(Written with the help of many, both human and not-human, for whose support I am grateful. Particular thanks to Sarah Louise Gates for technical knowledge and contemplation inspiration.)
I thought the earth
remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
“Sleeping in the Forest”, Mary Oliver
Several years ago my young family and I moved house, inheriting a sizeable patch of land that includes an ancient orchard. I had birthed three children in our old house, I had become a mother and moved into a new phase of adulthood there, I had set out on my own path of enquiry and intimacy with yoga in that place, and I found myself unmoored by the transition from one home to another. Part of the process of reconciling my grief at leaving, my confusion at arriving in this new place, was tentatively taking my yoga practice outside.
I had occasionally practiced outside in our old garden, only to feel immediately overwhelmed by the flood of sensory data, to the point where I could not focus on what was happening internally. The ground was too uneven. The birds were too noisy. The breeze was too irregular, and sometimes it brought tantalising scents of rose and jasmine, hay and freshly-mown lawns. Dappled patterns of leaves against sky imprinted themselves on my eyelids, so that they were visible even with closed eyes. I felt naked and overlooked, and spent an inordinate amount of time setting up my mat so that my neighbours would not be able to see me.
I was aware at some level that the issue was not what was, but the echoes, ripple actions and patterning that the data was kicking into play within my bodymind. Still, I just could not square the reality of being outdoors with “practicing yoga”. They seemed in fundamental opposition. I’d always considered myself a lover of nature. I have many happy childhood memories of lying in gardens, I’d spent my teenage years sitting in cornfields and at music festivals, and an intense few years in my early twenties dedicated to dancing at illegal outdoor parties. I wanted my past acts of communion and devotion, encoded as they were within my body, to meet with my yoga practice. But it seemed I needed particular conditions to practice yoga, some special, closeted-away place.
In my new garden and its orchard, the ground was even less regular, and the sensory input from magnolia, lilac, and honeysuckle, buzzards and crows, butterflies and dragonflies, tree and leaf, and the whole teeming world of rich fecundity that bursts into life here after the pause of winter, was even more intense. But on spring days when my littlest one and I had spent the morning investigating puddles and jumping on logs, and he was satiated with milk and happily, warmly asleep outside, it seemed a righteous continuation of my sensory enjoyment to practice yoga outside. And so I would unroll my mat onto the grass, flicking leaves and insects off as they landed, and begin to attune my contented and gratified senses to my inner landscape.
I had no fears about being watched in this secluded space since, as my son said upon moving, “our only neighbours here are the owls and the bunnies”. The garden, clearly once well-tended but now wild and unkempt, seemed to actively welcome me. Somehow, the deliberate shutting off of the external data that I associated with formal practice (pratyahara) seemed unnecessary, laughable, almost a sacrilege here. My practice has always woven a steady but meandering dance between focus on the internal and renewed engagement with the external world, which then allows for refined interoceptive awareness. In outdoor practice, I wake up to the permeability of my body and of my mind; as though the delineations of me/not-me are less clear, even arbitrary. My animal senses, deadened and dulled by the simultaneous boredom and cacophony of modern life’s endless stimulation, seem to stir as though from a deep slumber. The mundane act of stretching out on my back is transformed by a sense of immediate welcome, of the ground rising to meet me, of dynamic interchange between the cells of my flesh and those of the blades of grass, the gnarled tree roots. There is some kind of magic in relaxing the underside of my body outwards from the midline, and the softening downwards of my flesh, the way it fills little holes in the ground. The gap between me and the Earth narrows. This is a practical, physical fact, and it also enacts a treasured concept in modern-day yoga teaching: grounding and its close kin, rooting.
We talk a lot about being grounded and rooted in yoga. They’re words that are regularly tossed about; terms that are used, I suspect, to ally the insular world of yoga with more pressing concerns, such as the ecological crisis, and our painful sense of disconnectedness and atomisation. Perhaps the terminology tricks us into believing that this thing that we do across the western world, this bending and moving and breathing and chanting, has value and relevance outside of the sphere it takes place within. Certainly, I have instructed a class more times than I care to remember to “ground your feet” in tadasana. I have invoked the element of earth to add some kind of credence, some extra import to the simple act of lying down.
