It was late April 2010 in the Pacific Northwest. Pink blossoms covered Portland’s sidewalks and I was three months into teaching a 200-hour teacher training program. Early one morning, I taught the first asana practice––our focus was the posture Astavakrasana, named after the sage who had been born “crooked in eight places.” That evening, I sat alone in my studio apartment and once again, reflected on the strange sensations that my body had been feeling for months: a tingling here, a numbness there, loss of balance, tremors, and an overall sense that something was off, not right, in a sense "crooked."
Panic set in, and with a fast heart rate and whirling mind, I went to the Emergency Room where I awaited test results while practicing pranayama and searching the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for guidance. The next day a neurologist confirmed my diagnosis of RRMS or Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis and I felt the ground slip away from underneath my trembling feet. The months that followed were a whirlwind of attempts to “fix the problem” from injecting myself with immune modifying therapies as I sat in front of a lit altar, calling on all the gods for support to confusion surrounding how and why I was going to continue teaching yoga, especially the physical practice.
From the very beginning of my time on the mat, I have been absorbed in the philosophical and mystical facets of the yoga tradition. Asana allowed me to experience the subtleties of the body, while meditation offered an entry point into the peaks and valleys of the mind and heart. The eight limbs folded in on themselves as I went from the external to the internal and back out into the world again. Wisdom from the Upanishads and other ancient texts shimmered with instruction on reality, impermanence, and fear of death and revealed personal insights on illness and aging. My own teachers and friends became my ground as I sought to inhabit the right balance of courage and vulnerability. However, no text or person could offer me the solace that I truly wanted. Healing, for me, comes by remembering my place amidst the reaching trees, shifting tides, and lunar cycles.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Matsyasana (Fish Pose), Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)––these are a few of the many postures inspired by our ecological landscape. Vedic god-forms emerged as elements such as Agni, the god of Fire, or Vayu, the god of Wind. Seeing that the forces and intimations of Nature appeared to be the very foundation of yoga, I wondered: How do I realize that I, too, exist within the rhythms of creation, not as an observer, but as a participant? Ten years after my diagnosis, my entire practice centers on this inquiry.
I have heard nature described as both compassionate and cruel. Sitting by a peaceful lake may invoke feelings of ease and calmness while watching footage of a pride of lions attacking a baby elephant can be remarkably unsettling. In either case, and everywhere in between, Nature is simply being...Nature, and it has always felt like healing comes in the form of trees whether their leaves are budding or decaying. The societal pressures of preserving youth and delaying aging and death at any cost did not hold when I was faced with an unpredictable illness. I needed to see that change was acceptable, and perhaps even celebrated.
The giant cedar tree I visit near the Salmon River has seen far more difficulties than I ever will, and the fish who run out of their life force before making it all the way upstream lie surrendered on the riverbank. Here lies the world in its complex cycles of give and take––the cosmic exchange balanced within the passageways between living and dying. Over the past few decades, I’ve walked these paths, being both observer and participant, knowing that every day I remain wedded to those same rhythms. Gradually, I came to see that everything was alright. I was not crooked in any places, and my condition became a place of communion instead of desolation.
Poet and philosopher David Whyte suggests in his poem titled “Working Together” that, “We shape ourselves to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.” I’ve often felt permeated and overwhelmed by the troubles of our times, from social justice to climate change. Yoga practice offered me immense support for an overactive nervous system. It’s possible to bring the natural world onto our mats in order to remember what lies just beyond the front door of our homes, even as we rest our bones in Savasana. An accessible entry point to these connections resides in the elements (earth, water, fire, air, space) and I’d like to offer here a few reflections that have helped me along the way. They can be incorporated into an asana practice or meditation.
Earth. Consider your feet and legs, and the ground you stand or sit upon, the people who crafted lives around the tides, animal migrations, and weather. Imagine the richness of the soil and the root systems of plants, the harvested vegetables, desert sands, and Alaskan permafrost. Then sense the earthiness of the body and the commitment of gravity. Fully inhabit your form, and breathe deeply into a sense of safety, ground, presence.
Water. Spend a few moments in silence and sense your own heartbeat and appreciate the flow of blood traveling through your veins, rivers in themselves, as another source of life. Whatever the circumstances of your experience, soften into the current that flows with obstacles rather than against them, weathering them away with time. Move like a gentle stream or rest your mind in a cool blue sea. Relax the peripheral edges and let yourself be, and be here, amidst the flux and flow of life.
Fire. The primordial and ever transformative element of fire invites you to engage in right effort in order to drop the illusion of separateness. Slow down whenever possible and observe the places where you exist in the self/other or human/nature polarities and get curious about your values, beliefs, and patterns. Challenging postures ignite a physical fire, while meditation practice builds a mental fire. Either or both will illuminate any level of practitioner. Allow your practice to change you, and meet those changes with the thirst to participate in the evolution of humanity.
Air. Each breath reminds us of the constant exchange of what lies within us and what lies beyond us. The relationship between the air element and our lungs is critical to our survival, and in the same way, balancing the exterior and interior worlds within our own hearts and the heartbeat of the planet is just as essential. With each breath in, widen the vast expanse of the ribcage and let the exhale float out like the wind.
Space. Often seen as the container for the other elements, space grants us feelings of ease, agency, and levity. When we have spaciousness in our daily routine or cultivate breath retentions in pranayama, the space element draws us behind and beyond earth, water, fire, and air into the more subtle layers of prana and vibration. Deep restful states found in practices such as yoga nidra or silent meditation provide a doorway into the quietest chamber of the heart.
My hope is that these reflections offer insight on how to remember our home within Nature and how we can be of greater support to each other and the Earth. Watching how trees drop their leaves in October then produce green buds in April informed how I cared for my changing body and anxious mind. Not only did Nature provide solace, but she also offered instruction, just like any great teacher. As a form of reciprocity, I am committed to protecting her and sharing practices that return us to the relationships put forward by the first stewards of the land.
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.
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