discovery in yoga and nature

Yoga happens in relationship, in relationship with ourselves, other people and the natural world.

Though the yoga phrase “open heart,” is flawed, it hints at what occurs when we sit with our breath long enough, still our minds and create ease in our bodies.

I often suggest the image of a naturalist to my students as they observe their breath.

The naturalist does not want to change the scene, he or she notes it.

Receptivity is an asset for a naturalist, the ability to soften the eyes (another yoga cliche!) and release any emotional or muscular tension that affect the moment’s unfolding.

Embodying time and space through a felt sense of interconnection has been yoga’s greatest gift to me.

When I use the phrase “at home in our bodies,” my hope is that students feel aligned with themselves and with their biome home. The naturalists inspire me.

…science, though our major explorer, is not enough. We never really live with the greater world of life until we admit it into ourselves….We were born into the great democracy of nature, no matter how far we seem to have strayed, and more and more people are looking to be its citizens again.

A new relationship between us and the living world is still ahead of us, in what form no one can say. Who knows how the infinitely complex relationships of the watery planet will realign themselves tomorrow? It will not be entirely of our doing….We may not know ourselves well enough to understand why we behave the way we do, but we receive the universe directly. The surest way ahead is to trust the primal source that each life, human and nonhuman, embodies. Coexistence requires love, and at the very least an acknowledgement that we do not live in isolation. The exploration has hardly started. – from John Hay’s The Undiscovered Country



Relationships form

All teaching, all life, can be boiled down to these three phrases shared at a reading by poet Jane Hirshfield:

Everything changes.

Everything is connected.

Pay attention.

Joseph Cornell’s boxes are small universes.

Noticing requires time and quiet. Preparing for change is a slow and steady process.

This is why I believe in teaching yoga one-on-one and in small groups.

Tradition has it that in ancient times, yogis would attach themselves to great houses, serving as teachers, advisors and, healers….The pupil’s undivided attention was fully reciprocated by the teacher. Focus, attentiveness, kindness with firmness, and many of the interpersonal virtues in yoga’s Ten Commandments, the Yamas and Niyamas, were taught by precept and example in these two-person sessions. The parties got to know each other and relationships naturally formed.

– Loren Fishman, MD, from Yoga and Breast Cancer by Ingrid Kollak, RN, PhD and Isabell Utz-Billing, MD

Among past learning and teaching, occurrences stand out:

  • Having a one-on-one with a yoga teacher early in my studies, 20 years ago.  No one else showed for her class and she gave me full attention. We met in a small carpeted office. She took the time to build my confidence in mountain pose.
  • Having another one-on-one with a yoga teacher whose class also didn’t “fill.” She placed me in savasana for 20 minutes, alone in the room, trusting me to myself.
  • Guiding a high school junior into creating a powerful thesis for her final paper, the white board scrawled with ideas over hours after school ended, in the spacious stillness of a large public school that follows when even the coaches and custodians have packed up for the day.

And now:

  • Sitting beside a yoga student in his or her own home, or mine, as she counts her breaths, tells me what she’s feeling, and finds her way into a balance of effort and ease with each pose.
  • Seeing how a student’s alignment tilts him out of equanimity, showing him, and the delight on his face as he learns.
  • A mother and daughter who sit in a class of two, their sanctioned time together in the week.

Who has taken the time to teach you in your field of study? Thank them, in thought, word or deed.

How did they model for you the art of attention, the significance of change, the links among ideas?

Skins of walker and land

I’ve been walking barefoot this summer up on Bolivar Heights where battles once raged for control of the promontory. The grass is often wet with rain or dew. The quality of attention is keener when my soles make contact with the earth.

Touch is a reciprocal action,” writes Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, “a gesture of exchange with the world. To make an impression is also to receive one, and the soles of our feet, shaped by surfaces they press upon, are landscapes themselves with their own worn channels and roving lines.”

