Beach yoga: A pandemic success story

Instructor Melissa Mikolitch leads the outdoor yoga class at Twin Lakes Beach.
(Effie Benjamin)

When Covid-19 turned our normal ways of doing things upside down, something quite awesome happened in the world of Santa Cruz County yoga: People realized doing it outside could be a better experience anyway, and a way to keep the group experience alive.

California is going on month nine of strict haircut limitations and no indoor exercise classes. But Santa Cruz is nothing if not adaptable — we’ve been exercising outside and forgoing haircuts long before COVID-19.

Now, there are just more of us.

And many outside classes are still going strong despite the wintry weather.

Late in the spring, as the pandemic reality had firmly set in, Santa Cruz resident Colleen Holland decided that doing yoga alone in her living room just wasn’t cutting it. The magic was gone. The world had turned upside down and all she wanted to do was feel normal again.

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Luckily, that was around the same time that yoga studios were also getting cabin-fever.

“Livestream alone, from a financial perspective, wasn’t cutting it,” says Pleasure Point Yoga (PPY) owner Megan McAllister. “There had to be something else.”

The Chardonnay sails by during the Saturday morning Pleasure Point Yoga class at Twin Lakes Beach.
(Effie Benjamin)

Once the local government announced that outdoor, socially-distant, small group exercise classes were okay, Santa Cruzans did what’s always come naturally — they headed to the beach.

Holland has practiced yoga at the beach and in-studio for years, but this year’s beach yoga classes were particularly special for her.

“In the beginning, I had to come to terms that beach yoga classes are a totally different experience than in-studio classes,” PPY student Holland says. “But that’s what makes it unique — by practicing in nature, you are truly capturing the essence of yoga when saluting the sun, sweeping the earth, and breathing in the ocean air.”

THE CLASSES


To stay afloat during the pandemic, yoga studios across the county have had to get creative. COVID-19 has already cost Santa Cruz some of it’s most beloved businesses, including Nourish — one of Santa Cruz’s yoga and wellness treasures.

“After everything that’s happened this year, being outside doing yoga was just the best gift,” Holland says. “I love it.”

In response to the financial and community need, McAllister thought PPY should move more classes outside, but she wasn’t sure what permitting processes or safety precautions should be taken. After talking with lifeguards, police officers, park rangers, and county and city offices, McAllister finally got the go-ahead just in time for summer. “They were like ‘Yeah do it, clean up after yourselves and make sure you are at least six feet apart.’ It was awesome.”

Beach yoga
Becky Quinn leads her Pleasure Point Yoga class at Sunny Cove.
(Effie Benjamin)

Some days, summer classes were maxed out at the 25 person capacity. On the slower days, PPY instructor Emily Perry says that beach onlookers are so curious about what the class is that they join in.

“It’s just a community builder, and it helps us feel more connected to each other and helps many get through this,” Perry says. “It feels like we have been going from crisis to crisis with the pandemic and then the fire. Some people felt so isolated, so for them to be able to come to a beach yoga class and be safe and socially distant, it’s a lifeline.”

Mats and masks are optional, and students are always at least six feet apart. Perry says that outdoor yoga classes, particularly those at the beach, are often more gentle and slow because of the uneven terrain. The classes focus instead on meditation, grounding in the elements, and taking in the environment.

THE PLACES


PPY is currently offering five outdoor yoga classes per week, including beach classes at Sunny Cove and Twin Lakes.

In South County, Watsonville Yoga, Dance and Healing Arts is also offering park yoga and Zumba classes at Pinto Lake County Park. “I’d say going outside is the most positive and enlivening thing we have done,” Watsonville Yoga, Dance and Healing Arts founder and owner, Phoenix Artemisia said in an email. “Many people feel it is an improved experience as compared to being indoors.”

Luma Yoga also hopped on the outdoor yoga bandwagon this summer and is offering classes at Seabright Beach. But Luma is also looking beyond the coast, and in partnership with the Museum of Art and History, is offering outdoor classes in Abbott Square.

“Yoga can just exist in the community, it doesn’t need to be this spa-like or retreat experience,” Luma Yoga Director Valerie Moselle says. “Having classes at the MAH is appropriate for that — being comfortable with doing yoga in an urban setting with trucks backing up and people pushing carts of food through the class, it’s all yoga.”

THE CHALLENGES


But outdoor yoga, particularly beach yoga, comes with some uncertainty. Classes are often at the mercy of tides, air quality, and weather. During the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, classes were canceled because of poor air quality.

Instructor Brittany Caesar teaches Luma Yoga at Santa Cruz MAH’s outdoor class in Abbott Square.
Instructor Brittany Caesar teaches Luma Yoga at Santa Cruz MAH’s outdoor class in Abbott Square.
(Effie Benjamin)

As the weather continues to cool off, most outdoor classes will be canceled until next spring since colder temperatures often aren’t comfortable for many students and can be potentially dangerous.

“I see the outdoor classes as a benefit for clients, like an added perk,” Moselle says. “But they need to create a more stable practice environment that’s virtual or in safe, smaller group classes.”

Until the weather changes, the Santa Cruz yoga community is happy to have the space, environment, and interest in outdoor classes. Even in the chaos that is 2020, the classes provide an outlet for those who feel safe attending, PPY owner Megan McAllister says.

“It’s a choose-your-own-adventure for what makes you feel safe, and that’s a really personal thing right now,” McAllister says. “Being outdoors is a lot more like being in the studio than live streaming is, and I think that’s the attraction. You still get your teacher and get the connection.”