The frogs have recently returned to the big pond out back and they’ve got me thinking about the intricacies of hopping forward from downward facing dog to a flat-backed stance at the top of the mat. It’s an action we undertake over and over again during our sun salutations when practicing vinyasa styles of yoga, like Ashtanga, Jivamukti, and Power Flow, but many of us are half-hearted hoppers at best.
I’m charmed by the fact that frogs seem to leap without any of the doubt or hesitation that often plagues us on and off the mat. They don’t play small, no siree Bob; they use what their mamas gave them to propel themselves from one place to another, confident that they’ll figure out how to catch themselves when necessary.
Here are some practice tips compliments of our froggy friends:
transform your downward facing dog into a downward facing frog by lifting high onto the tippy toes, bending the knees, bringing them down close to the ground, and sitting the hips way back towards the heels. The arms are straight and the gaze is lifted.
Now imagine a large, cheerful frog sitting on the mat below your belly button. Your job is to hop your feet over him or her on the way up to the top of your mat. Think ahimsa, non-harming and make your jump a labour of love. This is a surefire way to overcome fear, uncertainty and doubt. Then, make your green friend proud by hopping your feet up, up and over.
As you approach the top of the mat, be prepared to catch yourself with your hands. Push the ground away as you land to make your arrival extra buoyant and soften your knees a little upon touch-down to keep things springy.
Chances are you’ll surprise yourself with your own strength and come further forward than you’re used to coming, so please move any obstacles out of the way and don’t jump directly into a wall. It won’t be long before you learn how to control and refine those mad hopping skills.
I’ve been noticing more and more migratory birds hanging around the frozen shores of our lake these past winters. It’s early March now and a number Canada Geese and Mallard Ducks, both species well-known for their v-formation flights down south, just didn’t get off the ground this year.
I can’t say I blame them. It’s been an unusually mild winter up here and I understand the journey is not an easy one. I suspect strong winds, hydro wires and predators are guaranteed while reliable nourishment is not. At the same time, I feel funny about the shift in ancient patterns. I wonder how much of this new behaviour is attributable to us, either directly (due to well-meaning humans putting out bird seed) or indirectly (due to our role in the climate crisis) and I wonder about the long-term implications for our feathered friends.
I suppose migration’s been on my mind today because, after months of dragging my heels, I’ve finally made the move to a new platform for my blog and podcast. I cringe a little as I write this because my old software had to die an ignominious death and my web hosting service had to go the way of the Dodo before I took the necessary steps forward. Change is rarely easy, it seems.
When e.e. cummings wrote: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It’s always our self we find in the sea,” do you think he contemplated the possibility that we might lose the very sea itself one of these days? In the fifty some-odd years since he penned these words, much has changed on our watery planet, and fragile marine ecosystems everywhere are under serious threat from overfishing, pollution, and climate change. The facts are alarming:
■ Humans have taken—eaten, actually—more than 90% of the big fish in the ocean, including tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, and flounder. Some of the world’s most productive fishing grounds have been depleted and entire coastal economies have collapsed. If current trends in industrial fishing continue, scientists predict the world’s fish and seafood populations will be totally extinct by 2048.
■ Much of the waste we produce on land eventually reaches the oceans through both deliberate dumping and run-off. In coastal areas, untreated sewage and fertilizer are responsible for algal blooms that suffocate other marine life and create enormous dead zones. According to a recent study, there are 405 dead zones and counting.
■ Nearly half the coral reefs have disappeared. They are among the first casualties of climate change. Higher surface water temperatures have resulted in coral bleaching, while ocean acidification due to rising carbon dioxide levels is making it harder for coral to build their calcium carbonate shells. The rising sea levels, decreases in sea ice cover, changes in salinity, shifts in ocean circulation and increased storms that come with climate change will undoubtedly change marine life forever.
If we care at all about the fate of our seas, we humans need to be more mindful about what we take out of and what we put into the water.
Why should we care? Well, for starters, over three quarters of our planet is covered by water and up to 60% of our bodies are composed of water. All life came from the ocean and 90% of life on earth still resides there. Healthy oceans are absolutely necessary for a healthy planet. We land dwelling creatures mustn’t make the fatal error of thinking we’re immune to cataclysmic, or even subtle, changes at sea.
On the bright side, it’s now easier than ever to stay abreast of the issues: as of earlier this month, Google Earth includes the oceans in its maps. This means users can now dive underwater, see ocean topography, and watch regions change over time. You can get it all free at Google Earth.