Like Macfarlane, I believe, “It is true that I remember the terrains over which I have walked barefoot differently, if not necessarily, better than whose I have walked shod. I recall them chiefly as textures, sensations, resistances, planes and slopes: the tactile details of a landscape that often pass unnoticed. They are durably imprinted memories, these footnotes, born of the skin of the walker meeting the skin of the land.”

If taking off socks and shoes isn’t practical for you, try placing the palm of the hand against the bark of a tree, or along the surface of a stone.

If going outside doesn’t figure into your life, hold a stone in each hand. (Ask someone to bring you stones from the river or beach.) Holding stones on upturned palms placed in the lap can provide a focal point for a few moments of breath meditation.

Feel the stones’ weight grounding you, linking you back to earth, the earth with which we have a reciprocal relationship.

More on stones in Charles Simic’s poem.





Like an animal in the forest

“Meditation does not have to be hard labor. Just allow your body and mind to rest like an animal in the forest.” – from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

Charles-François Daubigny, Deer (Les Cerfs), 1862, National Gallery of Art

The rest of our practice


Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.

Yoga was born, nurtured, and cultivated in India, but it’s been passed along to the West like a baton in a relay race. For all intents and purposes, over the last six decades, we’ve refined the original foundation practice–asana–far beyond the wildest imaginings of the old yogis. But although we are asana adults, the rest of our practice is still in its infancy. So now it’s time to turn our attention to other matters, using the traditional practice as our model but shaping the practice to suit Western needs. – Richard Rosen, from Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga

Edmond Eugène Valton, French, 1869, The Scholar, National Gallery of Art


Xinghche: Gatha on the Bamboo Walking Staff

This gatha is a love poem to a walking staff.

Living near the Appalachian Trail in Harpers Ferry, walking sticks abound. Some are cherished. Some are picked up and discarded. All are of use when needed.

From what do we draw strength as we travel through life?

The classical poem remind us that not much has changed insofar as who people are. Only our settings shift.

We live, love, learn, do what we can and are what we do.

Frank Gray, American, Walking Stick, c. 1937, National Gallery of Art


Gatha on the Bamboo Walking Staff

Roughly broken off with a snap,

Stripped of branches and leaves.

Hard as bone, bumpy and uneven,

Holes and knots here and there.

Although its “heart” is empty,

Pricks and blows can’t pass through.

It withstands frost and snow

Without changing its appearance.

When thorns spring up in the woods,

It is as obstinate as a stone wall.

Without being either yin or yang,

Majestically, it establishes itself.

When it is used, it is vital and alive,

Able to both hold on and let go,

When life is complete, then it kills,

When killing is complete, it revives.

Pointing east or pointing west,

Its power is like a flying dragon,

It can pluck back the bright moon

And make the empty skies revolve.

Going and coming, coming and going,

It relies completely on its own power.

When it is laid to rest, both sages and fools plead for their life,

When it is made use of, even potshards and tiles are beautiful.

From first to last, its function stems from its inherent nature,

Flipping over, lifting up–who knows what it will do next?

–  Xinghche

Note: previously published in Daughters of Emptiness: Poems of Chinese Buddhist Nuns (Wisdom Publications, 2003);  reprinted with permission of the press

How alike storytelling & yoga are

Reading the essay, “Time and Order: The Art of Sequencing,” by Lan Samantha Chang in Creating Fiction, got me thinking how like telling a story preparing an asana sequence for a yoga class is.

A writer’s task, Chang says, is “shaping a pattern in time.”

The essential elements of storytelling are: selection, order, the passage of time and the creation of narrative.

“Self-portrait,” Paul Gauguin, 1889

She champions chronological order. “This narrative device, which has been the engine behind our oldest stories, is as important and magical as ever,” she explains.

“As long as we live forward in time, we live in thrall to the power of time as it unfolds around us.”

Chang concludes, “At the heart of sequencing lies what is one of the writer’s most important tasks: to show the passing of time and its effects on the lives of humans, on society, and the world.”