I suspect this dressing up of a simple act allows me to sidestep the work of being with myself; to really investigate where and how and even what the body is right now, in this moment; and where “I” am in relation to that. And expanding out from the minutiae of formal practice, I see it as a tactic we employ deliberately to try to make sense of the dissonance we might feel between driving or flying to a yoga class, workshop or retreat, and the damage we know that is causing to our precious world. Some days, this makes me cross, and I see it as little more than yoga culture up to its old tricks, co-opting the buzzy terms du jour for its own ends.
Here’s the thing. When we stand or lie or sit in a sparklingly clean studio with a perfectly flat floor, heated to just the right temperature, a floor with a carefully-chosen texture and colour and grain or pattern, perhaps even sprung, it’s easy to think that these conditions are part of what we need to practice yoga. The conditions become part of the practice. In a purpose-built or a deliberately acquisitioned place, we are not necessarily “coming into contact with the element earth”, or “grounding ourselves”, or “establishing contact with the guidance of the earth”, or any number of the attractive things I and many others say all the time. Yes, feeling a surface underneath our bodies can support our practice, literally and figuratively. But the Earth – well, that is not flat, or a pleasing temperature, much of the time. The Earth is messy. It is as it is, indifferent to our needs or demands.
At no time has this hit me more starkly than when I realised that there is no truly flat ground in my outdoor practice. I could – I have, ending by laughing at myself – spent a good half of my practice session hunting for just the right spot to lay my mat out, clearing the twigs and leaves from underneath, trying to orientate it so that it lies as close to flat as possible. Memorably, I once spent so long trying to find the perfect place, where the sun wouldn’t dazzle me and the trees and shifting light would allow me stand straight, that I tied myself into mental knots about what was “right”, realised that was happening, gave up, took my mat into the house … only for the baby to wake up and my practice time be gone before I had even done a minute of formal practice.
Outdoor yoga practice is not necessarily the same thing as “grounded” yoga practice, but we might begin to learn what it is to be grounded or rooted through practicing in direct, less-mediated contact with the ground than an indoor space can allow. We might begin to understand the nature of being in contact with this precious Earth through attending to what that does to our sense of embodiment, and how that affects our awareness. Groundedness might become an integral part of awareness, rather than an interesting-sounding concept. I observe, for instance, that gravity is a more powerfully-felt presence when outside. I am anchored in a way that doesn’t happen so readily indoors, even if conditions are conducive in other ways. Gravity becomes an obvious presence, and a trustworthy guide.
Since modern life requires that our bodies remain static and unstimulated for much of the time, when they evolved through and anticipating movement, yoga’s physicality is a huge and understandable part of its attraction. So, physically speaking, how does outdoor practice work? Well, in any given standing pose, for instance, my feet might need to engage differently in order to come into contact with the ground. On uneven terrain, the muscles on my left lower leg have to do something different to those on the right in order to stabilise the bones and the joints and to make the pose safe. My pelvis needs to make minute adjustments on one side that are different to those on the other to orientate itself with fluidity and responsiveness, as well as steadiness and security, so that I can receive the support under my body and then utilise that to enable my spine to rise out of it.
Rather than imposing a script of any given pose onto myself, rather than applying what I know, I am required – invited, seems a more accurate description – to be in relationship with the environment I practice in. The pose is not an end in itself, self-referential and reverential, but embodied interdependence. From this perspective, it no longer seems relevant, wise, or even kindly to dutifully learn or to put into practice up-to-the minute biomechanical ideas, let alone mechanistic, alignment-based models of what an optimally-functioning leg feels or looks like. When I practice yoga outdoors, because I am not practicing in a vacuum, an optimally-functioning leg is one that has its own integrity and is part of the pose, but also one that is in relationship with the ground. Practicing on the ground as it is – focusing on grounding – requires that I have to let go of that insidious desire for symmetry in asana that pervades modern day yoga culture. Alignment, such a treasured and puzzled-over concept in much of modern yoga, becomes an ongoing dialogue between my body and the ground.
