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Outdoor Yoga

written by ed moffett

Outdoor YogaMy favorite way to do yoga is to go out to some beautiful place in nature where I can express yoga interactively with the natural symmetries around me.

Since every system of yoga has variations of the definition, it’s important to have some flexibility in our concept of what yoga is. Let’s face it- going to a yoga class involves a lot of work to prepare, travel, arrive at a certain time, position yourself in the studio room, participate in the class, pack up and go home. For many people, yoga class is the only time they ever do yoga, and some of us have a lot of resistance to the commitment. Others attempt a home “practice” where they follow a prescribed series of postures, duplicating what they learned in class. While there’s value in all of this, I’d like to share some things about Outdoor Yoga that get me so excited that in over 30 years I simply have NEVER had resistance to doing it. Regardless of the condition of my health or fitness, I’m irresistibly drawn to Outdoor Yoga like a bee to a flower! Not only can you do Outdoor Yoga in all kinds of weather and climates and hours of the day, but being outdoors offer the opportunity to deepen your personal experience simply because you get out of the house and away from lifestyle distractions. It’s almost as if there are places in nature set aside for certain types of human alignment. Each species of animal seeks its corresponding places to rest or observe the surroundings. As you find your “spots” in nature you’ll be amazed at the insights which flood your consciousness. In the natural outdoor world we’re likely to align ourselves with geometries other than the four walls of a yoga studio. The ground is uneven, and the sky is open. There’s wind, sun and shade. And there are all kinds of music- birds, insects, wind, the sound of your movement echoing off trees and rocks, and the soundscapes of space between trees or rocks.

Once I’m out there- anywhere, anytime and either alone or with some kindred spirit, it’s great to know how much time I have and then forget about time; at least for awhile and get out of my linear thinking mind and into the moment. (I go into great detail on my website about gear considerations and general outdoor clothing, comfort, survival and strategies to carry the stuff.) Remember, you don’t have to suffer to find your bliss with Outdoor Yoga- every step of the way is part of the journey. First of all, what IS yoga? For our purposes, “yoga” is the process of synergizing the energies of mind, body, spirit and emotions and/or being in a state of synergy. We borrow the word “yoga” from it’s Sanskrit origins with artistic license- like all words there’s a diversity of interpretation, with no single definition of the word “yoga”.

Yoga is an art, and you’re the artist. The art of yoga is a nutrient you generate to enhance your health and well-being. It’s not necessary to induce pain or suffering in order to do yoga, unless you choose to do so. You never have to put yourself in a complex textbook yoga pose, anymore than you have to play Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata backwards on the piano to be a musician. The fact is that many masterful yogis barely use body postures at all. So, forget about achieving some textbook-perfect pose, because that’s a very recently popularized illusion about yoga. If you love doing so, then that’s great! But don’t worry if you can’t, and don’t think yourself masterful just because you can. There is no right or wrong way. Also, beware the addiction to extreme postures- you’ll likely be depressed when illness or injury suddenly knocks at your door. Instead, accept the fact that things change with the ebbs and flows of life, and that the thing we’re calling yoga is just as possible when you’re so sick that each breath is a world of pain, as it is when you’re sailing with ecstasy on the winds of ultimate health. Speaking of breath, your breath is a major key to preventing injury of the body with yoga and all forms of movement. Most yoga-induced injuries happen when people are inadvertently gripping their breath while overdriving their body to achieve some external model or ideal. But the fact is that any complex yoga pose you see in pictures is probably the result of the person being fully involved with their breath to get there. Otherwise, they’d be too injured to have another photo shoot. Many ballet dancers demonstrating the pinnacle of their art are often severely injured from extreme performance. As a bodyworker, I’ve treated many yoga teachers and students who injured and re-injured themselves trying to live up to the external models of some yoga style.

For example, many people “hold” their breath in the simple effort of getting out of a chair or car. The common injuries from these simple daily activities could be largely avoided if people used a natural exhalation during that effort. The same natural wisdom of the body is essential during dynamic activities like yoga and exercise, where the consequences of dysfunctional breathing can be severe. It’s easy to solve this potential problem before it ever becomes an issue, simply by paying attention to the breath. Move into and out of any yoga position with some awareness of your breath- very simple! Although some breath techniques involve holding in or out, the basic idea is that breath is always either coming in or going out according to your body’s natural processes and needs. Remember, your breath is the dynamic dance between conscious and subconscious awareness, and it’s going on all the time. Simply pay attention to what your breath is doing and it will teach you more than words can describe. Here’s a breath technique that will instantly show you why breath has been used throughout the ages: 1) Notice your breath- right now. You can do this standing comfortably with knees unlocked, noticing how your body is not still at all, but is subtly moving all the time. 2) Notice your breath- just notice your breath, without deliberately altering it. There you are! You’re doing one of the most simple, yet sophisticated breath techniques ever! You can call it meditation, or yoga- it’s clearly both, and it’s so simple that it’s easy to miss.

