Outdoor Practice, August 2016


Lifting my arms in warrior I, I tilt my head back and catch sight of a pair of buzzards wheeling high above me. For a brief moment a dragonfly hangs motionless in the air between the buzzards and I, so that the air that meets my nostrils for this one precious inbreath is filtered through buzzard feather, dragonfly wing.

The wind picks up, and the sound of its movement through the silvery leaves of the huge poplar in the field merges with its passage through the willow close to me, and the ash trees that border the garden. The cresting noise and sudden silence as the gust dies away bring my awareness to the delicate shells of my outer ears, so that I travel on the moment deep into their intricate spirals.

And then, turning my head in warrior II, I am whooshed back out of the secret chasms of my inner ear chambers as the scent of rose and honeysuckle float towards me on the warm evening air. The perfume directs my awareness to my nostrils, and I feel the air swirl slightly in a figure of 8 loop around them, and the tip of my nose, as the contours of my facial bones guide the moist, life-laden air first towards my left nostril, then my right. Damp warmth is tangible as the air streams into my nasal passages, down the back of my throat, and deep into my body, a river in spate rushing through and over and past and under everything it encounters. My breastbone lifts and broadens, my collarbones and shoulder blades wing out towards my arms and nudge my upper arm bones outwards also, so that the soft skin of my inner arms moves to meet the air. My belly swells up, out and back towards my spine as the breathwave continues on its way, undulating my my lower spine forwards, lifting my bottom, swinging the front of my pelvis down. The swell, gentle now and less perceptible, continues on its way down, pushing the tops of my thigh bones outwards, pressing insistently on the soft, fleshy areas at the base of my pelvis so that they balloon outwards.

A pause, in which gravity calls powerfully, as though the core of my body and the Earth’s speak. A fundamental re-organisation of the bones of my feet floods upwards through my legs and pelvis, spine and neck around this immense intelligence, this most elementary and trustworthy of relationships. And then the tide turns, and as breath finds its way back out of my body, nudging and jostling organs as it goes, my body mirrors the internal retraction and condensing that must follow the inbreath’s expansion, and I curl and swivel and loop and twist out of the formal pose in something like dance, something like lovemaking with the ground on which I stand, the air I breathe, the taste and texture and fragrance of the moment.

I’m lying down now, washed clean, my awareness zooming in and out as I choose from the creaking eucalyptus branches high overhead to the embrace of the ground. The crows caw harshly as they settle down to roost in the oaks. In an informal brahmari, I let each exhale escape my throat in a soft hum, so that the simple act of breathing becomes an opportunity to play a part in the symphony of evening sound.

In moments such as these, I am filled with a conviction that if my decades of yoga practice is for anything, it has to be this – the deep and abiding embodied love for this beautiful Earth.

In the early years of my practice, I was utterly seduced by promises of enlightenment, of learning to still my mind and emotions and gain control over my wayward body and nature. As I have become “better” at yoga – more able to balance in crooked shapes, to extend my limbs and to regulate my breathing in complex asana and pranayama – I have become less and less interested in these fireworks. Yoga for me now is about cultivating an exquisite sensitivity to sensory input, and a careful and faithful tracking of the habits, tendencies and patterns that are revealed through my ingrained reactions and cultivated responses to this data. The humble bramble, scourge of gardeners everywhere, is an ally in this work. After a rainstorm as I walk down the track next to my house, the scent of wet bramble branches and leaves rises up from the hedge, rainforest-fecund and exotic. Everyday acts of watching clouds morph overhead, of tracking the green woodpecker’s looping flight with my eyes as though unwinding a thread from my eyes to the bird: all these teach me so much about how to be with myself; with the ebbs and flows of sensation and bare-bones experience. I have learnt that the simple pleasure of draping my eyes across the horizon of tree branches lifting in the wind, of waiting for and savouring the burst of wild sweetness of a sun-warmed strawberry, of inhaling meadowsweet as though into my heart, of walking through dew-soaked grass and of sifting the elements of birdsong at dawn – blackbird the topnote, full-throated warblers the bass, a perfume or a wine of sound – is not escapism or fancy, a holiday from reality. It is a necessary stage in re-inhabiting our maligned bodies. It is a falling in love with and a re-enchantment of the jaded, hyper-stimulated but chronically numbed and deadened gateways that exist as our birthright, portals into the world and into our secret selves.

Oh, but pratyahara, you say, yogis? (Pratyahara is the fifth limb of classical ashtanga yoga, and is variously translated as “withdrawal of the senses”, “withdrawal of the mimd from sense-objects”, “gaining mastery over external influences”.) Perhaps, one day, this will be seem relevant. In an age of climate chaos and mounting crisis, a time when the rights of indigenous peoples – those who know in their boneseed how to live lightly on the Earth – are under attack; an epoch when children’s lack of contact with the natural world has given rise to “nature deficit disorder” and our species is increasingly, subtly re-wired for urban life … I wonder, moving through the warrior poses, just what kind of warrior I might be if my yoga practice does not demand of me that I re-enchant myself with, and speak and fight for, this beautiful, troubled planet.

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