Written by Emily Glaser
Our guide to Practicing Yoga Outdoors in Western North Carolina. The yoga industry is, with apt congruity, stretching.
Just as yogis lengthen their limbs—arms, legs, fingers, and toes—with an intentional groan of muscles, so is the yoga industry expanding to accommodate more practitioners, products, concepts, and classes. As of 2018, some 36 million Americans practice yoga; between 2012 and 2016 alone, the number of practitioners increased by 50%. For all its spirituality, it’s also an undeniably capitalistic enterprise, and a profitable one at that: We spend $16 billion on yoga classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories annually, with the average yogi dolling out some $90 monthly to deepen their practice.
For small business owners, those swelling statistics represent both opportunities for income and impact, as well as a stiff field of competition. To take advantage of the former while withstanding the latter, the breadth of available classes has expanded to almost Seussian proportions: Brewga, Broga, Doga, Glo-ga, Voga. Yoga with cannabis, cats, metal music, wine tastings, and even, ahem, sans clothes. The list of places and ways you can practice yoga with a group of like-minded yogis is interminable, but perhaps the most popular of these novel approaches is also the most authentic to the discipline: practicing outdoors.
“Practicing outside is very true to the roots of yoga and enhances your practice,” explains Miranda Peterson, owner and founder of the local yoga hike company Namaste in Nature. “For centuries yogis, hermits, and monks around the world have lived immersed or isolated in nature to deeply connect with their practice and purpose.” So are modern practitioners turning increasingly to the outdoors for classes on mountaintops and rivers, in parks and barns, where for $20 to $75, teachers guide them through a practice that connects them to both themselves and the earth.
Asheville represents a trifecta of optimal conditions for breeding such yogic businesses: a centuries-old reputation as a colony of health and wellness with a renowned yoga community; a utopia of breathtaking and wild scenery, host to adventure sports and outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds; and a booming tourist trade that combines the two. Wellness tourism is a $639 billion industry, and with 11.1 million visitors annually, Buncombe County naturally gleans a correlative slice of the pie. But the outdoor yoga industry isn’t just for adventuresome visitors, it’s a pursuit perfectly positioned for locals too, where we can reconnect with our surroundings, bolster our health, and even give back to our community.
These mountains are a sanctuary of respite, beckoning hikers who climb their steep and winding trails to the top, through forests and over balds, in pursuit of both exercise and serenity. Add to that the parallel benefits of yoga, and yoga hikes provide incentive for even intrepid athletes to say “om.”
“Yoga and meditation combined with hiking creates a great mix of physical cardio, strength, balance, and flexibility, along with mental relaxation, reflection, and clarity,” says Namaste in Nature’s Peterson. “Not to mention, the smells and views are much better.”
A former art director for SapientNitro (now Publicis Sapient) and Whole Foods Market, Peterson completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training in Southern India and then taught a weekly class in Florida, but it wasn’t until she moved to Asheville that she considered capitalizing on her passion. “When I quit corporate life, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I only promised myself I would figure out what I loved doing and how to get paid for it,” she remembers. She combined her experience in creative graphic design, branding, and marketing with her love of hiking and yoga to found Namaste in Nature. “I started with some donation-based meetups and a few Eventbrite events in 2017 to test the concept before I invested in permits, liability insurance, a website, etcetera,” she explains. At the time, local outdoor yoga classes were limited to festivals, parks, and farms, and she became one of the first to gain permits and permission to use public lands with waterfall and mountain views. “In 2018,” she continues, “I met some fellow nature-loving yogis who were also interested in leading yoga hikes, so I started creating a team, and today we have a total of 10 yoga hiking guides.”
Those guides lead expeditions of up to three hours that begin at various trailheads an hour outside of Asheville. From there, the teachers-slash-guides steer students on a four-mile or less roundtrip hike which includes a short guided meditation near a waterfall or on a mountaintop, then they roll out their outdoor yoga mats (provided for free by Namaste in Nature) and flow through a 60-minute yoga class. For public groups, the experience is $59–$69 per person, for private groups $63–$75 per person.
It’s a concept familiar to Sue Ann Fisher, co-founder of Asheville Wellness Tours. The company began in 2016 as a walking tour of downtown Asheville’s holistic businesses, like, The Herbiary and Dobra Tea, punctuated by a quick yoga class in Pack Square Park. Fisher and co-founder Nicole Will quickly realized the potential of the enterprise’s evolution. “We discovered that many tour participants were eager to hear a local’s perspective on what other ‘off the beaten path’ experiences might be available to them,” Fisher says. It was a realization that prompted the addition of custom itineraries and expanded tour offerings, including yoga hikes.
