When you practice yoga outdoors in the deep freeze of a Minnesota winter, the usual prompts to “feel your breath” and “visualize your breath” take on a whole new meaning. In a cozy yoga studio, they sound like soothing spiritual reminders. Outdoors in winter, they are starkly practical.
Feel my breath? Sure thing. I’m pulling deep, icy breaths down into my lungs right this second, thanks.
Visualize my breath? That’s even easier. Even the most peaceful poses, like standing with my hands at my side in mountain pose, release a cloud of vapor into the chilly morning air. It trails behind me like the puffy clouds of smoke behind a train in a children’s storybook.
Don’t let its adorable name fool you. Snowga (yoga in the snow) is an ego-annhiliator. The discipline has always instructed us to put our egos aside, be present in the moment and listen to what our bodies need, but yoga here in the west can (and often does), spin into self-satisfaction and body-centered boastfulness as we show off our sleek, new athletic wear, discuss which instructors are “best” and “humbly” share our progress in inches and aches lost and flexibility and focus gained.
Yoga can feel like its own insulter little world, full of terms in a new language and classes full of people who all seem to know what they’re doing as they move as one. I haven’t been a newcomer in years, but I can recognize that all that can be a little intimidating.
But here, spread out on the uneven ground of a city park, we are all on equal (and equally shaky) footing. A show of hands reveals that about half of our group of about forty consider themselves to be beginners and about half have been doing yoga for a while. But we are all starting at the beginning now, learning and adjusting as we go, moment by moment, exactly as the practice has always intended.
The perfect yoga mat cannot undo the slope of the ground. Years of practicing a pose doesn’t prepare you for the incredible awkwardness of attempting the same movement in thick layers of clothing.
My favorite moment in this practice, cut short because of the cold came when the instructor cued us into boat pose, where you sit on the ground and your abdominals to pull your legs and arms up into a “v” shape. The experienced yoga practitioners happily fired up our cores, ready to rock this pose, only to be confounded by the new counterweight of heavy snow boots. Even the instructor hooted with laughter as she struggled to get her feet off the ground.
It is both funny and humbling to have to relearn things you thought you knew. But that’s life in a nutshell, isn’t it? At least we can console ourselves with the fact that reexamining the familiar often yields unexpected rewards.
“Ground down through your feet,” the instructor calls from her perch in the snow. “Feel them on the ground.”
“Hmmmmmm….” my brain counters. “I can’t actually feel my feet. Now what?” I’d certainly never had that happen before.
Noticing and releasing the tiny shakes and quivers of muscles, ligaments and the frequently broken bones in my feet, toes and ankles typically requires all of my attention as I focus on balancing on one leg in tree pose. But strangely, when my feet became numb blocks of ice, I simply had to trust that they would support me. I could release my mind from all the mental adjustments that accompanied the physical ones. I’ve held this pose for longer in other classes, but I’ve never held it as effortlessly.
Doing something new, unusual or challenging — like yoga in the snow, for instance — forces our brains out of their comfort zones and makes us rely on our senses instead of established patterns. It forces us to pay attention to what’s happening right now. I nudges us to take in this moment and to adjust. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nervous newbie or a seasoned yogi, it’s disconcerting to place your weight into your back leg and reach to the sky, only to have your anchoring food skid across a patch of unexpected ice.
In fact, the brand new guy in the back might actually have been better prepared for this obstacle than any of us. He’d just been hiking around the park when he made the spontaneous decision to join our number. He wasn’t confident in his knowledge of the pose or secure in his body’s ability to execute it. He wasn’t lured into a feeling of complacency or smug about his skill level. He simply listened to instructions and tried to comply as best he could.
That’s precisely what yoga asks us to do. That’s exactly what mindfulness is. It’s not some spiritual trance state or some holier than thou euphoria, but the practice of noticing what is present in the environment around us.
“Notice the sounds around you” is another common yoga instructor prompt. At a gym or a studio, the sounds are usual minimal — soft music piped into the darkened space, murmuring outside the classroom and the occasional door slam are about as intense as things are going to get.
That’s not the case outdoors. And certainly not in a public park during a winter festival. I noticed the swish of cross country skies and the barking of dogs. A snow sculptor chatted with visitors a few feet away. Children called for their mothers. At one point a helicopter buzzed overhead and I giggled on my mat.
What a loud, riotous mess this world is. How beautiful and absurd to be lying on my back in the snow with strangers, practicing the art of mindfulness, breathing in icy breaths and calmly noting aircraft and sirens. How incredible to actually find peace and focus in the middle of it all.
What about you? What do you do to get out of your head and present in the world? What do you think about yoga in the snow? What’s your favorite way to get outdoors in the winter? Why do you practice yoga?
What have practices like yoga or meditation (or anything that encourages you to connect to the present moment) taught you? What unusual activities have you been dying to try?
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