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New book coming soon
After examining the mind-body connection within the frame of yoga practice in our book The Psychophysical Lab, Ohad Nachtomy and myself are broadening our view to explore the connection between our practice and the setting in which it takes place. In our forthcoming book: Yoga in Nature and Natural Props for Yoga we discuss practicing outdoors in a natural environment. We point out the benefits of practicing in natural settings and present techniques for such a practice. Being Iyengar Yoga practitioners, we explore methods to use sand, rocks, trees, and other natural elements as props for the practice. The new book presents an in depth look at how to use these natural elements as props for yoga outdoors and includes many color photos illustrating the techniques discussed. In this article I only give a general discussion of this subject.
Special thanks to Allison Aitken for her useful comments and suggestions.
Practicing in Nature
I love to practice outdoors in the open air, on the seashore, or during a hike in the mountains. Fortunately, I live close to the Mediterranean shore, and most of the year I practice regularly on the beach, enjoying the Elements of nature: the water, the air, and the sun.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that practicing yoga outdoors is a powerful way of recharging my body, mind, and spirit, and retaining balance and poise, even when facing the inevitable vicissitudes and downfalls of life. I’ve experienced the joy of being alone in nature, absorbed in a deep forward extension or in headstand, observing the waves from surface level – or, meditating near the sea, feeling the soft breeze on my skin, and listening to the rhymical, meditative roar of the ocean. Or, when practicing in the desert, sensing the touch of cool curved rock against my body as I let my back arch on top of it.
Practicing in natural surroundings has taught me about yoga more than the safe environment of my studio. In nature, my body spontaneously opens up, my mind becomes calm and focused, and my practice flows naturally and effortlessly. I can stay in challenging āsanas with less effort and more focus and concentration than when doing them at home. Somehow, and somewhat mysteriously, my body and mind react spontaneously to the rhythm of the waves and the wind, to the abundance of energy that nature seems to offer. Sometimes advanced āsanas that I struggle with at home come easily in nature. I often experience the state Patanjali defines as prayatna śaitilya – a sensation of effortless effort in performing an āsana, which, according to Patanjali, is the characteristic of a mature and well-done āsana (see Yoga Sutras II.47). It is not entirely clear to me why these natural elements are so conducive to my practice. Yet the effect is clearly felt – I am able to concentrate and connect with myself and enjoy the practice in a way that does not often happen in the studio.
Nature Provides Useful Props
Iyengar Yoga practitioners (like me) might worry that proper practice requires a flat floor, walls, and most importantly, props. No doubt, these all have great benefits in practice. In fact, I use props regularly and teach and write books about their use in our practice. But practicing yoga outdoors in nature need not deprive us of the benefits of props, because, as I will show in the forthcoming book (Yoga in Nature), nature itself provides very effective props. And so, we do not need to give up on the benefits of props when we practice in nature. One of the joys of practicing in nature is the search for natural props. Wherever you are, you can find wonderful props. You only need to look for them with an attentive and imaginative mind.
Over many years of practicing in nature, I have devised many methods for using the sand (at the beach), the rocks (in the mountains), and the trees (in the forest) as props that enhance and deepen the practice. I find these natural props extremely effective, often more so than the artificial ones we use at the studio. The sand especially lends itself easily to creating slopes, little pits, and the like, which give soft and natural support for many āsanas that prove even better than the human-made apparatus we commonly use at the studio (more about this in the forthcoming book). It is my sincere hope that this article, and the book that will follow, will help you combine the benefits of being in nature with those of practicing yoga, without giving up on the benefits of yoga props.
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Why Practice in Nature?
