How To Find Yourself In The Woods
by Graham Fowler
There’s no shortage today of yoga studios, books, videos, teachers and permutations of yoga practice styles. Millions benefit from the precious legacy that has been passed on from antiquity. Yet ironically, one of the most important core practices, revered by ancient yogis, is often neglected.
Mountain. Lotus. Eagle. Tree. Frog. Fish. Butterfly. Cobra. Scorpion. Tortoise. Firefly. Crocodile. Bird of Paradise.
What does every item on this list have in common? They are all names of yoga poses. And they are all found in nature. We could even add Salutation to the Sun and Salutation to the Moon to the list.
Clearly, all of nature spoke to the great yogis who came before us. Their yoga practice embraced the valleys, mountains, and thick forests of India. And while they also often practiced in ashrams and sat at their gurus’ feet, their gurus often said to them, “Go into the forest. The deepest teachings of yoga are teachings in silence. Sit down and listen.”
One of the first and most acclaimed Ayurvedic physicians, Charaka, said that the cause of all human suffering is pragyaparadh: literally, the “mistake of the intellect”—referring to our forgetfulness that, beyond surface appearances, we are all part of the One.
What was true then seems even more true today. The biggest misconception of Western civilization is that we are separated from nature. For too many people, nature is something they only see through their car window or on the Discovery Channel.
Yet we are part of nature. Still, as Patanjali notes in a yoga Sutra, “our essential nature is usually caught up in the activity of the mind (y.s.1.4).” Most of us have been caught up on the hamster wheel of concerns and thoughts of past and future, and distracted by ever-present electronic screens, obscuring the clarity and power of who, where, and what we are.
And yet the potential gifts of connecting with nature are infinite. Three of the most essential gifts that come from engaging with nature are opportunities to cultivate presence, open the heart, and elevate one’s life force, or prana.
The following practices do just that and are intended for regular use. Feel free to modify them and make them your own; make them shorter or longer to fit your schedule and your needs.
For best results, when you first go into nature, begin by asking permission. This may seem strange since, for a long time, human beings have considered nature something to use and take from in any way they desire. Asking permission can be the first step to connecting with nature—and it’s a prerequisite for cultivating presence, opening the heart and elevating prana.
Just being in nature can help break the patterns of distractedness. Try these practices:
• Make a commitment to spend at least 20 minutes in nature every day. Dedicate this time wholeheartedly to being fully present. Whenever you experience your mind slipping into the past or the future, notice it and come back to enjoying what’s here and now. The sights and sounds of nature will assist you.
• Seek out and attune to nature’s beauty. Enjoy the majesty of a mighty oak tree, the sound of a rushing river or the movement of clouds against a blue sky. Do you feel your senses get more enlivened in this natural setting? With practice, superfluous mental chatter will begin to dissolve, and thoughts that arise out of a background of silence will be more powerful and clear.
• Take an hour or more and walk slowly until you find a spot in the woods or a meadow where you can have some privacy. Sit comfortably and keep your eyes open. As you take a few nice, easy breaths, begin to tune into the sights and sounds of your surroundings. Notice that there’s a natural environment of harmony around you.
• As you tune into the rhythm of your breathing, start to notice what’s happening, moment by moment, both in the areas around you and within you. Notice the parts of your body that are in contact with the earth, and what that contact feels like. Notice how your body moves as you breathe.
• Do you get a sense of continuity between the outer harmony of nature and the harmony of your body’s internal rhythms? Maybe your shoulders begin to soften down away from your ears. Maybe there’s an upsurge of inner happiness as you remember your oneness with nature. Take a few minutes to enjoy this inner and outer harmony. Then journal about your experience.
OPENING THE HEART and ELEVATING PRANA
Opening the heart and increasing life force often go hand in hand. The prana that exists in nature is the same force and potency that makes us alive. By becoming more present, and opening our hearts to what’s around us, we gradually increase our sensitivity to flows in our environment. Even the simple act of breathing in the fragrance of a flower can bring a pleasant wave of life force.
The Practice of Breathing with a Tree
Reciprocal breathing is a powerful practice that deepens presence, opens the heart, and elevates prana. You can practice it with any of nature’s inhabitants, but trees are especially well-suited for it as there is already a symbiotic relationship between us and them. The carbon dioxide in our exhalations is absorbed by trees. They then breathe back life-giving oxygen to us.
To begin, go out into nature and find a tree—or let a tree find you. Can you be open to feeling which tree would like to have a relationship with you? Once you have found the tree that you will be working with, take a moment to get acquainted. Appreciate its qualities, such as its strong trunk, its rootedness, how it sways in the breeze or the texture of its bark.
Stand and face the tree and place your palms on it. Or, if it seems mutually acceptable, wrap your arms around it with a hug. Or, as some people prefer to do, touch the energy field, with your hands slightly out from the tree.
Stand tall but not rigid. Feel your feet on the ground. It’s best to be barefooted. Feel the breath moving through you. As you inhale, feel prana from the tree flowing in through your palms, as well as your belly and chest.
Keep your breath easy and full, without forcing. Breathe in the gifts from this wonderful being. Breathe out love and appreciation. Feel and enjoy a beautiful exchange of love, appreciation and prana. Allow this simple practice to purify and restore you as it opens your heart, cultivates presence, and elevates your life force.
Continue for five minutes or longer with this natural communion. When you have a sense of completion, breathe love and gratitude to the tree and gently withdraw.
With practice, you will come to realize and appreciate more and more the possibilities of a deeper and more reciprocal relationship with all of our fellow travelers in nature—including the two-legged variety.