In this time of caution, people are likely missing their yoga-based gatherings, and by now may be feeling cooped up and a little stir crazy. The solution: step outside for a few poses.
According to a recent CNN report, authorities and experts are recommending outdoor activity—as long as you aren’t required to shelter in place and can maintain social-distancing and hand-washing protocol. You should avoid playgrounds and park facilities, but your own backyard or an open area could be the perfect setting for some asana in the fresh air.
For inspiration, and a way to play, we tapped the wisdom and practices Jenny Garrison writes about in her new book Yoga With Trees:
Our Relationship With Trees
Humans and trees share some amazing similarities. Our human breathing meshes with the breathing of the trees in exchanges of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Our internal human respiratory system actually resembles the shape of a tree. The inner growth ring of a tree looks a lot like a human fingerprint. We also share an upright posture with the trees. Our spines lift vertically as do the trunks of trees.
In the groundbreaking work, The Miracle of Trees, author and tree expert Olavi Huikari reminds us “We humans share about 50 percent of our DNA with Trees.”
Playtime With Trees
Take a deep breath and set the intention to look at trees with childlike wonder. Does one individual tree draw your attention? Let yourself be among the trees as if you were with other “playmates” in a neighborhood. (Even if you’re 90, you still have a child inside you, and the trees are safe friends who will accept you as you re-visit your childlike heart in this way.) Allow yourself freedom of movement, expression, relationship, and feeling. If you are self-conscious about this, find a place where you can be alone with the trees and no one will question or judge you. Allow the gift of wonder to be part of this experience. Trees are on slow time. It is a welcome and wonderful balance and a relief from a world busy with man-made activity, excessive thinking, and worries.
Yoga With Trees: Witness Consciousness
In yoga, we speak of “witness consciousness.” This is the state of awareness wherein we basically observe our bodies, our sensations, our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions. This shift in awareness allows us to become a neutral observer of ourselves. This means noticing what is going on in a given situation with simple awareness—just noticing, not judging.
In witness consciousness, we are present to ourselves and the world around us in the here and now. We are observers of our behavior, our thoughts and feelings, and our “Be-ing.” This witness state is embodied by the trees. They stand where they are. Their time is unhurried time. They help us to slow down and release anxiety. They can help us by example to settle into “Be-ing-ness.”
Trees also show us the message of seasonal cycling. Spring time for trees teaches bursting forth and new life. Summer teaches expression, light, and color. Fall is fruition and letting go. Winter is rest. These qualities are essential parts of the human spirit.
10 Poses for Practicing Outside (and with Trees)
The following sequence is one way to “yoke” with life and the outdoors, providing some relief from stress and anxiety and inspiration for much-needed moments of play.
Be the Tree
Look around. If there is more than one tree to choose from, allow yourself to imagine your child self. Which tree would your child-self go to? Soften your gaze. Perhaps one particular tree has a soft glow around it, or is intuitively beckoning you in some way. I think it is important that you let the tree know that you will not hurt it. Some people naturally carry this energy message, and even animals do not fear them. Trees have often been harmed by humans, so the safety message seems basic and foundational. Thoughts such as “I come in peace” or “Hello beautiful tree! I will not cause you harm.” seem a good starting place. Once I have come to the tree who will be my partner in practice, I stand before the tree with my feet solidly grounded on Earth. Then, I embody the shape of the tree as best I can. This is a beginning warm up stretch for my own body and an acknowledgement of the form of the tree.
Bow to the Tree
Then, I greet it with a bow, my hands in prayer position for greeting. This two part acknowledgment has proved to be a simple and clear way to begin, showing respect for my own body and the body of my tree partner. In her lovely book of daily meditations called “The Celtic Spirit”, Caitlin Matthews suggests we slow down our breathing as we approach a tree, in order to diminish mental busyness and attune to the spirit of the tree itself. Then we put out our intentions and ask permission, greeting the tree without touching it before we sit or stand against it. She suggests softly singing or “crooning” to the tree, leaving speech alone. Remember that you can find your own way, perhaps by trying any of these ideas, or creating your own variations of them. There is no right way. The approach that is right for you will feel natural for you and at the same time respectful to the trees. Just as initial approach is important when you encounter another person, the way in which you approach the tree is important too. Your approach sets the tone of your practice.
