Nature is one of the most consistent sources of wonder and gratitude in my life. Whenever I meet an ocean, a forest, a waterfall, wild animals, an open sky, a mountain, or the sun’s warmth. I feel incredibly small and incredibly connected to the world around me.
I’m also in my element when I practice yoga. When yoga and nature meet, the pairing feels so natural. And it is. The ancient mystic yogis meditated in caves and communed with the wild. Nature’s influence on yoga is clear when you think about the names of postures: locust, pigeon, half- moon, sun salutations, or cobra. As modern yogis, many of us practice in a pristine and boxy studio environment—but yoga is meant to return us to our ‘natural state’—a state of harmony with the totality of life, the universe and everything in it.
We’re part of the interconnected, interdependent whole that is the natural world.
As a species, we’ve co-evolved with nature.
We are nature.
We’ve been shaped, influenced and adapted to interact with the wild. Taking a relaxed walk in the park, a hike in the woods or a paddle on a lake allows us to come back into relationship with the natural world and our natural state. Nature nourishes our senses and our soul with a symphony of sensory stimulation that grounds us - in our evolutionary context and the present moment.
Both yoga and nature soothe our nervous systems. It’s why people head to the cottage, the beach and the yoga studio to restore and rejuvenate. Nature also boosts overall well-being by strengthening the immune system and reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. These are forms of dis-ease that might be symptomatic of Nature Deficit Disorder —a term coined by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. “Nature deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness."
As the pandemic dragged on in 2020/2021, many yogis took to practicing outdoors. This allowed us to experience the soothing effects of yoga in combination with the rejuvenating, mood-lifting effects of spending time in nature. Everywhere, people were falling in love with outdoor yoga—practicing in unconfined open spaces, in the warm glow of the sun, and feeling our connection to the earth while breathing in phytonocide-rich air (a gift from the surrounding trees).
Transitioning from the boxy confines of indoor yoga studios to beaches, parks, farmers’ fields, and floating paddleboard yoga classes deepened our sense of connection to the natural world. We were just trying to find ways to continue to gather and get our ‘om’ on - which we did. As a bonus, we got to experience how rooted in, dependent upon and intimately connected with the natural world we are. We got in touch with our natural state.
THE 5 ELEMENTS OF NATURE
According to Yoga and Ayurveda, five elements comprise everything in nature: earth, water, fire, air and space. The five elements, or Panchamahabhutas, as they’re called in Sanskrit, form the basic building blocks of the universe and everything in it. Including us.
Here are five great ways to invite nature into your practice and experience each element:
Everything that exists does so within the container of space. It connects everything and everyone. We can tap into our connection with all of life through sound. Pleasant natural sounds like flowing water and singing birds have positive psychological and physiological effects. They lower blood pressure, decrease pain and increase feelings of peace and tranquillity.
Take a moment at the start of your practice or your day to sit and listen to your surroundings. Opening your ears to the sounds of nature immediately grounds you, dialling down the noise in your head and tuning you into your environment and into the here and now.
HOW TO PRACTICE MINDFULNESS MEDITATION WITH NATURE SOUNDS
Here's a guided audio version of this meditation.
The earth element is associated with stability and groundedness. To connect with this energy, investigate stable standing poses. Begin with Mountain pose.
In the yoga tradition, fire is associated with transformation. Each of us has our own internal flame or ‘sun’, fittingly located at the solar plexus. Anatomically, the solar plexus is a complex of ganglia and radiating nerves associated with your sympathetic nervous system - the branch of the nervous system that’s activated when you exercise (getting hot and sweaty). The solar plexus also innervates much of your digestive tract - where food gets transformed into fuel for your body. Just as the sun provides energy for all life on earth, the solar plexus region provides you with the energy to do your life.
Activate the fire element with Sun Salutations. Take your practice outside. Bathe in the warm glow of the sun and salute, paying reverence to this miraculous source of life, warmth, energy and illumination.
All living things need water to survive. In our own bodies, water helps to regulate body temperature, lubricate joints, dissolve and carry nutrients to cells, flush out waste and more. An obvious way to get in touch with this element is to practice on or near the water. Sit and meditate on the repetitive, rhythmic sound of waves or try a paddleboard yoga class and let the waves gently rock you into a sedating savasana. Rocking is incredibly soothing for your nervous system. It’s why we rock babies and fall asleep in hammocks!
If you’re landlocked, you can re-create the soothing sound of ocean waves with a soft ujjayi breath— like you’re listening to a private ocean inside your head.
The air element is associated with your lungs, and breath awareness is an essential part of yoga practice. Where better than the outdoors to take deep, invigorating breaths of fresh air? As you inhale, be aware that the oxygen you’re taking in is a gift to you, courtesy of the trees. As you breathe out carbon dioxide, know the trees will inhale it and transform it into more oxygen. Sit and breathe together. Be conscious of your interdependence on one another as you quietly exchange the gift of life. Notice what feelings this brings up for you: gratitude, wonder, amazement, contentment?
Human health is linked to environmental health. If our food, air and water aren’t healthy, we can’t be healthy either. But the benefits we derive from caring for the natural world go beyond the physical - they are also mental, spiritual and emotional. When we love and care for nature, knowing that nature loves and supports us back, we forge a sacred bond with our surroundings. We are returned to our natural state - a feeling of interconnectedness and belonging in the natural world.