On Asheville Wellness Tours’ yoga hikes, soulful explorers take a two-mile roundtrip hike, the climax (literally) of which is an hour of yoga on a mountain summit; for extra adventure, customers can extend the hike with an additional mile of hiking and waterfall views. For $45 or $65, respectively, students will spend two to three hours reconnecting with nature. Those looking for a more private experience can book a private yoga hike for six or more, or $270 for smaller groups.
It’s the kind of dual-experience fare that’s proven appealing to tourists looking to catch two of Asheville’s defining offerings at once. Peterson estimates that some 95 percent of her customers are visitors, and that 90 percent of those are “women in transition, whether they are celebrating a milestone or taking some much-needed time for self-care.” Fisher’s assessment of Asheville Wellness Tours’ audience aligns with Peterson’s; she notes that most of their customers are visiting the area for a girl’s getaway or bachelorette party, and that repeat visitors aren’t uncommon. “Most of our groups participate in more than one experience,” she adds. “For example, we might plan a day that starts with Yoga on the Mountain, followed by massage at their Airbnb or vacation rental, and end it with a food tour!”
Yoga hikes offer a number of unique advantages, and are oftentimes a timely opportunity for rookies to try their hand—and feet—at yoga. “Many people are intimidated to go to a gym or yoga studio or don’t make time for these activities until they are outside of their routines and comfort zones,” Peterson explains. They also represent a chance for experienced yogis to deepen their practice. “We feel that doing yoga outside allows for one to connect more fully with themselves and their surroundings,” says Fisher, who studied Classical Ashtanga Yoga and Karma Yoga for four years in British Columbia. “Taking someone out of a studio and into nature to practice helps encourage them to connect with their natural rhythms and cycles.”
Though their business concepts differ—Peterson’s Namaste in Nature focuses solely on yoga hikes (she envisions retreats and an adult summer camp in the future), Ann’s Asheville Wellness Tours on a variety of customizable experiences outside of yoga—their intention is the same: to inspire a reconnection with self and with nature. “My favorite part of teaching yoga outside is seeing students shift their perspective,” Ann says. “On Yoga Hikes, we encourage participants to be focused on the journey, not the destination. When one really sinks into this idea, their entire yoga practice can change. I often witness our guests [leaving] their Yoga on the Mountain Hike with increased self-confidence.” Peterson says she has experienced similar awakenings in her students which mirror her own experiences stretching in both mind and body on mountaintops the world over, noting, “A simple yet meaningful yoga, hiking, and meditation experience can be the spark that ignites a lifelong practice of personal growth and contentment.”
With a tangled web of languid rivers shepherded by the mighty French Broad, ours is a region naturally suited for standup paddle boarding (SUP). It’s the “standup” part that more and more people are abandoning in favor of the warriors, chairs, and planks of yoga.
Anna Levesque is the owner of Mind Body Paddle, a multifaceted enterprise offering empowerment and Ayurveda health coaching, kayaking classes, SUP camps/retreats in Asheville, Barbados, and the North Carolina coast, SUP and SUP yoga Teacher Trainings, and SUP tours—punctuated by SUP yoga—on the French Broad. Levesque’s long history of cultivating self-knowledge (she began meditating in high school) led her to yoga, which she initially used to offset long hours of paddling and regain mental focus, particularly when she was competing on the World Cup circuit for freestyle kayaking. The impact of her personal practice inspired her to share yoga with others. “Yoga is key in helping outdoor athletes reduce the risk of injury and discomfort from repetitive motion,” she says. “I started teaching yoga to my kayaking clients on trips, and they were amazed at how good their bodies felt even after six days of paddling.”
Today, Levesque incorporates SUP yoga into her programming for both the obstacles and advantages such a practice brings. “The extra challenge of having to balance on the board gives us insight on where we cheat on land,” she explains. “We become aware of how we weight our feet, or one side of the body more than the other. Yoga on the board challenges us to move more precisely toward optimal body alignment and balance because we can’t get away with our regular land-based habit patterns.” And according to Levesque, shavasana—the relaxation pose that closes most practices—is doubly serene when accompanied by the trickle and touch of water.
Andrea Morris, of SUP yoga practice Sol Flow Yoga, has also found that yogis find new perspectives on the river. “Practicing outside often provides the space to express ourselves a little more authentically than in the classroom,” says the serial entrepreneur (her other endeavors have included a recycling business, wild crafting local herbs and remedies, and her current work as a licensed clinical social worker and addictions expert with her consulting company). Like Levesque, it was the impact of her own practice that inspired Morris to take on teaching through Sol Flow Yoga, which she founded in 2016. Today, she works with local Southern Raft Supply for boards and gear, an informal partnership that continues to evolve.