Compelling and eye-opening information from leading ocean researchers is also just a mouse-click away. Legendary oceanographer, Sylvia Earle’s extraordinary TEDTalk, “Here’s How to Protect the Blue Heart of the Planet,” has been spreading virally online since it was delivered in mid-February. Educational and inspirational, it’s a must-see for anyone who dares to care about the planet and its inhabitants.
I’m also greatly buoyed by the fact that people like my friend Jeff Warren, an author and explorer of consciousness, are still out there during these turbulent times looking to the sea for insights into the true self. His most excellent radio documentary, Ocean Mind, explores the world of dolphins and whales as a way of moving beyond the confines of the human experience. Episode 2 is a favourite of mine. As Jeff explains: “This episode is about the limits of human knowledge. It’s about imagination and empathy – and science – and how we may be able use all of these things to get insights into the fantastic alien world of the great whales.”
Hoping for a taste of this “fantastic alien world,” I spent an hour in a flotation tank earlier this month. I went in expecting something completely outside the realm of my experience, but was, instead, pleasantly reminded of the time I spend on my yoga mat lying in savasana, or corpse pose.
The way I figure it, yogis are experts at stepping outside the human unwelt, a German word usually translated as “self-centered world.” We try on the various forms of nature—in dog, tree, and even fish pose—partly as a way to get over ourselves and partly as a way to gain insight into the essence that underlies all form so that we may better know ourselves.
The Lunar New Year begins today, and Astrologers are excited about the fact that the first new moon of the year coincides with both a solar eclipse and Mercury in retrograde. Apparently that’s a pretty big deal. During this time, we’re advised to stay in, be quiet, contemplate life, and catch-up with ourselves. It is not the right time, they say, for any wheeling and dealing or busywork.
Senior Ashtanga Yoga teachers tell us this isn’t the best time to practice physically challenging forms of yoga either. Why? Because the energy of the new moon corresponds to the very end of the exhalation, where the force of our apana (the downward facing energy in our bodies, governing elimination, menstruation, childbirth, and creative endeavors) is strongest. A yogi practicing under the influence of the new moon might feel more lethargic, heavy and physically uncoordinated than usual. This is one the reasons why women are commonly advised not to practice strongly on the first day of their monthly cycles.
Like everything else, our lives, bodies and yoga practices tend to move cyclically. It makes sense: we’re watery beings on a watery planet and we can’t help but feel the influence of the sun, the moon and the stars as they move through their own cycles. It would be naÏve to think we’re immune to the forces that move oceans, shape rock, and cause plants to unfurl their leaves.
But our busy, modern lives can be numbing and flattening, and many of us feel disconnected from natural cycles. For example, there are so called privileged people who live in downtown condominiums situated on top of a subway stations who can go an entire winter in Canada without a coat. Sure, they’ve found a way to escape the cold, but they do so at the expense of feeling the wind on their faces.
Girls and women now have the option of totally eradicating their periods with a pill. Sure, they no longer have to deal with PMS or uncomfortable and inconvenient menses, but they do so at the expense of being fully present with their heightened senses, deepest intuitions, and emotional authority. You’ve got to wonder what we really lose when we turn away from the seemingly awkward, messy and uncomfortable side of life.
The practices of hatha yoga teach us to honour both sun (ha) and moon (tha) as we seek wholeness, integration and balance (yoga). These are practices for waking-up to the totality of human experience, and that means our daily practice needs to be flexible, sensitive and nuanced; sometimes we need to jump around, sometimes we need to lie still, and sometimes we need to get off our mats altogether.
Hey, here’s a cute joke for the Lunar New Year:
Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon?
It has great food, but no atmosphere.
Fold your wings, like this dear, and tuck them underneath you,” said an unfamiliar, though kindly, voice that seemed to emanate from inside my head.
“My wings?” I asked aloud, confused by the instructions. “Do you mean my legs?”
“Yes, yes, bend your legs… and your other legs too.”
And so began what can only be described as a yoga asana lesson taught to me by a startlingly large praying mantis-like creature during an ayahuasca ceremony in the Peruvian Amazon.
Paying little heed to a nagging injury that would normally prevent such movement, I did as I was told and suddenly I found myself in a surprisingly deep series of backbends, fit for the pages of a yoga magazine. Before the mind could protest, I moved spontaneously from pose-to-pose with a sense of ease and playful power. Upon rising the following morning, I was amazed to find my body retained all of its newfound strength and suppleness. And with no sign of the old injury, I demonstrated what I’d learned for my duly impressed partner: what I’d learned from the praying mantis was a group of back-bending poses known in yoga circles as the “insect series.”
