It’s summer now in this beautiful region of rolling hills I call home. And during this gorgeous and (for me) all-too-fleeting season, my thoughts turn to getting outdoors as much as possible—and that includes for yoga practice.
Practicing outdoors certainly has many advantages, ranging from health benefits to the simple enjoyment of a change of scenery. But before you stride boldly off into the forest for some flow en plein air, there are a few things to take into consideration. These are important not only for solo practitioners, but also for teachers who are thinking of teaching outdoor "yoga in the park" type classes.
Mat or No Mat
To practice with or without a mat, that is the question. There are many suggested benefits that come from direct contact between the earth and our bodies. For starters, proponents of Earthing say that touching the earth with our bare hands and feet provides a means of grounding, which they claim has health benefits ranging from pain relief to optimizing prana (vital energy).
And then there are the reports that microbes and bacteria found in dirt can be important for our health.
Occasionally doing yoga without a mat can also bring another dimension to our practice: Feet and hands may pivot more smoothly, but also need to work a bit harder to find stability and grip.
However, there is also something to be said for practicing with a mat outside. The natural hazards to hands and feet and other body parts that lurk outdoors, such as sharp stones or prickly plants or splinters from a wood dock, could put a damper on your outdoor yoga experience. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a mat on hand. After all, yoga in nature is only fun if you don’t step on a stinging nettle or end up with a huge splinter in your hand.
No Fire No Wire, No Glass No Gas
Similar to the importance of learning first aid to protect against possible environmental dangers near your area, it’s also wise to clear the scene in advance of outdoor yoga. Scrutinize the area before practicing. Is there any sharp debris, such as broken glass, wire, or rocks? Are there any poisonous or pointy plants, from poison ivy to thistles? Has the area been treated with any kind of pesticide or fertilizer?
Other hazards may be more natural but could still be irritating or dangerous. Are there any plants that you or others might be allergic to, including ragweed or plants and trees that release allergenic pollen? Has the grass just been cut (which can be problematic for those with grass allergies)? Are the air quality and smog levels suitable for outdoor exercise? Is there potential for gusts of wind that could send leaves, grass clippings, litter, and even props flying?
Checking a weather app with information about air quality, seasonal allergens, and even wind levels can provide important information to help ensure an undisturbed practice.
Sun and Pests
Remember: practicing without sun protection could lead to sun damage. Ensure that you’re protecting yourself from the sun by covering up or using a good sunscreen. Or you could just find a shady spot and let the tree canopy keep you safe, or plan to practice earlier or later in the day. Checking the UV index can also help inform your decisions as to the best time to be outdoors.
Insects can be real pests as well. From mosquitos to biting flies, they can make it hard to focus on practice. Consider looking for insect repellents that use picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus as the active ingredients, said to be safer and more effective than DEET. You could also make your own bug-off spray by combining in a spritz bottle 2 cups witch hazel and 1.5 tsp. lemongrass essential oil.
Choosing a forest locale for your asana or meditation practice is a wonderfully wise move. Time spent in nature (particularly an evergreen forest) provides exposure to phytoncides, natural compounds whose presence was linked to lower adrenaline levels in two small studies.
These natural chemicals are the reason for Japan’s “forest bathing,” which has been popular since the 1980s. Known as shinrin-yoku, it refers to a kind of nature therapy to restore well-being, energy, and balance.
The same studies found that forest bathing was linked to greater numbers of NK cells, a type of white blood cell important in the destruction of cancer cells and viruses—suggesting, in the words of the author, a possible “preventive effect on cancer generation and development.”
Another small study found lower blood pressure in subjects who walked and then observed the scenery in a forest than in subjects who engaged in the same activities in an urban environment.
Although idyllic, meditating outside can be a challenge, as crawling and flying bugs and insects might decide that your still figure makes a perfect place to land. You could use this distraction to help you practice mindfulness, or you could try walking meditation instead.
The idea of walking meditation is to focus on the journey, not the destination, and to be aware of your natural surroundings. You could recite a short mantra (either om namah shivaya, or simply repeating ram might work for you) in sync with your feet striking the ground—helping your mind to stay focused and your energy meditative. Movement can be meditative, and it may prove more conducive to stillness within than being physically still and seated.
There are so many upsides to spending time in fresh air, and yoga fits wonderfully within nature. Just do a bit of homework and preparation to ensure that when you take your practice to the great outdoors, it’s a comfortable, safe, and relaxing experience. Enjoy a flow in the forest, get grounded in the grass, or meditate as you consciously meander through a meadow—your mind and body will reap more benefits than you can imagine.