Nature as our Yoga Studio

(This article was originally written for Wanderlust.com)

“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 Wanderlust.com

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.

Moon Rituals

Author’s note: This article was written for Wanderlust.com

The moon is such a powerful presence in our lives — pulling on the ocean’s tides, and creating a rhythm for all life on our planet. Whereas the phases of the moon used to be honored by people across the globe, defining our farming calendars and our own fertility, and determining celebrations and events, today much of our modern culture ignores our deep and ancient relationship with this celestial object.

A moon ritual therefore can be a great way to reconnect to the rhythms that we share with all life on Earth. It can also be a powerful tool to align with the ebb and flow of energy as we seek to foster a life of our dreams, and release the things holding us back.

The two most popular moon rituals are carried out on new moons and full moons — although three days on either side also works.

The New Moon

The new moon brings with her the opportunity for creativity — appearing dark, or empty, like fertile ground. Over the following 14 to 15 nights the moon appears to gather more light from the sun, becoming a crescent and eventually a full moon, and so brings with her the power of growth and potential. It’s a time to plant intentions for the things we want in life, and to align with the moon’s energy to help us grow those seeds. Quite literally, gardeners that work with moon phases will sow seeds of leafy and short-root plants during a new moon. As the moon waxes, its tidal pull draws water up to the top of the soil nurturing the seed.

The Full Moon

While the new moon is a time to sow seeds, the full moon is a time to pull weeds—a time to release the things that no longer serve us. As the moon brims with the sun’s energy, we offer her the things we would like her to take with her as she starts to wane over the next 14 to 15 days, emptying out back toward a new moon.

A ritual created using our own intuition is always the most powerful, and once we become more in tune with the rhythm of waxing and waning energy, that intuition will grow. Here, however, are some ideas to include in any moon ritual.

Opening Sacred Space

Ideally for a moon ritual, you would be outside under the moon, but if that’s not possible then being near a window, or even setting an intention in an indoor space will work. Whether alone or with friends, smudge yourself and the area you are going to be working in with palo santo or sage, call in the Four Directions, the Four Elements, or any angels and guides you feel would positively support your ritual, intending to share the benefits of your ritual with all beings.

Making an Offering

I like to collect fallen leaves, feathers, branches, or stones leading up to a ritual and create a mandala on the ground or on a table for the moon. Similarly, you could lay out petals or crystals (under a full moon, crystals will also have the added benefit of being charged). To represent the elements of water and fire, a glass of water and a safely-lit candle can be added to an altar — although try to let the candle burn out by itself or gently snuff it rather than blowing it out. We can also offer our thanks during our preparation, pondering the many ways the moon brings joy into our lives.

Sharing our Intentions

Take a moment if you haven’t already to write a short letter to the moon asking clearly for what you want help with. At the time of a new moon you will be asking for things to come into, or to grow in, your life. This could be a job, a baby, a new friend or partner. It could also be greater clarity around an issue, or creative energy or stamina for a specific project. You could also ask for more playfulness, joy, or laughter to blossom in your world.

During a full moon, the same letter would ask for help releasing something from your life. That could be a relationship, a thought pattern, a grudge, a physical ailment, or feelings of anger or envy. I like to release blocks that are holding me back from my dreams—so that the full moon and new moon become part of a month-long ritual. Then place your letter somewhere on your altar, where you will leave it to be received by the moon overnight, before clearing away the next day when the sun has risen.

Celebration and Closing

A ritual, while serious, is something to be celebrated. Together, or alone, you could sing, chant, read a poem, dance, or even roll through some moon salutations in honor of yourself and the moon. When you feel like your ritual is ending, close the space and give thanks to the Moon and all those that joined you in the circle.

Finally, observe how you feel for the next few days. Rituals are very powerful. After a new moon you may have insights as to how to take action toward your dreams that you won’t want to miss, and after a full moon you may be guided to rest or drink lots of water. As the moon rules the water element, a bath can also be a great post-ritual addition — and a moon phases calendar so you can plan for your next ritual.

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.”