Morris and teacher Vanessa Caruso host three weekly SUP yoga classes (plus a SUP Bootcamp), each of which costs students $20 (plus $5 for a rental board, if you don’t have your own). If you’re looking for a lengthier excursion, Levesque’s SUP retreats range over two days and down miles of the French Broad through the River Arts District and Biltmore Estate. For $399, students experience two full days of SUP, including lunch, lessons, and yoga. For custom or private SUP yoga lessons or experiences, prospective paddlers can contact Levesque via Facebook.
Like yoga hikes, SUP yoga oftentimes serves as motive and muse for women in the midst of personal journeys. “My typical customers are women between the ages of 45 and 70 who want to re-ignite joy and adventure into their lives,” says Levesque. “I offer programming that helps women remember who they are so that they can be even more effective and successful in all aspects of their lives.” While Levesque’s tours and range of programs appeal largely to visitors, Morris, on the other hand, taps into a more local base; she estimates some 95 percent of her customers are local, with a rising contingent of regular or repeat business. That’s thanks, in part, to the rise in popularity of river sports: Both Morris and Levesque note the increase of paddlers of all types on the French Broad these days.
Nervous to try chaturanga on the water? Don’t be. The only prerequisite is that students know how to swim. “I get asked so often, ‘What if I fall in?’ Well, you get wet!” Morris laughs. “Most participants don’t seem to know their own power or strength, balancing skills, etcetera, and feel more accomplished than they’d originally imagined after practice.”
When you’re in the business of yoga, outdoor classes can scratch an itch outside of your daily lineup of classes and courses. Take, for example, Asheville Yoga Center’s Yoga in the Park series. “As host and organizer of the annual Yoga in the Park series, we are able to make yoga even more accessible to everyone in the community,” explains general manager Melissa Driver. “Yoga in the Park enables us to fulfill our mission through annual fundraising efforts to support local nonprofits. Each class is free for participants; however, we collect donations in support of two area nonprofits each year.” Donations from this year’s series benefit local charities Homeward Bound and United Way. (Asheville Yoga Center was featured in the February 2018 issue of this magazine.)
The series—now in its 7th year—takes place on select Saturdays at 10AM on Reuter Terrace in Pack Square Park through August 31st. Benevolent yogis lay their mats in the sunshine of downtown Asheville for over an hour of practice. “Teaching and practicing yoga outside, no matter where, offers boundless opportunity to be grateful for the chance to exist on this planet while moving mindfully with the breath, whether the birds are chirping or the busy sounds of downtown are in the background,” says instructor Forrest Campbell.
Even businesses far outside the realm of yoga are capitalizing on unique forms of outdoor practice to draw in new visitors. Much like breweries regularly host indoor yoga classes, Franny’s Farm now offers Goat Yoga in the barn during winter’s kidding season (that’s when baby goats are born). Franny Tacy began offering the quirky classes in 2017. The public classes cost $20 and usually take place through the winter months, when the kids are still cuddly, into spring, when they get more curious in their play. Once the busy season starts (usually May through October), the classes are available privately for $300/group (Tacy points out it’s a favorite for on-site brides looking to quell their pre-wedding jitters).
Tacy estimates that the special sessions draw equal parts locals and tourists, but the reactions of practitioners can vary widely: Some choose to snuggle with the goat babes, while others laugh as the critters jump on their backs in tabletop or through their legs in a warrior position. Regardless of how you choose to spend the class, Tacy says it’s open to everyone: “All classes are for beginners and designed to increase laughter and flexibility in life and limbs.”
And then there’s the Asheville Yoga Festival. This year’s fest, which takes place July 25–28, will span locations throughout downtown Asheville and outside of it with 40 world-class presenters and more than 90 offerings, including music, activities, and yoga classes, many of which occur in the Mountain Air Market in Pack Square Park. “This part of the festival is open to the public and boasts over 70 health and wellness vendors, a slackline park with acroyoga, free community yoga classes taught by regional studio owners, a live music stage with over 20 sets throughout the weekend, and a self-care sanctuary with body work practitioners providing services all weekend,” says Sara LaStella, who took over the festival in 2016 with co-director Amanda Hale. The festival also draws in other outdoor yoga vendors and includes SUP yoga classes with Anna Levesque and yoga waterfall hikes with Miranda Peterson.
