Updated: Sep 30, 2022
I have an admission to make. I'm here to incite you to do something you may have never done before. Break your yoga practice out of the studio and into the wild!
We've seen celebrity yogis on Instagram throwing some shapes in a tropical lagoon, or effortlessly arm balancing on a precarious mountain ledge. You may have watched some of the wonderfully helpful yoga tutorials and interviews filmed outside at Purple Valley in Goa and thought, "that looks idyllic, since the weather in Goa is normally 99% better than where I am right now". It's also quite possible that you've seen some of your real-life yoga pals posting the odd outdoor downward dog on Facebook and vaguely wondered whether the pine needles on the forest floor were hurting their hands. Maybe you're already an outdoor yoga convert (in which case tell me about your experiences in the comments!) or you've done outdoor yoga as part of a retreat and considered building more of it into your regular practice. But what is outdoor yoga all about anyway? Why go to the effort of doing it? In fact, how and why do people do outdoor yoga?
Outdoor yoga is quite literally, taking your yoga practice outdoors. Sounds simple, right? I think of it as simple but radical. For a start, it's easy enough to say "just take your mat outdoors!" if you have an established self-practice. For an independent yogi, the whole world can suddenly become your studio.
But if you want the direction and supervision of a teacher (which even the most independent of us want from time to time), there are actually plenty of studios who will offer outdoor yoga classes through the more clement months of the year. Many studios are lucky enough to be situated somewhere with direct access to a suitable outdoor space, like one of my favourites here in Leeds. There are even studios and teachers who are primarily focussed around providing yoga in the outdoors.
So why bother? Surely a climate-controlled space is more comfortable, right?
Ultimately, I think yoga is about connection. Connection with our bodies, our higher nature, each other and the world around us. Practicing yoga in the outdoors allows us to directly experience the world around us during our practice. The sun on our skin, the wind in our hair, the sound of birds singing or schoolchildren playing in the distance. Consequently it helps to serve the direct purpose of yoga practice in reminding us that we are connected. Discomfort is also part of this. On a sunny day you will certainly break a sweat moving through Sun Salutation B and wonder if you are going to make it through all five breaths holding your downward dog. When it's cooler you might have to start with a few layers on, to be gradually removed as you build heat, or even to just stay on if your practice is gentler. You may have to carry extra props like towels or eye pillows to make your practice more accessible.
But yoga is also about persevering through discomfort and experiencing it as a sensation like any other. Of course you need to make sure you're safe (e.g. wear sun cream and have a bottle of water nearby on a warm day), but experiencing discomfort during a practice can help "reprogramme" us away from running from discomfort in other areas of life, including other physical activities, our careers and even our relationships.
Practicing yoga outdoors can help us to be more present. Sure, it's more difficult to balance when your mat is on the grass, but that actually means you're less likely to be wondering what you're going to make for dinner. Shaking up our practice by doing it in a new place, an inspiring or slightly challenging environment, can help us not to get complacent or just feel like we're going through the motions. After all, the deepest experiences of yoga can be those of being, rather than doing.
When I first started practicing yoga outside I used to enjoy feeling a little subversive, doing my vinyasas in some unusual place whilst the world around me was going about it's daily business. I loved the freedom of nipping out to practice whilst the sun set, or getting up extra early so that my practice was bathed in the sounds of the dawn chorus. I still have this feeling when practicing on the terrace during my lunch break at work... everyone else is just eating sandwiches and looking at their phones, whilst I'm becoming a tiny bit more in tune with the ultimate reality!
Practicing outdoors can link us with the oldest traditions of yoga practice. Now I'm aware that there are schools of thought which don't consider the lineage of yoga that important (or at all important) when it comes to personal experience of practice. However, as an archaeology graduate (and a westerner!) I often find myself fascinated by where practices come from and what's influenced the shape they have today. This is such a HUGE topic when it comes to yoga that I would barely scratch the surface even if I spent years regularly updating my thoughts via this blog. But suffice to say, yogis in ancient India (or Shramanas, as I think they may more correctly be called) were people who had given up their worldly concerns and retired to the wilderness in order to seek enlightenment. They only ever practiced outdoors. It is from these people that our earliest yogic practices are handed down. So when we practice yoga outside, we might connect directly with this tradition and experience.
