As my hands sank into the soft sand and my toes tried to find hold, I flattened my back into a stiff board that gives this yoga posture its name — "plank." I held still and breathed as the wind ruffled the edges of Lake Superior until a huge black fly, sounding like a lawn mower, landed on the tip of my ear. I wish I could say I stayed steady in a peaceful trance, but no. I collapsed, laughing and slapping the thing.
This yoga studio has no walls. It's all uneven surfaces, uncertain weather, random noises and critters — i.e. ants, flies and bees. Most yoga rooms work to replicate the sense of peace one finds in nature. I've been to classes with soundtracks of birds and crashing waves, dimmed lights and natural fiber carpets. Because the challenges and distractions of nature help us find peace. Especially after a winter like ours, when the sun is high and the temps hover above 60 degrees, I can't bear to be inside any longer, and so I like to take my practice to the beach.
"The lack of walls and mirrors can be disorienting," says Lori Lindgren, a Scandia, Minn.-based yoga teacher who teaches internationally, usually in the outdoors. "While I love a good soundtrack, the wind whispering through the pines provides all the music I need." Across the country, in city parks, on sandy beaches and lakeside docks, instructors like Lindgren have found their way out of the studio and into nature.
Lindgren introduced me to the pleasures and challenges of an outdoor yoga practice two years ago. I was initially drawn to her for a shoulder that I'd overworked while guiding kayaking trips in the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior for Wilderness Inquiry. An advanced certified instructor, Lindgren led me to the grass outside her Scandia home. She wove together postures from her yoga studies into a slow, strong series that helped me stretch and heal overworked muscles and joints while allowing time to breathe and bring attention to natural surroundings. Lindgren helped align my back and shoulder joints to increase my range of motion. The muscle strengthening for kayaking is also great maintenance for shoulders, spine and hips. Though I could have done so indoors, I found that practicing in the fresh air with Lindgren added a different healing dimension.
"Being outdoors is a shift for the teacher as well as the student," continues Lindgren. "Yoga helps us feel union. We're connecting with the earth at the same time we are paying attention to our bodies. This intensifies the experience because we are not battling the elements, but embracing them. The wind can be distracting or it can bring focus to breathing. The warmth of the sun on our backs can help loosen our muscles and make them more pliable. That bee or fly can be a focal point while we're holding the standing head to knee pose." (Unless we collapse and slap them.)
In addition to her outdoor classes, Lindgren works with women suffering from physical trauma and abuse. "Research into the beneficial impact of nature on our sense of well-being has helped to document what I see in my classes all the time. The green grass, the wildflowers, the trees can shift perspective and make it possible for the mind to replace the destructive, negative patterns with new more positive impressions. Plus those uneven surfaces, like the sandy beach and squishy grass, make it difficult to hold a posture and this helps build stronger muscles, strengthens the core, keeps joints agile and prevents injuries."
This summer I've noticed my neighborhood park and beaches are graced with more yogis than ever, and I've sought to replicate that first experience with Lindgren. On a recent kayaking adventure in the Apostle Islands, several of us paddlers decided to stretch before we set out onto Lake Superior in the morning and soon everyone in our group joined in. We started each day on the beach with easy warmups of breathing, sun salutations and half moon. Come evening, we unwound our muscles at the Little Sand Bay base camp, stretching our legs and backs in "standing head to knee" on our platform tent's even surface.
"Practicing yoga with a group outdoors is far different than practicing alone. There's a level of communication that goes beyond conversation. It becomes a shared journey," says Lindgren. On this trip, when moving through postures in sync with others after a full day on the water, I found I was able to integrate the outward journey of exploring sea caves and beaches into an inner adventure. The yoga provided a different means of communicating with others that I found was as interesting and intimate as the conversations we shared around the campfire; it helped create a richer, more memorable experience.
Beth Dooley leads local food kayak trips in the Apostle Islands for Wilderness Inquiry.