Allison Freeland sat on the sand at Narragansett Town Beach on a recent Sunday morning with one thing on her mind: Would her legs really bend that way?
After successfully putting gas in her car and driving on the highway for the first time in three months, the Connecticut resident was in town for a visit with friends and figured there was no better way to make the most out of her first post-quarantine excursion than an early-morning beach yoga session with Gina Raheb, the founder and owner of Natural Fitness in Narragansett.
She wasn’t alone.
On this particular morning, Raheb led Freeland and a group of 13 others as the waves crashed on the shore behind them, the sound offering the perfect backdrop for participants as they tried their best to focus on nature and tune out the distractions of the world around them.
“The idea of the beach really got me,” Freeland said. “I like that you can be centered inside your body and at the same time your body is in this spectacular location with the wind blowing on you and white clouds pushing past above you in this endless kind of rhythm.”
It was a comfortable and sunny 70 degree day for Raheb’s class, one of the first she’s had outside since the coronavirus pandemic forced her to close her studio back in March and the location was a great metaphor for both the business and its participants as South County slowly dips its toes in the water of a socially-distant summer that will be unlike any seen before.
“The thing that I’m hearing from my class is they were happy they got to be with people again,” Raheb said. “I think that we are really missing that and this is the start of hopefully getting back to a little more human connection. You’re in a group setting, you’re outside and you can hear the waves, you can see the water. I think it makes people feel peaceful.”
So what is beach yoga?
Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s yoga. On the beach.
But the concept shouldn’t scare you and, if it does, chances are it’s because you’ve simply never seen what an actual yoga class actually consists of.
At least that’s what Raheb said she’s experienced from those who are reluctant to give it a shot. Ever since she opened her studio back in 2003, she’s tried her best to welcome all types of newcomers to the practice, chuckling as she recalled an example of a student at Narragansett High School that really enjoyed a session with her and was surprised because she “thought yoga was a bunch of weirdos.”
The key, she says, is helping to break the stigma folks might have about a practice she believes everyone can enjoy.
“It’s that word,” Raheb said. “Y-O-G-A. Some people think yoga is a tradition or religion or something weird. I try not to make it something like that. I make it for everybody.”
Raheb’s class, which she runs every morning from June 20-August 30 at 8 a.m. at Narragansett Town Beach and costs $20 to attend, offers guidance for both well-trained participants and those giving it a go for the first time.
Raheb doesn’t pressure her students to get into any particular pose or do anything more than they’re comfortable with, admitting her first six months with yoga was spent lying on the mat trying to mentally envision herself in the positions before she felt comfortable enough to actually try them.
“I try to instill in people that it is about millimeters,” she said, explaining in her mind, any progress is still progress. “Anyone can do yoga. We’re all getting the same benefit no matter what we look like in the poses so it’s for everyone. It’s for all ages and I think that’s important for people to know.”
When she’s not contouring her body into a new pose or stretching out for a slightly more complicated position, Raheb is constantly talking to her students during their beach yoga session, cracking silly jokes and keeping the mood light so no one feels uncomfortable.
“I’ve found if I laugh a bit through my poses, my body opens up a bit more,” she told the class.
It’s an approach that’s built her a loyal following.
“She is such a perfect teacher and the routine, although it’s the same [in each class] she varies it and she makes it more interesting,” said Barbara Keegan, a student of Raheb’s for 15 years. “Her personality is so uplifting and this environment is so perfect, on the beach. It’s incredible. I just love coming here. She just keeps us laughing and having a good time. We don’t feel the pain.”
Raheb says the people attending her beach yoga class all have different reasons for doing so. Some are looking for a social activity they can safely do from a distance—on this morning, the beach was empty and participants were able to safely space apart. Others are looking for relief from old injuries or trying to stay flexible. For many of her older clients, it’s just about staying active at an age when that’s not always easy.
