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Stay in Touch

In a moment or over a lifetime, you can renew your connection to the Earth and rekindle your passion to protect it.

By Sarah Saffian

stayintouch

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of an ailing planet, especially when the demands of daily life leave you feeling like the Earth's myriad problems are separate, distant concerns. But each of us is affected by the planet's welfare, and each of us has power to impact it. Get inspired by what six passionate stewards of the environment did to reconnect with their commitment to protect the Earth. Then take a moment, a day, or a week to nurture your own relationship with the planet, and let that inform your actions in the world.

In 1 Minute You Can...Spark a Connection

Most evenings after dark, Los Angeles yoga teacher Sara Ivanhoe takes a moment to engage in the yoga practice of trataka. This cleansing practice, in which the gaze is fixed upon an external point (often a candle flame), is meant to steady and concentrate the mind to better allow for internal seeing. An active environmentalist, Ivanhoe says the deeply absorbing practice reminds her that we are a part of, not separate from, the natural forces that surround us. "The fire inside the body—in the belly, behind the eyes—is the same as the fire outside," she says. "The result is a feeling that we can never hurt the planet because it would feel the same as hurting ourselves."

Even a single minute of candle gazing can help you see this connection with new clarity, says Ivanhoe, who began the practice as a child. She and her father would build a fire and watch it together, calling out to one another what they saw as the crackling blaze moved and changed. "My dad would point out how a fire is never still," she recalls, "so there is always something new to be watching, always something happening in the now moment." In the present moment, she adds, "there is always time to drop in to your connection with nature."

In 1 Hour You Can...Share a Taste of the Earth

The high point of a school field trip to the Edible Garden in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo is often just what the name implies—an edible adventure. After a whirlwind of digging, planting, weeding, and composting among 5,000 square feet of growing vegetables, visiting students—many of whom have never seen a working garden—get a chance to pick and taste something ripe and ready for harvesting. It is a simple act that can begin or nurture a child's relationship to the Earth and stir a passion to protect it, says Edible Garden director Jeanne Pinsof Nolan. "Through these experiences, children learn that the Earth gives to us when we give to it," she explains.

Nolan is a longtime yoga practitioner who gives tours to some 3,000 local schoolchildren each year. She recently hosted a kindergartner who responded to an invitation to taste ripe tomatoes by exclaiming, "Yuck!"

"I kneeled down so that we were at eye level and asked her, 'Have you ever tasted a gold tomato?'" recalls Nolan, reaching for one of her favorite varieties. The little girl popped the warm tomato in her mouth and announced that it "tastes like a grape!" She happily proceeded to try a few more kinds.

"When I am able to get a child to dig her hands into the earth to plant or to reach up into the green foliage to pick and try her first Sungold tomato, it's a profoundly rewarding moment for me," says Nolan, who also runs a business called The Organic Gardener, which consults with families, schools, and restaurants to help them grow and tend organic gardens. "It's my way of making a difference. A child who is able to develop a love of nature and understand our interconnectedness with the planet will hopefully grow up to become a better steward of the Earth," she says.

In 1 Day You Can...Feel the Earth Beneath Your Feet

One sunny morning last year, Adi Carter, an AcroYoga instructor and avid outdoorswoman, prepared to walk the three miles from her apartment in the hills of Rincón, Puerto Rico, to the open-air yoga studio on the other side of the island where she worked. Since the route involved walking along the beach through sand, rock climbing, and scrambling over fences, she decided to make the trip barefoot and use the opportunity "to be present to what my feet were touching, especially when the surface was jagged or uneven."

Carter's barefoot hike turned into a daylong walking meditation as she did errands in town after class, walking to the grocery store, fruit stand, and hardware store. "My big concern was to not step on broken glass or anything dangerous, so I had to walk mindfully, always glancing down to see where I would tread," she explains. "Walking with shoes on, you tend to look forward, to where you're going. But with bare feet, your focus shifts to where you are with every step."

Being in touch with the Earth in such a direct way encourages you to perpetually adapt to the present moment, says Carter. Her work, including a yoga practice and leading YogaSlackers outdoor retreats, keeps her firmly grounded in nature.

This "barefoot truth," as Carter calls it, also fosters an awareness of the Earth in a broader sense. "Educating yourself and others about moving mindfully outdoors is one of the essential first steps in environmental preservation," she says. "Once you're in touch with the life force around us, it's natural to want to help keep it around."

In 1 Week You Can...Expand Your Boundaries

Nearly 20 years ago, Kurt Hoelting, a writer, commercial fisherman, and meditation teacher, longed for a perfect storm of physical and spiritual engagement. "I wanted to combine my Zen practice, my love of being out on the wild edge of nature, and my commitment to environmental activism and ecological literacy," he says from his home in Whidbey Island, Washington. He set out on a backpacking trip in Nevada's Clan Alpine mountains, where he combined silent hikes with morning and evening Zen meditation. It was a profound experience that he says deepened his connection to nature in a visceral way. Realizing that bringing other environmental activists into the wilderness could help them renew their calling, he organized a sea kayaking expedition in southeast Alaska for 10 colleagues. The response from participants was so positive, Hoelting says, that he began to offer similar weeklong trips for activists every year.

