Love is (still) the Only Way

 “Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Several years ago one of my spiritual teachers, Jennifer Hadley, advised reading Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “Loving Your Enemies” as a regular practice. “Recite it. Aloud. As if it is your sermon. Made from the pulpit of your living room,” she recommended. “It will transform you.”

There is an electricity that runs through all of Dr. King’s sermons. Probably the best orator of the 20th century, his speeches perfectly touched the souls of those hearing them. He stirred millions of Americans to nonviolent action, encouraging them to stand up against racial injustice, against racial and economic inequality, and against war.

The electric energy of Dr. King has endured. “Perhaps reading these eloquent proclamations will show us the way into the new millennium, and help us to continue to live truths,” says Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a colleague of Dr. King in A Call to Consciencea collection of Dr. King’s landmark speeches.

The Power of Speech

I wasn’t familiar with this particular sermon. Indeed, “Loving Your Enemies” is not one of Dr. King’s landmark addresses. It doesn’t mark the call to action like the speech he gave in 1955 following the arrest of fellow Montgomery-resident Rosa Parks. The speech in which he describes justice as “love correcting that which revolts against love.”

Nor is it the most poetic—like the speech he gave after a nonviolent march from Selma, calling for the right of African Americans to vote, declaring: “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her throne? … Not long.”

The sermon does not make the lofty aim for a global revolution of values that “will lay hand on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’” As Dr. King did in his address on Vietnam in New York City.

Nor has it become a speech profoundly symbolic of the transformation of a nation from the mired history of slavery towards a hopeful era of civil rights and equality like Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Rather, the “Loving Your Enemies” sermon given in 1957 was to a relatively small congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama where Dr. King was a pastor.

But in reading it, “by putting ourselves in his shoes, we have an understanding of what it took personally for him to lead a nation in profound transformation. How he became one of the most inspiring people to have ever walked the Earth, and how we can follow in his footsteps,” says Jennifer.

By reading it, we are transformed ourselves.

Love Redeems

The call to love that Dr. King lays out in “Loving Your Enemies” echoes through all of his speeches. Furthermore, it is the message upon which he built his life—that love is “creative,” and that only love is capable of transforming hate into love. Therefore, to change the world, love has to be extended to everyone—even to our enemies. The message mirrored Gandhi’s, who Dr. King looked to as inspiration in the nonviolent justice movement.

The sermon uses the story of Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Stanton as an example of love driving out hate. When Lincoln was running to be president, Stanton did his utmost to ridicule Lincoln. Yet, when Lincoln was elected—despite criticism from his cabinet—he appointed Stanton as Secretary of War. In doing so, Lincoln not only served his people by selecting the best person for the job, but he transformed the hatred Stanton held in his heart towards Lincoln—so much so that when Lincoln was assassinated, it was Stanton who gave one of the most touching speeches.

Love is a powerful tool, more powerful than hate, as Dr. King said in his speech:

If Abraham Lincoln had hated Stanton … Stanton would have gone to his grave hating Lincoln, and Lincoln would have gone to his grave hating Stanton. … Hate destroys the hater as well as the hated … Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. … And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.

Dr. King’s gift was not just his soul-stirring rhetoric, but also his ability to put forward practical solutions. Love is a practice he realized, and one that requires certain things, as he noted in his speech:

  1. Looking at oneself. “We must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we’ve done deep down in the past … That is why I say, begin with yourself.”
  2. Discerning between like and love. “Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. … [but] love is greater than like. Love is understanding.”
  3. Helping those we hate. “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. … When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love…”
  4. Seeing the good in all. “Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. … Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.”

Radical Love for the Modern Day

It is only with this foundation that as a society we can continue to walk towards the equality that Dr. King talked about in his “I Have a Dream” speech, says Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis. She is a senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York, and Executive Director of The Middle Project, an institute that prepares ethical leaders for a more just society. “It’s a radical love. It is not a love for wimps. It’s saying: ‘I’m going to love you, and engage with you whoever you are,’” she says. “That love drives the dream of a world where black lives matter and therefore all lives matter. Asian lives matter, Latino lives matter, Muslim lives matter, gay lives matter, poor lives matter, and old lives matter. It is a world in which we value the woman in a hijab, and the man in a kippa, and the atheist. Where we realize we are a human family and we cannot function without each other.”

Her favorite speech is “I Have a Dream.”

“I feel its reverberations still as people stand up against racial inequality that continues to be a reality,” says Jacqui. “And I am hopeful. I see signs of people collaborating, of races and religions coming together for equality, for justice. It doesn’t take a million people, it takes just enough good loving people who say: ‘This will not happen on our watch.’ And who continue the nonviolent protests on the streets to insist that everyone is treated fairly.”

