As the sun sets on Zilnicki Farms in Riverhead, a handful of people gather at a small clearing behind the farm fields. They aren’t there to plant or harvest, but rather to practice yoga with stunning views of the twilight sky as the backdrop.
At Farm Yoga, fourth-generation farmer and certified yoga instructor Jackie Zilnicki includes nature in the mind/body connection gained from her hourlong classes.
“Getting the energy from nature by doing yoga outside is so different than doing yoga in a studio,” said Zilnicki, who has been teaching yoga since 2013 and currently runs classes at Aura Hot Yoga in Mattituck and Maximus Health + Fitness in Riverhead, in addition to working full time at the family farm. “I have always known the healing power of nature and believe Farm Yoga is medicine for the body and the soul.”
The benefits of practicing yoga have long been touted as a way to foster mindfulness. Classes are linked to reduced stress, improved flexibility and balance, better sleep and an overall sense of well being for those who participate. It’s a quiet retreat from demanding jobs and near-constant smartphone alerts that have a tendency to drain us.
“We need to slow down and plug back into ourselves,” Zilnicki said. “You can get that from yoga and Mother Nature. It is a 2-in-1 experience.”
An NCAA Division III softball and basketball player in college, Zilnicki holds a degree in health promotional studies from Western Connecticut State University. She began practicing yoga to help her heal as an athlete, but soon fell in love with its calming, spiritual benefits. She later earned her yoga certification shortly after returning to the North Fork, where she has been coaching softball and basketball at Riverhead High School, where she graduated in 2008.
In between planting and harvesting on her Reeves Avenue family farm, she cleared a small portion of the land where a pond and farm fields are in view for her classes. Brightly colored farm-grown flowers and rustic farm-meets-Zen garden adornments outline the area with enough room for roughly 25 participants.
Since launching the twice-weekly Farm Yoga classes last year, Zilnicki has focused on easy stretching moves centered on breathing. For all ages and skill levels, the hourlong guided practice encourages participants to be in the moment with their surroundings.
“I like easy flow yoga,” she said. “I am not the type of teacher that makes you hold challenging poses for a while. I believe everyone can benefit from yoga, so I created my classes so anyone can pop in. I focus a lot on breathing and stretches for the tighter parts of the body. My goal is that when the students leave they feel a release and peace.”
It’s the simplicity and ease of the classes that attracted Riverhead resident Theresa Pelczar to sign up. Pelczar, who doesn’t describe herself as a yogi, started taking the classes last year and stuck with them because of Zilnicki’s instructional methods.
“She makes every class unique in any way she can,” Pelczar said. “She starts by asking everyone if there are tight areas in our muscles and structures the class to help ease tension. It’s cool the way she leads you through it and makes everything personalized.”
Visiting from Brooklyn, Farm Yoga was a break from the traditional New York City studio Katie Prezybylski is used to practicing in. The laidback farm atmosphere was welcoming and free from worry about clothing or holding difficult poses, she said.
“A lot of times at yoga, being able to be present and calm in mind would be hard for me,” Prezybylski said. “It was easier for me at Farm Yoga. You can just let go … no one is showing off.”
For now, the classes are held outdoors during the warmer weather months. Zilnicki hopes to one day offer year-round classes in a greenhouse on the farm. During Thursday night classes, you can catch a sunset and on Sundays there’s a mid-morning class to clear your mind before the workweek. All fitness levels are welcome; participants are asked to bring water and a yoga mat.
Schedules and prices can be found at farm-yoga.com.