When I lived in New York, nature was a precious commodity.
After a childhood spent roaming New England forests, the density of asphalt and carbon monoxide was soul crushing. The city had many other attributes to love, but for anyone who has any desire to connect with nature (which I assume is everyone), it could be a tough place to live—particularly if you were too poor to zip out to the Hamptons on the weekends like I was.
Instead, I loitered around the community garden near my apartment on 47th Street, gazing through the chain link fence longingly as old man turned his tiny plot of soil, I went to the dog park even though I didn’t have a dog, just to see some animals other than human beings, and I rollerbladed up and down the path next to the Hudson river, gulping down the water scented wind like it was medicine.
One time, I went to visit a friend in Florida, and in the parking garage at the airport, smelling the last sensual humid breeze blow against my face before I entered the elevator which led to the airport which led to the plane which led to Manhattan, had a full on break down, sobbing hysterically at the prospect of all the stale and soiled air that was about to enter my lungs.
After I stopped living in cities I realized I had unconsciously taught myself how to not breathe through my nose. I had turned off my sense of smell to the best of my ability, because smelling had become so unpleasant. As I began to let air back into my nostrils once again, and let down my guard, I was enchanted by the simplest fragrances; new snow, pencil shavings, a pine needle pinched between my fingers.
When I began practicing yoga, it dawned on me what a drastic measure I had taken to disconnect. To hinder the breath, for a yogi, is the same as hindering your soul. It is an aggressive rejection of life.
Even so, it was years before I made being outside every day a priority. I holed myself up in the yoga studio or the gym, riding the elliptical while I watched TV and listened to music, jogging on treadmills and lifting weights.
One time while I was working out I happened to glance out the window and see a spectacular eight point buck strolling through the parking lot. I pushed down my mad urge to rush outside and follow him, and slid into the chest press, jacking up my muscles under all those fluorescent lights.
It took severe back pain for me to change my ways. I was having trouble walking my dogs on leash because they kept jerking my arms out of their sockets every time a squirrel waved it’s tail, and I decided to find a place I could let them run. Little did I know, there are miles and miles of trails and paths through the forest less than five minutes from my house. (No one else seems to know this either, as they are largely deserted while all the local gyms, by comparison, are jam packed).
I started going every afternoon, just little jaunts. I quickly realized, Hey! Why am I not cycling out here too? I bought a good bike and I was hooked.
But I was still more concerned about how many calories I was burning than the Red Tailed hawk I might be fortunate enough to see swooping down across the trail in front of me.
I am sad to say how many years it took the forest to bring me back to my senses. Yoga helped, as did cancelling my gym membership. Yoga gave me back my breath, but the woods gave me back my soul.
Now I do both, practice yoga and walk or ride outside—I’ve sworn off treadmills and elliptical machines forever. And while both are essential to maintain a state of well being, if I had to choose one, it would be going outside. As much as I love yoga, and I do! How I love it!—I love walking between a riot of trees with the sun sifting down through the branches and raccoon prints underfoot more.
I have also discovered, thanks to my years of yoga, that I don’t need to do yoga asana (poses) to do yoga. When I walk outside, it’s natural to connect my breath to the movements of my body, it’s easy to be mindful, and it’s automatic to plug into the goodness underneath the mind stuff; my spirit, which is the universal spirit.
I believe yoga helps us return to our natural state, which is a state of union and communion with ourselves and the world. It stands to reason that nature promotes a natural state of being, and that perhaps the finest yoga practice is simply the one in which we amble through whatever unmarred landscape we can find.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise