My yoga teacher, Nick Beem, who is educated in both science and yoga, often brings modern scientific insights into his yoga classes. He even taught a six-week course exploring the relationship of science and yoga. This revived my youthful interest in earth science.
An idea that I have been thinking about recently is that Earth is a living, breathing body. So are we humans living, breathing bodies. What does this suggest about the connection between our bodies and the body of the Earth? What does this suggest about our care for the earth?
I had better explain what I mean by saying that the Earth is a living, breathing body. To say that it is a body is to say that it has a material composition and shape. To say that it is breathing is like saying that Earth is alive, just as our human bodies are alive if we are breathing. The planet Earth generates a lot of oxygen and life. I am writing this in October and think especially of the autumn harvest in which we rejoice in the abundance of plant life Earth produces to nourish the animal bodies, including human bodies.
Harvests have been celebrated by Earth’s people through religious festivals. These festivals become occasions for thanksgiving for the gifts of the earth and reminders of our stewardship responsibilities from God to care for the earth. The Jewish Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles) includes building a hut outdoors as a reminder both of the huts workers lived in while gathering in the grain and the tents the Israelites lived in during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. Such festivals remind even urban dwellers of our relationship to the earth under our feet.
In our modern cosmology we think of Earth as an inanimate body—a ball of gases that spun off from a star, our sun, settled into its comfortable orbit around our sun, and cooled down. We speak of terra firma—the firm ground. But Earth is not as stable and solid we might think. It has a fiery center of molten rock that erupts through fissures in the earth’s crust. We experience this as volcanic eruptions.
Lava spews forth from the Philippine’s Mayon volcano crater in 2009.
Earth’s crust floats on this hot molten interior and moves around as tectonic plates. We experience the collision of plates as earth quakes. Earth has a vast supply of surface water that, at least away from the polar regions, doesn’t freeze. Some of this water is absorbed into the atmosphere as clouds and we experience it as rain. The air we breath is not nothing; it is a gas. And the movements of Earth, combined with changes in atmospheric pressure and surface contours, causes a stirring of the air that we experience as wind. Here are the four elements that the ancients proposed in their cosmology and reflected on: earth, fire, water, and air. The ancient Indians added space or ether to their cosmology as a fifth element. Now we know that space is not an emptiness through which objects move, as Newton thought. Rather, it is the gravitational field, as Einstein proposed.
This fluid Earth has all the ingredients of life and it has produced life abundantly—all the life celebrated in the first chapter of Genesis. Theories of evolution have given us a different picture and a longer timetable for the emergence and development of life than the theological statements in Genesis 1. But roughly from single-cells to multi-celled plants and animals, from watery depths to swamps to land, from swimming and crawling to walking, life has sprung forth from Earth. Some of us would affirm that however it evolved it is by the creative word of God and for God’s good pleasure. God pronounced this life-filled world as “very good.” At the apex of this creative process came humankind, created in the image of God (Genesis 1:24)—but from the earth itself (Genesis 2:8). There is nothing in Earth, or in Earth’s star, our sun, that, materially speaking, is not in our bodies. Well do we call our planet “Mother Earth.”
We humans, created by the mind and will of God, are of the same substance as Earth. But precisely because we are created in the image of God, we are each endowed with a soul (psyche, a unique personality) that our parent planet and grandparent star lack. Whether other sentient creatures have a soul is debatable. However, eco-philosopher David Abram, in Becoming Animals : an earthly cosmology (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), proposes that we share “mind” with other animals and perhaps even with Earth. He defines “mind” as awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. Traditional peoples also believed that plants as well as animals, and Earth itself, have awareness.
Indigenous people of Peru
Ancient peoples lived in a closer relationship with the earth than do we modern Western and Westernized peoples. We made an erroneous theological presumption that subduing Earth and having dominion over it made it ours to exploit for our exclusively human purposes instead of managing it as stewards for God’s purposes . Science, too, took a detached approach toward the study of Earth that goes back to the Cartesian separation of mind from body. The primary dichotomy in Descartes’ philosophy was actually the division between the mind and the whole material world.
Now Gaia theory undoes these age-old presumptions. It holds that organic life is reciprocally entangled with the most inorganic parameters of earthly existence, thus complicating any facile distinction between living and non-living aspects of our world. It shows that Earth’s organisms collectively influence their environment so thoroughly that the planet’s oceans, soils, atmosphere, and surface geology together exhibit behavior more proper to a living physiology. We are all—plants, animals, humans, and Earth itself—part of a single biosphere.