OK so you're considering giving it a go (I'm hoping so!). There are some practical things to consider. How do you actually arrive at an outdoor yoga practice? How do you plan or find your opportunities? When, and where do you do it?
As mentioned above, the most structured way to start an outdoor yoga practice is to find a studio or a teacher who offers an outdoor class. This could be in the environs of the studio, or even a dedicated space created by the studio in order to practice outdoors. You might find a class that runs in a nearby park or open space, or even a local beauty spot or landmark (I'm off to this class being held in Leeds' iconic Kirkstall Abbey). A quick internet search for outdoor yoga will usually throw up a few local results.
Yoga retreats also often incorporate the opportunity to practice outdoors. With the current considerations due to COVID, retreats abroad are much less available and appealing than they might previously have been. This is not necessarily a bad thing though! Finding a retreat that gives you the opportunity to practice outdoors in your native climate means that you stand more chance of incorporating this into your regular practice once you return home. Furthermore, inspiring memories of having practiced somewhere like the breathtaking UK Lake District or on the fabulous golden sands of South-West Wales can drive you forward to recreate something of that feeling in your day-to-day practice.
If you take advantage of on-demand or zoom classes you can also try your regular online classes al fresco. This is a good way to do a familiar structured class outdoors and shake up your regular practice! If you're lucky enough to have a garden, this is definitely the most straightforward option, especially if your internet router isn't too far away. I LOVE practicing on the decking in my garden, so much so that I flaked out on buying a lovely outdoor sofa because it would take up all my yoga space- and now I have to make my visitors a kind of Moroccan lounge arrangement with blankets, cushions and yoga boulsters (luckily there are normally a number of these at my house) so that they're comfortable to sit directly on the deck.
To become a bit more adventurous (and as long as you have decent connectivity/ a good chunk of data on your phone contract) you can try taking your online class to your local park or beauty spot and see how this influences your experience of the practice. You may find wireless bluetooth headphones handy so that you can always hear the cues.
If you are comfortable with self-practice (on a related note, I intend to write a future post on how and why to develop a self-practice) then the world really is your oyster, or yoga studio. The opportunities for outdoor yoga are endless, because as long as you are outdoors, you can be doing yoga, and in a complimentary fashion, yoga can give you more opportunities to be outdoors.
During a spell of warm summer weather you might find it more than pleasant to take your morning meditation in the garden or on the balcony if you are lucky enough to have access to either of those spaces. You can plan your regular asana practice in order to take advantage of the sunrise or the sun set depending upon the time of year, and work directly with the elements in your practice in order to balance the lunar and solar energies as you are directly experiencing them! Whilst on holiday you can take your mat to the beach and experience the calming sound of waves crashing whilst you practice.
Whilst at home you can simply take your mat out of the house and go find a spot that you feel like practicing in. This is equally applicable if you live in the countryside or in the urban jungle! I live in Leeds, the third largest city in the UK, however I'm right on the northern edge which gives me strolling distance access to forests, fields, and Wharfedale, which is the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales. I honestly feel more like I live in the countryside than the city. I pop out with my yoga mat and practice on a rock in the forest, or on a moor, or with a view that opens out towards the Yorkshire Dales and Moors national parks.
Until three years ago I lived in York which is much smaller as a city, but upon reflection was a more urban experience. In York I used to sneak up on the city walls just before sunrise (they're locked from sunset to sunrise!) and practice with a view over the waking streets. I would find a secluded spot on the river embankment and practice whilst the tourists went back and forth on river cruises beneath me. I would go to one of the city centre parks to find the most ancient part of the city's wall and practice handstands against it whilst the sun was setting (note- as an archaeology graduate I have to make a point of saying that I don't recommend doing this too regularly as it may damage ancient heritage!). I hope I'm making the point- use the environment around you to find somewhere that's good for you to practice, and to soak up the experience of practicing in the environment.
You may also like to experiment with practicing with or without the mat. This subject warrants more space than I have here but, suffice to say that balance is more challenging without the mat, though this can be a rewarding experience that helps you to learn more about yourself, your body and your possibilities. You are also more likely to feel grounded and connected in your environment, which loops neatly back my main reason for advocating an outdoor yoga practice in the first place.
