Articles We Love: A Return to Nature in April
At the Art of Living Retreat Center, we know that one of the most profound pillars of healing and wellness is the natural world. Nature is a wise teacher, a gentle and fierce guide, and a way back into ourselves. We’re incredibly lucky to hold a space nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, where our guests can breathe in the cool, sweet mountain air, explore the gorgeous forests, and let the beauty of the wild sink deeply in.
In celebration of the Mountains returning to life this spring, our favourite articles this month remind us of the deep medicine available through nature.
Emma Loewe for MindBodyGreen
Death is a subject that causes many of us in the West intense discomfort. The cultural avoidance and fear of death has even affected our burial practices — we have a tradition of preserving the bodies of our deceased loved ones as best as science knows how. Unfortunately, these burial practices can be harmful to the environment. Recompose founder Katrina Spade aims to provide a more nature-friendly option. Emma Loewe speaks to Katrina for MindBodyGreen.
“In U.S. cemeteries, we bury enough metal each year to build the Golden Gate Bridge all over again, enough wood to build 1,800 single-family homes. Cremation takes its toll too, emitting 600 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually in the United States. Considering that 10,000 people are turning 65 every day in this country, these figures aren’t likely to go down anytime soon. As Spade puts it, “The awful truth is that the very last thing that most of us will do on this earth is poison it. I want to push back against these defaults that aren’t aligned with our ideals and interests as people.”
Brian Stanton for Elephant Journal
Brian Stanton shares how nature can cure our “addiction to doing”, how it centers us and cures us of our stress, and how it helps us slip into an effortless meditation.
“It turns out that when you cure stress, you cure other things too. Researchers from Japan, in fact, have shown that lingering in the woods might even prevent cancer by boosting natural killer cell activity. This Japanese practice, called “forest bathing,” also results in lower blood pressure and cortisol levels.”
Alex Chong Do Thompson for Rebelle Society
Alex Chong Do Thompson writes about his encounters with watery wisdom during his time as a U.S. Marine and beyond.
“The amount of ocean life that exists is fantastic, but what’s even more interesting is why it exists. We must remember that there are no magical incantations or preternatural powers being used to create all of this abundance. Rather, the ocean is simply the perfect container for different forms of life to manifest.
It provides the right salt content for tuna, the right temperatures for jellyfish, the right pH levels for seaweed, etc. And then the Universe takes care of the rest.
Over the years, I’ve learned that this is also true of human interaction. For example, we have no control over what people say to us throughout the day. Conversations may be pleasant, or they may be absolutely dreadful. It’s completely out of our hands. But like the ocean, we can create a container that encourages good things to happen.”
Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
Exploring Wisdom: John Osborne on Finding More Silence
In a world that seems to get noisier every year, more and more of us are looking for a greater experience of silence in our lives. Although prayer and meditation have always been seen as traditionally effective methods of deepening silence, there are other ways to find it in the midst of a busy daily routine. Most of them are available to each of us if we know where to look for them.
Seeking Out Silence
Traditional forms of physical exercise, particularly yoga and martial arts (Tai Chi etc.) in addition to stretching and strengthening the body, have the added effect of bringing the body and mind into a state of balance and stillness which can open us up to an inner experience of silence . Introductory classes can be easily found these days in local fitness and community centers.
Various forms of music have been found to create more brain coherence, which in turn allows the mind to drop into its deepest, most silent state. These might include traditional forms of chant, choral, devotional or classical music. Experiencing that music performed live seems to have an even stronger effect.
Reading books that are uplifting or in which you find knowledge or insight can help the mind settle. While one part of the mind is engaged, another is freed to rest or quietly observe. Likewise writing, especially in a journal or to someone you feel connected with, can empty our mind of thoughts and feelings, allowing it to experience more of its deeper more silent nature.
Wearing earplugs when socially appropriate or listening to white noise or nature sounds through headphones may allow a level of interior silence to rise within us, especially in noisy work or public environments.
– John Muir
Walking in Nature helps many people to tune into a deeper level of silence …. In the words of of the naturalist John Muir, “I only went for a walk and finally concluded to stay out ’til sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” Even for those of us who live in an urban area, a few minutes walking in a park or on a walking path can ground us and return us to that deeper experience… running or jogging also works in this way for some people.