Standing Side Bend
Stand sideways beside your tree partner with your right side facing the tree and your feet firmly planted. Place your right hand against the tree’s trunk at about shoulder height with your elbow bent. Breathe. Press your left hip away as you bring your left arm up and overhead so that your left fingers touch the tree. Roll your left shoulder back and open as you breathe into the side bend. Feel the space in your side ribs. Stay for a few breaths or as long as you like. Release by lowering your raised arm and returning to an upright posture. To repeat on the other side, you can turn around, OR you can walk to the other side of the tree!
Standing Back Bend
Stand with your spine toward the tree, fairly close to the tree’s trunk. With your feet solidly placed (allow yourself to feel each footprint, including your toes, touching and connecting with the ground), reach up with your arms, elbows bent, and hold the trunk of the tree with your palms. As you keep length in your spine, gently let your hips press forward. Lift your heart and your gaze. Keep breathing. Hold for as long as you’d like, at least a few breaths. The back of your head may touch the tree. If you are comfortable here, you can deepen the backbend, imagining a smooth arc in your spine as your heart and gaze lift. To release, lower your arms and gently let your lengthened spine return to vertical.
Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana), variation
Stand facing your tree partner, very near. Place both hands beside each other on the tree trunk at shoulder height. Now, lengthen through your spine, ground through your feet and toes, and engage through your core. Breathe. Begin to hinge from your hips as you walk your hands down the tree and as you step your feet back away from the tree, keeping a long spine. Press up and back through your tailbone, creating a long line of horizontal energy through your spine and neck. When your spine is parallel with the ground, hold there and breathe, or walk your hands even lower, as long as you can maintain length in your spine. Avoid rounding your back. Hold the pose as you breathe. Release by going out of the pose the way you came in, hinging up from your hips as you walk your feet and legs in closer to the tree and walk your hands up the trunk to a comfortable level against the tree. Release your arms and experience your energy, noticing how you feel.
Warrior Pose III (Virabhadrasana III), variation
Standing in front of your tree partner, place your hands upon its trunk. If the tree trunk is of a width that will allow you to place your hands on either side of it without straining your shoulders, do that. Bring attention to your feet and allow them to connect you with the energy of the Earth. Begin to walk back as you hinge from the hips and walk your hands down the tree while keeping alignment with your shoulders, arms and hands. When your hips are hinged to a right angle, pause, then on inhale, extend your left leg so that your body forms a long line from the foot of your extended leg to the crown of your head to the hands which rest upon your tree partner for support. Breathe. Engage your core by lifting from your pelvic floor. Hold for 3 or more full, deep breaths. What are you experiencing? What are your feelings, sensations, and perceptions? Are you fully in your body in the pose? Imagine sending your breath into the areas of greatest sensation, and see if you can soften. To release, gently lower your left leg until your foot touches the ground beside your right foot. Hinge back up from your hips as you walk your feet forward and walk your hands back up the tree to your starting stance. Repeat on the other side.
Tree Pose (Vkrsasana)
Stand sideways beside your tree partner and really get a sense of rooting. Be aware of the tree’s roots. Then be aware of your own! Bring the hand closest to the tree into contact with the trunk (let’s say this is your right hand), elbow bent. Swivel your left hip to the left as you bend your left knee and plant the sole of your left foot against your inner right leg. Let this be a comfortable position, so perhaps the sole of your left foot is against the inside of your lower right leg or maybe even your upper right leg. (Or, you can leave your left toe on the ground with the knee open out to the left.) Smile. Breathe. Feel how you can mimic your tree partner by rooting and reaching at the same time. Imagine dropping energy down to the Earth from your lower spine, while letting your heart rise and shine, and reaching up with your mid and upper spine as you mimic growing tall and opening your crown. Raise your left arm. Then, lower your extended left arm down to shoulder height with your palm open. Imagine a little bird coming to sit in your hand. Breathe. Smile. Find something to look at that is not moving, and connect your gaze softly to that point as you explore balance by moving your right hand off the tree. Walk around the tree, or just turn around, and repeat on the other side!
