My yoga teacher, Nick Beem, who is schooled in both science and yoga, often brings modern scientific insights into his yoga classes. He even taught a six-week course exploring the relationship between science and yoga. Taking his course revived my youthful interest in earth science.
This is one of five “Frank Answers” articles based on the four classical elements of earth, fire, water, and air, plus the yoga element of space. These articles bring together my interests in cosmology (ancient and modern), my study of liturgy and ritual, and my practice of yoga. This article offers an earth-related yoga practice along with reflections on our responsibility to care for Earth as stewards of God’s creation.
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.
“I feel my breathing as I feel Earth’s breathing.”
The planet Earth generates a lot of oxygen and life. In fact, Earth teems with life of both plants and animals. I am writing this in October and I think especially of the late summer/autumn harvest in which we rejoice in the abundance of the plant life Earth produces to nourish animal bodies, including human bodies. Harvests have been celebrated by Earth’s people through religious festivals. These festivals become occasions of thanksgiving for the gifts of the earth and reminders of our stewardship responsibilities from God to care for Earth, our planetary home.
But we live in the world in which our economic, political, and social structures are predicated on scarcity rather than abundance. We believe there’s only so much of anything to go around. This attitude contributes to greed and hording by nations and individuals. This greed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because many people throughout the world are have-nots and live at the subsistence level. This is antithetical to the Biblical view of God’s bountiful creation and our commissioned stewardship to tend the garden of the Lord.
A fall harvest festival in the Jewish tradition is Sukkot or the Feast of Booths (or huts or tents). The festival has a double significance. In the Book of Exodus it is an agricultural festival—”the feast of Ingathering at the year’s end” (Exodus 34:22)—and it marks the end of the harvest time and thus of the agricultural year in the Land of Israel. In the Book of Leviticus Sukkot is a commemoration of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the Israelites’ dependence on God’s gracious provision of food and drink during their forty years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness (Leviticus 23:42-43). The Israelites had to learn to depend on Yahweh, their Lord, before they could enter the promised land, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Jews around the world celebrate Sukkot by building huts (sukkas) to live in for eight days which are decorated by harvest items signifying the abundance of God’s creation. The sukka is a reminder of harvesters living in the field during the time of harvest but also of the tents in which the Israelites lived during their wilderness sojourn.
The antithesis between scarcity and abundance is displayed in the story of Jesus feeding a multitude (5,000 men, not counting women and children) with a five loaves and two fishes. This story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes is actually told six times in four Gospels because Matthew and Mark have a second feeding story when “again the crowd following Jesus had nothing to eat” (4,000 men, not counting women and children). These stories have many symbolic details, but the multiplication of a few supplies clearly show a world view of abundance. Jesus as the Son of the God who has created a world of abundance provides abundantly to those who followed him into the countryside, just as God fed his people in the wilderness. But Jesus’ own apostles, like us, lived with a worldview of scarcity. They asked, “how will two fish and five loaves be enough for so many?” (Matthew 14:15-21). Yet when Jesus starts breaking the loaves and dividing the fishes and giving baskets full to the apostles to distribute to the crowd, it turns out that there is much left over. Jesus is challenging the scarcity mentality of his followers. With God there is abundant grace.
The universe itself is not static and limited. God has created an expanding universe. Within this universe we inhabit a planet that always has more than enough to give. Simply observe seeds, spermatozoa, and the life-giving cycles of sun and rain! Our problem is not insufficient resources to go around but economic, political, and social systems that don’t provide for sharing.
If ancient cosmologies saw the Earth as a living, breathing being, our modern cosmology thinks 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, cause a stirring of the air that we experience as wind.
These are the four elements that the ancient Greeks proposed in their cosmology and reflected on philosophically: earth, fire, water, and air. The ancient Indians added ether or space as a fifth element in their cosmology. 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. And it is constantly expanding, as Edwin Hubble observed through his telescope.
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 and 2. 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 abundantly from Earth. Some of us would affirm that however it evolved the universe exists by the creative word of God and for God’s good pleasure. God pronounced this life-filled Earth as “very good.” At the apex of this creative process came humankind, created in the image of God (Genesis 1:24)—but created from 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 are materially a part of it, and also a part of the plants and animals that are also of Earth.
One with All Plants and Animals
We humans, created by the mind and will and word of God, are of the same substance as Earth and all stars. 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
Abram coined the phrase “the more-than-human world” to describe everything that lives outside the human world. It speaks to a broader experience of Earth. Modern Western society is species-centric; we see humans as the center of life on Earth. We think of nature as inanimate except for animal forms. We lack awareness of the other life forms all around us. The concept of the more-than-human world invites us to open ourselves to the presence of all the other living things on this planet and to Earth itself as the mother of all life.
