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As weather warms, Southcentral Alaska yoga companies find ways to take it outside

Katriina Timm, left, and Christine Adams participate in a paddleboard yoga class with Alaska Wilderness SUP at Little Campbell Lake on Saturday, June 4, 2016. This was their first time on a stand-up paddleboard. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Whether it's on a stand-up paddleboard, in a park, cozied up next to mountains or in a backcountry yurt, businesses in Southcentral Alaska are catering to yoga enthusiasts who want to take their practice outdoors.

"You can find that same feeling that you'd find in nature that you'd find in the practice of yoga," said Sandy Walters, yoga instructor and owner of Namaste North Yoga Studio. "It's about combining the two, so it's really natural to take the practice outdoors if you can."

Walters' downtown Anchorage studio offers weekly outdoor runs followed by an indoor yoga practice. She also hosts yoga retreats several times a year that take small groups out to practice yoga in a yurt. People are busy during the summer, she said, but demand for outdoor yoga courses is growing.

An avid outdoorswoman herself, Walters said active people can sometimes get so busy that they forget to tune in to what's around them. Combining yoga with the outdoors can help with that.

"If you bring people outdoors the message really tunes in to what normally you wouldn't tune in to," she said. "You can feel the difference — it's a shift in energy, a shift in mood."

Yoga on the water

Amber Walker started holding stand-up paddleboard yoga classes for the first time earlier this month through her business, Alaska Wilderness SUP. With all the yoga options in town, Walker and her business partner, Jennah Jones, wanted to offer something different.

"(Being on the water) is something that takes you to a new level of serenity," she said.

Yoga on a paddleboard isn't a new concept — there have even been courses in Anchorage before, though it's been inconsistent. People are sometimes hesitant to try it, Walker said. Balancing on a paddleboard seems tricky, and Alaska's lakes are cold — no one wants to fall in and then have to shiver through a 90-minute class.

But Walker's business offers wetsuits to anyone worried about the cold and insists that falling in isn't too common. SUP Yoga instructor Bonnie Easley-Appleyard said balancing can be a challenge, but she guides students through poses slowly to counteract that. She also offers small cues to help people keep their balance in check on the paddleboards.

But just because it's slow, doesn't mean it's easier, Easley-Appleyard said. Common poses like the "warrior" series can be harder to hold due to the extra stability needed to stay on the board. And the physical challenges come with unique benefits, she said. 

Alaska Wilderness SUP co-owner Jennah Jones, right, gives stand-up paddling instruction before a paddleboard yoga session at Little Campbell Lake on Saturday, June 4, 2016. The new company started offering paddleboard yoga classes this summer. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

"Savasana (on a paddleboard) is this amazing experience. You have this breeze, you can hear the birds singing, water is hitting against the board," Easley-Appleyard said. "I find it easier to meditate when I'm out on the water than in a classroom."

Community building

That's not to say getting the businesses going has been easy. Hiking Yoga Alaska, a nonprofit that formed in 2014, suspended its operations this summer when the municipality raised the rates for small businesses wanting to operate in parks.

Tara McMurray, owner of Backcountry Yoga Alaska, scaled back her day-hike yoga excursions from once a week to once a month. Alaska State Park permits don't allow groups of six or more to enter into the park, making it hard to keep costs low.

"People don't want to pay $40 for a yoga class," McMurray said.

McMurray's business is still in operation, but said she's changed her focus toward more retreat-based offerings. A University of Alaska Anchorage physical education major with an emphasis in outdoor leadership and certified yoga teacher herself, her idea for starting the business was simple: she wanted to share her lifestyle of being in the outdoors with her passion for yoga.

He hikes are also straightforward: meet up, hike for a couple miles, stop, do yoga and then hike back. She said, surprisingly, many of her students have been Alaska transplants.

"People are finding community and getting together afterward," McMurray said. "It's just about bringing them together."

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