A Rabbi, A Yogi & a Bartender Walk Into the Gondola... Thoughts on the Spirit of Aspen

By David Stillman Meyer | August 7, 2018 | Culture Lifestyle

A rabbi, a yogi and a bartender agree: the views here make everyone a believer.


If “Mind, Body, Spirit” is the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” of the Aspen Idea, then it makes sense that spirit—holy or otherwise—gets third billing. It’s the most elusive, and hardest to define of the threesome. Aspen has eight churches, three synagogues, five yoga studios and 30-ish bars. I’m not sure how that ratio compares to other 7,000-person towns, but as Bryce Kellogg famously proclaims in Aspen Extreme, “This is Aspen. Everything is different.”

On a sunny spring Monday, Aspen Shakti founder Jayne Gottlieb and I take a spin on the Silver Queen Gondola. As Ajax Tavern’s thumping spring break beats fade away, she describes what’s different about running a yoga studio in Aspen.

“It’s massively challenging trying to cater to very different lifestyles. During high season, our locals come in less, but then of course we get lots more visitor drop-ins. And then in the off-season it all flips.”

Later that week, floating high over Copper Bowl, Rabbi Emily Segal of the Aspen Jewish Congregation confirms the valley presents challenges and blessings. “Of course, it’s a smaller Jewish population here, but it means that in order to live Jewish life—at least communal Jewish life—you need to seek it out. It also means that kids grow up to understand that you are special to be Jewish. That’s something that makes them unique in their identity in a really lovely way.”

Having only moved here last year from outside Chicago, Rabbi Segal was pleasantly surprised to see how many visitors and part-time residents actually make the effort. “We get to be part of that little, beautiful thing they come for. Something that means a lot to us is that people choose to come and connect with the congregation, even when they are here visiting.”

Obvious, or perhaps not, the yoga studio, the place of worship and, yes, even the local tavern serve strikingly similar functions. Whether they share a faith, a practice or a taste for IPAs, these spaces fulfill the fundamental human desire to come into the fold.

Krissy Bills, a hostess and administrator at the Caribou Club, reveals to me during a ski date on Ajax that she is often told by her patrons that “the club feels more comfortable than their own living room. They really look forward to having shots with Scotty [a jolly, longtime barkeep] or seeing Louie [the general manager] running around. Yes, it’s a place to be seen, but even more so to see familiar faces.”

Back on terra firma, Leah Stroup, a bartender at J-Bar, observes, “I get to enjoy all kinds of people, from our loyal locals to annual travelers who never miss a year. My favorite thing is introducing the whole bar top to each other and watching the fun ensue.”

Stroup at J-Bar adds, “Some of my most memorable shifts behind the bar are after a local tragedy. It’s not just the good times that bring people together. Sometimes it’s getting through the tough times that I find to be special about bartending in such a small community.”

Rabbi Segal describes a similar idea at the temple. “It’s a place for prayer, certainly, but that’s just one element of what we do. For a lot of people, the synagogue is where they connect for real, lived community… There’s something really special about an in-person supportive community and an intergenerational community, too. People without kids get to know kids. People my age, in their 30s, get to know folks in their 80s and not just in a cursory way.”


There is something about mountains that stirs our better, more spiritual selves. Why is that?

“It’s the mystery!” Gottlieb exclaims. “When you look around, I think most of us are typically pretty awe-inspired by the majesty of the mountains and nature at her most powerful and mysterious. Higher powers are also forces we can’t totally understand, so they are both mysterious in similar ways.”

Rabbi Segal adds, “Of course you’re going to feel inspired and close to God at the top of the mountain. For the Jewish population, as it probably is for everyone else, these mountains are part of their religion.”

And while one doesn’t immediately associate nature with organized religion, in Aspen, well, it’s different. The Aspen Chapel has been holding a sunrise Easter Service on top of one mountain or other since the ’60s. (Since the gondola was built in ’86, it’s been on top of Aspen Mountain.) The Tibetan monks come every summer and return their mandala to the river in a processional ceremony. Which is all to say that spiritual life here, organized or otherwise, is inseparable from the sublime setting.

There’s also something about the mountains that brings out our competitive sides as well. Must go faster, harder, higher. This can extend to all facets of life in a community that is so fond of extremes.

When I ask about this, Rabbi Segal says, “Judaism has Shabbat. This one day a week that, no matter what the other six days are filled with, can be filled with rest and enjoyment, and there is the sense that the entire week is for Shabbat. Shabbat is the play-hard balance of work hard.”

“A misperception of yoga,” Gottlieb adds, “is that it is the ‘icing on the cake’ versus a powerful way of being. It is, of course, a privilege, but when you choose to look at yoga as a practice equal to eating healthy food or breathing fresh air and integrate it into your life, your life changes for the better.”

This valley is, by and large, a place that people have sought out with the primary goal of living a happier, more connected life—whether that be in physical, intellectual or spiritual pursuits. It would seem the Aspen Idea, for all its highfalutin tendencies, is just a handy guide to finding that bliss.