See if you can find places where others have sought silence and go there to sit, even for a few moments. Look for public gardens, parks, churches, temples or even libraries if they have quiet reading areas. I recently found a great deal of silence in the middle of an art museum. And finally…
Create your own silent space… find a few minutes or hours each week when you can turn off your cell phone and the TV, shut your door and see what it feels like not to talk or listen to outside sounds for an extended period. Start modestly with maybe 30 or 60 minutes of silence on a weekend day, then see if you can schedule it to be a regular part of your weekly routine, and gradually build up the time you’re able to devote to the practice.
Why do we have to work at developing an experience of silence? In earlier days silence was a much greater part of everyone’s daily experience. Before electricity, telephones and televisions, many people’s home hours were filled with silence and in agrarian societies daily work was often solitary and and at least intermittently silent. It is only in the past 100 years that the noise level of our common experience has begun to rise dramatically. To balance out all the noise and activity in today’s environment we may have to cultivate some silence in order to lower stress levels and give ourselves a chance to rest and recharge.
Scientists have discovered that brain wave activity radically changes in silence. The parts of the brain that govern creativity and inspiration become enlivened, and the areas of our nervous system that get overstimulated by stress and outside stimulae have a chance to rest, de-stress and recharge. Silence isn’t just an outer experience. There is actually a deep level of our own consciousness which is always silent. Nurturing that level of our inner life and restoring a balance between silence and activity in our consciousness can deliver great rewards on the level of body, mind and spirit.
Go inward and find your silence at one of our Silent Retreats.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here.
Art of Silence: Philip Fraser on Stillness and Alignment
We recently caught up with Philip Fraser, who has been teaching the Art of Silence since the early 1990s, to talk about the power of stillness and alignment. Philip offers his insights on letting go of distractions, becoming more present and aligned, and channeling balance and energy through the practice of stillness.
Being in Alignment
If someone is out of alignment with themselves, and therefore harming their own system, chances are they’re going to be insensitive to others around them and to the environment as well. But when we’re in alignment, we are sensitive to our own nature and to the world around us. Alignment starts at an individual level – so how do we get back into it?
Children are completely in alignment with themselves. They know when they’re tired or hungry; when they’re upset, they cry, when they’re happy, they laugh. There is no filter, no interruption between the emotion and the action. This is our natural state.
To re-align yourself with your experience, you need to allow yourself to experience your feelings and process your situations like a child would. In this way, you give yourself an outlet, which in turn gives you a degree of separation after the fact. You have already experienced a reaction, so these problems don’t have the chance to take over your mind later on.
Of course, we need to have the ability to perform socially in order to exist in the world, and that means we can’t cry whenever we feel like it – but this often leads to a complete disconnection with ourselves, and we can’t seem to reconnect.
A very simple way to process these feelings, to come back into alignment with yourself, is just to practice stillness. Not just physical stillness, but mental as well. You’re giving yourself a break.
The average person never stops. We are inundated with external stimuli, and are trained to be constantly multitasking. Not many people will feel comfortable sitting quietly or focusing on one task anymore – you see it in airports, for instance. Nobody is content to just sit there. We are constantly involved in some form of activity.
One of the many results of this constant activity is the inability to comfortably fall asleep. We don’t feel like our minds are capable of settling down at night.
Nature works in cycles – you have day and night, light and dark, winter and spring, and at the root of all of these, dormancy and activity. Your mind and body need that stillness, that silence, to properly rest.
I illustrate this with an analogy of a bow and arrow. If you want the arrow to fly far one way, you pull it back in the opposite direction and let go. Instictively, we know this, but nowadays it’s hard to find the time and place to slow down, turn off our cell phones, and spend time with nature and with ourselves. The silence course gives us an opportunity to do this.
Releasing Thoughts and Emotions
Stillness rejuvenates us, it allows us to release our thoughts and feelings by experiencing them. We tend to deal with emotions by experiencing them briefly, then putting them away and claiming we’re fine. But these emotions don’t go away – they become dormant, stored inside of you. And so many of us just leave them there, or dwell on them, neither of which are helpful strategies.