You may also find, that by developing an outdoor practice, you can begin to integrate yoga with other activities that you enjoy in the outdoors. SUP yoga (or doing yoga on a paddleboard) is a popular and now pretty well established way to combine the focus required for balance poses with the added excitement of being on the water (I'm a kayaker and I'm not sure if you can do yoga in a kayak, but if so perhaps I'll invent it one day...). In a simpler fashion, you can certainly combine activities such as cycling, walking, running and rock climbing with yoga: taking a quick mindfulness practice to focus yourself at the bottom of your bouldering problem, or cycling to a beautiful spot to throw down a relaxing yin practice.
Other activities also give the possibility of more impromptu yoga happenings.
On a walk in the lake district, my husband and I visited the awe-inspiring Castlerigg stone circle, on a natural platform encircled by surrounding hills and mountains. There were a number of other people there taking the opportunity to just sit and be in this powerful landscape, though it didn't feel crowded or touristy- just a bit magical really! It was absolutely perfect to take my walking boots off and practice some yoga postures to help connect with the energy of such a special place. It was so magical that I completely failed to feel self conscious, and it's a stand out memory of outdoor yoga practice for me now.
When it comes to combining exercise and yoga, the reasons may also be entirely practical. I find it's great after or during exercise to stretch out calves and hamstrings by practicing shapes including uttanasana and parsvotanasana- and this does give the opportunity to bring in mindful aspects of yoga that you associate with your physical practice.
Long distance walks usually bring on some pinching around the front of my hips, so any breaks once the 10 mile barrier has been broken will include taking some time in standing pigeon pose on each leg, appreciating the stretch, but also appreciating how amazing my body is for being capable of walking long distance, and how wonderful it feels to be immersed in this activity.
You may also find yourself called to practice a bit of outdoor yoga in more unexpected circumstances. A couple of months ago I was visiting an open garden with my family when we found a particularly lovely pond full of lotus flowers. We spent quite a while (to the delight and surprise of some of the other visitors, I must admit) sitting by the pond connecting with the beauty and symbolism of the lotuses, using lotus mudra. Impromptu yoga practice can happen anywhere!
The possibilities of practicing yoga outdoors are almost endless, especially if you are open to a bit of impromptu self-practice- but what are the real pros and cons? The sun isn't always shining, and you don't always (OK, some of us never) want non-yogis observing your yoga activities. Do the benefits outweigh the downsides?
I guess by now you've figured out that I'm going to say yes, but here are the pros and cons from my point of view so that you can take your own decision.
I've already covered a number of the benefits above: connecting with nature, being more grounded in your environment, challenging your practice by working with different surfaces, varying your practice by being in a new environment, and the outdoors just being really amazingly inspirational. If you otherwise tend to practice in a studio or home environment where you see your reflection, you will likely find yourself concerned less than usual about the physical expression of your yoga and able to find a bit more inner experience when taking your practice outdoors (although more about the issue of unhelpful self-consicousness below...).
Over and above these, there are more scientifically described benefits to working in the outdoors that you may not have already been aware of. Being outdoors has measurable beneficial effects on our physical and mental health, even if we are already good and healthy. These include increased happiness, increase in energy, improved memory function, reduction of inflammation and reduction of stress.
Even if we're not in tip top shape (and let's face it, that's all of us sometimes) then being outdoors can still provide these benefits in order to help us reach better health. Ecotherapy is one approach used by people who experience anxiety and depression, and if like me you suffer with seasonally affected mood changes (very common in Northern hemisphere countries) then getting exposed to more natural light will have really noticeable benefits.
Not only this, but it's been shown that being outside more might help to prevent mental and physical health problems occurring. And honestly, I think this is the one that really made me sit up and pay attention, because prevention is SO much better than cure.
In Japan in the 1980s, concern was expressed about otherwise healthy adults showing signs of depression and anxiety due to the pressures of daily life. One of the remedies developed to combat this is "forest bathing" or shinrin-yoku, where participants spend time immersed in a forest environment. Studies (here's one if you're interested) have shown that this not only improves mental wellbeing and alleviates markers associated with risk to mental health, it can also improve physical health too, including benefits to blood pressure, reduction of inflammation (which is associated with both mental and physical health risks) and improved immune function.
