Note: This is a two part article. It was originally going to be a short piece explaining the eight limbs of yoga. However, after beginning the article next to a tree in my garden, the tree had something to say too. Hope you enjoy the piece…maybe even read it next to your favorite tree.
It is springtime and nearly impossible to not notice the trees. Being in hibernation the past few months, they are now awakening. The light and warmth of the sun has called them out of their slumber. They hear the sun’s call and reply with verdant green displays of life. The trees and sun share a sacred relationship, one that embodies the power and beauty of agni – the energy of transformation. Agni in Nature is amazing to observe. In springtime, agni works as a force of creation. This force of Nature is felt by all living creatures, as it is the season where flowers emerge from what was once silent ground and butterflies appear from the warm ethers. During spring, animals mate, bees buzz, ants march, and peoples’ thoughts turn to romance and rejuvenation. It’s also a wonderful time to experience transformation in ones yoga practice.
It is the tree in springtime that has always touched my heart and awakened my yogini spirit. The new leaves are a tender message of “congratulations you survived winter and now it’s time to create new life.” I find myself experiencing a renewal in my yoga practice. I’m not shy to admit that in wintertime my practice takes a sort of hibernation, where I sometimes don’t practice for days. But come spring, I hear the call of Nature and unfold the mat to the promises of new growth in my practice and life.
In spring, I am drawn to the prana (life force) of the tree branches; whereas, in winter the root system of the trees beckon my attention. The tree branches, at rest during the winter, have stretched; and now, bright tender leaves full of rasa (juice) magically appear from the branches. Branches, which just weeks before, were brown and bare. The branches, flowing with prana, create new growth. Each bud and each little leaflet promise to nourish not only the tree, but also the environment. Trees provide shelter, oxygen, food, and beauty to all those in relationship with them. Protection, nourishment and pleasure are not only gifts from a tree, but gifts from a yoga practice.
So this spring as you watch the the trees inner Spirit unfolding through the appearance of their new leaves, I invite you to consider how the ancient system of yoga can help unfold your inner Spirit. And through that sacred, magical and divine unfolding, may you discover the sacredness, beauty and divinity which was and always is your very true essence.
Trees and Yoga: The Bridges Between Heaven and Earth
Throughout the ages, the symbolism of trees has been associated with knowledge, growth, strength, and long life. This is also true of the ancient system of yoga. Trees inherently create balance between earth and heaven by using their roots to ground into the stable earth, and then rising upwards through their branches to the infinite sky. Yoga offers the same experience. Following a consistent yoga practice, one roots their physical and mental bodies into the ground of the present moment. From this place, the subtle body begins to awaken and branch into the infinite space of pure Consciousness. In this space, our human body merges with our spiritual body and we experience oneness with the Divine. We experience our inner divinity.
Trees and yoga both express the beauty and magic of the Divine. Through their actions of rooting and branching, trees bridge the earthly and heavenly realms. Through their unique system of pranayama, called photosynthesis, trees express the magic and divinity of their true nature. They create things like shade, maple syrup, fruit and Ayurvedic medicines. Trees are a source of life and offer gifts of nourishment and healing to the world. Through the poses, pranayama and meditation, yoga can help one unite their earthly body with their heavenly spirit. When this happens, we express the magic and divinity of our true nature. We then create things which nourish and heal ourselves and our world.
Another similarity between trees and yoga is a sense of balance between self and others…between the individual and Universal worlds. Each tree is unique- an individual creation of God. No two oak trees look alike and different trees have different functions in the world…expressions of their individuality. Yet most trees are part of a forest community. They contribute to a sustainable community through their relationship with other trees, animals, fungi, insects, and humans. Likewise, each human is unique. Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga, acknowledges that each person is a unique expression of the universal elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth) and gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas). Through yoga, one begins to discover, realize and appreciate their own uniqueness. But even though we begin to express and honor our individual uniqueness, we also realize and respect our connection with the Universal world. When we awaken to our true nature, our hearts yearn to be in a state of Oneness with the world. We then begin to live in ways which respect and value ourselves and our community. We create a sustainable forest of sorts.
Trees and Ashtanga Yoga
Patanjali, who is known as the “father of yoga”, wrote “The Yoga Sutras” in the third century BC. In Chapter II verse 29, he describes eight practices which help one live a healthier and happier life. These eight principles are often referred to as the eight limbs of yoga and the stepping stones on the path to enlightenment. This system is called, “Ashtanga Yoga” and its goal is reaching enlightenment. “Ashtanga” in Sanskrit means “the eight parts”. “Yoga” translates to “union” or “to connect”. Uniting with our true nature – our inner divinity, IS an enlightening experience. The Soul always desires to connect with its Source…the Divine. When we uncover/discover/recover the Divine light in our Self, we then begin to become aware of that same light in other beings. Yoga creates a sense of wholeness and holiness.
