Back to Nature: Taking Yoga Outdoors
Within the confines of a studio, yoga teachers do their best to create an ambience of soft lights and pleasant sounds, and even an aromatic experience. But striking a mood is perhaps just an attempt to evoke a natural setting—the great outdoors. Why settle for a replica of natural surroundings when you can have the real thing? Taking your class outdoors can be just what you need to invigorate your class and pluck students out of a stale studio routine, especially if they've been loyally attending your class through the winter months.
Outdoor classes add a different dimension to one's practice and pare yoga down to its original link with nature. "Yoga means 'union,' and when it's practiced outdoors it seems like the union with nature, humanity, and the universe is truly felt," says Hilary Kimblin, a Vedic hatha yoga teacher and owner of Yoga Under the Trees in Beverley Hills, California.
Embrace the Experience
Being outside can intensify the yoga experience in many ways, since nature inspires all the things you try to drive home with students—focusing awareness, breathing deeply, practicing stillness. First, though, you have to get students to think more in terms of embracing rather than battling the elements. It can help to remind them that a breeze can deepen your breathing, the warm sun can deepen poses by making muscles more pliable, and a ladybug can invite you to focus on something small and still.
Many aspects of yoga are in fact about being in the moment and at one with nature or the universe. That's why so many asanas reflect animals and nature. "By putting your body into the shape of a tree or a stretching cat, by exploring the graceful wingspan of a bird or the fluidity of the Sun Salute, by breathing with the same cyclical sense as the tides or with an ocean sound, you evoke a sense of harmony, timelessness, and connection to the universe," says Jane Jarecki, a Kripalu Yoga teacher at Evolution Physical Therapy and Yoga in Burlington, Vermont.
"Breathwork outside the studio is tremendous," says Lisa Marie Haley, owner of Be Yoga in Menlo Park, California, and a vinyasa yoga teacher at Stanford University. "We usually use sensation, such as the rise and fall of the chest or feeling of air in the back of throat. Outdoors offers another level to focus on—the smell of nature, such as the ocean, pine, grass. When you start to smell the outdoors, it's as if nature wants us to be present and breathe deeply."
Mat or Not?
Uneven, natural surfaces such as sand, grass, or the woodland floor can intensify a yoga posture and its physical benefits. "Practicing on uneven surface like the sand builds the secondary muscles of a yogi's feet, hips, knees, spine, and shoulders," says Marti Foster, a vinyasa yoga teacher and director of the Yoga Solution in San Jose, California.
"I find a slight variance in natural terrain can focus balance more than a flat floor. If some folks feel distracted by uneven ground, I invite them to use the distraction as an opportunity to find some peace, patience, and center," says Jarecki.
Whether you use a yoga mat or not depends on the terrain, as well as personal preference. "On a smooth, warm rock you may not want a mat, but on crunchy pine needles during forest sadhana, it's necessary," Jarecki says. For grass and sand, it's really up to the student as to what feels good. However, she cautions, "Don't use a sticky mat for sand, unless you have a devoted outdoor mat."
Kimblin, who leads full-moon yoga hikes in the Pacific Palisades, recommends using two thick mats while outdoors. "That way all the tiny stones and uneven terrain will feel more comfortable."
A mat can also provide a stronger, more stable base despite shifting or uneven earth, says Haley. "Using a mat helps you engage the push-pull of a Downward Dog, for example," she explains, "or to spread your toes and use the feet quads to press the front leg forward and back leg back in a Warrior."
Whether you're conducting outdoor classes on studio property or in a public place such as a park or beach, you'll want to choose a place that boasts safety and comfort for everyone. The more you know about the location, the better you can prepare your students for the experience and answer any questions they may have. For example, you'll want to find level ground with enough space for your entire class to do their asanas, and that's quiet and secluded enough that students can hear you and can meditate comfortably. Jarecki says she looks for "a wide open space with an uninterrupted view of the sky, soft sounds of nature, not much foot traffic from other passersby, fresh air, and smooth stable ground beneath." She also suggests checking that your spot doesn't have sharp rocks or objects underfoot, nearby cliffs, or other physical dangers.
Before hitting your idyllic spot, you'll also need to get your studio's approval, have instructor insurance that will allow you take people off the studio's property, and—always—get participants to sign waivers for the class. There's one more thing: "City permits are probably the biggest deal, especially if you plan to charge a fee, says Haley. "Schools, public parks, and counties all have their rules. The best bet and best karma is just offering a free class. I've opted mostly for those."
It's imperative that, beforehand, you go outside and practice in the spot where you would like to hold the class, advises Kimblin. "Make sure you do this dry run on the same day of the week and at the same time as the future class will be held." You don't want to be locking horns with another group that has dibs on the spot. And you'll want to check out if the ground will be damp at that time of day, how intense the sun will be, if bugs will be a problem, and so on.
Also remember that, unlike in your studio classes, you can't control temperature, lights, and sound when you hold an outdoor session. "Always have a backup place to practice in case of inclement weather—perhaps a nearby rain shelter—or a cancellation policy," suggest Jarecki.
Finally, whatever you do, don't wait for the day of the class to spring on your students the news that class will be held outside. Avoid surprises by always posting a class, including where it will be held—don't assume everyone will embrace the great outdoors. "Some students will opt out because of allergies, others will be concerned about bugs, and others may not want to get their mats dirty. Honestly addressing all these concerns and others in advance will greatly reduce the grumbling on the day of the class," says Kimblin.
Freeing the Yoga Spirit
Pairing up yoga and nature can be an incredible experience if students are ready to embrace the outdoors. "When the classroom is outdoors, free of the mirrors and windows and designer clothes, the 'yoga scene' is left in the dust. The open space really expands everyone, and there's an instantaneous freedom you just can't replicate indoors," says Kimblin.
Here are some tips to help make it a positive, rewarding experience for everyone:
Start with some trial postures. Haley suggests starting students off with an extended Balasana (Child's Pose), moving into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) to give them a feel for the level of the mat, for whether or not all four corners are on the same plane.
Remind them to carry a towel. They'll need it to wipe the mat clean, since extra debris can stick to the sticky mat. Or they can place the towel underneath the mat to keep it from getting sandy or soggy, says Haley.
Make sure they bring the right supplies. Ask students to pack sunscreen, water, and sunglasses, and perhaps insect repellent (if you'll be in wooded areas or practicing at night), advises Kimblin.
Choose the time of day that feels best. "Any time of the day or evening that has an inviting temperature and a certain softness is a perfect time to practice," says Jarecki. Avoid holding midday classes outside, since that increases the risk for sun damage and overheating—and you're sure to get complaints from students.
Angela Pirisi is a freelance health writer covering holistic health, fitness, nutrition, and herbal remedies. Her work has appeared in Yoga Journal, Natural Health, Fitness, Cooking Light, Let's Live, and Better Nutrition.
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