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Off the Mat and Into the Woods: Where Yoga and Nature Meet

by Tresca Weinstein

Each time they coteach the Kripalu program Yoga and Kayaking, Greg DiLisio and Johnny Snyder lead what they call a
floating meditation.” As the sun begins to rise over the Berkshires, the group rows together toward the center of Lake Mahkeenac, its surface shrouded in early-morning mist. Then they pull in their paddles, close their eyes, and let themselves float wherever the current and breeze carry them.

“There’s a universal feeling that water can provide-a sense of being in the flow, and of being connected to the source,” says Greg, a quigong, tai chi, and yoga teacher as well as avid outdoor sportsman. “We encourage people to touch the water, to sense it around and within them, to appreciate it as a life force.”

Just as our yoga practice on the mat can serve as a microcosm for our day-to-day experience, nature can be a powerful metaphor for life. How we approach being in nature, says Greg, can inform us about our unexplored personal challenges, our undiscovered abilities, and our habitual ways of looking at the world. Venturing into nature provides chances to remain present with discomfort and fear-of bugs, wild animals, the unknown, or the possibility that we may not have the stamina to get through a long hike or a row across a lake. Interacting with nature also offers us opportunities to practice navigating change, which could be in the form of hilly and uneven terrain, shifting temperatures, or a sudden storm. And nature also holds a vast capacity for promoting healing, reconnection, and reawakening to the beauty in and around us.

Confronting Nature-Phobia

For some people, the idea of leaving behind the familiarity of four walls and the safety of sidewalks is uncomfortable and scary. Nature is unpredictable and can be uncomfortable-for the body, but also for the mind that’s accustomed to being occupied and distracted by work, entertainment, or nonstop “doing.” “When people are reintroduced to nature, there’s a little bit of resistance,” says Randal Williams, who leads programs at Kripalu integrating yoga and mindful hiking. “There’s so much attachment to being in an office, being productive, and on the grid.” (As Woody Allen once put it, “I am two with nature.”)

Gradual readjustment is one way to address this reaction. “Nature can be sitting at the beach, or going to a wildlife conservation area,” says Randal. “Even just looking out a window at the sky can be a way to connect with nature.”

Confronting and moving through discomfort in the context of nature opens the door to overcoming fear in other areas of life. The offshore meditation in Greg’s kayaking program brings people face-to-face with their fears of being unmoored-literally and figuratively-and alone in the unknown. “People can be afraid of drowning, or of being untethered from shore,” he says. “Often the floating meditation is transformational for them because they start with a fear of being alone on the water and, when they separate from our little pod, it can be scary. Then the sun comes out and burns off the mist. They had no idea where they were, and then they look around and see each other.”

Michelle Apland, codirector of Flying Deer Nature Center in New Lebanon, New York, and a Kripalu invited presenter, says that the key to gaining more comfort in and appreciation of our surroundings-in both life and nature-is tuning in to our senses and intuition, trusting that they’ll give us the information we need. “As with yoga, it’s about moving into what we see, hear, and feel,” she says. “Whether we’re in a city, or a safe, rural community, or in the forest, it’s the same practice.”

Nature as the Ultimate Transformer

That intuitive sense Michelle refers to can awaken us to change both around and within us, whether we’re in civilization or the wild. “If you’re aware, the birds will tell you if something’s moving in the forest, and you’ll be better able to notice the details of the weather patterns,” she explains. “You can get information in the same way that you can in yoga, when you’re aware of your body and its subtle cues.” As Randal puts it, “If you’re able to witness yourself in nature, you can make observations and awakenings that have a ripple effect in your body and mind.”

The practices of yoga and meditation allow our preoccupation with the past or projections into the future to gently fall away, leaving us in the present moment. Nature is a living example of this; from one moment to the next, clouds may cover the sun, raising gooseflesh on your skin-then, in the next moment, the cloud passes, bathing you in light and heat. Our desires cannot affect the path of the clouds; all we can do is accept the not-knowing and live amongst the changes. Says Michelle, “In nature, we have this constant, beautiful example of how change is natural, that no season is any more beautiful than any other season, and that change itself is part of the exhilaration, joy, and wonder in life.”

Sometimes nature can provide the opposite challenge-a monotonous landscape of tree upon tree, or endless water, with none of the distractions or drama we usually encounter. Greg compares this experience to meditation: “There are always moments, when you’re walking in the woods or sitting for minutes or hours at a time, when you wonder, why am I here? You have to look deeper, and then you’ll see the diversity of the trees or become aware of all kinds of sensations.”

How Nature Heals

What we tend to forget is that nature is, well, in our nature. “When all is said and done, it’s our home, so we feel a particular resonance with nature,” Randal says. “It’s in our DNA, it’s in our bones.”

Ayurveda makes this human-nature connection specific, Randal says, matching each of the five senses to one of the five elements: sound/space; touch/air; sight/fire; taste/water; and smell/earth. Through taking in each of the elements via that particular sense, we are revitalized and grounded. “If someone is in the woods and you ask them to listen and smell, their whole neurochemistry changes,” he says. “They begin to collect prana, to breathe deeper. The nervous system starts to relax, like a baby in its mother’s arms. Throughout history, sacred traditions and practices across cultures have found this resonance.”

Being in nature means leaving behind the alterations that humans have made to the landscape, and entering a world in which all living things, including people, are following what Native American traditions refer to as our “original instructions”—the inborn information that makes flowers grow and squirrels search for nuts. For us, that means simply showing up and practicing being our most present, authentic selves—much as we do on the yoga mat. “We are more naturally ourselves when we step away from our ideas of how things are ’supposed to be,’” Michelle says. “Our lives are intrinsically connected to nature, and being conscious of that relationship is an important acknowledgement of what it means to be human.”

Natural Selection: The Health Benefits of Being Outdoors

  • Spending time in nature has been proven to be one of the most consistent remedies for some mental illness; a Dutch study found that people who lived within .6 miles of a park or wooded area experienced less anxiety and depression.
  • The contact of bare skin with the ground has been shown to reduce inflammation and stress, according to the authors of Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever?.
  • Studies show that spending several hours in natural surroundings can increase immunity, producing as much as a 50 percent spike in “natural killer cells,” which support immune function.
  • A study conducted in Japan, where visiting nature parks has become a popular practice known as shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” showed that being in wooded areas produced lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.

Tresca Weinstein is Managing Editor of Kripalu Compass and grew up in a little house in the big woods.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.