Of all of Dr. King’s speeches, “Loving Your Enemies” is the one closest to my heart. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s love spurred actions that transformed a nation and continues to do so today. Among the many things I am grateful to Dr. King for is this reminder that hatred does not serve the world—and that includes my own hatred. In that way I have transformed too. If we want to make a change, be it political, environmental, for social equality and justice, or simply in our own lives: “Love is the only way.”

(This article was originally written for Wanderlust and can be found here)

The Legacy We Leave

If you were to stand high up in the Wadi Musa mountains of Jordan and look out across the landscape ahead to Israel you would see only more mountains, and desert.  Completely unknown to you would be that, there, in the crevices of some of those mountain walls below, lies a hidden city, a city abandoned over 1,500 years ago, that once was home to an inspiring civilization – the Nabataeans.

I was fortunate enough to visit the ancient city of Petra and the nearby Wadi Rum desert while working in Jordan researching the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis. Long have I been in love with this part of the world – from Southern Spain and Greece down into Northern Africa and Egypt, and up and across through the Middle East to Iraq and Iran. These countries talk to me of ancient civilizations, of learned philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians and poets, of kings (and queens) erecting temples to their Gods (and to themselves.) They speak of aromatic spices, priceless gems and cloths, carried by wooden sailing ships, unloaded at the docks of noisy harbors, to make their way to be sold at incense-filled souks. It is where our recorded history as a human race begins to take shape – the rise and fall of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, the Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and later Romans too.  And so, they speak to me of possibility and also of the legacy we leave.

I had gone to Petra and Wadi Rum after spending several days in Jordan’s main refugee camps. They are home to 120,000 of five million Syrian refugees who fled their country when the conflict began six years ago. As time has passed, tents have been exchanged for more solid structures. Many have A/C or heaters. The camps have stores where almost anything can be purchased if you are lucky enough to find work, or receive money from relatives abroad. And there is mostly electricity and water. Advancements have been made there, if not in Syria.

There are vivid memories of bombs, violence, and the heartbreak of leaving, but it was not a sense of hopelessness or despair that met me there. What struck me rather was the resilience of the human spirit. Because, in spite of all they have endured, what the refugees desire now is to create a new life and to find work. Their hope is waning that other countries beyond Jordan will help them do so.

Petra was my first day off in weeks. To reach the city, you have to take the same path as people over 2000 years ago would have taken – through that hidden fissure in the mountain carved by tectonic forces millions of years ago. The narrow path, dotted now with other tourists, some on donkey, winds for almost half a mile between the rose-colored walls before ending in a large courtyard where the Treasury building is carved into the rocks. Beyond, among the sprawling ruins, archaeologists tell us there are administrative buildings, tombs, an amphitheater, a library, a monastery. There are remains of advanced water irrigation systems that enabled the Nabataeans to create an oasis in the desert.

So why did the people abandon Petra? No one knows. Perhaps it was a gradual change in climate, or the slow impact of changing trade routes that favored the Nile, or maybe people were forced to leave because conflict thrust upon them. 

I had this on my mind when I arrived later at the Wadi Rum desert.  My guide was a young bedouin called Hazzum who was going to drive me through the Mars-like dunes and rocks. By now, after weeks of work and travel, I was slowly beginning to unwind, and Hazzum and I had some light banter as we drove. When we pulled up to a shady spot to make tea, however, the chatter stopped as Hazzum instead turned his focus to starting a fire.

There is a silence that the desert brings that I have yet to experience elsewhere. With no trees to rustle, and no life in sight, the stillness of a desert forces the senses to give up, and the mind has nothing to distract it. You are left raw. I went and sat in the shade of a large rock, but in that moment the silence of the desert swallowed me whole, and I began to cry. If Hazzum wasn’t brewing tea nearby, I would have surrendered and sobbed my heart into the scorched earth.

In the ruins of Petra, a seed had been sown. It was a reminder of just how long we, the human race, have been doing this dance – of creating civilizations that strive to be brilliant, to develop new technologies that make us feel more “advanced” than civilizations that have come before, and of creating ‘legacies’. But for all these advancements, have we become any better at humanity?

