Call of the Wild
Imagine your hands cushioned by the soft loam under a grove of pine trees, your feet resting gently against a sturdy tree, as you revel in the strength and beauty of an outdoor Handstand. Then, ouch! Your finger presses into a sharp pebble you hadn't seen.
Practicing in the great outdoors is exhilarating, but it usually presents its fair share of challenges: changeable weather, bugs, uneven terrain. "When you're outdoors, the surface can be slippery, or it can be moving if you're on sand, but that's the real world," says Twee Merrigan, a Prana Flow Yoga teacher who is based in New York City but spends many weeks of the year practicing outside in remote and exotic settings. "It isn't always a perfect wood floor with incense and a teacher. Outside the yoga studio, if a challenge comes up, what are you going to do? Freak out? Instead of waiting for someone to tell you what to do, you figure it out for yourself," she says.
Which is why an outdoor practice can be a resource for nourishing your creativity and resilience."We were in India, and ants were crawling all over my mat and feet," recalls Merrigan. "I made a choice to respect them, focus enough to step around them, change my practice a little for them. If they're red ants, OK, you might want to move your mat. But generally you can just let them be. They'll crawl off, and you'll be OK."
Adopting an attitude of curiosity is the first step to enjoying a practice out of doors. Gillian Kapteyn Comstock, a yoga teacher who leads yoga-in-nature workshops at the Metta Earth Institute in Lincoln, Vermont, suggests exploring your environment with all five of your senses. "Experience soft grass or warm sand underfoot," says Comstock, who wrote the outdoor asana instructions featured here. "Feel the texture of a boulder with your hands in Half Downward-Facing Dog Pose, or the rough tree bark against an extended arm in Triangle Pose."
Then, try to let go of your ideas about what your yoga practice should look or feel like, and see what you encounter. "Give yourself permission to move from spot to spot to find the natural props you need," Comstock suggests. "Think of nature as a yoga partner, and suddenly a whole world of props opens up."
Observe the natural world: the smell of the air, the feel of the wind, the sound of the birds, the shifting shadows, and your ever-changing feelings of eagerness, happiness, pride, vulnerability, strength, exhaustion—whatever arises. Notice your reaction to it all.
Finally, let yourself be spontaneous and have fun. "I'll decide to go for a walk on the beach, and—I can't help myself—the walk turns into a 45-minute practice of free-flowing vinyasa yoga," Merrigan says. "Yoga in the outdoors is doing what's calling you. Anytime I'm in an open field, I go into arm balancing poses. The yoga doesn't even have to be advanced postures. I might be in Half Lotus with a mudra. Or doing an Earth salute, by laying on my belly on the grass. Or break into chanting or pranayama. There's no set program—just taking a breath and seeing what inspires you right now."
Instruction by Gillian Kapteyn Comstock
Rock Solid: Standing Poses
From head to toe, standing poses such as Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose), Utkatasana (Chair Pose), and Tadasana (Mountain Pose) empower you to be present and engaged in the world, poised for whatever calls. No matter where you are in nature, the ground is probably uneven and the weather is changeable. On top of these distractions, the usual studio props that keep you balanced and aligned are absent. The challenge here is to stay in the pose mindfully in changing conditions.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Stand with your feet hip-distance apart and parallel. Spread your toes, and exhale as you ground the four corners of each foot, feeling your weight press down into the earth. Inhale and draw energy up your legs by lifting the quadriceps. After your next inhalation, retain the breath briefly as you gently squeeze your perineum and engage your core. Exhale and draw your tailbone down slightly as you lift up out of your waist. Inhale again and allow the chest to open and the collarbones to widen. Let the breath rise up through the neck with a gentle lift, free of tension. Exhale and roll your shoulders back and down. For this variation of Tadasana, you'll inhale and bring the arms overhead, palms shoulder-width apart and facing each other.
Find a point in the landscape at eye level and steadily gaze there while you use your peripheral vision to notice the light, ground, clouds, and whatever else is in your environment. Take it all in with a soft, inclusive view. Next, imagine everything that can't be seen with the eyes at the moment. You may sense things that you might not have initially noticed. Finally, concentrate on your inner landscape, scanning the body for sensations.
