It's 8:40 on a hazy spring Saturday morning, and I'm in that yoga position with the funny name: downward facing dog. But I'm also as far as I can be from a traditional, mirrored-wall yoga studio.
I'm in bucolic River Legacy Parks in Arlington. The sweat dribbling from my brow is not from the exertion of this pose, but a result of the brisk seven-minute hike I took to get to one of the park's verdant clearings. With the blue sky and twittering of birds all around, I can't imagine being in a more natural yoga setting.
Hiking and yoga have long existed in their own parallel universes, but in San Francisco in 2009, a guy named Eric Kipp had the idea of combining them into a single workout. Since then, the concept has spread to 14 cities, including Austin, Dallas and Arlington, where it debuted in February.
Laurie Raulerson is my hiking-yoga group's fearless leader. She's a part-time yoga instructor in Aledo and part-time occupational therapist in Denton.
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On this Saturday morning, Raulerson has led our group of six women and two men out to the clearing by starting with the seven-minute hike under a canopy of live oak trees. She gathered us in a circle and started us out with what would become our primary, yoga-centering position: mountain pose, requiring us to stand with our feet hips-width apart, our arms by our side, palms facing forward. We were then introduced to many yoga positions, such as a forward fold (great for stretching out those pesky hamstrings). This led to a wide-legged plank and, finally, to that downward facing dog, where I find my hips pressed back, my upper body lowered. All that is missing is a caninelike tail wagging victoriously in the air.
Having sampled some of yoga's basics, a 13-minute hike is next on the menu. We stride to a circular rock wall. From our primary mountain pose, we use the wall as partial support for a series of strength positions. We go from another downward facing dog to a basic lunge, then work with several variations on the warrior pose. Next is an "exalted" position: One of my hands drops back on a back leg while the other hand's palm juts up toward that blue sky.
I find that even during all those martial arts-looking warrior stances, with my arms stretched as if I'm primed to hurl a spear at some marauding invader, yoga's monasticlike calm washes over me.
After the strength poses, we take an eight-minute hike to our next yoga location, a wooden deck overlooking one of the park's several Trinity River forks.
Here, we work on balance positions. First is the tree pose, where I struggle mightily to balance on one leg. I then attempt to strike the pose of a Trappist monk by bringing my fatigued arms into a prayer position in front of my chest. Next is a series of partner poses, where my hands mimic my partner's hands and our feet border each other. We first lunge gently at each other, then push against each other to reach our original standing position. Other variations of this push-me-pull-you follow, many struck with a mix of glee and fatigue.
On a sun-dappled wooded path, we then begin our longest hike. The first five minutes of the 15-minute segment are called "walking meditation," yoga-speak for walking silently.
"Here the whole idea is to focus on your own body," says Raulerson. "How are you truly feeling and what are you thinking about?"
The deafening silence causes me to focus on the sounds of our breathing and the occasional squeak of rubbery soles, as well as the brilliant reds and yellows of Texas wildflowers along the path.
Back at the clearing, Raulerson distributes little mats, which we lay in front of us. From our familiar mountain pose, we all hinge forward at our hips, extending our hands onto the mat. We walk our feet back into a regular plank and then into a downward facing dog. A series of highly effective hip stretches follows.
Then the most enjoyable collaborative part of the session begins. I sit back to back with my temporary yoga mate, Layne Calabro of Weatherford, with legs crossed. We both extend our arms out to our sides, forming airplane wings, with our palms carefully aligned. We shadow each other's arms as we extend one set of arms overhead while the other set rests on the ground near our hips. Eventually, we arrive at the most trust-filled pose of the morning. Again, sitting back to back on the mats, while one partner walks his or her hands forward on the grass, hinging forward at the hips, the other partner gently lets his back fold so that it rests on the partner's forward-leaning back. This produces a wonderful sensation in the lower back and hamstring area.
Standing up after this last partner pose, Raulerson instructs us to close our eyes and meditate, tapping into our individual breathing patterns.
And then Raulerson unfolds a crinkled bit of paper and begins to recite a quote from the philosopher St. Augustine: "People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and they pass themselves by without wondering."
My hiking-yoga morning of breathing, exertion and self-actualization couldn't have ended on a more serenely satisfying note.