5 ways that highlight that Yoga was originally practiced in connection with Nature and why that’s important.

For many years humans lived more in contact with nature than we currently do, and there was a wisdom, a connection that arose from that interaction and relationship. A relationship and interaction that has been forgotten but was so ubiquitous that it seems to have been overlooked. I believe that relationship to be overlooked in our yoga practices of yoga today, as well.

This is not an anti-technology statement, technology has offered a lot to humanity but when technology and advancement are made without deep connection there is much that is lost when we bond with only indoor ways.

This relationship with nature was present in Yoga from the beginning, and how could it not be, when at the time of the birth of yoga, a relationship with nature was a mandatory part of everyday life. Whether is was being in contact with nature from farming or food gathering to having to be in sync with cycles because of no electricity.  And when we practice solely in a studio, much of this great wisdom from that natural interaction is lost.  There’s a wisdom in that fundamental relationship that has been overlooked, and but thankfully Inukshuks1 were woven within the practice from the very beginning to direct us to the connect that going out is really going in. There’s a difference between practicing a pose in nature, and practicing yoga with nature.  Our connection with ourselves, with other beings, with life, and if you believe in spirit, all have to come from within. The only yoga in a yoga class is the yoga you bring.

  1.  Mountain.  Lion.  Monkey. Tree. Cobra. Sun/Moon. Sun Salutation. Dog. Pigeon. West Facing.

Let’s start at the most obvious of places – the names of the poses. Yes, some are very literal to physical positions (head to knee, forward bend) and others are in honour of Saints (Marichyasana, which literally means ray of light) but many are directly related to nature. This is not a coincidence.  We take the stance of these great aspects of nature to learn about ourselves, our inner nature, and our connection. Not in some abstract story about what we think a mountain to be, or what a tree ‘should’ look like but in a presence based experiential knowing way. We can learn something about our inner nature by knowing mountain, cobra…we don’t get to know what that is until we are there in the moment with nature, learning and connecting.

While I personally have not encountered a Great Canadian monkey, I have encountered many squirrels and from what I can gather is that both monkey and squirrel minds can have tendencies to love nuts and bananas.  But I have never seen either one of them doing the splits; although I do love walnuts on my banana splits.

There are cautions against practicing in full sunlight3 – although I take that with a grain of geographical salt and would argue that the more connected one is with the moment, the less blanket statements are useful. I live in the mountains in Canada, there are only about 30 days a year when it’s too hot to practice in the full day sun. The other 335, I’m craving full sun.

  1. Asana means seat, not pose.4

In a class we often translate the word asana to mean pose, while I don’t think that’s wrong, it may be understood in a superficial way. By superficial, I don’t mean anything negative, but rather I mean not as deep or rooted in understanding as it could be. From what I understand, asana more specifically means ‘seat’, and was in reference to meditation, intent, and to take on a state of.

We can take the literal and only physical meaning of the word seated, as in to be in a seated position (sitting). And/or we can take the sensations and inner nature of a seated position – to be resting in a position and bring that into our understandings of the poses, it adds another beautiful layer of understanding that is not only closer to nature but to our true connection and inner nature.

I don’t think the full meaning of mountain pose is simply to stand on our feet equally and be strong because that’s what the pose calls for, or because we think that what’s mountains do.  The full meaning of the pose is revealed to us as we go to the mountain and be in the presence of a mountain and feel the qualities of that mountain, that’s where inner strength is engaged naturally. That’s the seat of a posture.

It’s not forced in from the top down, but arises from resting in a position of contemplation, awareness, and insight of that mountain.  Just as in this same way of thinking – how can we be doing a ‘sun salutation’ if we are not intending to greet (even in the middle of the day) the sun with those movements. A sun salutation is not a sequence or choreography of movements for the sake of movement, but rather an action of actually interacting with the sun. Beginning the day with greeting it, intentionally. It doesn’t matter if there is a forward bend or a dog downward dog in there, or not.

It’s not about going out to a mountain to put our thoughts of what a mountain should be and with what we think they should feel like. It’s about going to a mountain to feel it and rest in that position, draw in that experience, see what reflections and mirrors arise from that connection and breathe – go out to reveal what’s in.  Not all mountains look the same at the same time.  All aspects of nature are dynamic, just as humans are dynamic from day to day from breath to breath, things shift in life. That’s part of nature.