In a yoga lesson time suspends even as an awareness of it deepens:

  • Weeks into her lesson series, a student comments on the shifting light in the studio between May and August.
  • Another notices during her Thursday midmorning lessons the birds are singing when she’s in savasana. During her afternoon Saturday lesson, the heat has stilled the birds’ songs.
  • “I couldn’t do that when I first started,” a student will say as she reaches her arm overhead.
  • “Remember when I was afraid to go upside down?” another laughs.
  • “Floating in the pool yesterday I experienced a deep relaxation,” another reports. “I’ve learned how to relax.”

Simple awareness of the body becomes an ephemeral marker of transformation.

Trans- meaning “across,” from one side to another, from then to now and here to there.

“The storywriter shows us our lives, the way that time marks and changes us, bearing witness to our different stages. Time is a fiction writer’s medium, and she must learn to move her story through time in a way that will illuminate characters, the passing of entire lives as well as moments of stillness.”

Swap a few words:

A yoga teacher shows us our lives, the way that time marks and changes us, bearing witness to our different stages. Time is a yoga teacher’s medium, and she must learn to move her lesson through time in a way that will illuminate students, the passing of entire lives as well as moments of stillness.”

The other day a chair yoga student asked me how I plan. She’s a former school teacher and knows about preparation. I told her I have ideas in mind, actions and movements of the body based on her previous lessons, meditations and breath work to support  her needs and interests. As she progresses through her series, I’m recursively building skills and creating opportunities to build strength and expand range of motion, gradually introducing new concepts while reinforcing those previously taught. All the while, she’s taking the lead as I listen to her insights.

All in service to illumination: holding the lantern of education and experience so she can see what she knows, where she’s been and where she’s facing.

Removing the bailing wire of tension

Halfway through her third lesson, a student stopped after practicing a standing twist at the wall and said,

“I never realized how weak I was until I started releasing some tension.”

Elaborating, she explained that she’s worked steadily her whole life, with never more than one or two weeks off at a stretch. She’s approaching 70 now. She is a single parent and a professional, a former flight attendant whose stewardess uniform (“We called ourselves stewardesses,” she clarified) is on display at the Smithsonian.

Having moved to Harpers Ferry to be closer to her daughter and grandsons, she wakes before dawn four or five days a week to catch the commuter train to a government job in D.C. By the time she comes to her private evening yoga lesson, she’s traveled more than 125 miles by car, train and subway and worked a full day. As she rests in savasana, evening sets; she drives home in the dusk.

Tension, she reiterated, has held her together.

She’s learning at this stage in her life to breathe. To fully inhale, to allow exhalations to release shoulders, abdomen, back. As she unwinds with yoga, her back is starting to “tingle.” Other students have told me this, too. It’s not a nerve pain (which could be a warning sign and warrant a visit to the doc) but an awakening, an increased awareness of the surface of the back, of the movement of the skin and fascia.

After she left, as I slid the folded blankets back into the rack and wiped down the blocks we’d used, I thought about how tension compensates for lack of strength. Once we become rigid, with pain, with excessive physical and mental stress, or, as I know firsthand, with grief, it’s so hard to remember how ease and suppleness feel.

Tension is the bailing wire that holds us together when we can’t afford to fall apart.

Tension releases from the inside out. That’s why we typically end a yoga practice with deep relaxation. Such a sweet surrender to rest in savasana and let the body quietly go about its healing.

We talk in Buddhism about creating the causes and conditions for awareness to arise. That’s what all those hours of “sitting” quietly amount to. In yoga, movement and breath, focus and openness, create causes and conditions for The Rest. “Rest,” from “stand” “back.” In resting, we stand back from ourselves.

“Like witness consciousness?” a psychologist asked me once when we talked about qualities of dual awareness of yoga and meditation, how we are actor and audience of the scenes we play out on mat and cushion.

Yes and no.

The sensation of awareness of the internal and external states of one’s body and mind are more analogous to that of the observer.

Noticing what is already known.

Call it the essential self, wisdom within, the reciprocal exchange of breath and breath.