Just 200 miles away, the electricity was being turned off in Za’atari refugee camp, and 200 miles beyond that, Syria’s conflict raged on. In the other direction, just beyond neighboring Saudi Arabia lay another humanitarian crisis – 20 million people on the verge of starvation in Yemen because of a war. And there just over the mountains beyond Petra was of course Israel and Palestine. And even thousands of miles away back in my own country I watched from social media as a different kind of crisis raged – one of a growing wealth gap, a seizure of public lands for profit, the threat of a nuclear attack, and an oppression of people because of the color of their skin.

The Nabataeans don’t make it to our history books chiefly because there is little record of their culture, but Roman writings depict them as a democratic people. Unlike their nearby counterparts, the Nabataeans rejected slavery. They also welcomed diverse people and religions alongside their own. And, for all their prosperity, the Nabataeans did not desire power. They didn’t seek out war, and indeed, tried to avoid it. When the Romans turned their sights on taking over Petra, the Nabataeans reportedly declined to fight.

While the living museum that is Petra, is something everyone should see in their lifetime, for me it is the values of the Nabataeans that will remain forever in my heart. In the end whatever we build, whatever we material advancements we achieve, history has taught us that all civilizations come to an end. But what if the legacy we leave is also one of a civilization that shared its fortune with those less fortunate, one that protected its land for the future generations, one that welcomed others to its shores, and one that was committed to unity and peace? That would be a legacy worth leaving, and it is also a possibility.

(This article was written originally for Books for Better Living.)

Winter – A Love Story

I have fallen in love with a most unexpected candidate. It happened, as love often does, over a period of time. There was a stroll in the park where, among the naked trees, I walked through a gallery of a hundred different-shaped pieces of art — summer homes curated by mocking birds, starlings, cardinals and robins, and now abandoned in the crooks where barren branches meet bare trunks.

There was that morning where I woke up to a blanket of white that turned the concrete yard into Monet’s snow scene, and the smell of ice on rivers 120 miles north engulfed my nostrils snuffing out the odor of exhaust and subways.

There was the night so crisp and clear that it felt possible to just reach my hand up, pluck the moon out of the sky and pop it into my mouth, knowing it would have tasted of mountain tops and honeysuckle. And underneath Capella I wished for better mittens so I could stay out just another hour.

Winter…I had never expected to like it, let alone love it. The final straw, however — the one that led to the fall — was the flash of red of a downy woodpecker’s head against a snowy bough, the scarlet wing of a male cardinal, and the cornflower blue of six blue jays at the feeder. When the Earth lays herself bare, when the curtains of leaves have gone, when the canvas becomes shades of white and grey, another beautiful world can be seen.

I’d missed it all — for years I’ve hibernated the minute the Christmas gifts are unwrapped until the yellow of daffodils trumpet the arrival of spring (which in the North East U.S. can be four long months).

Years ago I had started writing a poem about a summer fairy who sleeps all winter, and therefore misses the season’s treasures. Yesterday, bizarrely, I came across it yellowing in an old box as I was clearing out a closet. Perhaps it wanted to be found. Now that I have begun to see the gifts of winter, I might just be able to finish writing it.

Why We Need the Wild…

“The clearest way into the Universe, is through a forest wilderness,” said John Muir. There have only been a handful of times in my life that I have felt this connection—between myself and the Universe—and they have indeed happened in the wilds.

One of these memories was in Australia. I had been visiting my aunt who was living and working with local artists in a remote Aboriginal community in the middle of the country. We had taken a drive into the bush, turning left after 40 minutes at an old teakettle that hung on a tree branch, and then driving another 30 minutes until we arrived at an area of canyons splashed with Aboriginal paintings and the structures of old shelters (wiltjas).

It had been a brutal summer, raging at more than 100 degrees for weeks. And while there had been life in the canyons once, it had dried up, or—like the Aborigines—had moved on. All that remained was shriveled trees; spinifex grass; baked, red earth; and dust.

We were about half a mile into our silent hike when we noticed a speck far away on the blue horizon. For about five minutes we watched as it made its way toward us, until finally it came fully into sight—a tiny bird, smaller than a sparrow with red, black and gold feathers. It landed its bedraggled little body a few inches away from us on a brittle branch of a dead tree, and looked at us expectantly.

“It knows we have water,” said my aunt. And so we poured a little into a bottle cap and watched as the impatient bird hopped around our feet in anticipation. It followed us through the brush as we hiked for another 15 minutes, stopping intermittently to share our water, and splash its feathers, before flying on.

Rewilding the Earth

Unfortunately it seems the experiences we have in the wild are few and far between. The Wilderness Act, put in place in the U.S. in 1964, describes wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But those places have become far fewer. It only recently occurred to me, while talking to my grandma who is 99 this year, that, when she was born, there were 1.24 billion people on the planet. Now that number is 7.4 billion. And if I live as long as my grandma I may be sharing this planet with 10.5 billion people.

