Yoga and the More-than-Human World: A Q&A with Micah Mortali

The newest branch of the Kripalu Schools, the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership (KSMOL), delivered in two levels, prepares participants to share the profound benefits of time in the outdoors, alongside the powerful impact of mindfulness practice. While they’re in the program, trainees deepen their own nature connection, as well as their practice of yoga off the mat. In this Q&A, Micah Mortali, Director of Outdoor Education and Programming and founder of KSMOL, talks about who the training is for, what Mindful Outdoor Guides take away, and how KSMOL addresses today’s environmental challenges.

How does KSMOL reflect the Kripalu lineage? What makes a Kripalu Mindful Outdoor Guide different from other outdoor guides?

This training is based in Kripalu Yoga methodology and includes classic elements of the Kripalu Approach, such as BRFWA (Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow). As in all our Schools, the emphasis will be on creating a safe space in which people can experience embodied learning. What also makes this training unique is the fact that it occurs here on our campus. This land has qualities that make it exceptional for this work—hemlock forests, streams, a lake, mountains, fields. The entire program takes place outside, from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm each day, regardless of the weather. Participants will have the experience of connecting deeply with this land.

Kripalu Mindful Outdoor Guides (KMOGs) are trained to lead experiences that foster a sense of connection and intimacy between people and the living earth. We do not see nature as something separate from the human experience. The work of a KMOG is to promote connection that opens the senses, soothes the nervous system, builds a sense of community, and introduces people to skills for becoming comfortable in the more-than-human world.

What does the “more-than-human world” refer to—everything in nature?

The more-than-human world is a term coined by David Abram, an anthropologist and author, to describe everything that lives outside the human world. It speaks to a broader experience of the earth. Humans are species-centric. Our society tends to think of nature as inanimate—we lack awareness of the other life forms all around us. The concept of the more-than-human world invites us to open ourselves to the presence of all the other living things on this planet.

How much asana is included in this program, or is it primarily yoga off the mat?

The movement in this program is primarily focused on centering the mind and opening the body—warm-ups, Sun Breaths, the six movements of the spine. We use movement as a way to get people out of their heads and into their bodies, so they can have an experience that engages all their senses. As a result of so much time spent indoors, many of us have what’s known as “sensory anesthesia”—the loss of acute sensory information. We address that by bringing compassionate awareness to the present moment, immersing the senses in the experience of the outdoors: the sound of water, the wind in the trees, the texture of bark, the light from a fire. All of these things become points of meditation and focus.

Who is a good fit for this program, and who will benefit from it professionally?

This program trains individuals to become advocates for the land, to act as guides to mindfully bring people into relationship with the earth and its creatures, to address place blindness, Nature Deficit Disorder, and sensory anesthesia. That can be anyone who’s passionate about sharing the benefits of time in nature and the benefits of mindfulness. For people who are already guiding others outdoors, this training can definitely enhance their work. Also public and private school educators, camp counselors, parents and grandparents, yoga teachers, Ayurvedic Health Counselors, yoga therapists—really anyone in the mindfulness arena who is interested in addressing the Nature Deficit Disorder that exists even in the contemporary yoga and meditation world. We want to break down the walls between the human world and the “more-than-human” world.

What is place blindness?

Place blindness refers to the fact that fewer and fewer people have a relationship with the land around them, and so they don’t have the impetus to care for it, which has contributed to the destruction of our planet. By helping people to create or strengthen that bond with the place where they live, we are hoping to foster earth stewardship, and in that way indirectly instigate sociopolitical change around environmental issues.

How can you access the benefits of nature or develop a relationship with place if you live in a city?

Actually, this training is very applicable for people living in urban areas. Most cities have parks and trees, even if they’re planted on the side of the street. Even if there is no tree in sight, you can still go outside and feel the air and the sun on your face and the earth under your feet—you might not be standing on soil, but the earth is still there under the concrete. The element of air is a powerful doorway into mindfulness and connection. The air we are breathing right now was on the other side of the planet just a few days ago. This breath we are breathing has been recycled for millions of years. We inhale the oxygen that the trees exhale, and they inhale the carbon dioxide that we exhale. We are symbiotic beings, sharing our breath with one another. When you begin to perceive the earth as a living system, you immediately begin to perceive that our own well-being is intimately connected with that of the planet. How can we be well if the earth is sick? We can breathe the air in any location (as long as it is not excessively polluted). We can listen to the wind blowing through a tree in a city, a sound that is so familiar to our species and has such a calming and reassuring effect. Even a small garden contains the life presence of the plants growing there. The structure of a mindful outdoor experience allows trainees to guide people to connect deeply with the living earth in almost any location.

Tell us more about the structure of the experience.

Participants will learn a nine-step process for guiding a mindful outdoor experience for a group. The process includes welcoming and orienting the group, guiding simple warm-ups and breathing techniques to help them come into their bodies and into the present moment, gratitude practices, mindful walking, nature meditation, and a final sharing circle to integrate the experience. They will learn how to deliver these steps as a 15-, 30-, or 60-minute experience. Along the way, they also learn concrete skills like plant and animal identification with Mass Audubon instructors, wildlife tracking, building fire, and building shelter. Level 1 of the training can be taken on its own, and people who also take Level 2 will go deeper into the naturalist skills.

What was the inspiration for launching KSMOL?

I grew up in the woods, and I spent many years in the outdoor education field before diving into yoga. After I had my first child, I read Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, about Nature Deficit Disorder, and that really got me thinking about what we could do at Kripalu to address this lack. For me personally, this training integrates my passion for yoga and mindfulness with my passion for communing with the living earth. My feeling is that yoga and Buddhism wouldn’t have developed if people hadn’t been immersed in the seasons and elements. Ayurveda teaches that human beings are a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe. When we reflect on the cycles of the earth and stars, we feel our place within the great mystery of life. This sense of being placed within the order of the cosmos is something people desperately need today. Nature unlocks our inner potential.

Find out more about the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership.

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