Al fresco yoga - what's so special about getting up close to nature?
OK so I know it's not for everyone. Yoga outdoors is completely different from being in the controlled environment of an air conditioned studio. I can't even promise that the air will always be fresh - you never know when a gang of council gardeners decide to show up with a petrol driven mower or the smell of freshly barbequed meat wafts your way from a neighbouring garden - but, for me at least, expecting the unexpected is all part of the fun.
Outdoor classes are easy going and informal. A perfect Tadasana is never going to happen while you're standing in a bumpy field. There's plenty of excuses to lose your balance while negotiating tree roots and sudden weather changes. But none of that matters if you're willing to go with the flow.
My first experience of practising yoga outside was completely unplanned and unexpected. The fire alarm went off in the gym where I was a student. It was a false alarm so we knew that we didn't have to leave the building but the gym staff couldn't turn off the loud announcement repeatedly telling us to leave! In desperation, the teacher told us to grab our mats and we took them upstairs to the rooftop car park where we found plenty of open space to roll out the mats. It was the middle of town on a concrete car park but, as soon as we started our practice, I found myself transported to another world. I could breathe freely - pranayama took on a new dimension. The sky above was blue and cloudless for a while, then clouds floated by on the breeze. My practise flowed with nature, the surrounding streets and buildings laid out in a panoramic view below us. Occasionally we heard the sounds of sirens below and helicopters above, birds soared high, the few cars using the car park gave us a wide berth. In savasana I closed my eyes and imagined a sunny beach, the sunshine gently warming my body. This was yoga at a totally new level!
Since then I've jumped at every opportunity to take my practise outside. During lockdown I practised every morning with my favourite teacher on zoom. I followed her voice and occasionally peered at her tiny figure on my mobile to check anything I was unsure of. As summer progressed and my patio got hotter I retreated under a parasol and continued my daily practice.
On holiday I like to have a balcony or patio space to roll out my mat. I've even managed a quick Facebook livestream before breakfast. It doesn't have to be a full on session - just a few minutes of pranayama, some simple stretches may be all you have time for.
It was no surprise that I taught my first class outside - in the bandstand at Raphael Park. It was a great way to start teaching with much less pressure than being indoors. People accept that the class will be less than perfect and the weather doesn't have to be "perfect" either. That first summer we experienced everything from intense heat to rain and storms. I learnt to go with the flow, accept nature in every aspect of its glory and adjust the classes to fit the environment rather than rigidly sticking to a pre-prepared plan. It was the ideal learning ground for me as a newbie teacher.
So what are the ingredients for successful outdoor yoga? Having completed almost ten years in the park these are my suggestions:
Find a secluded shady spot. Trees are great for connecting with nature and providing shade both from the sun and light rain.
Wear layers so you're prepared for all weather conditions. Fleeces and raincoats are ideal even if you don't need them.
Wear trainers - sometimes standing sequences suit the weather conditions more than mat based yoga.
Bring sun lotion, insect repellent, tissues and wet wipes just in case.
Don't worry about passers-by. Nowadays people are used to different activities in the park and I'm always surprised at how little interest they show in us!
As a teacher, I am there to hold space, to ensure the surroundings are safe and deter interruptions (ie friendly dogs etc) enabling the students to relax and enjoy their session.
Don't expect perfection, roll with the unexpected and allow yourself to be in the moment - whatever is going on around you!
Mostly importantly of all - enjoy practising yoga outside. But if it's really not for you look for an indoor class with access to fresh air - open windows are the next best thing to actually being outside in nature.
This summer I'm teaching on Tuesday mornings in Lodge Farm Park by the Carlton Road entrance (Romford end of the park). We've got a lovely spot between the Bowls green and the car park surrounded by leafy trees and shade.
On Sundays I teach at the RAFA Club (just across the road from Lodge Farm Park). We're indoors but we open the patio doors on warm days. There is a beautiful garden and patio area which I've used occasionally (when it's been too hot for indoors!) but it is an indoor class with a view!
Alternate Mondays during the summer I teach at Thames Chase Forest Centre. This class is indoors too with a view to the outside space. And afterwards you can take a walk around the woodlands. On 11th September for one session only the whole class will be taken outdoors - more details about that to come.
On Wednesday mornings I teach at HASWA (an Asian community centre in Elm Park which welcomes people of all backgrounds and ethnicities). We're indoors but there are plenty of windows and on hot days the backdoor opens for extra fresh air.
This Sunday (16th July) I'll be in Harrow Lodge Park - leading standing sequences and mindfulness practice with HASWA at the Essex Family Fest.
And, of course, you can join me for live zooms (or use the recordings) and take your mobile or laptop into the garden or out to the park. If you do that, place whatever device you're using in the shade as they shut down if they get overheated.
Enjoy your practice outdoors and in the winter you'll bring the sunshine inside with you!