YogaThese six small words can just about sum up our time on this planet. That doesn't mean, however, that we should throw caution and responsibility to the wind or trade in promising careers for tenuous fads or flings.

But if you were to follow your bliss, what would it be? To skipper a boat? Write poetry in a cabin in the woods? Build straw-bale houses? Whatever your passion, acting on it may be more important to your life than breath — regardless of whether you succeed or fail.

As inspiration, we've profiled three intrepid souls who took the hand that life dealt them and did it one better.

Stretching the Limits
cohenSusan Cohen. "Change takes a long time," says Susan Cohen, who describes herself as having a type "A+" personality. She should know. For the past 20 years, Cohen has attempted to achieve an elusive state of balance between mind, body, spirit and an extremely successful career in public relations.

As vice president of a major public relations agency right out of college, Cohen was hit hard with the required corporate trappings. "Agency life is so stressful," she says. "The hours are long, and you're constantly at the whim of your clients. I was always getting sick and just knew working like that wasn't good for my soul."

Over time, Cohen took jobs in New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Washington, DC, that allowed better control of her hours. Nothing seemed to work. Finally, she decided the problem stemmed from attempting to control her external environment as opposed to looking within.

A long-time practitioner of modern dance and yoga, she was intrigued by an ashram in the Bahamas. "I had no idea what I was getting into," she says, "or that the Shivananda Yoga Center there was the largest school of yoga in the world." She stayed for 10 days. When she got home, she set up a "little ashram" on her porch and practiced the meditation and yoga she had learned, which balanced her mind and body.

In 1996, Cohen started EastWest Consulting, a wellness communications firm that focuses on holistic and complementary healthcare approaches. "I thought that if I could integrate my professional world with my personal interests, it would make me a healthier person," she says.

One night, while eating a chocolate bar at 3 a.m. and writing a brochure on wellness, Cohen decided to make a drastic change. She contacted the Shivananda Center and booked herself into a one-month teacher-training program in India. She now believes it was the best thing she could have done. "At first, I was challenged by everything from the living conditions to the rigorous schedule," she says. "But in the end, I discovered the freedom of going with the flow and trusting that things will work out."

Today, Cohen is finding balance teaching yoga at the Shivananda Center and corporate gyms in New York, as well as freelancing from home. Instead of burning the candle at both ends, she burns candles while she works. "It took me 38 years," she says. "But I learned that if you follow your heart, good things happen."

Rocky Mountain High
Houston CowanHouston Cowan. Ten years ago, a blind skier showed Chicago real estate developer Houston Cowan the light. "I was sitting in my office reading a ski magazine," Cowan recalls. "There was a blurb about a blind skier, Peter Maines, who ran the BOLD (Blind Outdoor Leisure Development) program in Aspen, Colo. I closed my eyes at my desk and wondered how someone who was totally blind could possibly learn to ski."

Determined to find out, Cowan got Maines on the phone. Maines asked Cowan to describe his office and then to close his eyes. "The next thing I know," Cowan says, "Peter was literally guiding me around my office from 1,500 miles away, telling me to go straight, or turn left. I'd run into something, and he'd laugh. But I learned that to teach a blind skier to ski, you basically get behind him and act as his eyes."

That single experience influenced Cowan to make a move he hadn't anticipated. Business was booming for this developer whose company specialized in rehabilitating old loft buildings in the Windy City. Nevertheless, he made a decision. He called an emergency meeting with his staff and told them he had decided to close up shop. "I got rid of my business suits, and anything that wouldn't fit in the back of my car got sent to the Salvation Army," he says.

Five months later, on Dec. 1, Cowan arrived in Aspen with a single goal: to teach blind people to ski. That season, he spent 89 days on the hill, learning and teaching. Hooked, he embarked on a three-year certification program that qualified him to teach skiers with any kind of disability, mental or physical.

Today, Cowan is executive director of Challenge Aspen, one of the premier nonprofit disabled programs in the United States, which he founded in Snowmass in 1995 with disabled skier Amanda Boxtel. Forty instructors and more than 100 volunteers work with nearly 500 disabled skiers — children and adults — per season. Satellite programs are being set up internationally in Iceland, France and Spain.

At 47, Cowan's mission has only grown. "Challenge Aspen is evolving into a year-round program," he says. "Every day, we're able to affect people's lives by teaching them to do things they never thought possible. Now when I sit at my desk, I see photos of happy skiers I've worked with. That's my reward."

Peaceful Deadlines
Susan NowlinSusan Nowlin's move to Jackson, Wyo., from Washington, DC, with her husband, Mark, was a case of history repeating itself. Not only did Mark come from a family of Jackson homesteaders, but three generations of men in the family met their wives in DC during various wars. "Mark's great aunt was a World War I bride, his mother was a World War II bride, and I was a Vietnam war bride," she says. "Our meeting and moving here was meant to be."

There were other synchronicities in play as well. A fine artist, Nowlin was employed at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. Working in an office called Exhibits, Design and Production, she spent long days consulting with historians, designing shows and obtaining artwork. "It was a good-size gallery," she says. "We were always on deadlines, rotating shows or building period rooms for new ones. After awhile, I just got tired of the hustle-and-bustle." When Mark got out of the service, Wyoming beckoned.

That was 20 years ago. Since then, the Nowlins have combined her artistic nature with his rugged lifestyle. They raised two daughters and opened a frame shop, The Master Studio, which caters to local wealthy homeowners with high-quality art.

In 1993, they drew up plans for a bed-and-breakfast inn on the family property — where they live nearby in an 80-year-old log cabin that Mark's grandfather once called home. They built the inn from scratch. "We decided we didn't have enough to do," she says with a droll laugh.

In addition to handling the day-to-day business of running an inn, Nowlin, 48, puts her art background into play, painting murals on stairways and walls, making paper, and painting tables with rabbits, deer, polka dots and stripes.

While the innkeeper lifestyle keeps her busy, there's nowhere near as much pressure as with her earlier career. "We set our own deadlines here," she says. "If a guest is late checking in and there's something I need to do, I just leave a note on the door and go."

Linda Hayes is food editor for SKI magazine and travel editor for Mountain Living magazine.
 

Photography by: Michael Dash