“It’s good for all ailments,” she said. “I have people with cancer, MS, leukemia, depression and anxiety. I’ve studied yoga over 25 years. It is a connection for your mind and body and spirit and for some reason, it makes people feel really good and it makes our illnesses better if you can take your mind off something and put it in a positive direction.”
Her students agree.
“If you don’t use [your body], you’re going to lose it,” Keegan said. “It really works. I have osteoporosis, I have Crohn’s disease. I forget it when I’m doing my exercise. I feel fantastic. Once the endorphins get released, I feel like I can fly.”
South Kingstown resident Joe Sullivan echoed Keegan’s feelings. A former runner, he’s turned to yoga to keep his body fit and has practiced it at least once or twice a month for the last 15 years.
“It’s important,” he said. “The older you get, the more important it is, for sure. Give it a try. Go slow at first but give it a few weeks and you’ll really feel the difference.”
Raheb says yoga can be a huge help to athletes in particular but anyone who likes to do a certain activity and wants to keep their body in shape for it for years to come will find a benefit from the program.
“Walking, running, cycling ... we need to mix it up and even out muscles tendons and ligaments,” she said. “If you do the same sport your whole life, like running as an example, your knees, hips and hamstrings might suffer. Mix it up with yoga and move in a different direction. I’ve been running and cycling for 40 years and doing surfing and stand up paddling for 18 years. I’m 53 and I believe yoga allows me to keep going.”
Sullivan was there on this particular morning with his daughter Laura, who has been practicing yoga for a decade herself after seeing Raheb’s class on the beach and deciding she needed to see what all the fuss was about. What she found was a comforting routine and a chance to meet new people.
“I figured it was a great way to start the day in the summertime,” she said. “I try and come weekly and one of the great things about Gina’s classes is she tries to introduce everyone to each other so anyone who comes regularly tends to get to know each other a little bit, which is nice.”
Raheb’s beach yoga sessions couldn’t have come at a better time, Sullivan says, as she believes people are starting to get sick of being cooped up from a pandemic that’s ground life to a standstill across Rhode Island.
“It’s fantastic,” she said. “I think particularly this year, yoga on the beach, the sound of the waves while you’re doing yoga just helps wash away the noise in your head from all the other stress.”
Getting back to the swing of things is a big reason Raheb hopes newcomers will give her class a try.
“I don’t know about you but I felt like my routine was completely off,” she said. “Normally I work seven days a week and I have eight appointments a day. So it was different for me. I had to have different activities. I got into painting inside my house, inside my studio and landscaping.”
Raheb’s beach yoga sessions are in the morning and, she says, that forces people to get back into having structure in their day-to-day lives.
“It really makes you think about what you’re going to do the night before activity wise because [otherwise] you won’t want to get up early,” she said. “I’ve done this now for 18 years, every day, and it keeps me healthy because I don’t stay up late at night. I think about it before I eat junk the night before. It’s harder to wake up in the morning and go stretch because your metabolism and digestive tract is off. People tell me the same thing, I’ve had people who do it who say you’ve kept us healthy.”
Raheb has found great support from the town of Narragansett from the moment she asked former Narragansett Parks and Recreation Director Andy Notta about starting the beach yoga program.
The town helped guide her through the process and even offers early-morning parking for participants.
She says current Parks and Rec Director Steve Wright fully endorsed the beach yoga program as long as she made sure to stick by the state of Rhode Island’s guidance regarding social distancing and, with the help of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce—which donated masks and hand sanitizer and promoted the beach yoga program on its website—Raheb has had no trouble doing so.
“If you’ve never done it, you should try it,” she said. “ People tell me they like my approach, they don’t feel intimidated. You want to find someone who will help you feel comfortable. Everyone can do it.”
Laura Sullivan agrees.
“Come on out,” she said. “You don’t have to have any yoga experience to do Gina’s beach yoga class. Anybody is welcome. It’s definitely that kind of environment.”
For more information on the program, visit naturalfitnessyoga.com.