Following Patanjali’s eight steps, also referred to as limbs, is similar to climbing a tree. Although I don’t climb nearly as high when I did as a kid, I will still climb a tree when it beckons me to do so. If you’ve ever climbed a tree and then relaxed onto its limbs and branches, you’ve probably experienced some kind of transformation in your mind and spirit. Not to mention in the muscles! I think many of the ancient yogi sages must have climbed trees, in addition to sitting under them.
I’ve been watching the trees near me this spring and in doing so have been inspired to observe my personal yoga practice as it relates to a tree. Trees are naturally and always doing yoga. Following are my observations, as I’ve sat and listened to what the trees had to teach me about the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
1. Yamas. The yamas are a code of morals that when followed improve our external relationships in the world we live. The external world includes our fellow human beings, animals and plant life. It’s all living beings on earth. The yamas are: nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, sexual continence, and nonattachment. The Yamas are like the roots of the tree. Roots connect and stabilize a tree into the earth. Being rooted in such moral beliefs and behaviors creates a stable and healthy foundation for any relationship, as well as creating a sustainable and safe community for all living beings.
In addition to stability, a tree’s root system provides nourishment. Earth is the source of nourishment and only by developing its root system can the tree survive and flourish. Also, the deeper the roots connect with the earth, the more stable the tree is when windstorms blow through. Same goes with us. The more we seek nourishment from practices like the yamas, the healthier we grow in body, mind and spirit. The healthier and deeper our roots, the more we are able to remain grounded when the storms of life blow in. When we practice the yamas the better rooted we are in our true nature. From this place, our thoughts, behaviors and actions reflect the Divine.
2. Niyamas. These are observances which improve the internal relationship with our body, mind and spirit. The niyamas are also rituals or practices which help cultivate a more intimate relationship with God. They are purity (in body, action and thought), contentment, self-discipline, Self-study, and surrender to God. I like to think of the yamas as the roots at the very base of the tree…the ones which are seen above ground. This could also include the junction of the roots and trunk. For this is the place where the energies of the tree are both grounding and extending…connecting with the earth and reaching for the Heavens. No wonder sitting at the base of a tree is such a calming, refreshing and divine experience. Practicing the niyamas helps us to realize our own divinity.
3. Asana. Asana means seat, as well as pose. In Patanjali’s yoga sutra chapter II verse 46, he says “Sthira-sukham asanam.” A translation is “to sit with stability and ease”. The poses help balance the doshas, dhatus, organs and systems in the body. When these are balanced, a person is stable. “Sthira” means stable. One of the qualities (gunas) which describes a tree is stable. Not only do the roots provide stability, the trunk does as well. In yoga the tree pose Vrksasana helps improve balance. Keen balance, whether in the mind or body, creates stability…physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
“Sukha” means ease or pleasure. In Ayurveda, it’s one of the definitions of health. When one is healthy, one feels at ease. Trees seem to always be in a state of ease. Their limbs sway in the wind. In Ayurveda, wind is associated with the air element. Air is associated with the vata dosha. Vata is related to movement and to change. Often when the winds of change blow in, the tendency is to resist the change. Yoga not only creates flexibility in body, but it teaches one to become flexible in mind. It teaches ways to be adaptable when life changes course. Being adaptable contributes to overall health. Health is being at ease, where the loss of health is called disease. When we are healthy, we feel pleasure…”sukha”.
How exactly do trees do yoga asana? Well, they are in a constant state of stretching, moving and sitting. The stretch toward the sky and down into the earth. They move side to side with the wind. They can even twist; an example is the juniper trees in Sedona. Another way in which trees relate to asana and the human body is through their anatomy and physiology. A tree has an outer bark and 4 layers in its inner bark. The outer bark protects the inner layers, much like the skin, muscles, fat and bone protect the more delicate nervous system tissues and vital organs. The bark offers support and protection. The inner tissues are the storehouse and pathway for the transportation of nutrients. The leaves are the site for digestive agni of photosynthesis. In yoga, the asanas help tone and maintain the physical body. All 7 dhatus (tissues) benefit from a regular yoga practice. When the musculoskeletal system is balanced between strength and flexibility, the body is stable and protected. Asana also helps improve the function of the vital organs.
The first three limbs – yama, niyama, and asana are more of an external practice. During the course of this week, take your mat outdoors and practice near a tree. As the trees begin or continue to unfold and display their beauty…move and breathe with them…and witness an awakening in your body, mind and spirit. The remaining five limbs will be explored in next week’s article.