This exchange both humbles and heartens me. I am reminded that despite two decades of commitment to studying what it is to be and to have a body through the lens of asana, there is so much I do not know. For instance, I generally believe my right hip to be stiffer than the left in some planes of movement. Perfectly flat ground seems to invite the assessing and judging, scanning and analyzing parts of me to come to the fore, and this is the conclusion they usually reach – that my right hip has less mobility than the left. However, when the right side of my lower body needs to do something minutely, but epically different to the left for safety and stability as well as movement – for a standing pose to happen at all, say – then ideas and concepts about stiffness and fluidity, “open” versus closed joints, sore and tight muscles versus healthily and spontaneously-firing muscles, all drop away.
Outside, asana becomes less about what I should do, what I have done in the past, what I think I know – even about what I believe to be true – and I am more open to moment-to-moment exploration of what it is to have a body. Ideas, concepts, models, even, to some extent, desires and aversions, all fall away in the enquiry. The Earth itself becomes the authority. I orientate myself according to the swell of the land beneath me and the direction of the sun and the wind, not a teacher at the front of the room. Without this as primary focus in poses such as vrksasana or sirsasana, I will inevitably fall over. The intelligence of the Earth is palpable, and listening and responding to that awakens a particular intelligence within me. I am so much more attuned to tiny nuance and subtle shifts within my body, my mind and my emotions when I’m engaged in formal practice outdoors. It’s as though the life beneath and around me calls forth a deep sense of trust that my body knows what to do, what it needs. I know intuitively when to move and when to pause, when to inhale and exhale. Sometimes what we might consider “advanced” asana in terms of difficulty of shape shows up spontaneously, and when it does, I know exactly how to work with both slowness and care and with vigour and speed, balancing moment to moment on that knife edge between challenge and comfort.
The Yoga Sutras’ famous description of yoga as “effortless effort” makes sense when I practice pranayama outside, too. We’re all familiar with the delight of taking a good deep breath outside; with the way we can smell, taste, hear, sometimes see the breath. We’ve all experienced the breath as easeful when the breeze that floats towards us is rich with the scent of, say, wet brambles and jasmine. In formal practice, it is deeply satisfying to feel part of the cycle of breath. To know that I am taking into my body that which is given out as an endless, invisible gift by the huge oak and ash trees, the beeches and birches here, and that I in turn breathe out that which is necessary for the survival of these fellow beings of this wood, is at once a profound and a mundane experience. (Breathing as symbiosis is called Greenbreath within several traditions outside of yoga.) Personal exploration of the simple, bare-bones practice of breath as give and take, partaking of and releasing to the natural world, seems a necessary preliminary for the formal practice of pranayama, with its complex breath counts, ratios and pauses.
There is a circularity at play in both asana and pranayama which is at odds with the linear progress curve imposed upon us from early schooling. Asana culture has adopted this societal bias. Recent initiatives such as Instagram 30 day challenges make plain the underlying assumption that we will continue to get better at asana. “Practice and all is coming”, Pattabhi Jois’ famous aphorism, is often interpreted in this way. In this progress model, there are no meanders or deviations, no seasons, only improvement and advancement.