ADVANCED BREATH TECHNIQUE: do steps 1) and 2) again, and again, and again… And, add the third feature: 3) Notice how each breath is totally different and unique, like a world of it’s own. If you never learn another breath technique, you already have a lifetime of exploration to do with this simple technique. So now we’re off the leash, and ready to do some outdoor yoga! You’ve SHOWN UP in the greatest yoga studio imaginable! Now what? Well, if you only did one simple yawn-like stretch, it’s probably enough. But suppose you just stand there, wondering what to do? That’s a perfect place to start! It’s the beginner’s mind, which after all my decades of experience is still the place to begin- “wondering what to do.” Something will definitely happen…trust the process. Maybe you’ll sit down and observe yourself, your breath, your surroundings. Or, maybe you’ll get into a huge bunch of spontaneous yoga movements you’ve never done before- it’s all possible, and it’s different each time you do it. Let go of any attachment to what you think it should be; the fact that you’re in nature, intending to do some yoga, is yoga.

Doing yoga outdoors invites you to be more “elastic” in order to deal with the elements and terrain. It’s not a predictable or controllable environment like a yoga studio, but it’s an infinite source of inspiration. By deliberately being aware of the ever changing elements of yourself and nature, you invite a greater level of conscious participation and synergy, and you’re “doing yoga.”

I say “doing yoga” in contrast to the common term “practicing yoga”, because you’re not trying to get anything “right” in relation to any system or method of yoga. This is YOUR yoga, YOUR way. Besides, the variables in nature are far too infinite to practice doing something that works in a predictable environment. It’s just like “practicing music” versus “playing music”- you can play music with spontaneous improvisation in ways you’ve never done before and will never do again, which sounds great in the moment, which nobody will ever hear, and it’s one of the most fulfilling and ancient ways of playing music. It’s the same with yoga- you’re “doing yoga”, with no attachment or adherence to any facet of what’s happening. We could spend hours discussing this topic, but the basic idea is to set aside any notion of “practicing yoga”, and just DO IT! You always have immediate access to the ultimate yoga teacher within you. By doing yoga outdoors you invoke your instinctual self and the ancient wisdom of your body. Our modern world tends to numb us to some of this natural instinct, which results in various levels of discomfort, disease, and suffering. Outdoor Yoga helps to re-awaken some of the instinctual awareness, gather it’s powers, and incorporate this with our modern life for the betterment of our health and consciousness. The ancient and the modern worlds are compatible as long as we continually synergize their diverse energies. It’s a great way to upgrade consciousness, so to speak.

There’s a saying, “Seek not to emulate the masters; rather, seek what the masters sought.” In the context of Outdoor Yoga, simply connect to the inner muse from which creativity springs forth, and explore the diversity of your human being-ness synergizing with the natural environment. Remember, “Yoga” is simply a term of convenience in our time, known by many names in many cultures. Go out in nature and do some yoga- that’s where most of the masterful yogis throughout history have discovered things like yoga.

Flat, even surfaces are rare in nature, but all of nature’s surfaces are perfect in their natural symmetries. Some are more comfortable than others, of course, and by doing yoga in nature you incorporate it’s symmetries, as if ingesting the natural order of things. Just being in the environment itself is highly nutritious, offering an opportunity to be in a spontaneous yoga flow rather than attempting a particular yoga “practice”. The spot you find for Outdoor Yoga can be different each time, maybe even several spots in a given yoga episode. Each spot has unique qualities of view, exposure, terrain, vegetation, rocks, and surface upon which to explore your yoga. Remember, it’s an elastic process of spontaneous improvisation, not a rigid form to follow.

Finding your yoga spot in nature is kind of like a dog spiraling around to curl up for a nap- there’s often a “tug” toward some perfect spot. This tug is the instinctual ancient wisdom of your body seeking certain features for it’s nurturing activity, which may be different from the expected vista or perch. You might spiral around for awhile, as if wrapping yourself in the energy of the area, gathering information about the surroundings. Sometimes you might be dynamically active and highly exposed, embracing a large geographic area. Other times your body wants security to curl up in a deeply nurturing position like a cat. Either way, you’ve surveyed and gathered the energy of the area so the body knows everything is safe and secure, and you’re free to do what the body needs.

Your awareness is a highly evolved double-edged sword- it protects you from danger when you’re not at the top of the food chain (whether it’s insects or mountain lions that might be after you!) and it’s also what enables you to perceive beauty, ecstasy and wonder. There will always be distractions of some sort to deal with, so your “gathering” of the energy of the area is essential and is a great tool to bring into the business of daily life. If you’re in a restful cat-like position, you can simply open one eye when there’s a distraction, rather than having to lift your head to see what’s going on. Sometimes just a few minutes of such deep rest is all you need.

Speaking of a few minutes, you do not need to set aside hours every day to benefit from Outdoor Yoga. My partner, Amy, and I fell in love doing yoga in silence together. We lived in separate states and would meet in different magical places for a couple of days each month. We both needed deep, personal healing and also wanted quality time together, so we thrived with this integrated, nurturing space of “doing yoga” in nature. Now, several years later we have baby Maya and like all new parents are challenged for personal and relationship space, and time. We bring Maya with us everywhere in nature. Babies are experts at being in the moment, they’re really in the yoga zone, reaching out and meeting us in the synergy of the space we share as we venture in the natural world.

You are gifted with the ability to find your bliss in the body you have right now. You don’t need flexible hamstrings, you never have to sit cross-legged or on your heels, and you don’t have to do a prescribed sequence of postures to be doing yoga. Anybody who tries to convince you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Instead, you have the ultimate yoga studio in your backyard, you’ve got the equipment of a body, and total permission to discover your own inner yoga flow. Nature is waiting for you.

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