Modern yoga has come to mean an exercise program that has health benefits, but that is not the original intent of yoga. As a yoga teacher, I would like to introduce you to some of the basic principles of yoga and the benefits of integrating them into our modern lives and also integrating our lives with nature. Many readers may already know that the word “yoga” derives from the word “yoke”, meaning to yoke the mind to the body, or connect mind and body to each other. Yoga is meant to be a way of life or a mindset, more than an exercise regime. The physical aspects of yoga were only one piece of a puzzle that is a yogic life. In the ancient texts, yoga is called the 8-limbed path but don’t worry, I don’t intend to cover them all here.
Asana (yoga postures) are not yoga anymore than your arm is the entirety of you, but modern, American yoga focuses almost entirely on asana. We do yoga to get strong, or lose weight, or relieve stress and these are all positive things but they are not yoga. Yoga is much bigger than that. Asana was created to help the body become flexible and strong enough to sit in meditation for long periods. It also calms the mind in a way that helps meditation, but meditation is the goal. It is in the meditation that the mind and body learn to come together. Yoga classes generally end with the students lying on their backs for several minutes in savasana (or relaxation pose). Savasana has the word asana in it. It is meant to be held for 5 minutes before meditating in a seated position. Lying down can be too comfortable and encourages a drifting mind and/or sleep. Seated meditation helps with grounding which in turn helps still the mind but also keeps you awake so in traditional yoga, seated meditation would be practiced, whereas in Western yoga, (and even in my own classes) savasana often lasts 15 minutes.
With that said, I will not pretend that I am good at meditating and keeping my mind quiet. I am not. That is the reason I meditate. My mind is naturally busy and distracted and therefore more in need of stillness. And asana beforehand can and does help. But I still struggle and that is okay. If everyone could do it easily, it wouldn’t be particularly helpful. Think of the things that come easily to you. Do they make you feel at peace? Probably not. Think of the things that you worked hard to achieve. Do they give you a good feeling inside? Of course they do. They probably make you feel stronger and more confident, and the harder they were to achieve, the better you probably feel about it.
So, if yoga (asana) is intended to help you meditate, then what is meditation for? The Bhagavad Gita says:
Perform your actions, casting off attachment, both in success and in failure. This evenness is what is called yoga. And far inferior is mere action to action performed with evenness of mind. Seek refuge in this evenness. Wretched are those who work for results… Strive therefore for yoga. Yoga is skill in action.(Chapter 2, verse 49)
So meditation helps you achieve evenness of mind and evenness of mind is yoga. Yoga isn’t a series of postures but a way of living life skillfully and serenely. Yoga postures and meditation are one possible path towards that goal.
And where does nature come into this? First let me say that being in nature has been proven to make us feel more relaxed and grounded which is an asset to both yoga and meditation, but there is more to it than just that. And let’s not forget that, like it or not, we are part of the natural world. As humans we tend to see ourselves as separate from nature but how can we be? We see ourselves as different from the animals when we are just another species of animal. We see ourselves as masters of the planet and everything on it and in it when, in fact, we wouldn’t exist without it. When we are gone, the planet will remain (and probably be better off without us). We are not different. Not separate. Not in charge. Not more important. We are just another part of nature, and as a part of nature, it benefits us to spend time in nature.
Shoes instead of naked earth, stiff clothes instead of the sun and wind. A constriction about your shoulders instead of an open expansion of the chest. Formal games in courts and gyms instead of the flinging of an anchor into the sea. (Joseph Campbell , A Fire in the Mind, pg.209)
These are the problems of our modern life. We have cut ourselves off from the natural world and are suffering because of it. Oscar Wilde said “It seems to me we all look at nature too much and live with her too little”.
Much of our disconnection from nature stems from our cultural history. Judeo-Christion values taught many of us, our parents and generations of people, to view natural functions as evil or undesirable. Our bodies and urges are seen as sinful. Activities that bring pleasure are discouraged. And even if we weren’t raised this way, we have still come of age in a society that frowns upon natural freedoms. For millennia, people have been encouraged to suppress instincts, bury themselves under guilt and shame and sometimes even physically abuse and punish themselves. We may no longer practice self-mortification but we carry the psychic scars of our cultural history.