With all its technological advances, the modern way of life provides us with many advantages and comforts: heating and cooling systems allow us to control air temperature; electricity provides us with light; pumps and pipes bring water to our homes; the Internet provides us with a near-endless supply of information and entertainment; and so on. All this technology saves us a great deal of time and frees us of worries about our basic needs, such as food and shelter. Despite these great benefits, technology also has its costs. We have become isolated from the abundance of nature and its positive effects on our wellbeing. Alienated from a natural environment, we might even become alienated from our own bodies, which are one of magnificent and majestic creations of nature. This detachment from nature is apparent once we look at modern workspaces. Many people in technological countries work indoors in large production halls. I used to work in such an ‘open space’ when I was a software engineer at Intel. I always felt it is somewhat ironic to call these offices ‘open spaces’, when they have no windows through which I could see the sky or breathe fresh air. These working conditions took a heavy toll on me; sitting all day, I felt my chest collapsing and tension accumulating in my upper back and neck. I never had enough time for my yoga practice. Working on a computer for long hours can, in the long run, even create scoliosis because of using just one hand for the mouse. So, after less than two years, I left Intel and switched to a more relaxed way of life.
The importance of maintaining a close connection with our natural environment is stressed by Georg Feuerstein, in his book The Deeper Dimension of Yoga:
“Living in cities seduces people into having a merely abstract relationship to the Earth. It is important to touch the soil, tend flowers or trees, taste clean spring water, see the exuberance of wildlife, and so forth. Inwardness without such grounding is often little more than neurotic escape. Wholeness requires the transformative touch of the Earth as well as blessing from the ‘heaven within'”.
Immersion in Nature
Being in nature, in front of the ocean, in the high mountains, or when watching the night stars, one naturally feels small and loses some of one’s self-importance. Nature is so vast and abundant and, when you are open to it, you become more modest and humbler. This is a good mental state for commencing a session of yoga practice.
However, to be immersed in nature, one needs to quiet one’s mind. Being outdoors is not always enough to acquire a stable and serene mind. If you go out on a noisy picnic, you may not even feel the effect of nature. The noise will probably mask the chirping of the birds or the roar of the sea. Engaging in practice quietens the mind and opens the doors of perception, and so it is an ideal way for emerging and reconnecting with nature. When you start practicing (in any environment), you need to temporarily cast aside all your projects, tasks, plans, worries, and regrets, and connect to your body and your breathing. Being immersed in nature helps to shift the mind’s focus from its daily habits and to turn it inwards to find poise within.
The practice of yoga stills the fluctuations and the automatic reactions of the mind (citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ). Going out into nature is a step in this direction. Many people feel that going into the woods or to the mountains helps in quietening the mind, making it serene and receptive. And when the mind is quiet, practice flows more easily (sukha).
This habituation into urban life is also true of the way we practice yoga today. Most of us are so used to practicing at an equipped studio, that we forget that this is not how the first yogis did it. The tradition of yoga is deeply connected with a social movement of abandoning the inhabited cities and migrating to the jungles of India in search of spiritual upliftment, which these yogis and ascetics deemed possible only when one abandons the comforts and pleasures of ordinary life.
Nature in the Tradition of Yoga
In various traditional meditation and yoga manuals, there is often some discussion of the benefits of practicing yoga outdoors in solitude, in a cave, in a forest, at the foot of a tree or on a mountain. For instance, Svātmārāma’s Haṭhayogapradīpikā – a medieval authoritative text that defines the practice of Hatha Yoga – emphasizes the importance of solitude in the first chapter, verse 12, although Svātmārāma does not elaborate on the proper environment for practicing. Later yogis go into more detail. For example, Swami Śivananada from Rishikesh, emphasizes the value of nature as a source for healing and discusses the pros and cons of different solitary places such as caves in the Himalayas, where yogis can seclude themselves from society and devote themselves to spiritual life.
Some Buddhist texts go into greater detail about the natural environment of solitary practice. For instance, the Indian Buddhist Śāntideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhicaryāvatāra) celebrates the advantages of being in nature: “Fortunate are those on delightful rock terraces, broad as palaces, cool as sandal and moonbeam; their minds are fanned by noiseless, delightful forest winds” (Chapter 8, verse 85).