Faced with this rapid and all-encompassing encroachment of man upon the planet’s wilderness, there have been efforts in recent years across continents to reforest and “rewild” Earth. In Europe bison and wild horses have been reintroduced. In Scotland white-tailed eagles and beavers have been released. In Brazil there are attempts to repopulate the golden lion tamarin. In the U.S. and Canada bison are being brought back, and bald eagle and peregrine falcons are no longer on the endangered species lists thanks to successful reintroduction programs.

The momentum has to be continued. While the Wilderness Act has resulted in 110 million acres of land being preserved and protected, in most states it is less than 1 percent of total land.

The Path to Remembrance

We need the wilderness. It is who we are. And we have not forgotten. For all the glass and metal, cloth, noise, and circuitry with which we cloak our existence, all it takes is the sound of air spouting from the blowhole of an orca whale, or the crash of a waves against a cliff, for us to remember that we are supposed to be free, that we are wild.

“In many indigenous cultures there was no word for ‘nature’ because they did not experience wilderness as some ‘thing’ separate or distinct from themselves,” says Buddhist teacher Mark Coleman. It’s hard to imagine—now that we have become so disconnected from our origins—but in these wild moments we have glimpses of understanding, when we realize, says Mark: “Where does the sound of a robin singing and the vibration in our inner ear end?”

If we doubt that our souls remember this oneness, we need only look to the wild. George Monbiot, writer, environmentalist, and rewilding advocate, points to the remarkable story of the boar and the robin. For 700 years, wild boar had been absent from Britain. Once plentiful, they had been hunted and farmed out of existence, and the robins with whom they had a symbiotic relationship had been forced to find a different animal that would unearth grubs with its digging—the human gardener.

In 2009 in the Scottish Highlands a group called Trees for Life began a project to rewild Dundreggan, and in doing so released several boar onto the land. Within twenty minutes, the robins arrived and took up their place alongside the boar. It had been 700 years, but the robins remembered.

Rewilding Ourselves

It is the same for us. When we swim alongside seals, come face to face with a great horned owl, or hear the call of a coyote, our own domestication falls away—we realize we have mistaken our identity. And in that moment of remembrance we let go of all the labels and the opinions, and take up our seat again as part of the whole—not apart from it. We join with the wildness. As I heard “The Forum” founder Werner Erhard once say: “Take all those opinions, all those achievements, and all the things you think you are and go tell it to the stars, and see if they care.”

It’s not that we don’t matter. It’s that what we think matters, doesn’t—and the wilderness reminds us of this every time we meet it head-on. It wakes us up. Faced with its raw, pristine honesty, we catch a glimpse of an “us” without limitations. If open, we come away knowing that the mental constructs we have built must be abandoned for us to return to that state of freedom and oneness.

Search every wisdom teaching and this is the message: The Earth and our spirit are one and the same, and we need only look to Earth to learn who we are. The growing field of spiritual ecology seeks to remind us of this. Search science and the message stays the same. In the words of Albert Einstein: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

In the witnessing of the wild, we remember and reclaim our own.  When I got back to the village from the hike with my aunt I sat down with one of the women as she painted. I wanted to understand why art was so important to the Aboriginal community, and I told her about the bird. “And you remembered who you are…” She said. “And now you know why we paint the stories—to remind the young ones of who they are.”

And this is why we must try harder to preserve the wilderness—because if it is ceases to exist for the generations that follow us, not only are we denying them the beauty of witnessing a tiny gold and red bird in a desolate canyon, but we are denying them the chance to remember who they are.

Author’s note: This article was written initially for 

Coming Home to Ourselves

In the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, homesickness was considered a serious illness. Its symptoms were nervousness and melancholy, and unfortunately for patients, doctors argued there really was no cure, other than simply to “go home” and see if it passed.

With the advent of global travel, the idea of homesickness, however, became almost juvenile—something children experience at camp perhaps—and the notion that ‘home’ is more of a feeling than a place lost credibility altogether.

I’m intrigued by homesickness simply because I have never really felt ‘at home.’ It’s a sentiment I know a lot of people share. It’s difficult to describe, but it has a quality of mild unease, of feeling unsettled, off-center perhaps, or a little ungrounded—like there is some place you belong, but you’re not sure it even exists.