Even if you don't have an actual forest nearby, you can still experience the benefits of forest bathing by being mindful in a environment where you connect with the natural world: be that a park, hedgerow, balcony garden, riverside, wander through the local allotments or even under trees in the street. Taking your yoga practice to a place closer to nature allows you to enhance these benefits within your yoga practice and really take things to the next level.
But before we go all out for outdoor yoga, we should have a clear idea of the downsides, even if it's just to see how we find ways around them.
Living in Northern Britain, I have to say, one of the biggest problems I have to consider is the weather (and we British love to go on about the weather!). It's either too hot, too cold, too humid, too sunny, raining or snowing. So you do have to pick your days to venture outdoors with your practice, and consider that if you are going a bit further afield, the weather might change from what's expected whilst you are actually there. When it comes to planned outdoor yoga sessions with the mat, I am by and large a fair-weather (and warm-weather) outdoor yogi. And actually, that's fine!
It's all very well considering the lofty benefits of outdoor practice, but we need to be practical and down to earth too, in terms of having sun cream, insect repellent and multiple clothing options so that we don't get bitten, exposed to too much sun or chilly in savasana at the end of the practice. Having a hand towel, yoga towel and/or liquid chalk can help prevent slipping if you're sweaty on your mat in the sun (out of necessity I have a non-latex mat, which I do find slippy when I'm warm), and you might also find a towel or an eye pillow a necessity for practicing savasana in bright light. Finally, if you regularly use yoga props such as blocks, bricks and a blanket then you'll probably need to take them too- so you can see, the amount of kit can soon add up. It's not always as simple as skipping out of the door with your mat!
You may find that you need a different mat too, if you want to take the mat outdoors, as you may not wish to risk damaging your studio mat by hauling it around a forest or a crag. Equally, your usual mat may be heavy, so you may prefer to get a travel version to go outside with, but it's worth mentioning that these by their nature these are very lightweight and may not offer too much support on natural surfaces.
Even if, like me, you do have a nigh on indestructible studio mat that you're happy to take outdoors, you'll need to clean it even more regularly than usual. Sand can be a right four letter word to clean off at the end of your holiday! All part of the fun.
The final downside that many people might find as their main obstacle to taking their practice outside, is other people, particularly non-yogis. Many a time in the past I've been a bit put off my practice by the idea that other people can see my failed headstands or might disturb me in relaxation.
Practicing in a private outdoor space, if you are lucky enough to have one, is a sure fire way to not have this as an obstacle to your outdoor practice.
If you're practicing in a group of other yogis in a public place, you may still feel a little self-conscious, but the chances are you'll much less concerned by being observed by the general public. This is a good way to start if this downside could hold you back from an outdoor practice, as I do feel the benefits are too good to miss.
If you're practicing on your own in a public place, this is a bit more tricky. One method I used to employ a lot was to find a really good secluded spot, where perhaps I could see other people but they were unlikely to see me. In that way, I could quickly do something I was confident with, or simply pause, if I thought I was about to be disturbed.
The other method that I have been developing ever since is the tried and tested yogic attitude of just not giving a damn about what other people think of you (yes, it's as hard as it sounds).
I'll be honest, a lot of my hang ups about what other people think if they come across me doing yoga in the forest or peek at me meditating in the garden, are more to do with my own conditioning than what they actually think. When people (rarely) say something, it's more along the lines of "wow you're so healthy" as opposed to "what a weirdo"! In my opinion, a major benefit of regular yoga practice is that we begin to develop clarity in how we see ourselves and the world, to start to recognise and therefore unpick conditioning that might be holding us back. Food for thought there, it's a work in progress.
Practicing yoga outdoors has more benefits than downsides, or at least, the downsides can be navigated with some care in order to reap the benefits. Outdoor yoga could not only improve our current state of health and wellbeing, but potentially keep us healthier in mind and body in the future. Explore the benefits by doing yoga outdoors in a group or on your own; with a structured practice, as part of your own self-practice or even in an impromptu manner if you're up for it! Living in the country or in the city, there is always somewhere to practice yoga outside. Stepping outside of the studio can mean keeping our practice fresh and stepping out of the comfort zone, not only in the physical yoga practice, but also in our attitudes to ourselves and others too. Happy practicing!