But the ideal of ongoing progression pulls directly against the nature of the body. Bodies all get sick, damaged, old, and will all die. When we step or fall out of modern day asana culture’s linear progress model because of the lived reality of the body, it can feel as though we fall away from “real” yoga, which goes on elsewhere, in some unchanging, timeless body. When we’re injured, we do some sort of special, rehab yoga; when we’re pregnant we do pregnancy-specific yoga; when women are bleeding we’re often encouraged to do no asana at all or to carry on as though we weren’t … Modern-day asana culture is largely a denial of the reality of the body. I have to fit my body into a mould, a shape, a system; I am required to adapt to it, because it does not adapt to meet me as I am. An adaptive practice seems subtly discouraged, as though by attending to the needs of my body for, say, rest over headstands, I am somehow lacking discipline and commitment. Outdoor practice, however; the simultaneous coming into contact with myself and with the Earth, reminds me that just as the Earth has its own cycles, so do I. Modern life requires that I ignore them for much of the time, but they are present nonetheless, a constant movement from expansion to contraction in my breathing, activity and rest, engagement and introspection – and, in this female body, in bleeding. Just as the Earth has its own wisdom and power which are directly related its seasons, it feels wise and infinitely caring to me to work with my own seasons.
Within nature, growth cannot be split from its pauses, stillnesses, rest periods. So advanced asana practice cannot mean a continual, steady advancement. Rather, it is a working with the unfolding cycles of my bodymind, and holding them in such high regard that I know it a violence to disregard them. Attention to flux is prioritised. And within this, there is certainly a time for big, expansive poses – often high summer, and ovulation; and how wonderful it feels to focus on the height of the inbreath then, too – and there is a time for introspection, contraction, and for practices such as yoga nidra that allow for deep inner exploration and journeying.
As well as encouraging a non-forceful, sustainable approach to asana and pranayama, outdoor practice seems, inexplicably, to be introducing me to practices that I have never in fact learnt. Years before I undertook formal study in yoga nidra, I had begun exploring the dualities that human consciousness settles into, and the liminal states between, simply by lying on the Earth and noticing how the heaviness of my body gives rise to feelings of weightlessness and lift. I discovered the early stages of the practice systemised by one school of yoga as antar mouna spontaneously, too. (Antar mouna is a practice of pratyahara. It means “inner silence” and is a meditation utilising sensory input as a means to still mental fluctuations.) Just as the intelligence of the Earth orientates my body within asana and coaxes me to relate to it in ways that are radical departures from the way society, and yoga culture, requires that I treat it, the Earth seems also to be directing the very trajectory of my practice as a whole.
In fact, as a direct result of outdoor practice, human teachers are no longer an authority over my practice. Sure, there are many wise and wonderful people working within yoga, and I could learn much from many of them. But somehow, lineage or tradition, even my own decades of experience, cease to have much relevance in this practice space. The tangible welcome for my flesh from the land I live on feels more trustworthy and caring than that of the most mature and compassionate yoga teacher. Grass and roots and leaves underneath my body cushion me, whisper to my bones of the ancient relationship between human body and not-human. Sometimes, lying down, I feel that I am draped over the curve of the earth, and the gentle swell nudges at my spine just so, with more care and sensitivity than any adjustment I have received from a human teacher.
I am learning that the apparently imperfect conditions within which my outdoor practice takes place can be reframed as a support rather than an impediment, with no mediation from a teacher required. In the same way, body as it is becomes a vehicle for enquiry. A pose done outdoors can never be a static, sealed unit, but always asks me – and gives me the gift of – connection with that which is outside of my apparently separate self. I experience myself as part of an ecosystem, doing what everything else around me is doing – breathing, moving, buzzing with the pulse of life inside me and allowing that to guide me. Whilst we might experience a similar sense of communion in a class setting, and indeed it is wonderful to move and to breathe as a kind of yoga hive entity, in the end, this only reifies human to human connection. Humans, particularly humans who do yoga (who, incidentally, are likely in my demographic to be white, able-bodied, and relatively wealthy), are still placed right at the centre of the experience. But the human need to be part of a community can include the non-human one. At this historical juncture, faced as we are with ecological meltdown, it’s imperative for us to feel the truth of our interdependence with the natural world.
