It’s 8:30 on a luminous Sunday morning in mid-July at the Morris Arboretum, the University of Pennsylvania’s 92-acre living museum of trees and botanic gardens along the western fringes of Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood.
From the visitors’ center, a narrow dirt path leads downhill into a lush forest. In the canopy, sunlight slices through the lacework of branches. Against the background buzz of cicadas, a choir of birds—robins, tanagers, flycatchers and more—greets the day with chirrups and warbles.
On any other morning, the birds would have these trees to themselves. But on this morning, they have company.
From their own perch 40 feet above the ground, about 20 yoga enthusiasts on colorful plastic mats welcome the dawn in their own way—in serene silence. While Morris frequently hosts yoga classes in the sanctuary’s gardens, this class meets in the arboretum’s two-year-old Tree Adventure exhibit, a 275-foot wide triangular platform crafted of silvery steel grating and wood plank walkways. The graceful structure straddles a black gum and a tulip poplar, and provides visitors with an unparalleled view of the Wissahickon Valley.
With gentle encouragement from East Falls yoga instructor Jennifer Schelter, barefoot students gracefully step and stretch through their slow-motion ballet of arching spines, outstretched limbs and twisting torsos. With names like down dog, cobra, eagle and camel, it’s a menagerie of ancient traditional poses.
Schelter started leading the class—called Yoga Out on a Limb—in 2009, when the Tree Adventure opened. She says it’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for the practice of yoga than up in the treetops.
“How many times do you stop to be with trees and be with the wind?” she asks.”When you’re out here you get to see the light in action. You get to see the sun moving across the sky. The fluxation of nature is such an inspiration. It all feels like a natural temple. It brings a sense of peace.”
Bob Gutowski, the arboretum’s director of programs, hatched the treetop yoga idea not long after the exhibit opened, Schelter says. She recalls the conversation. It was brief, but unquestionably positive.
“Bob asked, how would you like to do yoga out here? I said yes … phenomenal! There’s nothing like this anywhere else in Philadelphia … and maybe not on the East Coast.”
Gutowski, for his part, gives credit to Schelter, saying, “she’s the yoga master.” Yoga class, whether it takes place up a tree or out in the gardens is just one more way to connect visitors with the natural world. And that’s all part and parcel of the arboretum’s mission.
“I’ve always been interested in trying to break down barriers—and there are a lot of barriers in our society that separate people from the world that sustains them,” Gutowski says. “If you get separated from that world, you stop taking care of it.”
Yoga up where the birds rule the roost, Gutowski says, is a perfect complement to the arboretum’s mission since the ancient meditative discipline of yoga is all about making connections with nature—both outer and inner.
Nell Anderson of East Falls, a petite woman with curly salt-and-pepper hair, agrees. Like many who joined the Tree Adventure class that morning, Anderson is one of Schelter’s regular studio students. She also often takes part in the classes held in the Morris Arboretum gardens, but she felt that the Tree Adventure class might lend new perspective to her practice of yoga. She tried to attend the first class, in June, but it was rained out.
She had better luck with the July class—crystalline blue skies and a relatively cool 70 degrees. “I was worried about getting in,” she said, “but it was a perfect day.” (The class is limited to 30 students.)
As she took stock of her morning out on a limb, Anderson waxed philosophical. And who could blame her?
“It’s just so beautiful with the trees,” she said as she rolled up her mat and started to head back up the trail toward the parking lot. “You can just feel the life in the trees. It’s really different. When you do yoga here, it is not just about you. It’s about you in the world.”
There are two more treetop classes this summer: August 7 and Sept. 11. For more information about yoga classes at Morris Arboretum, including Yoga Out on a Limb, visit the arboretum website.
Cost for Yoga Out on a Limb is $25 and $20 for Morris Arboretum members.