Yoga Moves Back to Nature

Yoga Moves Back to Nature

For the small group that gathers before dawn with yoga teacher Rudy Porro at Matheson Hammock Park, the series of yoga postures known as the Sun Salutation is a literal translation. As the early risers raise their arms and arch their backs, the sun emerges in front of them, embracing the Miami group with a warm golden glow.

Fort Lauderdale yoga teacher Melanie Camp's ''studio'' is an overgrown butterfly garden in her backyard, where she holds classes on a wood deck. The wind rustling through trees and the gentle trickle of a small waterfall is her soundtrack.

Kim Hess' ideal yoga setting is on the deck of a sailboat in Biscayne Bay, where the Miami Beach yoga teacher incorporates the boat's lines, mast and forestay into traditional yoga positions. Her nautical adaptations of the ancient art were a big hit at last month's Miami International Boat Show, where she sold copies of her new book, Yoga Onboard: A Guide for Cruisers and Lives-Aboards (Blue Duck Enterprises, $22.95).

''Yoga outside takes you to a different level,'' says Porro, a teacher at True Balance, a Coconut Grove studio that hosts the Matheson Hammock Park sunrise yoga sessions. ''Every time I practice outdoors, it's inspirational to me. The bridge to a mind-body connection, to put it simply, is much quicker outside. What can be better than this idyllic setting where you hear birds chirping, movement on the lake and the wind in the trees?''

The opportunities for outdoor yoga experiences are plentiful in South Florida, particularly this time of year, when cool weather entices yoga practitioners to beaches, backyards, parks, hotel pool decks, condo balconies, boats and even kayaks. But the back-to-nature yoga movement is not unique to the sub-tropics. It's a growing nationwide trend, as yoga moves into the mainstream and outdoors enthusiasts begin to adapt it to their own interests.

The national magazine Yoga Journal estimates that 15 million people now participate in yoga in the United States, compared with 5 million in 1998 and only a few hundred thousand in the late 1980s. Along with that growth has come an overlap with other activities, as more people are exposed to yoga through health and fitness magazines and in gyms. Today, it's not only loyal followers who are taking yoga outdoors; it's people who want to reap yoga's benefits while pursuing their own passions for swimming, hiking, boating and other outdoor pastimes.

When you do yoga outside, you finally get to just be natural and free ...

Free from the carefully controlled environment of a gym or studio, an outdoors setting seems fitting for a practice that derives many of its postures' names -- mountain, tree, lotus, cobra, fish and eagle, among others -- from Earth and its animals. Doing yoga outside compared to in a studio can be like running outdoors versus jogging on a treadmill.

''To me, it's more refreshing,'' says Kemila Velan, a North Miami yoga teacher who has even practiced yoga on a bike in Everglades National Park.

''When you do yoga outside, you finally get to just be natural and free; you don't have to be structured,'' Velan says. ''I've done it in trees, on bikes and on the beach. In January, when my boyfriend and I went to Shark Valley (in Everglades National Park), we started doing different poses and balancing on our bikes as we rode on the paths, with the gators just hanging out around us. We also did a class on the lookout point.''

As part of a website she's created called, Velan wants to start delivering podcasts of yoga classes from various South Florida studios so enthusiasts can take a session with them anywhere on their iPods.

But the outdoors yoga experience isn't for everyone. Summer heat and rain, bugs, the blazing sun, gawkers and surfaces that aren't level are often turn-offs. For those who practice ''hot yoga,'' a style conducted in a heated space, the outdoors here -- believe it or not -- simply isn't hot enough.

''It doesn't work for us,'' says Jimmy Barkan, owner of Hot Yoga with Jimmy Barkan in Fort Lauderdale. ''We're one of the most intensive approaches to yoga. In the end, you're just dripping and sweating, so you have to control the environment.''

Still, Barkan incorporates sunrise sessions on the beach into month-long teacher training classes that he conducts at Ocean Sky Resort in Fort Lauderdale twice a year. As many as 60 students gather each morning for 15 to 20 minutes of Sun Salutations, facing east on the beach. ''It's an amazing way to start your day,'' Barkan says.

For some outdoors fans, the unpredictable nature of yoga outside is part of the appeal.

''It's more like life,'' says Hess, the boat yoga author who has taught private lessons on boats and beaches in South Florida, the Caribbean and Mexico. ''You have distractions -- people watching you, the wind, the weather -- and you have to deal with them. It's all about adapting to your circumstances. I truly believe that how you are on the yoga mat is how you are in life.''

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