Health June 19, 2017

An Original Yogi

Richard Odom’s melding of Eastern and Western traditions

Richard Odom is the Wood River Valley’s long-standing, and, it is fair to surmise, best-known yoga instructor. His daily classes at Ketchum’s YMCA are part of the fitness routines of dozens of longtime locals, many of whom have been his students for decades. (Full disclosure: I have been a regular practitioner of Odom’s yoga for nearly 25 years.) One of the Valley’s other premier yoga teachers, Cathy Caccia, told Matt Furber of the Idaho Mountain Express in 2009, “Richard Odom is the original instructor in the area. He is truly the grandfather of yoga in the Valley.”

True enough, for he is “original” in the sense of first, as well as in the sense of unique. At 68, Odom carries the physical fitness, demeanor and energy of a man half that age, the calm wisdom of a sage, and an outrageous, quirky sense of humor into every class. Like all humor (and experience), it has to be encountered to be fully appreciated.

Sometimes Odom will lead his hour-long classes by joining them in practice on the mats. Other times he will wander around the room observing and sometimes adjusting students’ postures. The entirety of each of his classes includes a running commentary on the utility of the current asana (posture), which body parts it is affecting, how one’s lifestyle and personal history contributes to the difficulty and discomfort of the asana and how yoga is not about a goal of relative physical achievement, but, rather, the stability, comfort and clarity of learning to know oneself through the practice.

The commentary sometimes veers off into tales of Odom’s life, from childhood to that particular morning, some of them believable, others far-fetched, fantastical and fictitious, all of them ploys to distract the students’ minds from the rigors of the asana and the ego’s attachment to comparative accomplishment.

Each of Odom’s classes is accompanied by different background music illustrating, among other things, Odom’s wide range of interests and tastes. While he is fond of saying things like, “I guarantee you this is the only yoga class in the world playing ‘Yellow Submarine,’ which elicits chuckles from the child’s pose, the underlying purpose is to slow down the stream of thoughts in students’ heads. That is, Odom’s yoga classes are more in the Eastern tradition of a practice of spiritual and physical health than in the more recent Western tradition of yoga with an accent on physical fitness.

Richard Odom holds a seated triangle asana. Photo courtesy Richard Odom / Kevin Syms

Richard Odom holds a seated triangle asana. Photo courtesy Richard Odom / Kevin Syms

His roots in the melding of Eastern and Western traditions are deep. Born and raised in Florida, he was raised by parents who were members of the Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Olcott and William Judge.

Odom’s parents were voracious readers and had a huge library of books about Eastern religion, philosophy, culture and history, and they were very involved in bringing Eastern thought to the West. Odom says that his parents were instrumental in teaching him that “… there is more than one way to the truth.” As a boy, Odom read many of those books, beginning a lifetime practice of attentive observation of and curiosity about the world and the East-West dialogue, which he continues to pursue.

At the age of 13, he found a book in his parents’ library about hatha yoga and began practicing secretly in his bedroom. He didn’t tell anyone about his new discipline, though he suspected his parents and siblings knew what he was doing. Hatha yoga was not something a 13-year-old boy talked about among teenage peers in mid-1960s Florida. Though Odom bodysurfed, water-skied, played tennis and handball, worked out in a gym and practiced yoga, becoming a teacher was not his intention.

After high school, Richard attended a community college in Florida, West Point in New York, and then graduated from Florida State University with a degree in history and philosophy. Along the way he studied nuclear physics, mathematics, engineering, international affairs and languages.

“I loved academia,” Odom said, “but then I started to travel and that was a lot more interesting.”

While at West Point he learned to ski and, like so many East Coast skiers, he decided to check out the mountains of the West. In the fall of 1972, he wound up working construction in Denver and skiing weekends at different Colorado ski areas before returning to Florida to work for his father.

He came to Sun Valley the first time in 1974 at the encouragement of a skiing acquaintance (female). At the time he didn’t know quite where Idaho was or that it had mountains, though he knew about its potatoes. His first impression was that it was “ugly” and that he could hardly believe complete hillsides were covered in sagebrush. He soon saw its beauty and stayed two years and left for a year and returned in 1978. Odom came and went for the next 10 years, most of the time in the Wood River Valley. In 1987 he returned to stay. Since then he has been a leader in the wellness world of a community that strives to live by the words Richard uses to close every yoga class: “My body is strong, my mind is at peace.

Skiing and Yoga

While Richard Odom quit skiing about 15 years ago, his impact on the sport still reverberates—many people over a certain age who ski Baldy regularly would not be doing so without the help of Odom’s yoga classes. Flexibility, balance, and strength—all byproducts of a regular yoga routine—go a long way toward ski Injury prevention routine.

This article appears in the Summer 2017 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.