In this book, we (Ohad and Eyal) broaden the scope of our exploration and take it to the outer world. In our previous book: The Psychophysical Lab – Yoga Practice and the Mind-Body Problem, we explored the relationships between the mind and the body, while in Yoga in Nature, we explore the relationship between man and his environment. We show that one can reconnect with nature by practicing yoga outdoors and that this practice takes one deeper into one’s core. In addition, we demonstrate that natural props for yoga are often more flexible and adaptable than the studio-props.
In this post, I bring some excerpts from my introduction to the book and include some samples from the book to illustrate how nature offers useful and effective props.
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.
Despite these great benefits, technology also has its costs. We have become isolated from the abundance of nature and its positive effects on our well-being. Alienated from a natural environment, we might even become alienated from our own bodies, which are one of the most magnificent and majestic creations of nature. This detachment from nature is apparent once we look at modern workspaces.
The Effect of Working in an Industrial Environment
Many people in Western countries today 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 was 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, shoulders, 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 Feurstein, 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 transformative touch of the Earth as well as blessing from the ‘heaven within‘”.
“Yoga in Nature” aspires to regain a connection with our bodies and nature. It does so by suggesting ways in which we can practice yoga in natural surroundings, ways that enrich our natural resources. Each of its three chapters introduces methods for practicing in a particular natural surrounding: the seashore (Chapter 1), the woods (Chapter 2), and the mountains (Chapter 3). In composing these chapters, we have drawn on our many years of regular and dedicated yoga practice in nature: at the Mediterranean beach, near our homes, and in many other natural surroundings, including the desert in the Negev (the southern part of Israel), Sinai (Egypt), and other locations around the world.
Over the years, we’ve discovered that such practice is a powerful way of recharging the body, mind, and spirit, and retaining balance and poise, even when facing the inevitable vicissitudes and downfalls of life. We’ve experienced the deep joy of being alone in nature, absorbed in a deep forward extension or headstand, observing the waves from surface level. Or, meditating near the sea, feeling the soft breeze on the skin, and listening to the rhymical, meditative roar of the ocean. Or, when practicing in the desert, sensing the touch of a cool curved rock against our bodies as we let our backs arch on top of it.
The Effects of Practicing in Nature
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 offers.
Sometimes advanced āsanas that I struggle with at home come easily in nature. I often experience the state Patanjali defines in his Yoga Sutras as Prayatna śaitilya – a sensation of effortless effort in performing an āsana. This, according to Patanjali, is the characteristic of a mature and well-done āsana. It is not entirely clear to me why these natural elements are so conducive to my practice. Yet the effect is clearly felt – I can concentrate and connect with myself and enjoy the practice in a way that does not often happen in the studio.
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. Hence, it is an ideal way to emerge and reconnect with nature. When you start practicing (in any environment), you need to temporarily cast aside all your projects, tasks, plans, and worries, 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 inward 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. It quietens the mind, making it serene and receptive. When the mind is quiet, practice flows more easily (Sukha).
Iyengar Yoga practitioners (like me) might worry that proper practice requires a flat floor, walls, and most importantly, yoga props. No doubt, these all have great benefits in practice. I use props regularly and teach and write books about their use in our practice. But practicing in nature need not deprive us of the benefits of props, because, as the book demonstrates, nature itself provides 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 be creative and look for props with an attentive and imaginative mind.
Over many years of practicing in nature, we 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 our 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. This is often even better than the human-made apparatus we commonly use at the studio. It is our sincere hope that Yoga in Nature 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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A Case Study: Using Natural Elements in Standing Poses
One of the ways to practice and explore standing poses is by elevating the front leg on some support. In this excerpt from the book, you can see how this can be done at home using a chair, and how the same idea can be implemented on the beach, both for Utthita Trikoṇāsana and Vīrabhadrāsana I.
The same variation can take various forms, but the effect is similar. The advantage of the natural props is that they provide more flexibility since you can find sandy slopes, trunks, and rocks of different heights and shapes.
 See Yoga Sutras II.47