By Sanchali Singh, Capital News Service

Walking through the United States Botanic Garden, you might be surprised to see some visitors carrying yoga mats on their backs. Most likely, they just finished or are about to start a yoga session in the outdoor garden.

The garden, just down Capitol Hill from the Congress, offers yoga classes as part of a series of events that use plants and nature to promote health and wellness.

The U.S. Botanic Garden isn’t the only unexpected location that offers “pop-up yoga.” Numerous places in the D.C. metro area and the state of Maryland include yoga practice in their events.

(CanStock Photo)

Indeed, yoga has moved far from the traditional studio.

You can do yoga at the Josephine Butler Parks Center in “Union Yoga Happy Hour” among bonsai trees at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, and even yoga with penguins at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

Maintaining a regular yoga practice has been proven and used by many to provide physical and mental health benefits, according to the American Osteopathic Association.

Physical benefits include increased flexibility, muscle strength, athletic performance and tone; weight reduction; protection from injury, to name a few. Yoga can also help manage stress, create mental clarity and calmness, and sharpen concentration.

Over the years, the popularity of yoga has increased. A 2016 study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance found that there were 36 million American yoga practitioners in that year, a 76 percent increase in people doing yoga from 2012.

Employees at the Botanic Garden realized that they had the space for yoga and it was a great fit, spokesman and exhibits specialist Devin Dotson said.

“Using nature as a respite and a human connector was kind of our impetus for this program that we started several years ago,” Dotson said.

Heather Markowitz, the yoga instructor for the garden’s yoga session, said she prefers yoga outside or in a place with lots of plants because it helps bring a deeper sense of calmness and centeredness.

Practicing yoga in nature where things are not uniform or perfect, such as where the ground is uneven or if an ant walks across your yoga mat, helps people practice breaking in uncomfortable situations, according to Markowitz.

“(Outdoor yoga) is good practice for all of life since life is messy and we very often find ourselves in uncomfortable situations,” she said.

The series of events, officially called “Yoga in the Garden,” is free so that there is no financial barrier and welcomes people of all abilities. This makes the event extremely popular and sometimes gets so many people that the garden has to turn people away.

For Gregory Turk, the yoga instructor of the Yoga Garden at the Midlands Beer Garden in Washington, yoga means creating a community.

Yoga Garden, which takes place every Saturday morning right in the beer garden’s bar, attracts more men and a more consistent attendance than other yoga studios, according to Turk.

Turk said he has been told by some attendees that they only practice yoga at Midlands and even travel far to do so.

“Not only are people coming for yoga, but people normally stick around and intermingle,” Turk said. “On a good day, someone will make a connection, and I really enjoy that.”

Turk said meeting people through yoga is normally hard to do in Washington, where most people attend classes at yoga studios, only really interact with the front desk attendant and then leave shortly after the class ends.

The beer garden facilitates building a community by including a Dogfish Head Namaste White Ale in the $15 yoga class ticket, which entices people to stay after the class and talk with other yogis.

“(Yoga) has been an amazing experience for people,” said Lisa Davis, co-founder and president of the Burleigh Animal Sanctuary, of the venue’s yoga and animals event.

This Ellicott City, Md., sanctuary has provided a home for abused or neglected farm animals for the past seven years and holds an annual four-hour, pop-up yoga event in June that gives attendees a private visit with the animals, a yoga session and a completely vegan lunch and dessert.

Guests are surrounded by the horses, goats, and other animals at the sanctuary during their practice.

Davis said the yoga event is a great way for guests to meet with animals they normally wouldn’t interact with and to get an introduction to the vegan lifestyle.

Davis said she had been looking for an event that aligned with the sanctuary’s core values when Kimberly Wilson, a psychotherapist and founder of a Washington-based yoga studio called Tranquil Space, approached her about holding a yoga session on the property.

Each ticket for the event donates $50 to Burleigh Manor and $25 to the Pigs & Pugs Project, a campaign started by Wilson to “raise awareness, educate the public, and help fund pig sanctuaries and pug rescues” in the United States.

“It’s really been a great opportunity for people to get a unique experience that they otherwise wouldn’t get,” Davis said.