Ayurveda, sister science to yoga, is India’s ancient system of healthcare (Ayur=life, Veda=knowledge). As such, ayurveda embraces the practices of yoga for cultivation, maintenance and restoration of health, both physical and mental. The sage Charaka, circa 400 BCE, was one of the earliest and most authoritative physicians of ayurveda. He famously wrote that the root cause of poor health, in fact of all human suffering, is pragya-aparadh, “the mistake of the intellect:” a belief in separation, the belief in an “us” and a “them” as the ultimate reality.
The problem doesn’t seem to have gone away. Nearly one in five Americans is on prescription psychiatric drugs, according to a 2011 Medco Health Solutions report. The political landscape, threat of nuclear war and destruction of the environment all point to the same reality: The big- gest lie of modern civilization is that humans are separate from nature. Physically, psychically, morally and spiritually, we need help. Yoga offers a prescription: Restore the memory of our essential nature, which according to yoga is unbounded. Yoga’s prescription is a commitment to developing a personal sadhana, a coherent and progressive set of earth-body- soul- and community-centered practices, aimed at restoring wholeness on every level of our being.
In an era long before PVC yoga mats and spandex, yogis spent time in nature, communing with spirit on the body of the earth, in the dense forests, caves and valleys of India. Gurus, knowing that the deepest teachings of yoga are taught in silence, would send their disciples into the woods to be intimate with the sacred elements of nature, where they became opened to profound levels of inner and outer fulfillment.
Animals, birds, mountains and trees were seen as part of the yogi’s intimate family and as great teachers. Today, remnants of that truth are found in the names of many asanas: Mountain Pose, Tree Pose, Camel, Fish, Cobra, Lion, Eagle, Crow.
In the modern urban and suburban world, we are surrounded with crowded, artificial environments; toxic, high- stress lifestyles; polluted air; and electromagnetic fields. And yet we are blessed. Two thirds of Georgia’s land is forest, double the national average. For thousands of years, people have connected with nature to gain perspective and spiritual fulfillment. Wherever you are in the Atlanta area, you are minutes away from some beautiful woods. So, take a lead from the yoga masters of antiquity: Take yoga off the mat.
1. Steps to Take the Pilgrimage Mark the beginning of your walk with ceremony. It could be as simple as you wish as long as it expresses your gratitude to Mother Earth for her teaching and safekeeping. You are entering a threshold into sacred space.
2. Slow down This is not about getting from point A to point B. Not about your to-do list. Not to take photos. Turn off that cell phone. This is a time to come home, to return to the womb from which we came, to recover what was lost.
3. Be present During your hike, come back to your senses: hearing, touch, sight, taste, smell. Sense what’s happening, right now, in the looking glass of nature
4. Go out to go in Use each sense as a bridge to deeper connection. As you become aware of the nuances of what’s happening in the natural world around you, you will receive symbols and signs leading to insights for the inner journey.
5. Find a tree Or let it find you. During your walk, you will eventually be drawn to one particular tree. Important: Steps one to four must happen first.
6. Get acquainted Stand or sit and look at the tree until you really see it. You will notice that even if its leaves are gone, there’s a quality of deep presence, of sentience, that you may have overlooked at first. Its roots grow deeply into the earth, enabling it to rise high into the sky, through a strong trunk with unique branches.
7. Attune and merge Take off your shoes. Stand in front of the tree, get centered and let the tree teach and inspire you. Move into Tree Pose (See posture guidance in Asana Corner). You, too, can send your roots deeply into the earth for nourishment and grounding. You, too, with steady, deep breath, can draw earth nutrients up through your roots, feeding your trunk, your branches and every part of you. The tree breathes in, purifies and utilizes the carbon dioxide you exhale. It exhales back to you the precious, life-giving oxygen you need to inhale. In this exchange, the tree is intimately present with you. Spread your branches out and feel how the reach of the arms opens your heart.
8. Come back to Mountain Pose Receive and integrate the experience. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice how grounded, present, and connected you feel—to the earth, to the tree, to yourself.
9. Repeat Tree Pose on the other side, and then repeat step eight, Mountain Pose.
10. Completion. The ancients saw trees and humans as vital links between heaven and earth. There is one love, one presence, one power that is living through and as this tree. It’s also living through and as you. Stand tall. Feel your roots. Enjoy the breath that breathes us all. Bring your hands into Namaste and send blessings and gratitude to the tree. End your pilgrimage as you began, with ceremony.