Ancient peoples lived in a closer relationship with 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. That material world includes our bodies. Modern Western science detached us from Earth so that we could study it “objectively,” and detached our mind from our bodies.
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. There is a reciprocal relationship between animals and plants. For example, we humans take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. Trees take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. So, yes, hug a tree.
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 God’s 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 adapted 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 (matter). These gunas are tamas (inertia, solidity, stability), rajas (activity, effort, motion), and sattva (balance, harmony, synthesis). These three strands have been associated with psychological states. The liability of this association 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].
A Yoga Sequence: Tamas, Rajas, Sattva
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. One way to look at this complete structure of practice is that each practice is an experience of the whole of life, from our emerging from Earth, to our striving in life, to our return to Earth from which we came.
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. This sequence often constitutes a vinyasa or flow. 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. The standing poses such as lunges, mountain pose, chair pose, warrior poses, geometrical poses (e.g. triangle), balance poses, and twisting poses, reflect the activities of life.
For sattva practices we move back down to the ground, perhaps for some form of pigeon pose as well as supine twists.
Finally, savasana (corpse pose) integrates into our bodies and minds the whole practice while connecting with Earth that supports us and will finally receive us.
Experiencing Earth’s Body
I have come to think that the most important thing we can do is reconnect with Mother Earth as her loving children. Connection means to be in touch—literally! 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 shed the clothing of human culture and actually touch and be touched by Earth. We need to feel Earth under our feet by walking unshod on the bare ground, feel the breeze on our skins, breathe the fresh air into our lungs, notice the plants and trees, 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.”
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. plants like lotus and tree, animals like cobra and dolphin). 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 connecting with the nature of which we are a part—feeling beneath us both the hardness and the softness of Earth that supports us in space. The body organ that relates to the sense of touch is skin. It is our most sensitive organ. It feels differences in surfaces and temperatures, textures and vibrations, dryness and wetness. In these ways we are touching Earth and Earth is touching us.
Photo of a dancer doing a yoga pose in a natural setting by Swedish-born, London-based photographer Bertil Nilsson.
Moreover, it turns out that physically touching 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.
Walking barefoot outside is a way of connecting our bodies with Earth’s electro-magnetic field and getting our body’s battery charged, as it were. Dancers, gymnasts, and yogis/yoginis have traditionally performed barefoot.
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 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 today. Yoga focuses on the body, and it increasingly recognizes the relationship between the body and 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.
The history of yoga shows instances of involvement in politics (all those naked warrior yogis serving Indian kings) and culture (all those gurus dispensing wisdom). In the 1960s yoga was embraced by the counter-culture movement as a form of social protest.
2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of what subsequently became known as the “Summer of Love” in which the counterculture became “visible” in Western society and the underground came up for air. Even the Beatles found a guru in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and followed him to his ashram in India (and drifted away because of his sexual hypocrisy).
It was misbegotten. But what yoga can do is to form in yogis and yoginis an appreciation for their body and Earth’s body that may lead them individually into environmental activities. Yoga offers much collective wisdom about the ways in which the world (both natural and social) impacts our bodies and minds.
But yoga must also get us engaged with our natural habitat. 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. The NatMov (Natural Movement) movement develops ways for people to be doing strenuous work and body moves outdoors.
Because 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, scrambling over rocks, ascending and descending on a mountain, climbing 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.”
Managing Earth’s Abundance
This task of stewardship should include managing Earth’s abundance in such a way that it is shared with all Earth’s people—indeed with all Earth’s creatures great and small.
From farm fields
to farmers’ markets
to the table of sharing
we are fed and nurtured by Earth.
Yoga and Food
One final thought: when I was at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health the healthy food cooked in the kitchens and served in the cafeteria was related to the yoga and ayurveda practices being taught. Kripalu even includes workshops on diet and cooking among its myriad offerings. When I practiced yoga with a Hindu teacher in Singapore, my private session with him ended with a talk about diet. (I was happy that he approved of red wine.) Also, my men’s yoga class teacher advised us on a hot summer day that keeping hydrated didn’t include drinking beer and diet coke. Around Thanksgiving time he also receives food collections for a local food bank at yoga classes. Yoga studios may not be able to take up Matthew Remski’s suggestion of turning studios into soup kitchens. But maybe yoga’s focus on the body should include giving attention to mindful eating.
Yogi Pastor Frank Senn
Mindful eating at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Ayurvedic Health