(Monterey Cypress Wind 2015, copyright Treegirl Studios)
Nowadays I am loathe to give this up, the simplicity of lying on the ground and breathing, these bare-bones experiences of having and being a body, and through that, of knowing myself part of an ecosystem. Outdoor practice has become a process of reclaiming these elements of my awareness, of my self. Parent-like, I am becoming protective of them, and tetchy and irritable when required to spend extended periods of time in environments that do not honour them. And something in me is offended when I see nature presented as a pretty, incidental backdrop to asana imagery. Because my outdoor practice is not just my indoor practice transported outside, but is in fact a different entity altogether, the presentation of the natural world as a mere scenic backdrop, something to enhance the attractiveness of the human depicted or of the human activity, feels ignorant, disrespectful and insulting.
I have no love for images of lycra-clad yogis in studios, either, mind you. (I fundamentally do not believe that the essence of yoga can be transmitted through an image of asana.) The studio model that now dominates much of western yoga culture, replete as it is with hierarchies, inequalities and inevitable power abuses, is pushing its evolution in a particular direction. On the macro level, the cosy intertwining of companies such as Yoga Journal, YogaWorks and YogaGlo has had a trickle-down effect on media portrayal of yoga. The imagery they produce has been instrumental in the production of what we are encouraged to consume as yoga. Whilst there are still nooks and crannies of yogaland, practice communities and solo practitioners which have not (yet?) been influenced by studio culture, I think it’s safe to say that the images originated by and within studios, these hyper-asana-ised temples of modern-day yoga, have now reached most dusty village halls in rural England. I wonder whether it is possible to take up yoga nowadays without having to navigate its visual representations.
The pristine conditions of studio culture might influence the very shapes we tend to associate with asana, so that these environments affect us on a very personal, micro level, too. Bodies are primed to relate to the world around them. The sterility of perfectly flat floors and walls at 90 degrees provide a useful blank slate on which we can superimpose asana and its images, but they also elicit a particular response from the body performing these shapes. When we practice asana within these confines, the shapes our bodies make are dictated by the confines, by the angles of the building; by the very specific way our bodies are supported and held by that specific environment.
Perhaps this is another piece of the puzzle in the epidemic of injury amongst practitioners. Asana is often misunderstood as an application of shapes and angles to the body, but more than this, many of modern-day asana’s positions and movements are neither natural or useful to the human body. Some of them appear to actually upset the functioning of the human organism in catastrophic ways.
The following are common components in images of asana:
- caturanga dandasana done with the body held parallel to a completely flat floor
- shoulderstand where the body is at 90 degrees to the ground
- samakonasana with legs at 180 degrees from each other
- parsvakonasana with front thigh parallel to the ground, front knee at 90 degrees, top arm and that side of the body at 45 degrees to the floor.
These angles and positions are part of the asana training I and millions of others have received. They are so common, the shapes so normalised, that it can feel like heresy to suggest that the shapes do not contain any inherent yoga, or do not necessarily guide a practitioner towards that. Even though we might know rationally that this is the case, these shapes and their images still exert a powerful pull on practitioners. We find them aesthetically pleasing. However, aesthetics are cultural, which is to say that they are in the service of, and reflective of, cultural norms. As part of the intersecting, mutually-reinforcing mechanisms of patriarchy, racism and capitalism, aesthetics rarely encourage a healthy relationship with one’s body. If, within yoga, we add those aesthetics to the studio environment in which they are most frequently enacted, should we be surprised that the most plastic, malleable, fluid, adaptable part of the equation – the human body – should be what “gives”?
As far as our bodies are concerned, the particular angles required of our shoulder joints in order to hold caturanga dandasana parallel to the floor are arbitrary, and might or might not be healthy or sustainable. Placing our hands with middle fingers parallel to the edge of the mat in adho mukha svanasana, and the inner or outer edges of the feet parallel to the edge of the mat and therefore the wall in a standing pose, are positions that are dictated by the environment rather than the desires or needs of the body. Even props such as blocks and chairs, although associated with a more restorative or adaptive approach to yoga than, say, vigorous vinyasa, might subtly reinforce these angles, since their physical structures are modelled along straight edges and 90 degrees.