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Longchenpa’s Finding Rest in Meditation: The Trilogy of Rest, Volume 2 (Bsam gtan ngal gso) is a great example of a text that explains how different kinds of natural environments impact the mind and support different kinds of meditation practice:
“..lightly built structures high in the mountains, which are cool and airy and command a vast and open view, are best suited to the cultivation of vipaśyanā, whereas quiet, low-lying, forested areas or enclosed valleys are propitious for the inward orientation of calm abiding”(See: The First Vajra Point: Concerning the Place of Practice, pp. 5-9 in the English translation).
In western culture, too, the voices that advocate living according to nature and that warn us about the gap between civilization and human nature are important and influential. One can think of the huge influence of Rousseau, for instance. In our modern, industrial era, some movements go against the urban tendency in our culture to turn away from nature. Ecopsychology, for example, is an interdisciplinary field focusing on the synthesis of ecology and psychology and the promotion of sustainability. Another pertinent example is Ecotherapy, a therapeutic discipline based on ecopsychology, and on the idea that human beings are part of the web of life and that our psyches are not isolated or separate from our environment (see for example Chalquist, C. (2009). A look at the ecotherapy research evidence. Ecopsychology, 1(2), 64-74).
Modern yogis have also observed that practicing yoga in nature adds another dimension to the practice and has positive effects on our health and wellbeing. Oschman et el. studied the effects of grounding on inflammation recovery and immune responses and found that
“Grounding reduces pain and alters the numbers of circulating neutrophils and lymphocytes, and also affects various circulating chemical factors related to inflammation”.
There is much we can do today to reconnect with nature in the present: We can get in touch with our own body, thereby getting in touch with our own nature. We can be more attuned to nature, recalling that it is the ultimate source of all energy and life. We can humbly realize that we are the children of Mother Earth. The conviction we develop throughout this book is that practicing yoga outdoors is an effective way to gain and develop such insights!
Where and When to Practice?
No doubt, nature can sometimes be a tough environment for practice: it does not always provide a comfortable space, and we may be bothered by heat, cold, or insects. That is why we must carefully choose the right place and time for our practice. Here are some suggestions on how to make that choice.
First, we do not recommend that you always practice yoga outdoors. Some natural environments are not suitable for yoga practice. Moreover, sometimes we need the walls, floor, air-conditioning, and other comforts of being indoors.
The ideal times for practice are when the sun is rising or setting – that is, in most cases, early in the morning or at dusk. At these times, the air is cool and there is a special ambiance of transition from night to day or vice versa, and the sun, close to the horizon, emits soft light at a low angle.
There is no need for any special yoga outfit or props. Loose and comfortable trousers and shirts are good enough, and the only prop that we advise carrying with you is a yoga belt. Also, it is not always necessary to take off your shoes for practicing; you can practice most āsanas while wearing your shoes. Of course, if the terrain is smooth enough (as it is on the beach) it is recommended to practice barefoot to have better contact with the earth.
An Introductory Practice
Go outside to a quiet place in nature. Sit in a stable and comfortable position. Keep your body upright, alert, and relaxed. You may close your eyes. Relax your eardrums and make your ears receptive. Relax your jaw and tongue and be aware of the inner space of your mouth cavity and your throat. While drawing your eyeballs into the space of your skull, turn your attention inwards and become aware of the space of the inner cavities of your body: the inner spaces of the pelvis, abdomen, chest, neck, and skull. Allow your exhalations to penetrate and diffuse through these spaces. Be aware of the sensations of the breath in your body. Connect with the vast inner space.
Now become aware of the sounds that strike your ears. Sense the infinite space in front of you and the infinite space behind you; the infinite space on your left and the infinite space on your right; the infinite space below and the infinite space above. Immerse yourself in that space. Connect with the feeling of the vast external space. Being simultaneously aware of the external and the internal spaces, you can gradually feel how the border between these (supposed) two spaces fades away and become aware of the unity of the inner and outer, and that you are one with that infinity.