Research makes a strong case for taking your practice into the wild—or at least your backyard.
One of yoga’s (many) beauties is it can literally be done anywhere. And it turns out nature enhances your practice in an entirely different way than a studio does. A recent Swedish study found viewing nature, especially fractals (the organically occurring patterns in tree branches and fern leaves for example), increased wakeful relaxation and internal focus—two pretty important components of a rewarding yoga practice. “It makes sense to practice inside during inclement weather,” says Amos Clifford, director of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy. “But, when did we forget to take our practice outside on a glorious day?”
4 Ways the Outdoors Enhances Yoga Practice
“Nature connects us to our roots,” says Dr. Matthew Baral, who led the This Is Your Brain On Nature lecture at the Sedona Yoga Festival. “The grass, the ocean, the trees are all part of our primeval world. It is where we feel most at home.” While a vigorous hike has its own benefits, practicing yoga outside can transform a stagnant routine into a heightened experience. Here, four ways that works.
1. Spending time in nature can replenish depleted energy.
Our nervous system evolved in a way that punctuates moments of stress with bursts of energy—a survival tactic used when we were part of the hunter-gatherer community. Spending time outside sends signals to the brain that the body is back in its native environment and recalibrates itself to stay alert, says Clifford. Not surprisingly, when people spend time in a forested setting, feelings of vigor and vitality are increased, according to a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. We say that’s fuel for a dynamic Vinyasa flow.
2. Natural scenery can heighten awareness.
When you leave the four walls of a studio, all of your senses wake up—scent, sight, and touch, in particular, activate parts of the brain that make you more present. “Fresh air heightens breath awareness,” says Devani Paige, a yoga instructor who teaches outdoor yoga at L’Auberge de Sedona in Arizona. “I can really feel the oxygen flowing through me, clearing my mind and empowering my practice.” What’s more, researchers at the University of Southern California found that looking at beautiful scenery releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that bring us pleasure. “Perhaps the color green is the default mode for our brains,” writes Esther Sternberg, M.D., in her book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being. Touching grass or a sandy beach further provides stimulation. Bonus: a slightly uneven surface engages and strengthens your core. As we become more fluent in processing a sensory experience it morphs into a sensuous experience that shuts off the list-making part of our brain and zeros in on the now.
3. Practicing yoga in a new environment can build confidence.
Find your edge—no, we don’t mean balancing on a side of a cliff. Practicing outside for the first time can feel awkward. It is easy to feel self-conscious when you’re used to practicing in a set environment. While familiarity brings security, stepping outside your comfort zone opens a gateway to an entirely new interpretation of your yoga practice. Imagine the power of sun salutations under actual sunrays or the vivacity of a tree pose while focusing on a real tree instead of a spot on the wall. “Your body is a research instrument,” says Clifford. “Learn how to use it.”
4. The outdoors can further boost meditation’s benefits.
Scientists have already shown that those who meditate on a regular basis have a smaller amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for managing the fight-or-flight response. Coincidentally, field studies, published in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, show that people who were exposed to a forest environment versus an urban environment had a lower concentration of the stress hormone cortisol. “Buddha wasn’t in a meditation hall,” adds Clifford. “He was in the forest.” Time to om outside.