Many environmental activists, he says, can feel distanced from the environment they're striving to protect—as if they were working on behalf of a separate entity. Wilderness retreats are a way to bridge that gap. "When we work on behalf of threatened ecosystems, we are working to heal and protect ourselves," he says. "It is so important to get that at a bone level, not just at an intellectual level."

Each day on the expedition, sessions of kayaking are punctuated by periods of traditional sitting and walking meditation, yoga asana, and conversation, specifically about "what it really means to care for the well-being of our larger selves—the eco-self," Hoelting explains.

The intention is to bring contemplative practice and meditative discipline to the active exploration of ecological and social issues, and to grapple with how to be fully human in the face of them. "To hold those questions in a spacious way, with an open heart and a lot of curiosity, is rare," says Hoelting, "but that's what usually happens on these trips. We discover that sense of the natural world as an extension of our beings—a more full-bodied awareness of connecting with the vastness of that outer and inner terrain."

In 1 Month You Can...Be a Vehicle for Change

Yoga teacher Jason Magness describes the early days of YogaSlackers, the adventure yoga group he co-founded with fellow extreme endurance athlete Sam Salwei, as a time of "chasing sensations." It was fun, he says, but it wasn't long before they felt the need to be involved in a higher purpose. "We wondered how we could change the fabric of how we were living in a positive way," he recalls.

The answer was in the wind or, more specifically, wind energy. "In yoga we talk about prana—the inhale and the exhale," says Magness. "The wind is the prana of nature. There are all these harmful ways to build energy, but here's this energy that's just inhale and exhale, and we're not fully tapping it."

In February of 2008, after learning that North Dakota had among the highest potential for wind power in the country, Magness and his fellow YogaSlackers set off on a snow-kiting expedition across the state. On skis or snowboards and with the long lines of enormous kites attached to their waists, they used the power of the wind to cover some 390 miles over the course of the month, visiting communities along the way to bring attention to the power of wind energy. Carrying everything they needed on their backs, the team pushed on, despite temperatures that were often -40 degrees.

The best part of the trip, says Magness, was connecting schoolteachers with local environmental activists to create education programs for students. To get the kids inspired, the YogaSlackers helped them try snow kiting. "They could feel the strength of the wind in their hands," Magness says. "They put kites on and felt themselves being pulled off the ground, across the fields. It was so powerful."

Equally moved were the YogaSlackers, whose passion for outdoor adventure is now accompanied by a commitment to spread a message of environmental protection and conservation. "I encourage people to spend time in nature, not trying to adapt nature to them, but adapting to nature," says Magness. "Spend the night, or several nights, in a forest or on a mountain, with minimal gear. Let that experience shape how you relate to the world, and inspire your activism. You will learn that nature is a wise teacher and a very patient partner."

In 1 Year You Can...Host Your Ecosystem's Most Fragile Citizens

Anna Gieselman vividly remembers the moment, three years ago, when she first opened a live beehive. She'd been curious about beekeeping for a while, but wanted to spend time around bees before trying it herself. On her first day in a local beekeeping class, she was hooked. "I had never heard or felt such a powerful vibration as these thousands of bees humming together, working in their hive," she recalls. "It was both intimidating and fascinating."

Gieselman, a yoga teacher and jewelry designer in Austin, Texas, was already committed to gardening and living lightly on the land when she decided to start keeping bees. Her aim was to enrich the local plant life and become an even better steward of her small patch of the planet. Over the course of a year, she took a series of beekeeping classes and ordered a single hive and "starter kit" of bees, which she set up on the half-acre property where she lives—it's about 50 yards from her garden, in a shaded area near a creek. Today, with some 5,000 to 7,000 bees in her hive, Gieselman's feeling of guardianship for the land and its winged residents runs deep.

"When I say I'm a beekeeper, everyone always asks, 'How much honey do you get?'" she says. Gieselman explains that she doesn't harvest the honey, but rather keeps the bees to improve her community's gardens and to play an active role in local environmental stewardship.

Her neighbor's peach and apple trees had their largest fruit yield the year after the arrival of the bees, which pollinate plants and trees as far as a mile away, she says. Gieselman donates 5 percent of her jewelry profits to organizations supporting bee research and preservation, and she takes every opportunity to spread the word about the impact of bees on the environment. "Whenever I have a trunk show or set up in a new retail location, I talk about bees," she says. "It's just amazing how many people have no idea how important bees are."

Sarah Saffian is a journalist and yoga practitioner in Brooklyn, New York.

May 2013

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