Like a little hiking with your yoga? Try YogaHike

Christopher Howell leads weekend sessions at area parks.

Yoga mats slung over their shoulders, hikers head down a trail at McKinney Falls State Park.

Their mission? A brisk walk to get their hearts pumping, followed by an hourlong yoga session in the woods, where the occasional butterfly flaps past and an ant marches up an arm or two. Afterward, a leap into Onion Creek to cool off.

Christopher Howell started YogaHike as a way to combine two of his favorite things — yoga and hiking. He leads a YogaHike nearly every weekend at different locations around Central Texas.

About 20 people have gathered for today’s donation-based class, which begins with introductions and a 30-minute warmup. Some arrive by bike; everyone brings a yoga mat or towel and water.

Howell, 54, spent 15 years as a massage therapist and self-improvement class instructor. After a bout with testicular cancer, he slipped into what he calls a slow depression. He gained weight and started smoking. One glance at photos of himself at his 50th birthday party convinced him he needed to get back in shape.

He dropped 60 pounds by doing P90X, but got injured doing the yoga part of the home-exercise regimen. He signed up for beginner yoga classes at YogaYoga, and liked what he discovered.

“I really felt like I was home,” he says.

Inspired, he earned his own certification from Sundara Yoga Therapy and began inviting friends to practice yoga on the hillside above the Pennybacker Bridge at Lake Austin. “During that process I said if I found my way back, I’d take as many people with me as I could,” he says.

Because he always loved to hike, he tied a 2- or 3-mile walk into each of his sessions, and began holding them at various parks. In January he started posting the schedule on Facebook, and asked for a $10 to $20 donation per class.

The idea took off. Today, groups of up to 30 regularly join Howell for his weekend YogaHikes. He’s added a few destination events to the lineup, too, including a YogaHike trip to Yosemite National Park and another to Inks Lake State Park. Eventually he hopes to expand, teaming with guest instructors to offer a choice of locations each weekend.

Howell is quick to confess that his yoga technique may not be perfect, but says he’s good at bringing people into the present and helping them get in tune with their breathing.

“I love hiking. I love yoga. That’s why we’re here,” he tells the group gathered today.

Unlike most yoga classes in Austin, held indoors in air conditioning and under fluorescent lights, being outside connects participants to nature. “The trail does all the work,” he says. “You’re getting your prana from the earth, the trees and the sun.”

The group makes a 3-mile loop on the park’s Onion Creek Trail. Some chat along the way, others walk in silence. A cottontail rabbit skips past, and some students linger, admiring plants.

“No rules,” Howell says. “It’s your experience.”

About a mile and a half down the mostly shaded trail, the group pauses in front of a sprawling old oak tree, its branches stretching upward like arms. It’s time for some balance work. Howell guides the class into tree pose, mimicking those gnarled branches.

“Root yourself to the earth,” he says. “Reach to the sky.”

The group rambles on, then gathers again in the shade along Onion Creek for an hour-long yoga class complete with sun salutations, down dogs, and a series of cat-cow, chair and waterfall poses. Birds chirp, and the faded conversation of a pair of fishermen drifts overhead. Sun beams sparkle through the leaves.

“To me it’s like a 4-D experience,” says Kim Steele, 50, who drove from Georgetown for the YogaHike. “With 3-D, it’s dimensional. With 4-D it’s mind, body and soul, too.”

The setting, especially at the sunrise class at the Pennybacker Bridge, adds a zap of energy, she says. “It’s the experience of doing the yoga, but then you have this beautiful, awe-inspiring view.”

Devon Sepeda, 24, of Austin, a manager at Play-Well TEKnologies, is already signed up for a YogaHike trip to Yosemite in September. “I’m new to yoga,” he says. “I’ve always loved hiking and being outside. Combining the two, why not?”

Jaclyn Howell, who isn’t related to Christopher but is also a yoga teacher, says she came to build community, get some exercise and commune with nature.

The yoga portion of the class wraps up, and the class spends another 10 minutes in meditation. But there’s one last step to this YogaHike experience, and it involves water.

Christopher Howell leads the group to the limestone ledge above the Upper Falls at the park. He scans the green-blue pool below, smiles serenely, and executes a perfect swan dive.


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