The Benefits of Taking your Yoga Practice Outside
Imagine the warmth of sunlight on your face, a gentle breeze caressing your skin, and a sense of expansion from looking into the vastness of the sky as you gaze up towards your extended hand in trikonasana.
Envision the sound of light chirps of a playful bird song and the scent of fresh air filling your lungs with every inhalation. As you flow between postures in tandem with lifeforce energy and rest in deep inner stillness, the natural world nourishes your senses.
Through this sensory awareness, being in the present moment is instinctual. Immersed in nature, you are calm.
Scientific research investigating the effects of urban versus natural landscapes on human health has quantified the restorative quality of nature, explaining the innate feeling of peacefulness that results from exposure to the natural world (Williams, 2018; Nielsen and Hansen, 2007; Hartig et al., 2003; Kaplan, 1992).
Scientists have found that wilderness experiences decreased cortisol (stress hormone), blood pressure levels and pulse rate, which are associated with the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (a network of nerves responsible for stimulating the rest & digest response) (Haluza et al., 2014; Park et al., 2010). Whereas urban environments have been shown to impair our basic mental processes, including our ability to retain information and our capacity to concentrate (Schertz et al., 2019; Capaldi et al., 2015).
The consensus among scientists that a disconnection from nature, in turn, creates negative emotions and mental health problems has fostered the growth of eco-therapy in recent years (Lee et al., 2012). An eco-therapeutic approach aims to reconnect people to our evolutionary and interdependent relationship with nature (Miyazaki, 2011; Burls, 2007).
The emerging field of eco-psychology has successfully prescribed direct engagement with the natural environment as the basis for treatment for patients suffering from severe trauma, cancer, depression, stress and anxiety (Adams et al., 2014; Ulrich et al., 1991).
In their book, Your Brain on Nature authors Eva Selhub and Alan Logan cite research results that show improved mood, increased positive feelings, lowered anger and reduced fear arousal in participants who frequently engage in green exercise (i.e. physical activity which takes place outdoors, including yoga) (Iwata, 2016; Selhub and Logan, 2014; DeBoer et al., 2012; Peacock et al., 2007; Bricker et al., 2008).
As a movement-based practice, yoga (physical postures, breath regulation techniques, meditation and relaxation) has been shown to induce the release of endorphins that give rise to heightened mood (Cramer et al., 2018).
Scientists have shown how yogic practices, such as meditation, can positively regulate brain function associated with the release of the hormones which trigger physical responses to stress (Infante et al., 1998).
Yoga has further been found to decrease hyperarousal through an increase in thalamic GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) levels (Streeter et al., 2010), which can improve mood and anxiety. The science behind pranayama, or breath control, suggests that the practice can recalibrate the “fight-or-flight” response (Brown and Gerbarg, 2005).
Overall, research-based evidence suggests that yoga, in conjunction with psychological treatment, can offer restoration from stress and fatigue (Jeter et al., 2015).
Taking Yoga Outside
The mental health benefits of yoga can be even more rewarding outside.
Transitioning your yoga practice from indoors to outdoors can passively allow external factors (scenic views, forest air, animal often sounds otherwise lacking within a studio/home environment) to trigger physiologic responses in your body that reduce stress levels (Djernis et al., 2019).
Practising yoga while attuned to the cyclic and serenity of nature can balance the burdens, crises and challenging fast-paced demands of modern life (Louv, 2012). Patanjal’s Yoga Sutras, remind us that the main objective of yoga is to calm the mind. What better way to practice than within nature – naturally encouraging our brains to submit to a more relaxed state?
Perhaps for this very reason, yoga has been traditionally practised outdoors.
The roots of Buddhist teachings stem from Buddha’s life amid his natural surroundings. In Buddhist and Hindu literature, there is an emphasis on the importance of harmonious coexistence with all sentient beings.
Yoga as a contemplative tradition nurtures a connection – union – to the universe.
Reconnection to the natural landscape provides a sense of synergy, reconciliation, refreshment, and trust in oneself through greater cognitive awareness (Burls, 2007).
Outdoor yoga offers a healing model that cultivates witness consciousness, non-duality, and oneness (Mortali, 2019).
Engagement in outdoor asana (physical postures), pranayama, and meditation realign our practice to the essence of yoga.
In nature, we are reminded of our true nature.
When we see ourselves reflected in the lifeforms surrounding us, we can free ourselves from being trapped by our thoughts and egos.
Shedding the physical, mental, and emotional tension, we discover the way back home.
Jessica Gray (she/her) is a Registered Yoga Teacher, Mental Health Aware Yoga graduate, Librarian and mental health advocate. She graduated with a Master’s degree in physical anthropology and studied human osteological methods. From this deep immersion, she fostered great appreciation and respect for the human body.
Jessica offers gentle yoga classes that support in-depth self discovery.
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