Religious philosophers in the Middle Ages distinguished between natural grace and supernatural grace. Natural grace is to be discouraged, only supernatural grace matters. Good can only come from outside the self, from God, from the church. One’s own instincts are to be suppressed. What we might now call “nature religions” survived in the European countryside, hidden from the church and its inquisitions. They thrived because people still had a need and desire to feel connected to nature and many pagan practices and traditions were adopted into Christianity to appease the peasants who clung to the old ways. The story of the Grail King was symbolic of this. The Grail King killed the pagan knight but the knight’s lance wounded the king and made him impotent. This “killing of nature” took the potency from religious experience. It removed the rich spirituality from Christianity and left many unsatisfied. Our human nature craves connection, connection to others, connection to nature, connection to spirit, and our cultural history has tried to take it from us. We love to sit around a campfire with friends. We love to lie on the beach and swim in the ocean, so why not yoga outdoors, yoga in a serene setting that enhances our experience of connection? Maybe you’ve done it once or twice on vacation, but does it have to be so seldom? Why not make a conscious effort to spend more time outdoors and why not take your practice outdoors when possible?
This has become my mission as a yoga teacher - to bring people into nature and to deepen their connection to it. To let nature make my job easier. To help people feel grounded and strong and resilient by practicing among the trees or by the water. But you can do it yourself too. And it doesn’t have to be yoga either. Take a walk. Have a campfire. Read a book in the sun. Breathe fresh air. All these things help yoke the mind and body.
Let us not forget, however, that nature is not all beauty and goodness. Just as the moon has a light and a dark side, so does everything. Nature can seem harsh or cruel sometimes, but good and evil are in our minds and our perception, not in nature. Nature just is. It exists beyond duality and this is another lesson we can learn by connecting. If we can view the beauty and the violence of nature with equanimity, maybe we can begin to see ourselves and our lives with evenness of mind as well. In India, devotees of Kali (the Ferry across the Ocean of Existence) are expected to contemplate her two characters with equal evenness of mind – -Joseph Campbell said:
The goddess is red with the fire of life; the earth, the solar system, the galaxies all swell within her womb. For she is the world creatrix, ever mother, ever virgin. She is the life of everything that lives. She is also the death of everything that dies… The womb and the tomb… Through this exercise his spirit is purged of its infantile, inappropriate sentimentalities and resentments, and his mind opened to the inscrutable presence which exists, not primarily as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with respect to his childlike human convenience but as the law and image of the nature of being. (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 114-115)
Kali is the wife of Shiva (sometimes spelled Siva), god of yoga. His name is implied in the word Savasana. Savasana or shavasana translates as corpse pose. It should be the last pose in any asana series and is a prelude to meditation. My favorite story pertaining to Shiva is about the demon Kirtimukha (Glorious Face), an “all-consuming” monster with large fangs and a gaping mouth.
Kirtimukha had nothing to eat so Shiva commanded him to eat himself and so he devoured himself until there was nothing left but his face. Shiva was enchanted, for here, at last, was a perfect image of the monstrous thing that is life, which lives on itself. And Shiva placed this sun-like mask above the doors to all his temples saying-‘No one who refuses to honor and worship you will ever come to knowledge of me’ [paraphrased]. The obvious lesson…is that the first step to the knowledge of the highest divine symbol of wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the monstrous nature of life and its glory in that character…Those who think that they know how the universe could have been better than it is, how it would have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without life are unfit for illumination. (Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, p.103-4)
Although I enjoy these stories and philosophies, I do not practice Hinduism or Buddhism. I believe that studying other cultures and religions opens our minds and our hearts and connects us to humanity. My own own cultural heritage includes the story of the Holy Grail. When knights began their quest for the Grail, they were compelled to enter the forest at a place with no path, where no one else had gone, so that they must choose their own way and be guided by their own nature. Their quests were as individual as they themselves were. We can see this as a metaphor for our own lives. We each choose our own paths in our search for peace and spirituality and there is no need to follow another’s path. My path leads me into the woods, as an end unto themselves. Where will your path lead you? What is your Grail?’
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