As a longtime proponent of the whole yogic lifestyle-thing—no meat, alcohol, caffeine or late nights for me, thank you—I was initially reluctant to participate in the ayahuasca ceremony, despite the Amazonian tea’s reputation as a sacred plant medicine of the highest order. Like many, I had heard horror stories about violent ayahuasca-induced purges and, on a practical level, I wondered how I would do my morning yoga practice if the all-night affair left me nauseous, weak and sore. I also had lingering concerns that the psychoactive brew could somehow undo years of disciplined practice and virtuous living and destabilize my physical and energetic bodies, not to mention what it might do to my calm mind.
Though curious, I waited almost five years before I agreed to experience ayahuasca for the first time. The change of heart came after a meeting with an internationally-renowned yoga teacher who drew a strong parallel between ayahuasca and the mythical ritual drink Soma, which is described in the Rigveda as nothing less than the nectar of immortality: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered” (8.48.3, as translated by RTH Griffith). “Well,” I thought, “if it’s good enough for the Gods, enlightened beings and celebrity yoga teachers….”
The praying mantis yoga lesson was the first of many yogic teachings that have come to me in ceremony. Sometimes the ayahuasca makes me move around—mostly wild inversions and heart-blossoming backbends—and sometimes it puts me into deep states of meditation—where my breath all but disappears into the stillness of my being. Even the dreaded purges feel good and cleansing in a way—not so different from the seemingly strange purification practices prescribed in the ancient yoga manual, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, when it comes right down to it.
Perhaps most significantly, I was initiated into the practice of Nada Yoga (the yoga of sound) during a ceremony. It happened when I began to perceive what yogis call the inner music—the primal sound signified by OM—which came, at first, in a dazzling symphony of clanging bells, snare drums and cosmic sitars. During that same night, the hinge joint of my jaw popped wide open and music and poetry flowed unstoppably from my mouth for several hours. The telepathic message I received—this time from a cheering chorus of insects and amphibians—was that, as a yogi, I have an obligation to literally open my mouth wider and speak-out on behalf of those who can’t.
Ayahuasca took my yoga off the mat and made my practice practical. At one time, I did poses such as locust, scorpion, cobra, dog, and tree without thinking too much about their correlates in the natural world; they were little more than exercises with fanciful names. Now it seems obvious that before there were yoga studios, designer yoga-wear lines and sticky mats, the yogis took their teachings from nature. The first yoga teachers were the plants, the animals and, yes, the insects too. They say the practice of yoga is directly informed by nature and I finally get on a cellular level why yogis have such a close friendship with the earth—because we’re not separate from her.
Much like the yoga practice itself, ayahuasca and other plant medicines are said to have the ability to reunite human consciousness with natural and supernatural rhythms. Taken with the correct intention, they can help catalyze a profound shift in our all-too-limited take on things. With the radical deepening and broadening of perspective comes a new brand of happiness—the real stuff that lasts and lasts. Experience teaches that when I stop thinking about myself and connect to the other—even when the other is something as alien as a giant praying mantis—I put some space between myself and my mental afflictions. What flows from that space is the taste of freedom.
In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali explained that spiritual attainments leading to liberation can arise from drugs or chemical means, as well as from yogic practices such as mantra recitation, performance of austerities and samadhi, which is union of individual consciousness with divine consciousness (book IV, sutra 1). Interestingly, practices such as pranayama (breath control) and asana (physical exercise)—the two most important components of modern yoga practice in the West—are considered chemical means, according to Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, because they work by causing biochemical changes in the body and mind.
Scientists have found DMT—a powerful hallucinogen and one of the primary psychoactive ingredients in ayahuasca—occurring naturally in the human body. It is reportedly released by the pineal gland (what yogis refer to as the third eye) and stored at the base of the spine, where kundalini shakti is said to lie dormant until activated. Yogis have long known that transcendent experiences are accessible through certain yogic practices. Certainly the “yoga high” is what keeps me and, I’m sure, millions of other yogis coming back to the mat day-after-day.
While some may scoff at the notion of seeking enlightenment through stretching and psychedelics, the reality is this stuff works. It’s not just talk: it’s experiential and tangible and it taps you into something big and juicy. As one of my teachers likes to say: plant teachers aren’t exclusive to South America and India doesn’t own the rights to yoga. As a modern-day seeker, it feels like I’m just now coming into my spiritual birthright—it just took a giant insect to show me the way.