I encourage you to go out and experience yoga WITH nature, not in it. The pretty sunset isn’t a backdrop, it’s a doorway.

  1. There is no such thing as a Yoga Teacher

Yoga can’t be taught,  but yogic techniques can be. It is up to everyone to find their own Yoga – “Your Own Great Awareness”.  The yogic techniques can assist in wading through the muck, navigating the emotional tides, drawing on inspiration in hard times, and holding space for the next veil to be expressed and the next aha to burble up. 

It’s not a coincidence that inspiration means to breath in and to inspire.5

As ‘teachers’ we can assist in inspiring others, reminding another of things the techniques when they feel bogged down by life, sharing stories and insights of how to use the techniques, offering another insights of traps (example: thinking about how good we are at meditating), or asking intelligent heart centred questions that allow another to find their way thus allowing for their understanding of yoga to come from within, naturally. We create the space within, so that others can find their inner space.

Yoga is unique to each of us as is each moment.   We can learn all the techniques in the world and how to skillfully use them, but they will never be Yoga. Yoga is innate within each of us – we are born connected. It’s only our stories, veils, misunderstandings, miscommunications, and thoughts that present the appearance of disconnection. That’s the paradox- the great irony and joke that is Yoga.  

That innate connection includes Nature; not only our inner nature but our outer environment. Monks would go to caves by themselves to ‘seek’ enlightenment, there’s wisdom in there, out there.  It’s not a coincidence that spiritual leaders would go into nature and return with great insight. Nature is a great reminder, mirror of our connection…the teachings arise from within due to the connection and stimulus with our environment. Most importantly, though, nature is a way to plug back into source.

  1. Balance isn’t between two things, it’s between everything.

Standing postures like tree have a lot to teach us about balance;

* it’s not just a practice of physical ability but also of awareness of the shifts of life,

* how to stay with the breath regardless of what shifts happen, 

* we learn the importance of how where we look can affect our balance

* how our thoughts can throw us off balance, or help us regain

We learn through all of that and more that balance isn’t between two things in ourselves, it’s between everything in our lives, in our selves, we learn to stay rooted deeply and be supple enough to adapt to what is real in our environment.  Mastering the art of tree pose is a life long lesson for many of us.

But the real gem of wisdom is to go out and be with a tree, practice with a tree as guidance. You might as well learn from a being whose got those skills innately dialled in. Go stand among the forest and feel the variety of trees, how they, like humans, are all unique and yet share something so intrinsic. 

Monkey is another great example of balance. In one form the monkey is chastised for being chaotic and a bit of a prankster, doing all sorts of crazy things with veils and minds – hence the saying “Monkey Mind”6. In another aspect the monkey is being honoured for its suppleness and flexibility – hence “hanumanasana” (splits) and we are encouraged to rest in this pose, understand and practice it…to take on the state of the inner nature of a monkey that allows for this openness and flexibility. Going out, is really going in.

When we are able to use our awareness and senses to feel and navigate the textures of connections, relationships and energies, we have begun yoga with ourselves, nature and others. Using not only our senses, attractions, insights, wisdom to make decisions but blending that with the ration mind. In essence, we have to retrain our brain about what is rational, what is connection, who we are, who we aren’t, and what remains when all our labels are stripped away.

  1. The ‘side-effects’ are suspiciously similar.

The main/ultimate dristhi of yoga is connection. Moving through the layers of connection within ourselves, with others and with spirit. However, many people report side-effects such as feelings of peacefulness, increased flexibility, strength, insight, clarity, better sleep, less anxiety7, increased happiness…etc.  

The main purpose of a relationship with nature, indeed any relationship, is also connection – with self, others, and nature. Whether this relationship is entered into intentionally or not, the ‘side effects’ are what being studied. From studies about people healing faster with a room that overlooks nature8, to doctors prescribing time in nature for anxiety,  to going for a walk increases happiness, inspiration and effective cognitive thinking9.

Participants in the Project Nature Connect group10*** realized they didn’t feel the need to meditate anymore but were feeling increased connection and contentment.

