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. 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 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. In this blog article I want to reconnect yoga and Earth.
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. In those days we were the only ones in the gorge and and as the weather warmed in spring we could go naked to the fast-flowing creek to wash our dishes and our bodies. In the summer of my 15th year with three other Scouts I spent a week in Zoar Valley exploring the gorge. We found a swimming hole in which we swam naked, as boys often did in those days.
Sometimes during the 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 take in the natural elements, feeling the warmth of the sun, the breeze of the wind, and the solidity of the Earth on my naked body, like this yogi is doing in child pose.
Yoga originally had a connection with the natural world. This was lost as the practice of yoga turned inward. Most yoga practitioners today (at least in America and Europe) are sophisticated urbanites who drop into gyms and yoga studios to get their bodies in shape and their minds in order. Other than strolls in the city parks or tending their little gardens they have little connection with the natural world. Originally, yoga in India was practiced outdoors by naked holy men (naga sadhus), and was primarily concerned with sitting in a comfortable position for meditation.
Today yogis need to make it an intention to practice naked in nature. Our climate and socialization works against this. But this is a time of the year in the northern temperate zone when the climate is warming up and new vegetation is springing up and our human bodies, like the bodies of hibernating animals, are venturing out and surging upward.
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 in 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; crow, cobra). 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.
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 the 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 (see Frank Answers About our Connection to the Earth) disperse everyone through the park or the beach to pick up trash and properly dispose of it. For some of us this would more likely be a summer activity than one on April 22. But 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.
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.
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.