To come out of the pose, exhale and lower the arms to a T, pause, and release them to your sides. Relax, close your eyes, scan inwardly, and notice the effects of the practice. Open your eyes, and simply witness your experience.
Catch the Wind: Balancing Poses
Lift up into in Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), Garudasana (Eagle Pose), Bakasana (Crow Pose), or Vrksasana (Tree Pose) outside among birds, swaying branches, and crashing waves, and you'll soon notice all of the movements that can interrupt your concentration and cause you to fall out of a pose. How do you steady yourself when you're surrounded by so much motion? Rooting down into the earth and keeping a steady gaze certainly helps. But it's your breath that will best steady the mind and help you rise high. "By consciously breathing, a whole world of awareness begins to open up," Comstock says. "Yogic breathing creates space for listening to the sounds of nature and noticing sensations."
Through Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath), you can call forth the sound of the wind, the very element that lends the sense of flight to balancing poses. The sound of air moving through the back of the throat may also help you concentrate and stay present. A steady mind, after all, encourages steadiness and balance in the body. So in preparation for a balancing pose, practice Ujjayi by contracting the back of your throat slightly. Imagine you're fogging a bathroom mirror with your breath, and let out a soft "ha" sound that begins in your mouth and comes through your nostrils. When your breath starts to sound like wind in the trees or ocean waves, you've got it. You're ready for takeoff.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Begin in Mountain Pose. Strongly ground the right foot and establish steady Ujjayi breath. Focus your drishti (gaze). With awareness, inhale, bend your left knee, and place the sole of your left foot, toes pointing down, on the inner right thigh. In the beginning, the foot can rest wherever you can most easily find your balance. Exhale and turn the left knee out so that it is in the same plane as the front body. On an inhalation, bring the hands to Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal) at the heart center. After 5 breaths, exhale as you bring the hands with palms together down the midline and release the foot. Repeat on the other side. Relax and close your eyes for a moment. When you open your eyes, let your awareness include the many things in nature that balance—a bird's nest, stacked rocks—and simply observe.
Down Play: Inversions
Whether you're on sand, a grassy knoll, or a rough forest floor, the ground is sure to be a far cry from a studio's flat wood floors. Even the walls, mats, and props on which you often depend for many inversions are noticeably absent. I've found the best—and most fun—thing to do in these situations is to remind myself to not be so serious about my practice and instead take the opportunity to play with the slanted ground and experiment with using large rocks and trees for props. Did you ever turn cartwheels on the beach or do headstands on the grass as a kid? It's the practice of playful ingenuity that makes inversions like Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand), Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), Setu Banda Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), and Adho Mukha Svanasana(Downward-Facing Dog Pose) possible outside.
Most inversions take the body into adventurous positions. So before beginning, consider safety. For example, if you tumble, are there any hard or sharp objects you might fall onto? Commit to listening to your body with the utmost gentleness. Then let your mind relax and tune in to your childlike nature. Is there a tree to support you as a wall would, a soft spot in a meadow for your head, a rock to lay your back body over, or a sandy dune to press into? Make a pose up and add improvisational play to your practice. Maybe you'll find yourself kicking up into Handstand on a sandy dune or letting your feet lean against a tree trunk in Headstand. The fun of the practice is being as creative as nature.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Of all the inversions, this pose is perhaps the easiest one to playfully create structural variations and modifications to in nature. Try it on a sloping beach, stand on a fallen log, or put hands and feet on boulders and stumps. The perfection of the pose is not in the classic alignment, but rather it is in the dynamic play of the core with the extended limbs. So find what fascinates you in the landscape.
Begin in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). On an inhalation, reach out and walk your hands forward until the four corners of each foot and hand come in contact with the ground, boulder, slope, or tree you've chosen as a prop, consciously adapting the classical positions of the hands shoulder-width apart and parallel and the feet hip-distance apart and also parallel. Exhale and spread your fingers and toes evenly, which will help stabilize the posture.