Medieval Christians also had this sense of being connected with the whole creation. We know that St. Francis, in his Canticle of the Sun, called heavenly bodies like the sun and moon and other animals “brothers” and “sisters.” The great theologian Thomas Aquinas affirmed that God’s goodness is represented not only by humans but by all creatures. In his Summa Theologica I.47.1 he taught:
God brought things into being in order that God’s goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because God’s goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, God produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided.
In other words, we need the witness of all the creatures to know the goodness of God. Aquinas continues, “The whole universe in its wholeness more perfectly shares in and represents the divine goodness than any one creature by itself.” How could humans think we were the only or even the main event of creation? We are on Earth because God needed gardeners to tend his garden. If we have a “rational soul,” as Aquinas affirmed, it is so that we can communicate with our Creator about the work to be done in caring for Earth.
Ancient Indian philosophy that has been embraced by yoga and in Buddhism takes a more experiential approach to our apprehension of the universe than Western science. The word Samkhya literally means “to count” or “to enumerate.” It is a system that reckons with all the different things we encounter in our external and internal experiences. It differentiates between prakrti, energy that can be enumerated, and perusha, the seer or witness who experiences this energy and is conscious of it.
The basic building blocs of the Samkhya universe are the three gunas or “strands” that braid together the energies of prakrti. These gunas are tamas (inertia, solidity, stability), rajas (activity, effort, motion), and sathva (balance, harmony, synthesis). These three strands have been associated with psychological states. The liability of this is that we might think of one state as better or more beneficial to us that the others. But experience has shown that if we stay in one state too long we can become imbalanced. As yoga teacher Richard Freeman writes, “The yoga practices teach us to cultivate awareness in all of these different states of being so that we remain fluid, alert, and able to transition from one to the next skillfully” [The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Mind and Body (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2012), 82].
In fact, skillfully constructed yoga sequences in asana practice lead us through the three gunas. We move from experiencing tamas on the ground in initial warm-up poses to experiencing rajas as we move up from our bellies to more vigorous standing poses to experiencing sattva as we return to the ground for a final synthesis and prepared for the final meditation.
Thus our practices often flow from initial stretches while seated on the ground to table pose with cat and cow stretches, to downward dog to plank to cobra. These are tamas practices; they are grounding.
Then we move up to lunges and standing poses. These poses are rajas practices; they require more effort. Autumn is a suitable time for vigorous poses to build up energy for winter.
Finally, for sattva practices we move back down to the ground, perhaps for some form of pigeon as well as supine twists.
Finally, savasana (corpse pose) integrate into our bodies and minds the whole practice while connecting with Earth that supports us and will finally receive us.
We haven’t always done well in our stewardship of the creation and now we find ourselves in an unprecedented (at least in human history) environmental crisis with the effects of climate change threatening life forms on our planet and our human way of life also. We look for ways big and small to deal with it. Most of us are not in a position to enact major changes in how we live on the earth, and even governments have been slow to deal with these issues. So we find only little ways to correct and undo damage we that we have collectively inflicted on Mother Earth. Certainly little projects to clean and protect the environment, undertaken by more and more people as well as by some corporations, could collectively help to restore a great deal of what has been devastated by human disregard for our environment.
Red Cross cleaning the environment in Sri Lanka
I have come to think that the most important thing we can do is reconnect with Mother Earth as her loving children. We need to be experiencing the Earth’s body in our own bodies. We need to get in touch with the Earth’s living, breathing body by getting in touch with our own living, breathing bodies. We need to breathe the air into our lungs, feel the earth under our feet by walking unshod, smell the foliage around us which tickles our nostrils, and hear the chirping of the birds and the rustle of the small mammals in the leaves that sends little vibrations into our ears.
As Simon Thakur, teacher of yoga, body movement, and meditation, says:
The current human disconnection from the natural world starts with our disconnection from our own bodies, which we as a culture inherited – to a degree that most of us generally don’t quite acknowledge the extent of our inability to feel our own bodies.”
