On the morning of April 28, the sun is high over the patio at Cedar Rapids’ Indian Creek Nature Center, which is covered with unfurled yoga mats. Her back to the lush prairie, instructor Cassie Hammermeister leads poses and invites guests of the 25th annual “Women in Nature” retreat to join her and “let light shine on the dark places in [their bodies].”
Fast forward to May 1. Visitors have filled the patio and spilled onto the grass. Instructor Maria Dummermuth encourages those gathered for the opening of the summer “Practice in the Prairie” series to let their minds retreat into the sounds of frogs, breeze and the gentle churning of the creek.
No one is knocking studio practice, least of all Dummermuth, also a teacher at Heat Yoga in Cedar Rapids — “Anywhere you can get to your mat is good,” she said. But with outdoor practice comes opportunities for tapping into the harmony of the natural setting, something that invigorates Dummermuth’s personal practice. This kind of retreat into nature can be seen as emblematic of sannyasa, furthering the goal of self-surrender and self-abnegation.
“I truly believe that we’re all connected with the earth, with the prairie,” Dummermuth said. “It allows you to let go of external distractions.”
Indian Creek joins other institutions throughout the Cedar Valley and the state — from parks to animal sanctuaries — in opening their grounds for yoga, turning yogis into visitors and visitors into supporters.
The Indian Creek Nature Center hosts everything from the Monarch and Maple Syrup Festivals to frog- and fossil-themed children’s programs to workshops around beekeeping and urban chickens. Its outdoor yoga workshops have been particularly successful. Feedback from center patrons has reflected not only a greater appetite for yoga, but a desire for experiences anchored in nature.
“I truly believe that we’re all connected with the earth, with the prairie.” —Maria Dummermuth
“In the last three to four years specifically, wellness in nature programming has [become] one of our prongs of programming,” said Center Educational Coordinator Kelli Kennion-Lane. “What that looks like for us is answering the question, ‘How can we create a champion of nature in wellness programming?’”
“The cool thing about the nature center is that even though we’ve been here since the 1970s, we … are consistently discovering new members of the community, new patrons, and they us.”
As interest in outdoor yoga has swelled, so have numbers at the Tuesday evening sessions: Attendance this summer is poised to surpass previous years’ averages of 30-50 people per night.
Each of the rotating presenters feeds the buzz by tapping into friend and student networks. Before Kim Riffey arrived for the “Women in Nature” retreat, she had never set foot on the center’s campus. Riffey credited Dummermuth in turning her on to yoga at Indian Creek. Instructor Amanda Mikesell attracted several Indian Creek rookies from her workshops at United Fire Group.
Running the gamut of experience and skill, attendees and instructors develop rapport with one another and the center. Connections like these top Kennion-Lane’s list of benefits realized from yoga programming.
“Not a class goes by” where Kennion-Lane and her colleagues aren’t able to turn visitors, drawn in by yoga, sound healing, mindfulness walks and beyond, onto even more involvement.
Indian Creek is far from the only nature center in Iowa to hold a summer yoga series. “Yoga hikes” are held at the Dragoon Trace Nature Center in Ringgold; Grimes Farm & Conservation Center in Marshall present nature yoga, including a class on the Summer Solstice; Cedar Falls’ Hartman Reserve Nature Center hosts yoga on a boat ramp near Big Woods Lake; Dickinson County Nature Center in Okoboji has hosted beach yoga; Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Dakins Lake in Zearing and towns across the state have integrated “yoga in the park” classes.
“When people have a specific interest in something and want to give something a try … that gives them more of a reason to come out,” said Emelia Sautter, ecospirituality coordinator at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center of Hiawatha, which plays host to a biweekly “Hatha Way” yoga series.
Sautter has seen these relationships flow both ways, as center patrons try yoga for the first time and first-time visitors branch out from yoga into deeper involvement.
“People have a tendency to fall in love with Prairiewoods the more time they spend here,” Sautter said. “A lot of people introduced through yoga start participating through other ways as well.”
Indian Creek Nature Center’s Practice in the Prairie yoga series runs through Sept. 25. Visit the Center’s website for the teacher schedule and more information.
Talee Mabe is a writer, editor and newly-minted University of Northern Iowa graduate with a degree in political science. This article was originally published in YogaIowa’s Summer 2018 issue.