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Wooded retreat offers spiritual specialty

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear _ Zen Buddhist proverb

Spiritual journeys can begin and end at strange places, and there can be some even stranger places to stop and rest along the way.

I was at Jake's Tavern in Chassahowitzka, a tiny settlement on the banks of the once-pristine river of the same name, looking for names of people who could tell me about pollution problems there.

"You need to talk to Jane Shaw," said a couple of what appeared to be regulars at Jake's. "She lives out there at Spirit Springs, she teaches all that weird stuff, but she's real nice."

Now there's an introduction to conjure with.

And, since a Chassahowitzkan definition of weird stuff can cover a fairly esoteric multitude of possibilities (some of them scary) and since I made a long drive into the wilderness on a winding road that appears to have been designed by people who make their livings doing front end alignments, I was a little concerned.

But there, at the end, arms uplifted in greeting (actually it's a martial arts position, but who's counting) was Ho Tei.

In my very, very strange and spiritually diverse (some would allow perverse) family, Ho Tei is as close to a household deity as we have. (Spare me, please, those of you who are shocked that your deity isn't mine.)

Ho Tei is the fat, jolly (no comparisons please) figure who is frequently mistaken for and referred to as Buddha, but isn't, except in a highly technical sense that only Buddhists really understand. That patrician, usually head-dressed, slender or well-built Hindu prince Siddhartha Gautama Buddha is the founder of Buddhism. Ho Tei is believed to have been a Chinese Monk who became a bodhisattva _ sort of a Buddhist saint, who choses to return to earth to teach rather than to stay in Nirvana. He is also revered by the Japanese as a god of good fortune, and rubbing the belly of his statue is supposed to bring good luck. Frequently pictured as surrounded by children, Ho Tei is referred to by some as the "Japanese Santa Claus," which, even though he predated St. Nicholas, makes me wonder if he would have gotten as tired of that comparison as I have.

One way or another, I have about 15 statues of Ho Tei of all sizes in my home.

So I would have felt immediately at home at Spirit Springs anyhow, even without the enthusiastic hug I, a perfect (okay, relatively imperfect) stranger, received from Jane Shaw.

The "weird" things she teaches and has others teach at Spirit Springs Yoga Center are yoga and meditation.

Behind the statue was a beautiful glass-walled, mat-floored yoga center with a breathtaking view of the river where, every day except Thursday, up to 100 people study yoga and meditation.

Shaw, a former environmental lobbyist, and her husband, Bill, have been living in a large, attractive home next to the center for 10 years.

It was in the mid-1980s when Jane, tired from efforts to get a bottle refund bill through Congress and in a situation she now describes as "burned out," got involved in yoga when a flier from a yoga group "jumped out of the trash can" and into her hand.

Now she operates the center, which, she says, has grown with a "life of its own," and tries to help others practice the relaxation and meditative techniques she says served her well during the lengthy illness and recent death of her adult daughter, Kandy Clark. Clark became a quadriplegic after contracting a disease called transverse myelitis, the Shaws believe, while swimming in the Chassahowitzka River.

And it is from that peaceful setting that Shaw still, at a softer level, fights the occasional environmental battle, especially the one to find the sources of river pollution, which she thinks _ although she readily admits she doesn't know _ caused her daughter's illness and death.

Do the neighbors bother her about the perceived weirdness of chanting, breathing, stretching and just, sometimes, sitting?

"Not at all," she said. "People here are wonderful and have been extremely nice. Some of them don't exactly understand what we are doing, but they have never been rude or anything but helpful, and I'm always glad to have a chance to educate people about what yoga is."

I have been on my own spiritual quest for the past several months, reading, studying, analyzing, and am leaning heavily toward Buddhism, meditation and yoga.

And I noticed as I left that Ho Tei was still smiling.

Maybe because I knew I would return and was smiling back.