Note: This is the second part of the article. As I shared last week, this article was supposed to be a short piece. But a nearby tree had something to share.
And so the journey into the eight limbs of yoga and the life of trees continues. During the past week, the trees in New Mexico have sprouted more leaves. The neighborhood becomes greener and there are now shady respites along my dog walking route. As I watch the trees, a sense of new beginnings crescendos with each new leaf. As I’ve practiced on the mat, through each pose and each breath, I’ve also felt a sense of new beginnings. Following are observations from the practice of doing yoga and watching trees.
4. Pranayama. This is control of the breath and the vital life energy -the prana. Pranayama calms the nervous system, and nourishes the lungs, heart and other vital organs. It also soothes the mental body by balancing sattva, rajas and tamas in the mind. From the moment we are born, we breathe non-stop until our death. And at our death we leave this world escorted by the breath on an exhale. Like us, trees during their lifetime are constantly breathing. They inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. Their breathing is called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis means “putting together with light.” Sunlight is their catalyst for this divine transformation. This light is the catalyst which ignites the trees agni. Agni is the transforming energy of the fire element. The tree’s agni transforms nutrients from the soil, water from rain, light from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air. This transformation process creates nourishment, strength, growth and vitality in the tree. It also creates oxygen for the environment.
Pranayama stokes the body and mind’s agni. In the physical body, agni is the main digestive fire, as well as 39 other important agnis which occur in the 7 dhatus (tissues) all the way down to the cell nucleus. According to the Vedas, the prana in the human body is a similar force as the sun in Nature. (Resource: “Yoga and Ayurveda” by Dr. David Frawley). Just as the sun transforms all life functions on Earth, prana transforms all life functions in the body. Prana transforms the body and mind, as well as awakens the inner light of the Spirit. Pranayama creates purification, rejuvenation, growth and expansion of the Spirit. It helps one to go beyond the limitations and delusions of the body and mind. The Light of the Divine is the source of all spiritual growth.
Pranayama also teaches the importance and beauty of space. In autumn, through the act of an exhalation of tree sorts, the tree lets go of its leaves. Its divine nakedness of bare branches creates a lovely vision of patterns in the space where once leaves filled the limbs. Spaces which were not before seen now appear against the backdrop of the sky. Trees in autumn remind us of the beauty of space. In all creation there exists space. In fact, space is necessary for any creative act, whether it’s the space in a Motzart concerto, Munch painting or the nucleus of a muscle cell.
The space in pranayama offers great creative potential. In the pauses between the exhale and inhale, there exists the space of Purusha…the Absolute Consciousness. Purusha is the Divine Consciousness from which the material world was born. In this space, there is freedom from any and all limitations of the material world, including time and death. Here, nothing matters…as in no thing matters. In this space, we discover what matters in reality…and that is communion with our Divine Self…our Soul. In this space, the Soul begins to dance with creative flow, much like how trees move and sway in the wind.
5. Pratyahara. Pratyahara means to turn the senses (tanmatras) inward. The sensory nerves become stressed when they are subjected to constant interaction with the external world. This happens when the eyes watch too much TV or the ears listen to excessive music or talking. Although the branches of a tree expand into the external world, the tree knows how to draw its energy inward too. The vital life functions of a tree occur in the inner subtle body of the tree. Nourishment moves through the tree via the passageways (srotamsi) of xylem and phloem. The sap (rasa) is held in the protective inner tissues.
Another image of pratyahara I receive when observing a tree is the lush, leafy, shaded middle limbs of the tree. As a child, I would skip my piano lessons and head to the ravine to my favorite tree…a tall willow. There, suspended about the ferns and skunk cabbage, I withdrew into my world of mandarin oranges and poems. It’s near the middle of the tree where one can sit feeling totally supported by the tree and safely suspended above the earth. In this space, I’d write poetry and read books…activities which connected me to my Soul.
One more observation. When I imagine yoga and a tree in relation to pratyahara, I see a nest. A nest is a bird’s haven from the external world…the place he returns after he’s out flying the skies and hopping on the ground. A nest provides the space for rest, rejuvenation and caretaking. Pratyahara is an energetic nest which is created by withdrawing the senses inward. Instead of using twigs and grass to construct the nest, we can use the poses, breath and meditation to create a nest…a retreat from the external world. Pratyahara creates the space where we can rest. “Less doing and pursuing…more nesting and resting” is a sacred act of Self realization and preservation.