This feeling of being homesick is simply an experience along a soul’s journey, and our awareness of it becomes a turning point.
Initially I assumed it was just a side effect of moving around, or not having a partner or family of my own, but as those boxes were ticked and the feeling remained, it became clear that that wasn’t it either. Where was this so-called ‘home’ that I felt but could not find?

The answer came to me on the wings of Shamanic wisdom. There this feeling of being homesick is simply an experience along a soul’s journey, and our awareness of it becomes a turning point. According to the Shaman, we arrive in the world complete, but as we move through life we begin to energetically discard parts of ourselves. Sometimes that is by choice. The things we learn not to like, we disown—a part of our body that we perceive to be ugly; our desires, anger, or emotions that we were once chastised for. And sometimes it is through no choice of our own that parts of us leave. It is said that during traumatic experiences pieces of our soul become so frightened that they scatter.

If we wondered whether a place called home even exists, the Shaman says that yes it does, and our hunch was right—it is not outside of ourselves. It is our soul. The homesick feeling we sense actually belongs to the discarded pieces of our soul calling out to us to be found and welcomed back. Our job is therefore simply to gather those scattered pieces and invite them back in.

How do we do this? In the dictionary, one of the definitions for home is “where we flourish, and where we originate from.” So how do we begin walking back around the outer reaches of the spiral towards the center gathering the pieces of ourselves as we go?

First we can simply breathe a sigh of relief. Just to have the awareness of being unsettled and the desire to feel whole is enough to alert our inner voice to begin teaching us the way. Then it becomes a personal journey of self-reflection—one that should be looked upon with awe, curiosity, and great love. We gather these lost pieces back to us only once, so, as spiritual teacher Matt Kahn says, “Whatever arises… Love that.”

There are many great spiritual practices and tools for uncovering the parts of us we have pushed aside, and there are many Shamanic rituals for soul retrievals, but here is one of my personal favorites.

Making a Nest

Birds have been symbols for pagans, shamans, seers, prophets, and native peoples all over the world. Their ability to be at home soaring in the heavens, and equally at home nesting in a bramble bush close to the earth reminds us that home is within us, not without us.

The practice of “making a nest” was shared with me recently to welcome in a new soul as I was having trouble conceiving, but what I soon realized was that this was a practice calling in the parts of myself that had been discarded and letting them know it was safe to return.

To begin, create an altar area or a small safe place in your home that seems inviting—if you have an altar already that would work.

Then, like a bird, begin to gather things to make a small nest. If you feel a connection to the Earth, you could forage for small sticks, feathers, stones, leaves, and pine cones. But you could also use seashells, crystals, yarn, or paper. It’s entirely your creation, so it can be whatever feels inviting and nurturing to you, and it can look however you choose.

The center of the nest can remain empty allowing room for whatever would like to come back to you, or you can place a symbol like a stone in your nest to as place markers.

Then, this is when our nest becomes an act of great self-care. Every day take time to speak, sing, or read to your nest. Perhaps you will feel called to add new things to your nest such as flowers, photos, trinkets, or gifts, and after a few weeks you may also feel inspired to clean the nest, move it, or re-do it entirely.

As your sense of care and love for this small symbol of your soul grows, notice how parts of yourself you had forgotten arise in your awareness now feeling safe enough to come back in.

Nature as our Yoga Studio

(This article was originally written for

“The birds have dissolved into the sky, and the last remaining clouds have faded away. We sit together the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.” – Li Po

You can feel the grass settling between your toes as the sole of your right foot plants more firmly into the earth, extending like a root deep down into the soil. The coolness of a breeze brushes between your shoulder blades, catching the perspiration that is beginning to form as you focus on maintaining the balance—left foot tucked into right thigh. Your fingertips, reaching skywards, are warmed by the sunlight. It travels down your palms and arms, and onto the crown of your head—the same sunlight that dances upon the trunk of a birch tree which your gaze gently holds.

All around you life comes into your awareness: the two-note whistle of a black-capped chickadee up above, the scent of pine in your nostrils, a rustle of leaves in the treetops as the breeze passes through, the tickle of a caterpillar as it crosses over your toes—but you breathe and hold steady, because this is what you are here for.

And all of a sudden, you’re no longer just “doing” Vrksasana—the tree pose—you are the tree. And a thought arises—ahh, but of course… I had simply forgotten.

Nature’s Embrace

Is there a better classroom for yoga than in the cathedral of a forest? I have never found one. I try for those cold months of the year to practice—and to teach—yoga indoors, but it’s hard to muster the same enthusiasm.

