifetimes are what I want them to walk away with.
AP: What advice would you give current students studying at Evergreen today who will join you as alumni?
SW: Take this educational approach that Evergreen has of being innovative thinkers, holistic thinking, and being independent. Use that on your path to help you make your own path and do life your way. You can live outside the box and make things happen. Believe in yourself.
NP: I would say, stay curious, and continue to follow what you love to do. Don’t worry about putting the path together into what someone tells you it needs to be. When you follow your heart, you never know what doors will open.
AP: What is your superpower?
SW: I would say I am good at attuning to people and feeling what they are feeling or sitting with them in those feelings. Spending time in my spiritual development has helped me to accept them as they are.
NP: I have had people tell me that I have inspired them to get out of their comfort zone and step into following their dreams.