Teaching is graced by moments of insight and my student that night provided one. I will always be able to picture her, her petite and well-traveled body, in the last few minutes of her third yoga lesson: shins placed on a chair bottom, sandbag grounding the shins, back on a thick mat supported by blankets, wrists resting on small sandbags, a soft neck roll under her head, eye pillow temporarily sealing out the light.

Release tension, then build strength. We can’t be strong from hanging on to what no longer serves.

There’s power to be found in the wake of undoing.

Simple Supper Tomato Soup

A pretty, flavorful, refreshing soup prepared with a handful of ingredients. Great picnic food!

Simple Supper Summer Vegan Tomato Soup

In a blender, blend until smooth:

  • four or five medium to large juicy summer tomatoes
  • a handful of sliced raw almonds
  • five or six leaves of fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup or so of chopped crisp white onion
  • three dates

Add water to achieve desired consistency. Season with a dab of horseradish, salt and pepper. Blend again briefly. Let sit in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or more. If you want an even smoother soup, blend one more time before serving. Serve chilled or at room temperature in glasses to drink or in bowls to spoon.

This would be pretty topped with minced chives or a sprig of fresh dill. You could also make some fresh croutons by dicing slightly stale bread and sautéing the cubes in olive oil. Bread sticks could also be a classy side.

Served here with hardboiled eggs as a simple supper on a hot evening. A green salad (topped with blue cheese or tuna if you roll that way) would round out the meal, too.

Feeling awkward about Yoga Journal

Reading Yoga Journal is one way for a teacher to keep her finger on the pulse of yoga in popular culture. We teachers represent a practice with established roots that’s growing and shifting. It’s a bit like inheriting care of a centuries-old tree: we must protect it as best we know how while allowing it to change with the climate, and make it available for others to wonder at.

With recipes, asana articles and how-to tips, Yoga Journal is generally a fun, undemanding read. But a sentence in this month’s issue caught in my craw and I’m compelled to respond. The magazine does not publish letters, so here ya go.

Dear Yoga Journal,

“Yoga has changed my life in a lot of ways,” says Keri, who’s tall and pale with grey hair and long limbs that splay awkwardly on her mat.

When I came to this sentence in Jessica Downey’s otherwise thoughtful article on the yoga teacher training program at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women I shook my head. Just a few pages earlier in this very same September 2016 issue, I read of the pain caused to students who are evaluated by their appearance, and the importance of sensitive word choice. So let’s take a closer look at “awkward.”

AWKWARD – late Middle English (in the sense the wrong way around, upside down): from dialect awk backward, perverse, clumsy (from Old Norse afugr turned the wrong way) + ward

SYNONYMS – clumsyungainlyuncoordinatedgracelessinelegantgauchegawkywoodenstiffunskillfulmaladroitineptblunderinginformal clodhoppingham-fistedham-handedheavy-handedall thumbs ANTONYMS  adroitgraceful

As a very tall woman, I can testify to the insensitive language and behavior I’ve encountered in 22 years of yoga study, including being termed “awkward” early on in my yoga journey.

But I was a seasoned school teacher when I started learning yoga with the freedom to walk my dogs outside, stand at the kitchen counter munching crackers and jam, access books, receive a hug from my husband, talk things through with family and friends, and even to rant and rave, when I felt minimized by stinging words.

In this Yoga Journal article, Keri, 43, has spent the last 8 years in prison. Her sentence runs through 2056. A more compassionate way could have been found to describe Keri, who is clearly a dedicated yoga student and reliable source. Other students interviewed for the same article are described by their “defined calves” and “short, tight dreads and long eyelashes.”

The most important part of a teacher’s job, and a yoga teacher’s job, is to create a safe environment. I realize Jessica Downey is a writer, not a teacher. And as much as I think it’s a writer’s duty to be fair and respectful to all her sources, the responsibility for this poor word choice ultimately falls on Yoga Journal‘s staff members. It’s they who are tasked with editorial consistency and professional leadership. This lapse of attention to detail is disappointing.



Alexa Mergen