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After suspending classes at her Southold yoga and pilates studio a little more than a week ago as coronavirus concerns grew, Paula DiDonato of Peconic decided to seek the calming effects of the spiritual discipline from the outside. She is now organizing free nature walks along scenic areas of the North Fork for her students and anyone else who wants a respite from the new “pressures” they’re facing.

“I was watching the behavior of clients — I saw a drop in the number of people coming in — people were concerned,” DiDonato, 56, owner of The Giving Room, said of her yoga studio. “Southold was one of the first in Suffolk County to report cases … behaviors, in general, are shifting right now,” she added. But she said she wanted “to be mindful and weather the storm” and to invite other like-minded people to join her. 

DiDonato started by keeping the juice bar portion of her studio open by making it a “de facto drive-thru,” cutting its hours, eliminating cash transactions and working with only electronic invoicing to minimize personal contacts. She then started her weekly walks the day after her classes were halted. In the past week, the walkers have visited three areas – the Audubon Trail in Greenport, including a wooded trail, beach and bird watching; the Ruth Oliva Preserve in East Marion surrounded by ponds, rivers and trees; and another beach walk, in Orient, off Narrow River Road.

One of DiDonato’s yoga students, 74-year-old Corrine “Cookie” Slade of Cutchogue, said she has taken yoga with DiDonato for about a decade and loves walking on her own and with DiDonato’s new groups. Slade has participated in all the newly organized walks except one.

Just before noon Monday Slade was taking a walk along the Nassau Point beach with her husband and a friend to help keep her mind calm, which she said has been rattled by the mysterious virus threatening seniors.

“It’s sad, terribly sad,” Slade said of the coronavirus pandemic in a telephone interview during her walk. “As old as I am, I thought I’d never have to deal with anything like this in my lifetime. It makes you feel so helpless but walking in the environment is beautiful –  it’s like nothing’s going on, it’s kind of like yoga.”

Monday morning’s walk with DiDonato took place at Laurel Lake Preserve where trails wander through mature woodlands, grasslands, shrublands and by vernal and fresh water ponds and lakes. Some of the birds DiDonato says have been spotted during the walks include woodpeckers, Nut Hatch and cardinals.

Paula DiDonato, co-owner of The Giving Room in Southold, speaks...

Paula DiDonato, co-owner of The Giving Room in Southold, speaks to the 35 people that showed up to take a hike on March 14. Credit: Randee Daddona

“When I made the decision to pause the yoga classes I realized we have a community of people who come to them for their physical and emotional health to connect with a sense of community and to breathe,” DiDonato explained. “I wanted to replicate that in a safe way, by going for beautiful nature walks on the North Fork. We started with a handful of people and then through social media and emails we doubled the number” each class. 

DiDonato noted, however, that she is also remaining mindful of social distancing guidelines — the walks won’t go beyond accepted assembly numbers and walkers are required to remain at least six feet apart.

DiDonato, who said that so far the walkers have ranged from 6 years old to 92, said each trail along the walks is “dramatically different,” and noted she is also getting the most updated advice from her personal physician at Stony Brook Hospital about how to safely conduct the walks. Huddling and physical touch on the walks is also prohibited.

“People on the walks have told me it’s elevating their moods and it’s getting them away from their televisions,” DiDonato said. “I’m personally getting away from the feeling of being overwhelmed and getting hopeful about what comes after this. I hope we learn that regardless of what the pressures are in the world we still have the opportunity to come together, support one another, and lift one another up.”

Anyone interested in DiDonato’s walks can register at She plans them weekly as circumstances permit. 

Here is the schedule for the rest of the week:

Wednesday, March 18, at 9 a.m. – Elizabeth Morton Wildlife Preserve, 2595 Noyack Rd., Sag Harbor. Parking fee $4.00 — A 187-acre peninsula on Noyack and Little Peconic Bays with diverse habitats, sand and rocky beaches and wooded bluffs. Wildlife includes white-tailed deer, eastern chipmunk, painted turtles, frogs, songbirds and osprey.

Thursday, March 19, at 10 a.m. – Downs Farm Preserve, 23800 Main Rd., Cutchogue – A 51-acre wooded parcel that is home to Fort Corchaug, a Native American fort.

Friday, March 20, at 10 a.m. – Dam Pond, 10580 NY-25, East Marion — A 118-acre trail with extensive wildlife, bird-watching and varied trails.

Saturday, March 21, at 10 a.m. – Inlet Pond County Park, (also known as the Audubon Trail) 65275 County Rd. 48, Greenport – 1.5 miles of trails through woodlands, bird-watching, open areas of shrubs and vines, and mature oak forest.

Sunday, March 22, at 10 a.m. — Orient Point County Park, 41425 NY-25, Orient — A 48-acre park at the tip of Southold Town with a mile-long beach with a half mile hiking trail.