The silence retreat helps us to realign ourselves in a formal way, through meditation and focused attention to the breath and body. During meditation, we often, without even trying, work through those old dormant emotions.
This doesn’t mean that you need to re-live traumatic events, or have a breakdown – it’s just, very simply, a time of letting go. There is definitely a degree of separation when you are observant of your feelings – “This is how I’m feeling right now”, or “This is what’s happening in my thoughts”. This awareness is enough to release those emotions, to send them on their way. It is a bit of a challenge, because we are not used to being alone with ourselves, facing ourselves like that. But it’s transformative.
Another way of realigning ourselves is to realize that we are, quite simply, pure energy. For example, kids have so much great energy, and they spring back so easily from every emotion. That fluidity, that flexibility, is our nature. Our nature is to be diverse; our nature is to have a lot of varied emotions going on at any given moment.
At some point, we start to deny any negative thoughts or emotions within ourselves. We strive to only feel happiness. But can you imagine going to a movie and watching people being happy for two yours? It would be torture! We enjoy, live, and thrive on the full experience of life, the dark and light. It is what makes us whole.
To learn more about Silent Retreats, click here.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here.
How Silence Saved Me
Silence is intimidating and hard to find in a world that is busy, loud, and chaotic – and this is precisely why it is necessary. Kavina T., a recent participant in our Silent Retreat and an Art of Living volunteer, recently shared her experiences and thoughts on this life-changing course.
I’ve been doing this kind of inner work since 2010. I do skin care for a living and have a very intimate relationship with all of my clients. They ask me, “How come you’re so calm?” They want to know. And when I told them I was going to do a silent retreat and they went wild. They asked, “You‘re really going to be silent for a week? You could choose to go anywhere and you’re going to go be silent?”
I told them, “Oh yeah!”
There’s a lot of resistance to silence. People, my brother-in-law included, think that it’s not very much fun, and there’s also a fear that they’ll lose their freedom somehow – people are sometimes afraid that they’re going to have to subscribe to some dogma. But I’ve found silence is a practice that brings such freedom in life.
Silence Over Shoes
At the beginning of the retreat, the instructor asked me what I’d like to gain. I said commitment. I tend to get really involved, then I’m like, “No, I don’t want to be happy. I’m going to go do other things.” Really destructive things. But then there comes a point where I realize that that is not who I am and not where I want to be. Coming back to the practice of silence reminds me that I am peaceful, I am calm. The silence of who I am is always here, it’s just that we cover it up with so much distraction, and I’m good at distraction – I like shopping. I love shoes, but this silence wins over shoes.
Domestic Violence and Silence
I’m a survivor of domestic violence, so I have a lot of post-traumatic stress. It’s hard to get quiet sometimes, and my first experiences of silence were characterized by a lot of emotion. I had so much anger that I wasn’t able to express to my abuser, and it was scary. It was scary to be by myself. It was scary to listen to my thoughts and even scary to be sad. When you’re trying to survive, you don’t get to be sad. You just have to survive. But even though it was difficult, I was hooked because silence gave me a glimpse into what life could be like for me. Peaceful.
Finding Stillness Amidst Chaos
The silence really made me think about how busy and bold our daily lives are. How much talking there is. I got a chance to observe that, which was great. In our daily lives, we don’t see how everybody is coming at us, how bold and big their personalities are – we’re all just hitting against one another. It was nice to just get quiet and observe that rather than participate in it, and to realize that it’s still possible to find stillness in a busy life. You can still hold onto the joy and expansion stillness gives you.
There’s just nothing like the Art of Living, and there’s nothing like silence. There’s nothing that can bring you what you are looking for outside of yourself – whether it’s shopping or whatever else you do to try to cope, none of these things can give you what silence does.
If you are interested in learning more about our Silent Retreats, click here.
Interested in learning more about programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here.
North Carolina Fall Colors: Discover Boone
It’s fall again! While fall is quickly passing, we did want to share some of the glorious moments we’ve experienced so far this autumn. And for those of you who have not yet made the trip, we encourage you to come view the North Carolina fall colors in all their spectacle in Boone! To continue, just click an image to start your visual journey.