Yoga is one way of reconnecting with our bodies. Ancient yoga itself had a connection with the natural world that has been passed on to us at least in the names of the poses (asanas) (e.g. lotus, tree, cobra, dolphin, etc.). In his “Ancestral Movement” practices, Simon Thakur notes that humans humans were exploring physical movement in imitation of animals for survival long before recorded history and these movements are part of our collective embodied memory.
Icelandic pastor and mountain climber Thorgrimur Danielsson doing crane pose on an Icelandic volcanic mountain.
We can feel our own bodies better if we are reconnecting with the nature of which we are a part—feeling beneath us the hardness of Earth that supports us in space; feeling on our skin the warmth of the fiery sun, the coolness of water, the breezes that evaporate the sweat on our brows, and the spaces we inhabit (the five yoga elements). We need to enjoy being in the natural world and feel ourselves as a part of it We are not likely to exploit and degrade what we enjoy and care about.
Photo of dancer doing yoga pose in a natural setting by Swedish-born, London-based photographer Bertil Nilsson.
Moreover, it turns out that physically touching the earth in our bare skin has health benefits for us. The naturopathic physician Dr. Daniel Chong wrote:
When you touch the earth with your skin or through material that does not insulate you from its energy field (grounding or “Earthing”), you literally absorb electrons from its surface into your body. This process has many powerful effects on you, the details of which we have only recently begun to understand.
We are coming to a new awareness of ourselves as bodily creatures. The concept of “embodiment” permeates all fields of human endeavor. By embodiment I mean that our connections with the world come from having a body with sensorimotor capacities that are embedded in our biological makeup, our physiological feelings, our psychological experience, and our social contexts. Phenomenologically, we should also be able to feel our connections with Earth in our bodies.
In this connection I have derived much benefit from reading Reginald A. Ray, Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body (Boulder: Sounds True, 2008, 2014). A Buddhist teacher of meditation, Ray has developed an earth meditation in which we experience becoming part of Earth in our own bodies. This meditation consists of visualizing ourselves dissolving into the earth beneath us, going down, down, down—5 feet, 10 feet, 20 feet, 50 feet, 100 feet, 1,000 feet, 1 mile, 5 miles etc. Or we could imagine ourselves sinking down through the various geological layers under us. The object of our meditation could be to reflect Earth as our home. From its dirt we were created and to that dirt we shall return. As we sit in lotus position, our perineum—the earthiest part of our bodies—makes contact with Earth itself.
Yoga and the Environmental Movement
Millions and millions of people around the world are practicing yoga. Yoga focuses on the body, and it increasingly recognizes the relationship between the body and the earth. But as Canadian yoga teacher and philosopher Matthew Remski has pointed out, yoga historically has an anti-social heritage, and when modern Western people come to the practice it’s often a retreat from the everyday world in which we feel trapped. Faced with enormous and sometimes intractable challenges in the worlds around us—the worlds of politics and culture as well as nature—, we get on our yoga mats to retreat within, to claim a calm we cannot find in daily life.
Yet the history of yoga also shows instances of counter-cultural activism, involvement in politics (all those naked warrior yogis serving Indian kings), and much collective wisdom about the ways of the world that impact our bodies and minds. The yoga business (for that’s what it has become) has not (yet) developed means of engaging in social activism, but it can at least impact our attitudes about life and the way we relate to our earthly environment.
Indian man in tree pose. Arms, like tree limbs, can go in any direction in this pose.
Before we humans settled into a sedentary life, now sitting for hours in front of a computer screen, and needing to go to the gym to lift weights and work out on cardiovascular machines, we built physical strength the natural way by walking, running, jumping, climbing, lifting, pulling, and doing manual labor outdoors. We tuned our bodies to do what we needed to do to live in the natural world.
A quiet walk in the woods or by the sea is a simple way of reconnecting with the natural world. It has also been shown to have health benefits. A concept developed in Japan in the 1980s, Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, is the healing of simply being in the forest. Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” Studies have shown that going for a walk into the forest can increase brain cognition and boost our mood, empathy and creativity.
So much of our modern life, and what we do with our own bodies, is disconnected from the natural world. We need to put our bodies into motion in nature—hiking, climbing a rock or a tree, digging in the garden, at least mowing the lawn. I think experiencing a connection between our bodies and the natural world is the beginning of developing a sense of stewardship for the creation, which is the task our Lord God gave to us “in the beginning.”
Yogi Pastor Frank Senn