Today is Earth Day 2016. It’s also my birthday, born on April 22, 1943. Since the establishment of Earth Day on my birthday (April 22, 1970), I’ve felt a special responsibility for Earth with whom I had developed a relationship in my boyhood. It was also around this time of the year that I began to practice yoga in 2008, when I turned 65. Yoga became an important part of the rehabilitation of my body and mind from colon cancer surgery and a year of chemotherapy. As I returned to my body after too many years of neglect, I recalled my enjoyment of being in the natural world as a boy and young man, especially in the state parks and wilderness areas of upstate New York. In this blog article I want to reflect on how the practice of yoga can help us reconnect bodily with Earth.
Spring comes to the northern hemisphere bringing warmth from the sun and longer days in which life can spring up from Earth’s soil and unfurl from bare tree limbs. It’s time to shed the winter’s covering and open our bodies to the sensual combination of new warmth and the coolness that still lingers in the air.
As an urban boy growing up in Buffalo, NY I had opportunities to get into the natural world on Boy Scout camping trips and family summer vacations in the Adirondacks. Our Scout troop camped in a wilderness area along the South Branch Cataraugus Creek south of Buffalo called Zoar Valley. Playing by the fast-flowing creek was always a draw. Since in those days we were the only ones in the gorge and we figured out that we could be naked down by the fast-flowing creek to wash up. Not until I was 15 did some Scout friends and I, spending a week together at our camp, hike far enough up the creek to find a beautiful swimming hole where we could swim naked.
Sometimes during our family vacations in the Adirondacks I would canoe alone into marshy areas or hike up to a mountain top. Again, if no one was around I would just shed my clothes and immerse my bodily self in the natural elements, feeling the warmth of the sun, the breeze of the wind, and the solidity of the Earth beneath me.
As I have studied yoga, particularly yoga history, I have come to recognize that the yogi ascetics also went naked into nature, dwelling in the forests and mountains of northern India. There they meditated and went into villages begging for food as needed. The villagers were willing to support these naked holy men (naga sadhus) who bestowed blessings on them.
Historically, the yogis in India developed poses (asanas) to still the body for long periods of meditation. They lived close to nature in the forests, but on festivals dipped into the Ganges for a holy bath. Meditating on land and bathing in the holy river, the naked holy men experienced the elements of nature without the intervention of culture represented by clothing.
Today yogis who want to recover the roots of yoga practice need to make it an intention to experience practicing naked in nature. Some modern Western yogis have immersed themselves in the natural world, like this naked yogi is doing as he thrusts open his chest and breathes in the energizing prana, stretching up from the Earth like the spring foliage around him.
Our northern climate and modern Western socialization works against year round nakedness. But this is a time of the year in the northern temperate zone when our human bodies, like the bodies of hibernating animals, are venturing outdoors, and like the new vegetation of spring, are surging upward in the light and heat of the sun.
Yoga taps into the cosmological elements of fire (sun), air (wind), earth, and water, as well as the element of space (ether). Practicing yoga naked outdoors enables us to feel these elements more directly.
In fact, the yoga tradition itself is rooted in cosmology. Some yoga practices relate to the five elements of earth, air, fire, water, and space (ether) in the yoga cosmology as we experience them within our bodies — the earth that grounds our practice and provides stability, the air that we breathe in as uplifting energy and exhale as we settle into our posture, the fire that transforms matter within our digestive system as we do abdominal twists, the water that flows throughout our body enabling a flowing movement from one posture to another, the space that opens up our central axis as we stretch in different directions. Yoga has sought to help students sense these elements working within our bodies.
But the elements should also relate us to the external world in which we live. We should note that many poses are named after plants and animals (e.g. lotus, tree; cobra, crow). This came about when ancient sages in India observed how plants and animals live in harmony with their environment. Early practitioners of yoga would experience the effects of a posture in their own bodies. This became a way of connecting with the rest of nature. This stone carving of tree pose (Vrikshasana) on a temple at Mahabalipuram on India’s east coast, south of Chennai, goes back to the 7th century.
Trees can grow and stand a long time. So does standing in Vrikshasana as a posture (asana) for meditation.
Yogis and yoginis enjoy holding poses in natural surroundings, especially on or about trees.
Many of the poses developed in India reflected an imitation of nature, both plants and animals. This modern Western yogi demonstrates the crow pose resting on a perch.
With millions of people practicing yoga the practice could be a mighty force for raising awareness of our relationship to the natural world. Teachers should find ways to get their classes outdoors, like this Earth Day class at Hays State University in Kansas.
Yoga can cultivate an “enlightened” attitude about our relationship to Earth that would encourage many of its millions of practitioners to find projects big and small that they can become a part of. Maybe one type of action yoga could undertake is for several yoga studios to have a combined outdoor class and after a concluding Earth meditation disperse everyone through the park or the beach or along rural roads to pick up trash and properly dispose of it. Earth Day’s emphasis should motivate us to give constant attention to a clean and healthy environment.
Well before Earth Day became a regular observance, my Boy Scout troop used to have a spring clean-up day at the camp sites we used in Zoar Valley, in case any trash was littering the area. (We weren’t the only ones who ventured into the area, although our Scout troop was the only group with permission to camp there). Work included clearing away branches that had fallen during the winter. These larger branches provided fuel for spring camp fires. I also liked spending time alone in the woods, exploring and sometimes fantasizing about being an American Indian or pioneer settler. (The late 1950s was the era of the popularity of Walt Disney’s “Davy Crockett.”) In any event, we were learning about taking care of the natural environment even before Earth Day was proclaimed.
Unfortunately, even if the yoga business was of a mind to get involved in environmental projects, it lacks the organizational mechanism to engage in clean-up projects such as churches and religious groups are able to provide. Canadian yogi Matthew Remski has been a singular voice calling for more social activism from the yoga community. He has even suggested that every yoga studio should be a soup kitchen. With all due respect to Remski, who has important things to say about the real needs of modern householder yogis versus the renunciate tradition that was the basis of Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras, I don’t see modern Western yoga developing a social cohesion that would promote social or environmental activism. But what yoga can do on the basis of its long philosophic tradition is help its practitioners to recover the connection between the human body and the body of Earth. Outdoor practice would aid in establishing this connection in the body/mind feelings of the yogis.
The relationship between our yoga practice and nature could be the subject of a meditation in the natural world while in a natural state, connecting with Earth and the whole cosmos, sensing our participation in it, and being grateful for its benefits to us humans. This exercise, repeated over time, can form in us a clearer sense of our stewardship of creation. Contemplation can lead to action. They are not mutually exclusive.
The Trappist monk of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky wrote about the relationship between contemplation and action: “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others.” The other could also be Earth, from which we are cut off. But that’s only in our minds. In our bodies we are part of Earth, composed of the same elements found in Earth. As Merton said (and I apply it to our relationship with Earth): “We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.” We are Earth. From it we came, to it we will return. As we care for our bodies, so we care for Earth.
Pastor Frank Senn, STS