The upright, militaristic stance of tadasana might make some kind of sense when performed against the clean, straight lines of a studio walls and floor, but this positioning, at least in my experience, bears little relationship to the relaxed attention my body settles into when standing on the Earth. When I practice caturanga dandasana on lumpy, uneven ground, my animal intelligence seems to take precedence, so that the specific angles required by my shoulder joints on flat ground give way to dialogue and connection between my shoulder and the ground. Caturanga outdoors is nothing if not relational, so my shoulder joints are in a constant state of adaptatation. From this perspective, it’s small wonder that my right shoulder screams in protest in urdhva dhanurasana when I place my hands parallel to each other. For years, I have insisted that my right shoulder get in line, like a strict parent, assuming that the feelings generated are good for it. Outdoor practice is bringing a gentleness towards my poor shoulder, and I wonder now whether in fact I have been steadily weakening and damaging it through this sort of discipline. It doesn’t feel like love, that’s for sure.
By forcing our bodies into a position that they do not care for, especially in the name of spiritual practice or health, we may be desensitising ourselves to the intelligent feedback loops within our bodyminds that might be able to tell us when a pose, a movement, an angle or a shape is potentially damaging. Human bodies did not evolve in a vacuum; they evolved to be in relationship with the world around them. Yoga studios, no matter how luxurious, cannot offer the body what it craves – relationship. A studio cannot enfold a human body within its embrace, and cannot call forth the embedded reciprocal intelligences and conversations between the body of a human and the body of the Earth. As a species, we evolved in interdependence with the land, just as the foetus develops in contact with the womb, and just as babies need human contact, life-filled and life-giving flesh, to thrive. Adult bodies hunger for stimulation from hills and inclines, valleys and declinations, and something in us dies without this. My friends report that walking in the desert of flatness where they live in the USA causes them backache and hip stiffness, and even disregarding the benefits of time spent in nature on stress and anxiety levels, immune function and recovery times, this makes perfect sense from a biomechanical perspective. Their reports of endless concrete, straight lines and right angles, deadness as comfort, a world shaped around presumptions of human comfort, evoke in me the same horror I felt upon reading The Continuum Concept, a book read by all hippyish parents in the UK. Rightly criticised for its idealisation and othering of indigenous peoples, it nonetheless contains a graphic description of the casual trauma visited upon babies and children in the name of socialising them out of their inconvenient, ceaseless need for physical contact.
Time spent in nature in 2017 is both my human right and a byproduct of my privileged life. This piece was written as an exploration of my experiences of practicing and teaching yoga outdoors over the last five years. I do not present it as a call to arms, a manifesto, or any kind of solution, but as an inroad into the very difficult questions that the yoga community is grappling with about how to make our practice and teaching relevant to the challenges our world faces. It might be part of a larger conversation; and it can be an invitation to the wildness within us all.
Outdoor practice is teaching me the worthlessness of authoritarian stances within yoga, but I do want to assert that I believe it vital to explore how yoga is tied to the environment it takes place in. I have written before about the intersections between indigenous European spiritual traditions and modern western yoga. Since completing that piece, I’m alert to a growing sense that we need to interrogate yoga’s current incarnation as transnational product, sold to us as equally and always applicable to all bodies, in all circumstances and all places. Can we develop practices and teaching modalities which are both respectful of the particular cultures, and religions, that have historically nurtured yoga, at the same time as they are spontaneous and authentic responses to the very specific geography, climate, and topography they take place within? Do we have this right? What might that disentanglement look like? What kinds of communities might be formed in the unknitting? How might local, grassroots practice communities coalescing around an ideal of connection with ourselves as inhabitants of, participants within, a very specific location, intersect with our 2017 online selves? What are we in the process of making yoga into, and what is that making us? Is this yoga, and its selves, congruent (in alignment) with our ethics and values? Can we plant our roots deep in the fertile land of ethical enquiry, and grow a yoga from that?