(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.
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.