This is a pose that embodies love. The posture came to me as a way to express my feelings of esteem toward my tree partner, and to give and receive, as happens with a kiss. As far as I know, this pose will not be found among traditional yoga postures. It expresses intimacy, and can be accompanied by hugging! Stand close to your tree partner, facing the tree trunk. You may wish to reach your hands around the tree, or rest them on either side of the trunk. Ground through your feet and toes. Lean toward the tree and gently let your forehead touch the surface of the tree. Our foreheads are the site of sixth or brow chakra. In Sanskrit, this is Ajna chakra. It is sometimes called our third eye. It is a powerful center of insight, sacred imagination, and intuition. Let breath be full and consciously flowing as your brow plants your kiss, and also allow and welcome any exchange of energy with the tree. Become receptive to the giving and receiving, noticing any sensations, colors or imagery that comes to you.
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
This is the smallest shape your body can make! It is also sometimes called Seed Pose. Start on your hands and knees beside your tree, on a blanket or on the bare ground. Breathe in, and as you exhale, let your hips reach back toward your heels. If this is too much of a stretch, tuck a folded blanket between your upper legs and your lower legs. Allow your upper body to fold forward over your thighs, while your hips rest on or near your heels. You can let your head rest on your folded hands (stacked fists make a higher pillow) or let your arms rest along your sides, or keep your arms extended. Rest. Find a comfortable expression of this pose. Stay here for as long as you like. This pose is one of the restorative postures of yoga. Keep in mind that the tree beside you was once a tiny seed. And so were you!
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Every yoga practice that follows a traditional model ends the posture practice with Shavasan. This is a Sanskrit word that translates as “corpse.” Just as the postures embody the varied shapes of life (animals, plants, mountains, etc.,) this final pose embodies the end of life, the ultimate letting go and release. Trees model this pose for us when they die and fall. Eventually they become earth, as do all living bodies after death. This pose allows us to practice “letting go.” It is a wonderful skill, and one your body can learn. Lay a blanket on the ground (or not) and lie down on your back. Get comfortable. Close your eyes. You may wish to cover your eyes with an eye pillow or a folded handkerchief. (Eye pillows can be made or purchased with fillers such as flax seeds or lavender. They cover your eyes and foster darkness and deep relaxation.) Bring attention to breath, especially your exhale. Imagine releasing pockets of stress and tension with each exhalation. Begin with your feet. Move awareness up through your ankles and your knees, pausing to consciously let go of any holding. Continue to move awareness up your legs and into your hips and pelvis. Let go. Feel the soft movement of breath in your belly and imagine releasing tension from your abdominal organs and lower spine. Travel into your ribs and mid back area, into the space around your heart. Relax. Release. Now move into your high heart, the upper chest, and across your shoulders and upper back, allowing tension to dissolve. Travel with your awareness down the length of your arms, into your elbows, wrists, and fingers. Just let go. Breathe softness and relaxation into your neck, inviting any tension to leave. Relax your jaw and your cheekbones. Feel your head being lovingly cradled by the Earth. Release mental stress. Imagine your spine merging with the Earth. Lay quietly for as long as you like. To release the pose, you may want to come onto your side in a pre-birth position before sitting. Take all the time you need. As you return to sitting, bring your hands to your heart. Breathe deeply and affirm time and place. Feel the freshness and gifts this pose has delivered.
Excerpted from Yoga with Trees, available in eBook and softcover where books are sold ©2019 by Jenny Garrison.
Jenny Garrison is the author of two books, Yoga with Trees and Imagery In You: Mining for Treasure in Your Inner World. She is author of the audio CD, “Gentle Yoga with Jenny Garrison.” Garrison is a Kripalu-trained yoga teacher with many credentials in the field of inner imagery. Jenny lives with her husband and animals in the woods of Northern Pennsylvania. Find her at jennygarrison.com and on Facebook @yogawithtrees.