Updated: July 17, 2013 6:05AM
Local yoga classes are stepping out of studios and into the great outdoors. Tree and pigeon poses and downward dogs are popping up in parks and on the beach, in community gardens and at the Lincoln Park Zoo — even on paddle boards floating on Lake Michigan.
For yoga teachers, outdoor classes are another way to capitalize on the explosive popularity of yoga, the ancient Hindu spiritual practice that can pack a high-intensity, low-impact workout. Those participating say they leave classes with not only a sense of gratitude that summer finally has arrived in Chicago but for the city’s green spaces and stunning skyline.
“You can feel the breeze blow by,” said Carlie Chislof, a yoga instructor and co-owner of Sun and Moon Beach Yoga, which offers classes seven days a week on North Avenue beach. “You can feel the sun energy on your skin. You can hear the crash of the waves against the shore. You can hear the laughter of the people enjoying their time on the beach. We can really start to live in the moment and feel grateful for where we are.”
Some 400 people flock to Millennium Park on Saturdays for the Chicago Park District’s free 8 a.m. yoga class. Yoga classes are held at Montrose and Lawrence Avenue beaches. At Lincoln Square’s Bloom Yoga, instructors have created the “Bloom All Summer” outdoor schedule, partnering with three different community gardens for a series of yoga workouts.
“We do a yoga for gardeners class for helping to relieve some of the aches and pains that come from the hard work of gardening,” said Kerry Maiorca, Bloom Yoga’s founder and director. “Bending over and weeding, your back is really sore. Yoga is a really good way to relieve that discomfort. And you get the beautiful environment, outside in the sun, doing yoga.”
Yoga is hotter than ever, and it’s not just Bikram, where rooms are heated to 105 degrees. The 2012 “Yoga in America” study by Yoga Journal magazine claims 20.4 million Americans practice yoga, a 29 percent increase from the 15.8 million who studied yoga in 2008. The study estimated that Americans spent $10.3 billion a year on yoga classes, equipment, clothing and other yoga accessories.
Even without the extra outdoor classes, business doesn’t slow down in the summer at her studio, Maiorca said. “Weekend warrior” runners, cyclists and triathletes increasingly are turning to yoga to incorporate stretching and flexibility into their workouts.
“You are so much more active than other times in the year, it’s important to take care of our bodies and process and restore,” she said. “There’s also the mental health benefits.”
When Eric Semyck started Sun and Moon Beach Yoga with Chislof in 2011, 150 students participated. Last summer they had 3,000 students, and this year they’ve already sold 1,300 Groupons for the classes. Semyck also owns Encompass, which offers yoga classes at Montrose Beach, though he doesn’t own a bricks-and-mortar yoga studio.
“Being in Chicago, we’re all cooped up all winter long,” he said. “When it comes down to summer and practicing yoga, wouldn’t you rather be outside?”
Debra Taitel, a real estate agent who also works as a clairvoyant, stopped on a recent Tuesday by the North Avenue beach 10 a.m. class from Sun and Moon Beach Yoga.
“I was literally about in tears when we started,” she said. “To feel the sun and the ground, to see the seagull walking behind [the teacher], it’s such food for the spirit and the soul.”
Lingering after class is encouraged, instructor Lou Affetto of Park Ridge told the all-female class that Taitel attended.
“Feel free to stay here as long as you like,” he said. “This is public land.”
Outdoor yoga presents unique challenges, like bumpy ground or uneven sand. Sunscreen is essential and some forgo a traditional yoga mat for a beach towel. Those challenges are part of the appeal in reinvigorating routines, Affetto said.
“It’s like altitude training,” he said. “The unevenness of the ground adds a whole new element.”
Those looking to really shake things up can try SUP Yoga, or Stand Up Paddle board yoga on Lake Michigan. Chicago SUP yoga instructor Katarina Arneric leads groups of 10 out on rented boards that are paddled out and then tied off so they stay in a line during the class.
“Just getting yoga outside of a studio, in general, people are definitely interested,” she said.
“Putting a board instead of a mat underneath you is completely different and so much fun.”