6. Dharana. This is the practice of learning the art of awareness. Being aware helps us understand our very Being. It allows us to navigate life with clarity and ease. Awareness requires focus and concentration. Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true.” But how can we be true to our Self, when we don’t even know ourSelf? Dharana helps us begin to discover and experience the truth by diverting our attention away from what we are not, and instead drawing us toward “what is”. A classic Indian chant, “tadasmiham…tadasmiham” means “I am that…I am that.” When we discover and align with our true nature, we become aware of who we were created to be. Who I am. Teachers, counselors, and gurus are helpful in the learning process; however, to know the meaning of life…your life…requires self learning/self awareness. Self learning leads to Self knowledge…the knowledge which liberates one to say with complete confidence, “I am that”.
Self knowledge is vital to health and happiness. I’ve found spending time in Nature, especially around trees, to be key at helping me align with my Self. The word for knowledge is related to the word for tree. In Sanskrit the word for knowledge is “vidya”. This is from the root “vid” meaning “to know”. The names for forest, wood and tree in the ancient Scandinavian language and in Old English are “vid” and “widu”. The English words “wits” and “wisdom” stem from this root.
Trees seem to always be in a state of dharana. Being aware requires staying put and focusing focus on the present moment. A tree’s nature is to remain in one spot for their entire life. An oak doesn’t multi-task; meaning, it doesn’t produce leaves and shed leaves at the same time. The oak honors is aligned with Nature and her seasons. So, the oak creates new leaves in spring and sheds the old leaves in autumn. The maple tree doesn’t grow leaves and produce sap for maple syrup at the same time. It’s attuned to the cycles of Nature and thus creates leaves in spring and sap in winter. Trees are attuned to the cycles of life and know when it’s time to create and when it’s time to release. Even the little oak tree acorn practices dharana. The acorn knows its purpose and uses its energy to focus on becoming a tree. (This is assuming a squirrel does not gather the acorn for his breakfast!) Knowing our life purpose requires awareness and mindfulness. Awareness reminds us that life IS in each moment.
7. Dhyana. Reflection and meditation without interruption is dhyana. Dhyana is a natural state of being in a constant state of awareness. Awareness aligns thought with the present moment. The present moment is life. The past is dead and the future is not yet created. Life occurs in the present moment. Trees live this truth. A few years ago I met my first redwood. As I stood in her trunk, I felt the external world disappear as I melded into the internal world of the redwood and into the internal world of my Soul. As I reflected on my redwood experience, I thought “I could make a redwood my home.” Then I realized I felt so at home, because the redwood connected me to my Spirit…my eternal home.
Dhyana helps us realize we are always home. By reflecting on the present moment, we witness the Divine’s reflection looking at us. That reflection is the Light of the Divine which has the potential to be the Light in the world. Dhyana is the act of reflecting the Divine Light onto the world around us.
The Buddhist meditation principle of “chop wood, carry water” means that our life can be an act of moment to moment meditation. An important Meditation 101 principle: There is no one way to meditate. There are as many techniques and ways to meditate as there are trees. An oak tree doesn’t have to ask an oak tree how to BE an oak tree. It just knows. Its inner intelligence and divinity guide its manifestation from acorn to sapling to tree to acorn again. And all through this process, the oak tree practices dhyana…moment to moment awareness.
8. Samadhi. “Sama” means harmony and “dhi” means intelligence. A translation which resonates with my heart is “being in harmony with the Divine intelligence of all life”. Samadhi is a state of bliss and pure stillness. It’s similar to the sense of freedom and contentment one feels while perched in a treetop. (I know why birds perch in trees…it feels great!) While sitting there, you realize you are one with the tree, one with the bird singing in the tree, one with the mountain you can see over yonder, and even one with the little ant crawling on the tree bark. Samadhi is the sense of not having or wanting to be anywhere else but in the tree. The tree has become your world and your world has become the tree.
One of my teachers of Ayurveda, Dr. Vasant Lad, often says, “you are the world and the world is you.” Expanding on this, I feel samadhi is communing with the Divine intelligence in your heart; whereby, you enjoy who you were created to be and in doing so you enjoy all of creation. By being at one with your Self and the world, you realize it is a wonderful world.
Where I now live in New Mexico, spring blossoms with a display of fullness and richness and the newly awakened green trees soften the hard and rough aspects of the high dry desert. The trees awaken my heart to the creative potential in myself and in this wonderful world. The classic song, “What A Wonderful World” made famous by Louis Armstrong (written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss), opens with a line about trees.
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom, for me and you
and I think to myself, what a wonderful world
It’s been my experience that both trees and yoga have helped me discover the wonder, beauty, and sacredness of life. This spring, may your yoga practice include rooting deeper into the eight limbs of yoga where your Soul becomes nourished and your life branches out in many beautiful new ways. I encourage you to take your mat outdoors and practice yoga next to a tree. Happy springtime awakenings in your life.