As a result, I have spent a large amount of time wondering why this is. There is no doubt that it in part can be explained by science. That exposure to vitamin D, and breathing lungfuls of clean air is better for the body than being inside. That nature has a soothing effect on the brain.

There is also the perspective that, no matter how inspired, a studio may never be as aesthetically pleasing as the great outdoors. With all love for our classmates, faced with the choice of raising up our cobra to see the sun rise over an ocean, or to greet the soles of the feet of the person on the mat in front, the former wins every time.

But that’s not it.

When we practice yoga outdoors we more easily remember our connection to the whole—which is the very point of yoga itself. It’s as if nature in her wisdom has been patiently waiting for us to come and ask her questions, and once we start our practice she receives the green light to answer us fully. And then we are enveloped in her arms.

The Essence of a Practice

We often forget that the postures are here to invoke in us certain qualities or energies. Particularly when we’re in a room surrounded by the distractions of other humans, upon who we are, by our nature, often judging (or receiving judgement from). In this environment it often becomes too easy to solely focus on alignment, and to only notice the physical aspects of an asana. We simply “do” it, rather than “become” it.

But outside in Vrksasana, with one bare foot rooted into the earth—our classmates the trees themselves, and nature holding space for us—we can begin to feel the essence of the posture. We understand how the four elements of earth, water, fire (through sunlight), and air were needed for us to be here. We understand the fragility of life in spite of our strength. A strong gust of wind could bring us down, too much sunlight could cause us to wither—we could be ridden with disease, or we may be chopped down at the hands of man—the line between the tree and our self blurs. Much like the line between the mountain and Chinese poet, Li Po, quoted above.

In this moment we begin to fully appreciate the lesson that trees (and tree pose) can teach us as we travel along our yogic path. As we stay still in our balance, butterflies may land on us or ants may travel across our rooted foot, and yet we must stay still and welcome it all, lest we ourselves fall. We are all in it together. As trees we provide shade and shelter for all those who visit us, regardless of if it is an owl, a creeping vine, or the woodcutter here to destroy us. As trees we have the deep understanding that in the circle of life, our death will bring much-needed nutrients back to the forest floor. Perseverance, allowance, unconditional love, and wisdom of the inherent oneness of us all—these are all qualities that we invoke when we practice Vrksasana.

The Sacred Studio

Take any posture out into nature, and the fullness of its expression and essence will come alive. Tadasana, the mountain pose: serenity and strength. Bhujangasana, cobra pose: wisdom, infinity, and love. Virabhadrasana, warrior pose: kindness with courage. And once we experience those qualities it is easier to assimilate them—to take them with us when we leave the forest behind.

Above all, there is a deep sacredness that I believe happens when we step out to practice under a canopy of stars, on a rocky cliff face, or in a meadow of wildflowers. That when we place our bare feet on the earth we take up our position alongside our ancestors who walked before us. Early cave painting, thousands of years B.C., depict stick figures standing, arms aloft to the sky, feet rooted in the ground. How many times have we ourselves done this very pose? Deep in our bones, or our consciousness, this practice has always been there—of being still, of listening, of learning, and of connecting to the infinite web of life. Nature is our greatest reminder, and in my humble opinion, the greatest yoga studio of all.

Yoga by the Ocean

This article was written for

There is something about the ocean that draws us in. Whether it is gazing out at the sun dancing on its surface; diving into its cool depths to become part of an underwater world of aquatic life; listening to the rhythm of its waves crashing on the shoreline; or gently bobbing up and down on top of it—the ocean soothes our souls, clears our heads, and leaves us replenished and at peace. It is a perfect complement to our yoga practice.

There is still little science to back up why the ocean has this impact, although the healing power of water was identified by our ancestors. Various forms of hydrotherapy have been recorded in ancient Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman civilizations. And in both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, the water element is integral to providing balance and harmony.

Our Original Home

It is perhaps unsurprising—given our evolution—that we experience water as a healing element. Water is as close to “home” as we can get: Our blue planet is about 70 percent water, and our distant ancestors emerged from this water to crawl, and eventually to walk, on the small amount of land there was. Indeed, we still emerge from water into existence. “We spend the first nine months of our lives immersed in the watery environment of our mother’s womb, and human fetuses still have gill-slit structures in their early stages of development,” Wallace Nichols, marine biologist, reminds us in his bestselling book Blue Mind.

There is an innate connection between the ocean and the depths of our consciousness.

