Being in nature
Atha yoga anushasanam.
Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah.
Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam.
Here begins the explanation of yoga.
Yoga is the cessation of the conditions and limitations of the mind.
Then, the seer abides in its own true nature.
The word 'svarupe' from this quintessential sutra from Patanjali is often translated to: 'one's true nature.' One's true nature is a fundamental concept to be understood for every yogi, for one can hardly be true to their own nature if they do not know what that is. Being such a vital part of the yoga journey, it may be of benefit to explore the concept from different angles. In this post, we will explore the idea of 'one's true nature' from the perspective of nature as we usually understand it: Earth's nature, or Mother Nature.
I've always been drawn to nature. It's an attraction that I think is inherent to being human. When we are among the trees, the birds, the wind, it stirs something inside us. A peace. A belonging. When we escape from the hustle and bustle of the built environment, a hundred tensions can just drop from our shoulders and the simple acts of breathing and listening can be transformed into an effortless joy. I was motivated to write this post from a recent walk in the Australian bush, where I was reminded of the power of spending time in nature. To understand the experience that I had and the implications of this experience, it might help to understand the context in which it happened.
I live in the city and work in an office. Though I very rarely wear shoes and my boss is not strict on my working hours, the few rebellious decisions that I make in my day-to-day life are actually quite small. I live in a world which is literally made from man's conditioned mind. It is a multi-dimensional projection of our collective mindset. The house that I rent is a structure that gives me shelter, but also gives somebody else a reliable stream of income. There is a lot that I could possibly do with this structure: I could burn some of it for firewood; I could turn it into a cat shelter; I could empty the rooms of their current furniture and turn it into a public library and yoga studio. Except, of course, that there are quite strong (and legally-binding) expectations that limit what I can do with this house. It is owned by somebody, it has a set purpose, and many expectations attached to it. This is how the house I live in is built by man's conditioned mind. Everywhere I turn, I see examples of the man-built world. Everything has a purpose, a function, and expectations of how things should or should not be used.
It seems almost impossible that the built world around me should not impress the same expectations and conditions upon my mind. As everything is built for a purpose, my mind has learned to treat everything in the same limited way. I use chopsticks when I eat noodles, but I wouldn’t think of using those chopsticks to eat spaghetti. The air conditioning and absence of windows in my office leads me to become accustomed to having the same temperature all year round for eight hours of my day. The things that surround me are mine or belong to someone else. The constraints that we adopt when we interact with the built environment shouldn’t become a habit for our mind, but inevitably, they do.
And so, when my partner suggested that we go out to the hills and take a walk, the silence of nature took me by surprise. Suddenly, there was life all around me, and none of it cared for what I did or did not do. It was not the absence of sound that took me by surprise, for the wind and the birds made their beautiful music, but the absence of direction, purpose, and expectation. I sat down atop a large boulder that overlooked the valley, closed my eyes, and just bathed in the surroundings. Birds sung. They did not bring me a message, and they did not want anything from me, they just sung. The trees grew. The ants crawled. The rocks were not placed for me, they were simply there. Nothing was owned by anything else. Everything was in its own place, expressing its own nature. There was no purpose or intention about anything that was out there, and so surrounded by life expressing its own freedom, I remembered my freedom. I remembered my true nature. I remembered to express my own existence, without an external purpose and without constraint. Everything was in its own nature, and so was I.
When I teach a yoga class, I see the effects of man's conditioned mind. For some people, each pose has a purpose, and they try to 'feel' something at each point. When the practitioner comes with an intention, a purpose, to the yoga exercises, they bring with them the conditioned mind, but this is the very thing that yoga is designed to liberate us from. The yoga practice is an opportunity to be in our true nature.
The yoga practice is an opportunity to be in our true nature.
To let the body be the body, as it is. Without expectation or purpose. Without judgement or strain. The breath is just the breath. The mind is just the mind. And then we are here, not to escape anything, not to stretch or strengthen, but just to be. To be free from the pressures and constraints of man's mental habit - which is to design, to measure, and to strive towards goals and objectives.
Much of our mental conditioning comes from our society and the built environment. And here, I have asserted that by spending time in Earth's great nature, we can find the medicine: our own true nature. But to avoid any misunderstandings, I wish to make two truths quite clear.
The first is that when we are in the nature of the outdoors, we must be conscious about leaving behind our mental conditioning. This truth is easily acknowledged when we see others in nature, running, listening to music, drinking, racing their cars or bikes on the dirt roads, and cutting down trees. Many spend their time in nature in a state of distraction, or focused on a goal, both of which are very much the same.
The second truth is that we must spend time in society. It is impossible and foolish to try to escape from it. Though we may take respite in nature from time to time, eventually, we will find ourselves back in society.
The message that I hope is taken from this article, is not just the potential for us to find or remember our true nature by spending time in Earth's nature, but that our own true nature is ours to practice regardless of where we are. The practice of yoga is a precious gift, through which we are able to defy the constraints of our environment, and to live in our true self: drastuh svarupe avasthanam. When we spend time in nature, we occupy a totally different mindset than the one which we have become conditioned by. Therefore, if we practice yoga with a mindset of our true nature: without a fixed purpose or expectation, without ownership, and instead with a freedom of self-expression, we are liberated and can establish our true form. Self-expression becomes an expression of joy and freedom, and we become that nature which inspires and frees simply by existing - just like those trees and birds and rocks that can do the same for anyone who walks amongst them.
So go and be in your nature.
With love and peace.
* For a deeper exploration of the theme of being in one’s true nature, you are welcome to join our Yoga Teacher Training Courses happening in India and Europe.
Matthew Yap is a graduate student of Yoga Gita teacher training and currently teaches at the Home of Yoga in Perth, Western Australia. More of his articles can be found at thesimpleyogi.com/blog.