Photograph credits to Dr. Harrison Graves & Andrew Keaveney
Healing Power of Nature, Part 3: The Enchanted Forest
“And in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
There my Lysander and myself shall meet;
And thence from Athens turn away our eyes,
To seek new friends and stranger companies.”
A Secret Passage
When you first drive by many parts of the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST), they are invisible. When I enter the forest, I realize how the woods offer us opportunities for what Shakespeare called “new friends and stranger companies,” as seen in his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When I enter the company of the forest, I am both refreshed by a time apart from the company of others and all the more grateful for it.
Removing myself from the spaces of civilization, in the Enchanted Forest section walking from north to south, I experienced a temporary freedom from social engagement. The forest, invisible from the road, formed an enclosure around me, and made the open expanses of land more spectacular by contrast.
And I developed a connection with many of the plants. Some remained green and small, like ferns or moss; larger rhododendrons and azaleas still had leaves, and other bushes and trees were hibernating with bare branches.
In this way, I gained an appreciation for human beings by taking time away from them, and appreciating the company of other living organisms.
Such freedom from hearing from, talking to and seeing other people actually gave me time to gain perspective on relationships. It encouraged new discovery, not only about species living in the forest, but also about myself and others back in human territory.
The Enchanted Healing Terrain
What makes nature so enchanting for those of us who love to hike? Many aspects of walking on forested trails have enchanted humans for ages:
- Breathing fresh air that flows in unrestricted currents.
- Direct contact with weather conditions, either moist or dry, cool or warm, still or windy. This may result in easier balancing of diet and activities for wellness purposes in the face of seasonal changes.
- Sounds, including birds, other animals, leaves, branches, and small rocks falling or blowing in the wind, and moving water.
- Opportunities for observation and imaginative creativity.
- Escape from manmade environments, including highways and cars
- Chances to gain perspective on and distance from people and events in our lives.
As Sarah Wilson states, “Psychologists call it the “wilderness effect” and a number of studies show that green exercise “improves wellbeing and moves us to deep, satisfying realizations that re-set thinking.”
As I walked south along the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) into the enchanted forest, the path followed the ridge line several yards away and downhill from the road. It crossed a small creek and then headed uphill, switching directions several times in a zig-zag pattern. The woods formed a barrier between the trail and the road, so part of the enchantment of this place could be heard in the quiet rustle of the leaves and rushing water.
After reaching the summit of a high hill, the trail headed downward for a nice, easy walk before opening up to the BRP again. As I approached the clearing at the bottom of the hill, I could see through the trees a sudden, exciting view of rolling hills with cow pastures on the west side of the road. In the late afternoon or evening with the sky at least partly clear, this spot really lights up the end of the trail with a lovely view of the setting sun.
Sharing One’s Driveway
At the private driveway just north of the enchanted forest section (the 3rd wooded trail north of Boone Trace Overlook), there is enough space for my car in front of a small, chained gate. That gate blocks an old, unpaved service road, which veers to the right from the paved driveway (a small space also sits to the left of the driveway, with logs delineating the boundary). Of course, it is best not to intrude any further down the driveway than these parking spots.
Leaving my car in that spot for the first time, I knew that the generosity of the driveway’s owners added to my sense of mystery. This entryway also required no walking along the side of the highway. From other walks, I had already quickly learned that walking on the grassy side of the road where cars passed didn’t feel much like hiking.
Finding the Location
In many places, the MST weaves back and forth over concrete road, to the east and west sides of the BRP as it heads in a northeasterly direction from Asheville, NC. The organization known as Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail (FMST) has on their website a trail guide to this region’s section of the trail. The enchanted forest sits in a portion of the MST known as Segment 5, The High Country, and runs from mile 34.4 at the south end to 35.3 at the north end.
Just north of the Boone Trace overlook on the BRP, you will find one entrance to the MST that goes into the woods on the east (right) side of the road, and then one similar entrance on the west (left) side of the road, and then another one on the east (right) side. The third one is at the south end of “the enchanted forest,” where the sunset view that I mentioned is visible at the right time of day.