Water is pivotal. Indeed, it makes up who we are. When we do emerge into the world from our mother’s wombs we are comprised of some 78 percent water. And even when that drops to 60 percent later in life, our brains are still made up of about 80 percent water. It is also, of course, our life source. We cannot live without clean water or clean air, and the ocean even plays a role in the latter—ocean plankton alone provide more than half of our planet’s oxygen. When we can see the ocean we know we are supported; on a subconscious level we can relax.

Exploring the Depths

There is also an innate connection between the ocean and the depths of our consciousness. It has an impact on the mind that Nichols has sought to explore. He calls the state invoked by time spent contemplating water or being around water the Blue Mind—“a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and the general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment”—a state not dissimilar to that induced by yoga.

He further contends that the influence of water upon meditation doesn’t detract from the practice, but rather “enhances, adds to, and expands” meditation’s benefits. The ocean, or indeed any body of water, therefore is a perfect place for a yoga practice—it supports our path of self-discovery.

By contemplating the ocean, or simply by being in its presence, something stirs within us. We are reminded of this infinite unknown state, and we are propelled to surrender to it.

It’s not a new notion. Throughout history, spiritual, philosophical, and religious texts have contemplated the ocean as a symbol of the vast infinite being that we are. In yoga’s beloved text, the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna compares our True Nature with that of an ocean that is never affected by the rivers streaming into it. The Quran refers to two seas—a surface sea that represents the manifest, and the depths below that represent the unmanifest. In the Old and New Testaments, the ocean is seen as a source of miracles—be that flooding the physical world in order to purify it, or walking upon the ocean’s surface, representing the strength of our underlying being to uphold us.

Calming the Mind

The ocean is used as a symbol of encouragement for us to dig deeper into our spiritual path. Just as 95 percent of our oceans remain unexplored, so too do the depths of our minds. Somehow, by contemplating the ocean, or simply by being in its presence, something stirs within us. We are reminded of this infinite unknown state, and we are propelled to surrender to it.

Nichols points out the ability of the ocean to allow us to enter that state of surrender. In an interview with The Huffington Post he points out that in a world of sensory overload, the simplicity of a view of the sea, or the sweet sound of the ocean can help to quell the endless thoughts. Gazing at the ocean becomes a practice of yoga’s fifth limb, pratyahara.

What better than to allow the ocean to support and encourage our spiritual path than by practicing yoga in its presence this summer. Here as a guide is a yoga sequence to help merge with the ocean outside of us and within us. In particular this sequence focuses on the second chakra (svadhisthana, or the sacral chakra) that is governed by the element water. As always, please take care when practicing in a hot or sun-filled environment, and note the contraindications of these postures.

Ocean Yoga Practice

1. Centering
In Sukhasana (Easy Pose) we begin to settle into our practice with an ujjayi breath—the ocean breath—seeing if we can let go of controlling, and instead allow the breath to merge with the ebb and flow of the tide.

2. Warming Up
Classical Surya Namaskar is a beautiful practice near the ocean. It is a prayer to the sun—the other powerful source of life. It is thanks to the sun that we have water, and so our Salutations become a practice also of gratitude for the ocean. Here we move slowly, breathing deeply, connecting in each of the 12 postures to the heart center, while allowing the warmth of the sun and the humidity of the ocean air to soften the body in this warm up.

3. Standing Slow Flow Sequence
Spending one or two minutes in each asana, we breathe an ujjayi breath, and see if we can create a smooth transition between the following postures that connect us to the Earth, open our hearts, and allow energy to flow more freely through the sacral region: Tadasana; Virabhadrasana 1 (left leg back); Virabhadrasana 2 (left side); Trikonasana (left arm extended upwards), Virabhadrasana 2 (left side), Virabhadrasana 1 (left foot still back); Tadasana; and repeating on the opposite side. We end our standing flow with Dandayamana Yoga Mudrasana (the yogic standing seal), allowing our arms to rise up to the sky at the end, drawing the ocean in front of us into our hearts.

4. Ground Sequence
There are several floor postures that seek to balance the sacral chakra. Here is a suggested sequence starting with Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) to make the transition from our standing postures to the ground, followed by 10 rounds of Cat/Cow to warm up the middle back. Deep breathing and opening our hearts to the ocean is our intention while holding these postures for one to two minutes: Salabhasana; Balasana; Bhujangasana; Balasana; Adho Mukha Svanasana; Kapotasana (right leg); Adho Mukha Svanasana; Kapotasana (left leg); Adho Mukha Svanasana; Balasana; Dandasana; Ardha Matsyendrasana (both sides); Paschimottanasana.

5. Meditation
In either Sukhasana or Vajrasana we bring our hands together into dhyana mudra representing our intention to set aside our manifest life as we dive deep into our True Nature (ourselves as an ocean) with a five-minute meditation.