The festival, which boasted some 1,500 ticketed attendees in 2018, draws visitors from all over the world (this year’s guests include yogis from Germany, Japan, and Curacao). Just 10 percent of ticketed attendees are from the area and only 25 percent from North Carolina, but overall attendance is steadily on the rise; LaStella notes a 25–50 percent year over year growth in new attendees since she and Hale took on the roles of co-directors. As the festival continues to grow, its intention remains the same: “To manifest a diverse yoga experience that welcomes everyone equally and to direct yoga’s arrow to compassionate activism,” she says. “Which basically means, we hope to make yoga accessible to everyone and to provide the space for attendees to explore their dreams and values on and off of the mat both during and after the festival.” Like the Yoga in the Park Series and Asheville Goat Yoga, the business is far bigger than its outdoor yoga practice, but the Asheville Yoga Festival’s outdoor yoga experiences and all of its programming serve, like the other businesses highlighted here, to reconnect self, nature, and community.
OUTDOOR YOGA AND YOU
Whether you try outdoor yoga once or weekly, the potential benefits are multitudinous. Practicing yoga, regardless of location, can afford a lengthy list of boons: increased flexibility, muscle strength, and posture; protection for joints, bones, and spine; a boost for your immune, digestive, and nervous systems; inspiration for mental health and equanimity. Now marry those advantages with the correlative perks of spending time outside—stress reduction, lower blood pressure, alleviation of anxiety and depression, mitigation of inflammation—and you’ve got the perfect hobby.
According to Namaste in Nature’s Peterson, combining hiking and yoga or meditation provides a unique combination of cardio, strength, flexibility, and balance that can provide a host of benefits, including those listed above, along with weight loss, improvement in memory, focus, sleep, creativity, and more. “My deepest and most impactful meditations have been outside while connected to the earth, fresh air, and water. You get the added benefits of being outside, like immune-boosting phytoncides from trees and plants, Vitamin D from the sun, and negatively charged electrons and negative ions from the earth and moving water, respectively,” adds Peterson.
Fisher of Asheville Wellness Tours points out the merits of practicing outside on a yogi’s nervous systems. “With constant notifications, bright cell phone lights, and the high stress reality of today’s world, our nervous systems barely have a chance to get out of fight-or-flight and into ‘rest-and-digest’ mode. Being in nature helps us to step out of our stress and into more ease. It is crucial to allow the nervous system to decompress in order to avoid illness and disease,” she says. Such a practice can also, as she has witnessed, kickstart a practitioner’s self-confidence.
As a case for SUP yoga’s advantages, studies have found that the presence of water can increase the mental health benefits of spending time outside. “In our busy and over-stimulated lives, having the chance to lay on our backs, fingers dipped in the water, watching the clouds float by, and feeling a gentle breeze on our bodies is extremely healing,” says Levesque, who also points out that SUP yoga can contribute to optimal body alignment and balance.
As for those goats, practicing with animals multiplies the relaxing aspects of yoga. “Research into animal therapy suggests that animals can help humans increase their longevity and can even reduce symptoms of conditions that are brought on by stress,” points out Tacy. “There are many mental benefits of practicing yoga with goats nearby, as the animals will lift your spirit, lessen any feelings of sadness or grief, and enhance communication. These mental benefits further enhance the outcome of your practice.”
When you participate in an outdoor yoga class around Asheville, you’re not just promoting your own health and wellness, you’re also benefiting our regional community. “A common principle embedded in the core of yoga life is that of ahimsa, meaning causing no harm of any kind, not only through actions, but through words and thoughts as well,” explains Asheville Yoga Center’s Driver. It’s this concept that inspires the Center to give back through their donation-based Yoga in the Park Series, and it’s also at the heart of many of the practices hosting outdoor yoga classes. Namaste in Nature donates part of the price of each yoga hike to plant trees via OneTreePlanted.org; Asheville Wellness Tours works with Conserving Carolina by hosting classes on their protected lands and donating a proceeds of the profits to the org; Sol Flow Yoga hosts an annual day of adventure on the lake for breast cancer survivors; and the Asheville Yoga Festival tries to make yoga available to all by providing scholarships, an equity pass for people of color, and a partnership with Light a Path, a local nonprofit that connects underserved communities with wellness practices. Help yourself, help others—these classes foster the ultimate win-win.
In the heat of summer and the heart of the Blue Ridge, seasoned yogis and newbies alike are finding serenity, strength, and social conscience on their mats. Substitute the studio with mother nature’s classroom this summer, and you’ll soak up more than just sunshine.
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