For people who love Yoga and stick with it, is usually because we find it offers us something more than just the ability to touch our toes. Similarly, our experience outside in nature can’t be replicated at a gym or an indoor climbing wall.
My earliest years were spent with my Hippie parents camping out of our Volkswagen in Big Sur, or the Badlands on car trips from Boston to San Francisco and back. The progressive schools I attended in the 1970s introduced me to Yoga and meditation techniques as early as preschool and my favorite high school science project was “hawk counting,” solo, on a cliff overlooking the Hudson Valley.
In my youth I was immersed in punk/goth and arty subcultures deep in New York City, and for years was a suburban mom and a nonprofit development professional outside of Washington DC. My passion for the outdoors and my love of yoga were relegated to a pretty far-back burner in these “other lives.” Eventually, the cost of excessively urban and suburban environments, the accompanying loss of time and attention to solitary spiritual connections, were oppressive enough to sink me into deep depression and crisis.
My first “savior” was a return to Yoga at a small, urban ashram in Bethesda, MD. Concurrently I attended first one and then a second 500-hour Yoga teacher training, slowly transitioning my profession from fundraiser to full-time Yoga instructor.
Yoga and meditation brought me out of depression better than anything else.
I moved to Topanga four years ago, and experienced a second “renaissance” through my (re)discovery of the beauty of wild nature in the canyon and learning “nature connection” techniques as taught at my daughters’ Manzanita School that provides a unique outdoor curriculum.
Like Yoga, spending time in nature conveys benefits that are deeper than mere physical exercise. As it elevates and rejuvenates our spirit, we can also find meaning by aligning ourselves with the forces preserving the planet and its precious resources and inhabitants. More than anything that can be found in the artificially constructed worlds made by humans, nature is reality; it is where we come from and who we truly are.
Yoga and meditation techniques are likewise designed to strip away maya (illusion) to bring us to what is real and the present now. I couldn’t help but start to notice more similarities and ways to bridge (or yoke) these two worlds.
The Forest And The Trees. Mythologist Joseph Campbell says, “The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with nature.” Like this photo that compares the veins of our lungs with the pattern of tree limbs, symmetry is found everywhere between the forms and workings of our bodies and the bodies of nature.
James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis suggests that our planet may function as one living organism and thus we are all just individual functions of one unified being.
Nature Yoga provides an opportunity to look at both the “trees” (individual selves) and the “forest” (greater environment) at the same time.
Artificially Shaped Bodies. Studies show that chairs are causing more damage to public health than smoking (https://www.latimes.com/health/la-xpm-2013-may-25-la-he-dont-sit-20130525-story.html).
Even the most dedicated athletes spend far more time on couches, desks, and sitting in cars and planes. Nature didn’t design us for that. Our current lifestyles within human-instead-of nature-designed environments are literally reshaping our bodies and negatively affecting our health with sometimes drastic results such as fused discs, frozen shoulders, and fallen arches.
The earliest described or drawn illustrations of Asanas (poses) were just a few simple seated poses—specifically designed to alleviate the pain resulting from long hours of seated meditation—in these same body regions that plague our contemporary sitting-based society.
The Nature Yoga Experience. The first element of Nature Yoga is simply taking the practice outdoors. Yoga already feels different when the ground is uneven beneath our bare feet and we might need more effort from our core to keep steady in standing balance poses. Breathing pure, fresh air with the sun radiating on our skin makes Pranayama and breathwork a delight and particularly healthy as we add the benefits of greater Vitamin D and oxygen supplies.
We can take time to value the animal forms found in the names of many Yoga poses and try to embody the feeling of truly perching like an eagle surveying the land from a high ledge while twisted up in Garudasana (Eagle) pose. In Lizard pose, we can appreciate having our bellies close to the ground, and maybe emulate a few of their push-ups, too.
All five senses come more fully alive outdoors and provide a wonderful launching point for moving into deeper meditation and presence when brought to awareness, as we do when we try to see like an owl does or listen like a deer.
What happens when we return to our “original” or “natural” body?
While nature’s medicine feeds our physical and spiritual bodies, the strength and flexibility Yoga provides feeds directly back into our experience of nature. This is a give and take, much like the love exchange of exhaling your carbon dioxide waste (and thus gifting the trees), and then inhaling to receive nature’s loving gift of oxygen back.
Nature Yoga is offered monthly on the Manzanita School/Cali Camp campus in Topanga, CA. END SLUG
For more information and a current schedule, go to sarahthomasgulden.com, or follow @natureyogafusion on FaceBook and Instagram.
Manzanita School is located at at 1717 Old Topanga Canyon Road, Topanga, CA 90290. For more information: manzanitaschool.org; (310) 455-9700.
Nature Yoga teacher, Sarah Thomas Gulden, E-RYT 500, is author of Balancing The Wheels: A Practical Guide to Chakras in Yoga and Life. FaceBook:natureyoga; Instagram:@natureyogafusion; Twitter:@silversyoga.
By Sarah Thomas Gulden