6. Savasana
We complete our practice by lying on our mats, listening to the sound of the waves as we dissolve with the ocean within.

7. Gratitude
Finally we take time to offer a message of gratitude to the ocean for supporting us, and a prayer that all beings may share in our healing, and that the ocean itself may benefit.

Earth as Community

We are all made from the stardust of the same source, so quite literally we are all related. Thomas Berry was a cosmologist and earth scholar, who dedicated much of his life to inspiring humanity to look to the universe’s origins and consider a new creation story — one that is still happening, and one that takes into account the interconnectedness of all of Earth’s life, the Earth itself and the universe beyond. Here is an extract from his selected writings on how we are all community. This is not an idealogical dream, but rather a reality.

“Everything in the universe is genetically cousin to everything else. There is literally one family, one bonding, in the universe, because everything is descended from the same source.

On the planet Earth, all living beings are clearly derived from a single origin. We are literally born as a community; the trees, the bird and all living creatures are bonded together in a single community of life. This community is not something we dream up or think would be nice. Literally we are a single community.” 

Spirit as an Astronaut

Taken from the Oxford Handy Helps Series:How to Locate the Stars written in 1891. Published by Hinds, Noble and Eldredge. New York City.

“Surely as we look up at the myriads of stars bespangling the sky, and remember that our star-sun has seven planets moving round it of which one at least — our own earth — is full of living beings, we must picture these glorious suns as the centres of unseen systems, so that those twinkling specks become as suggestive as the faint lights of a great fleet far out at sea, which tell us of mighty ships, together with frigates and gunboats, full of living beings, though we cannot see them, nor even guess what they may be like.

“How insignificant we feel when we look upon that starlit sky and remember that the whole of our solar system would be but a tiny speck of light if seen as far off as we see the stars! If our little earth and our short life upon it were all we could boast of we should be mites indeed.

“But our very study to-night lifts us above these and reminds us that there is a spirit within us which even now can travel beyond the narrow bounds of our globe, measure the vast distances between us and the stars, gauge their brightness, estimate their weight, and discern their movements.

“As we gaze into the depths of the star-lit sky, and travel onward and onward in imagination to those distant stars which photography alone reveals to us, do not our hearts leap at the though of a day which must surely come when, fettered and bound no longer to earth, this spirit shall wander forth and penetrate some of the mystery of those might suns at which we now gaze in silent awe.”

The Eternal Lion in the Sky

Thousands of years ago, before Egypt became the arid place we now know it as, it was once lush and green, and lions roamed its jungles. They were feared and revered by tribesmen, and seen as a symbol of power, and strength — the king of the jungle. To be caught in a tussle with a lion and to win was an incredible feat, and the skin would be given to kings as a gift.

As the climate changed and deserts overtook the country, however, the lions drew further back, and living on the edges of the desert they became known as the guardians of the eastern and western horizons, where the sun rose and set. But when the heat increased during the summer months, the lions would leave their posts to travel to the Nile in search of water. Can you imagine what a sight that must have been for the very earliest of the Ancient Egyptians to see these beasts come in their prides of as many as 40 lions to drink and feed at the river?  Little wonder so many of the ancient statues and tombs in Egypt are flanked by stone lions. The sphinx itself has the body of a lion.

At those times, when constellations were being named, there was a collection of stars, including one particularly bright star, that would rise before dawn during the hottest period of the year when the Nile would flood and the lions were making their journey to the river. The Ancient Egyptians named that bright star, ‘the heart of the lion’ — in Arabic,”Qalb al-Asad — one of the four royal stars — and the stars that surrounded the heart formed the body of a lion, which is the zodiacal constellation, Leo. Today we refer to the brightest star in the constellation as Regulus (the king).

Now, however, there are no more lions in Egypt, and it is saddening to think that one day if humanity doesn’t act quickly to conserve the great cats, there may be no more lions left in Africa at all. In 2015, only 20,000 lions remained on Earth. Imagine in a few hundred years from now when people look skywards to Leo, and tell tales of this mighty creature that once roamed Africa weighing in at some 500 pounds with three-inch claws and a golden mane, how those listening might shake their head and call the lion simply a mythological creature — that it never existed.

Gazing up at Leo reminds us how animals are part of our human story and that we need to help preserve them, lest they be only be seen by future generations in the stars above. It also makes us wonder… Draco (the dragon) is immortalized in our night sky. Can it be possible dragons once existed, and aren’t just stuff of legend..?