The Benefits of Practicing Yoga Outdoors

By Jeanne Heileman, Yoga Teacher Trainer

I have just spent a week on the beach in Belize, co-leading a yoga retreat where our students walked 300 feet from the mainland onto a large yoga deck surrounded by the ocean. One could not get a bad view; there was sky and water everywhere you looked, even towards the mainland. The roof was a thatched roof, created in the Belizian old-style using the palm leaves from local trees. The breeze from the ocean passed through this space regularly, as well as the sounds from the ocean, taxi and speed boats rushing by, and calls from local sea birds to balance the experience.
All of this is quite different from where I teach in Los Angeles, California. Inside the studios where I teach exist four solid walls, windows that either don’t open or set so high that when you open them you can’t see outside. Both rooms are really sweet and solid. Both rooms have air conditioning and heat so that the moment students appear to be uncomfortable, I can quickly make an adjustment. Both rooms are also equipped with high quality stereos for fun or soothing music in the background during a class.

In Belize, there is almost nothing solid about the space, except for the floor, ceiling and the few posts holding the ceiling. It welcomes the ebb and flow of the environment, which we learned to use in our practice.

This is what I’ve learned from the experience of teaching and practicing outdoors:

Practicing outside increases your inner proprioception skills.
Proprioception is the body’s awareness to know what is up without seeing up, to know where your foot is located even if you can’t see your foot. With this skill, you can make an adjustment in a backbend or inversion safely and get deeper into the pose. Basically, you can get deeper into your own body. Being outside with all of the activity makes it difficult to focus on where one’s foot is located. So, by succeeding, that skill and muscle increases.

Practicing outside increases your skill and muscles for balance.
I struggle with balance due to a misaligned spine and two legs that live different lengths, (common to many of us.) I find that when I do balance postures I “require” to stand off my yoga mat on the wood floor, needing things to be quiet and needing a good spot on the wall in front of me. This is not possible when you are balancing outside. I made a joke to my students to “fix your eyes on one wave” as we were in a pose, to help them develop their focus. The joke is that one wave moves into another. Nothing is stable outside. While in Ardha Chandrasana, (Half Moon Pose) the looking to the ceiling was an amazing experience because the ceiling was soooo high and there were no walls for solidity on the way up. That threw me off my leg, tumbling to the ground. Yet, when I continued trying and mastered balancing outside, it improved my balance back at home.

Practicing outside helps develop inner strength and stability.
I am really guilty of this: I often desire to do my meditation and asana inside in a quiet and controlled environment. If it’s too cool, I put on the heat. If it’s too loud, I close a door. If my mind is too crazy, I put on some music for asana. None of this is possible outdoors. One learns to “welcome” the breeze as one is practicing, which means that you may not sweat so much. But working hard is not determined by the amount of sweat one produces, that is a myth. Working hard is determined by the amount of focus one is able to apply, and the amount of strength and stability one gains. It’s easy to gain strength and stability when it’s quiet and no one is bothering you. It’s quite a feat to gain strength when the outer elements are also part of the practice. When we can “welcome” those outer elements, we become stronger and more stable in all aspects of our life. There is less requiring things to be a certain way and more acceptance for things as they are at this moment.

Practicing outdoors aligns you with Nature.
It is just amazing for your skin, your inner glow, and connecting to the greatest of living things, our planet. For those of us who were on the retreat, Earth Day happened every day. It wasn’t always pretty: there were bugs, annoying noises, messes, rain, and some changing temperatures to add to our practice. But this is our planet. All of those aspects are part of the living entity that is Earth. In balance we had some of the most amazing sunsets, gorgeous views of turquoise, greens, blues and whites blending into each other, and the fresh feeling of being in Paradise.

All of this has inspired me to incorporate some outdoor practice at home as I return and the weather starts to warm up. I encourage any serious yogi to develop a meditation and asana practice outside to balance your inner, controlled practice. It is not only a benefit to ourselves, but a means of loving and appreciating our planet. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explain that perfection in our practice is achieved when we are unaffected by the dualities. That is our goal, on the mat, and off. Then we can become true yogis full of compassion and presence.

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