All in all, the existence of a wooded trail between residences and just a couple of minutes from the center allows for an easy escape from the world of humans. As in Shakespeare’s play, the forest is a place where transformations take place that solve human problems. Living becomes more pleasant and much less stressful for visitors as well as those who live nearby. If you enjoy these short excursions, including the one through the enchanted forest, you will have made excellent use of one of the Art of Living Retreat Center’s richest local and regional opportunities.
I’d like to share an opportunity to enjoy the majestic views of the mountains from home too. Check out our series of Blue Ridge Mountain wallpapers, which you can download for your desktop — so that even when you’re on the computer, the memory of a breath of fresh air can add space and perspective to your day.
Taking Yoga Outdoors to Connect with Nature
My last name happens to be Barefoot and it’s probably not too surprising, for those reading this article, that going barefoot to practice yoga felt very natural for me. Over time I began to understand the feeling I remembered from childhood is what yogis call “grounding” or pulling in prana; really feeling the presence of the earth through the soles of my feet, up to the palms of my hands, filling my cup and creating an abundance of prana within.
Have you ever felt the earth beneath your feet – I mean really felt it? Have you taken your shoes off and felt the cold soil or spread your toes wide to really feel the surface of your yoga mat? What I remember most about my childhood is the freedom of going barefoot — of playing without shoes and exploring wide-open spaces with my hands and feet. Although I have grown up, there is still a bit of this child in the way I practice yoga. My yoga mat may not physically be a wide-open space, but still… it gives me the chance to explore its textured surface on my skin with child-like delight.
Perhaps you too have felt this connection with the earth moving into your practice. In my teaching style, the seasons often play a vital role in the sequences I use. On warm days, I may notice that my students seem more limber, but often feel tired by the end of the day; and on cooler days, I get requests to open the shoulders where we’ve cinched tension around the neck. And as we move through Spring, I create intense internal heat with long, slow movements, taking the time to linger and find ease within the movement. Spring is often the perfect time to take your yoga outdoors to bask in the sun or enjoy a nice shaded spot. Or forget your mat altogether and leap into nature as your yoga mat. I’ve rested my back against boulders in tadasana, connecting with the mountain. The options are endless – imagine yourself in bidalasana, alternating between cat and cow poses. Or you could rise into tree pose, while reaching out and resting your palm on a tree’s trunk. Connecting with your natural setting is grounding and playful, and with practice, often meditative.
If you would rather practice meditation instead of yoga outdoors, you can still practice outside and connect with nature. You can sit at the base of a tree and use the canvas of your mind to grow upward like the tree. Feel your roots growing down into the soil from the base of your spine. Expanding our consciousness, we dive deeper within our own connection to nature.
May Day approaches, and with it, spring, marked by the ancient celebration of Beltane. The season is a chance to invite abundance, growth and increase into your life. I invite you to roll your mat outdoors this May 1st, to explore your connection to Mother Earth and draw on the seasons as you expand your yoga lifestyle. I invite you also to play like a child and have fun in the process.
Beginning your yoga practice or want to learn more? Check out 14 Tips for Beginning Your Yoga Practice (also great if you’re checking out yoga or want to reinvigorate a resting (ahem) practice.
The Five Elements
The Five Elements
Earth Day is April 22, so we thought it would be natural to talk about the five elements of nature. When we look at nature, there are five elements that provide the foundation for the entire physical world – space, air, fire, water and earth. Ayurveda recognizes these elements as the building blocks of all material existence.
- We nourish ourselves with foods that come from the Earth, and eventually our body returns to the earthly matter from which it came.
- Fire provides the body with heat and radiant energy, it also exists within all metabolic and chemical actions.
- Water is our life-sustaining liquid, making up more than 70 percent of our total body mass.
- Air gives movement to biological functions and feeds every cell with oxygen.
- Space provides the other elements with an opportunity to interact in the ways we just mentioned.
The Five Elements explain why substances of the natural world are harmonious with the human body. In Ayurveda, we use plants, herbs, minerals, and water because these substances are the same in composition and character to our own underlying make-up.
Want to learn even more about how you can apply Ayurveda to better your health and quality of life? Check out Ayurveda 101: Finding Vibrant Health with the Science of Life, a simple, understandable guide to this ancient science.