Mukunda Stiles has a list called “Symptoms of Inner Peace”11, ranging anywhere from “frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciate”, to “loss if interest of judging [yourself, or others]”, to “feeling connected with others and with nature.”  This list of 12 things is accredited to ‘the fullness of a yoga lifestyle’ and are cautioned that “if you have more than 3 of these symptoms your condition may too advanced to return to your former self.” 

All of these things are innately part of our nature (inner and outer). I would respectably argue that in order to have a yogic lifestyle, one must be in connect with nature – not only their own, but the bigger sense of Nature. Not because we need another layer of ‘shoulds’ to be a Yogi/Yogini but because that relationship was there in the beginning, it’s an integral part of the practice that is so ubiquitous that it has been overlooked.

The only yoga in the class is the yoga you bring.

There’s a difference between being in nature and being with nature. The yogic techniques we apply to ourselves in a class, can help us rebuild the relationship with nature that is missing from many of our lives.  The techniques of connecting with Nature we can apply to ourselves in our Yoga.  To me, the two are intricately woven. To have a yoga practice without nature, is to practice an asana with no regard to the body.

End Notes:

1The mysterious stone figures known as inuksuit can be found throughout the circumpolar world. Inukshuk,the singular of inuksuit,means “in the likeness of a human” in the Inuit language. They are monuments made of unworked stones that are used by the Inuit for communication and survival. The traditional meaning of the inukshuk is “Someone was here” or “You are on the right path.”  http://www.inukshukgallery.com/inukshuk.html

2 Marichi is the great-grandfather of Manu (“man, thinking, intelligent”), the Vedic Adam, and the “father” of humanity. Marichi = literally a ray of light.  http://www.yogajournal.com/pose/pose-dedicated-to-the-sage-marichi-i/

3http://www.anandamarga.org.nz/learn-about-yoga-asana-postures/tips-for-practicing-yoga-dos-and-donts/

4 “ In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines “asana” as “to be seated in a position that is firm, but relaxed”.[2] Patanjali mentions the ability to sit for extended periods as one of the eight limbs of his system, known as ashtanga yoga,[3] but does not mention standing postures.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asana

“a posture or manner of sitting (as in the practice of yoga)

posture, attitude, position – the arrangement of the body and its limbs; “he assumed an attitude of surrender””  http://www.thefreedictionary.com/asana

5  “1 a: a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation

        b: the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions;

2  the act of drawing in; specifically  :  the drawing of air into the lungs”

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inspiration

6  “Monkey Mind is a Buddhist term which describes the persistent churn of thoughts in the undisciplined mind.”  http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-5507/How-to-Tame-Your-Monkey-Mind.html

7  “Current research suggests that a carefully adapted set of yoga poses may reduce low-back pain and improve function. Other studies also suggest that practicing yoga (as well as other forms of regular exercise) might improve quality of life; reduce stress; lower heart rate and blood pressure; help relieve anxiety, depression, and insomnia; and improve overall physical fitness, strength, and flexibility.” https://nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm, https://www.yogauonline.com/yogau-wellness-blog/new-study-shows-mindfulness-effecive-for-depression, https://www.yogauonline.com/yogau-wellness-blog/surprising-way-paying-attention-can-relieve-stress-plus-7-steps-use,

8  “Ulrich and his team reviewed the medical records of people recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall.” 

Deborah Franklin, “How Hospital Gardens Help Patients Heal”, March 1, 2012 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nature-that-nurtures/

9 Zarr, Robert Dr. “WHY I PRESCRIBE NATURE”, November 5, 2013, http://www.childrenandnature.org/2013/11/05/why-i-prescribe-nature-in-d-c-pioneering-pediatricians-and-park-rx-offer-new-hope-and-health/,  

Sorgen, Carol (reviewed by Nazario, Brunilda Dr.), “Do You Need A Nature Prescription”, http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/nature-therapy-ecotherapy

10  Cohen, Micheal Dr., “Educating, Counseling and Healing With Nature”, GET DATE

11 Stiles, Mukunda, “Structural Yoga Therapy”, Samuel Weiser, INC., 2000, page 315