When you feel grounded, inhale as you press the buttocks upward, and exhale as you extend the arms and legs. Continuing to breathe deeply, alternate rocking the left and right heels. Play with the inhalations and exhalations as you allow the head to drop down between the arms, and draw up the quadriceps. The shifting and adjusting of your body's play with the earth depend on your ability to breathe consciously. Breath by breath, make the micromovements that keep you connected to your inner sensations.
Lengthen the arms and lift out of the shoulders while continuing to press the heels down. Breathe deep into the abdomen, and then exhale, lifting the belly gently. Feel the dynamic opposition of the hands and heels pressing down, while simultaneously reaching up with the buttocks. And when you've completed your play, exhale and walk your hands back to a standing forward bend. Rest there for a moment, inhale, and unfurl yourself vertebra by vertebra back to standing. Rest and witness the world right side up again.
Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
Begin with your legs extended in Dandasana (Staff Pose). For this variation, keep the left leg straight and active and the left foot flexed. Inhale, bend the right knee, and exhale, placing the right foot on the outside of the left knee. Keep the right knee pointed straight up and the right foot pressed firmly into the ground. On an exhalation, rest the right palm on the ground next to the right hip. Inhale and hook the left elbow on the outside of the right knee.
To deepen the twist, inhale fully, lift the spine, and exhale as you press the left elbow into the knee and turn right. Let the twist originate in the belly as you breathe. Hold the pose for 5 breaths and tune in to the currents of energy moving through your body. Exhale as you unwind the posture, and then twist in the other direction briefly as a counterpose. Pause in Staff Pose, and notice if there is an increase in flow of energy. Repeat on the other side.
Balasana (Child's Pose)
Begin by kneeling on your hands and knees, with your knees hip-distance apart and parallel, and your big toes touching. Inhale and gaze softly at the earth before you. Exhale, and extend back so that the buttocks touch or move down toward the heels, the torso rests between the thighs, and the forehead sinks into the earth. Bring your arms along your sides and extend them out behind the buttocks. Turn the palms up. Inhale and lengthen your spine by extending your neck forward, then exhale and reach the tailbone backward. Allow gravity to pull the weight of the torso down, and feel your back widening and expanding. Breathe deeply and slowly for 5 to 10 breaths or more, completely letting go and resting on the earth.
When you're ready to come out of the pose, inhale, bring your torso up slowly until you're in a seated kneeling position, and rest your hands on your thighs. Keep your eyes closed for a few breaths, and then gently open them to observe your connection to the earth.
Back to Earth: Forward Bends
Forward bends like Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-Knee Pose), Ankle-to-Knee Pose, Balasana (Child's Pose), and especially a supine asana like Savasana (Corpse Pose) let you sink deep into the quiet of the earth.
Outdoors, that means you'll be sinking into sand, grass, stone, or even mud. You might have twigs on your shirt or sand in your hair, but the moments of feeling the quiet vibration of the earth will surely make up for it. So choose a spot that feels inviting, and relax into any of these poses.
When practicing forward bends in nature, try turning your face downward and close your eyes. Imagine that you can see into the layers of stone and soil. Allow your senses to soften, and let the darkness behind your eyelids fill your consciousness. There's nowhere to go, nothing to do. Just be. Ideally, the meditation will take you down into pure space and empty the mind. More important, this deep listening to the earth is a way for you to commune with nature.
Nature's Spin: Twists
Twists are everywhere in nature: a vine wrapped around a tree, a river whirlpool, a snail's shell. In yoga asana, twists such as Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose), Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist), Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose), and Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) curl you in closer to your center. In addition to revitalizing the spine, they are thought to invigorate the interior organs of the body by increasing blood circulation there.
Many twists are done while you're seated or lying on the ground for several still moments. During this time, the mind can wander to the damp grass under your bottom, the itchy twig tickling your leg, or the sun in your eyes. Remember to breathe and close your eyes as you twist so that the rich sensations outside and inside have a chance to mix into your awareness.