Day: February 18, 2020

Nature in the Wintertime: Making White Pine Tea

Nature in the Wintertime: Making White Pine TeaOur five primary senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) evolved in relationship with our environment and other life-forms to become highly sensitive instruments that help us survive and thrive as a species. Perhaps you can recall walking behind someone wearing strong cologne or perfume. Now imagine that you can smell the musk of a buck or the odor of a bear that a spring breeze carries toward you. We still have the capacity; we need only to awaken our senses again. It’s not enough simply to go outside. We also need to bring our attention and intention to the senses in order to consciously invoke, awaken, and sharpen their capabilities. 

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in simple shelters made of poles, straw mats, animal skins, and other natural objects. These human nests were often arranged in circles, following the way energy moves in nature, and they were permeable, allowing the sounds of the earth to filter in, along with drafts, which carried information. Although we’ve improved the functionality and comfort of our homes, we’ve also sealed ourselves off from the living, breathing world out there. As a result, many people who live mostly indoors suffer from sensory anesthesia, the gradual loss of sensory experience. Think about the number of plants growing in a forest or a field, the myriad decomposing life-forms washing around the ocean, the dry herbs and tree resins in a high desert plain. All these environments have their own concoction of smells, textures, sights, sounds, and flavors, richer and more varied than the average office environment.

In the woods and out on the land, the sense of smell is essential for survival. It can help us detect an incoming storm (think of the smell of the ozone before a thunderstorm) or the musk of a predator, like a skunk we want to avoid. To awaken this sense outdoors, I often invite folks to gather eastern hemlock or balsam needles, press them between their palms to release the aromatic oils, and then cup their hands and take deep inhalations. Another great stimulus for scent are the fallen leaves in autumn; crush them in your hands and take in their sweet, earthy smell.

During an outdoor mindfulness retreat I led with the Audubon Society one winter, we kept coming up on fox tracks in the snow. My co-facilitator, Dale, a naturalist, kept sniffing and asking the group if we could smell the scent of fox on the air. At first the group was oblivious to it. Then Dale knelt down and lifted a small handful of snow with a small, yellow ice crystal in it, a drop of frozen fox urine. He invited us to take a whiff, and sure enough, it had a potent, musky, almost skunk-like smell. From then on, we were on our knees sniffing every little yellow patch of snow we found near fox tracks. After a few days, the group began picking up the smell on the wind.

You can feel a sensual connection with the living earth after only a few minutes of quiet and reflective nature meditation and observation. It may give you peace and joy, but it may also stir up other emotions, including grief—grief for species loss, environmental degradation, and climate change. Awakening our senses and countering sensory anesthesia is a practice of awareness, and when awareness expands, it perceives both pleasure and pain, light and dark, joy and sadness. That is why in the contemplative traditions there is an emphasis on clear seeing and calm abiding. We might be able to see the truth, to observe what is really happening, but can we handle it? Can we hold an experience of deep, clear perception without being totally swept away by it? We need to learn how to be with the expanding boundaries of our awareness. This comes as we develop a strong witness consciousness, that part of us that soars like an eagle and can see the big picture. When we can temper feeling more with wisdom, we build our capacity of true spiritual growth.

All year-round, but especially during the winter, we can often easily find natural areas where the wonderful smell of pine fills the atmosphere—freshening the senses and stimulating the mind. I do a lot of mindful breathing and tend to pause often to take deep breaths within pine forests, which has a calming effect on the mind and body. This practice is enhanced by the concentration of essential oils in the air. In ancient times, pine boughs were believed to ward off evil spirits and disease. Today, research into the power of phytoncides bears out this ancient belief in pine’s medicinal attributes. Essential oil, tea made from the needles, and ointment made from the pine resin have all been shown to have healing properties. 

Eastern White Pine Natue in the Wintertime: Making White Pine Tea

Below, I share my recipe for an eastern white pine tea:

In the depths of winter, the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), like other evergreens, holds on to its green needles. Rich in vitamin C, the needles can be used to make a comforting tea. The eastern white pine is a prosperous and beautiful member of the forest community in New England. Its needles grow in packets of five, which is an easy way to identify it since white has five letters.

To make a bright, citrus-pine-flavored tea from white pine needles, you will want to gather at least 20 packets of white pine needles.

  1. Rub a couple of the packets between your hands to release the pine resin, as you offer a gesture of thanks to the trees for this provision. 
  2. Drop the crushed needles into a pot of freshly boiled water and allow them to steep for 5 to 15 minutes (although I like to cut them up into smaller pieces to help release the oils before steeping them). 
  3. Strain the needles from the boiled water and pour the tea into a mug. 
  4. Before sipping, hold the cup up near your nose and take a few deep inhalations. Drink as is or sweeten with maple syrup or honey. Enjoy!

Safety Note: Be sure to always properly identify the tree using a field guide or the internet before consuming any part of it. Avoid pines that aren’t really pines such as yew (Podocarpus macrophylla), Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), as well as lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), because they are poisonous.

This is an excerpt from Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature by Micah Mortali.

Micah Mortali HeadshotRewilding Book CoverMicah Mortali is director of the Kripalu Schools, one of the largest and most established centers for yoga-based education in the world. An avid outdoorsman, mindful wilderness guide, 500-hour Kripalu yoga teacher, and popular meditation teacher, Mortali has been leading groups in wilderness and retreat settings for 20 years. In 2018, he founded the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership. Mortali has a passion for helping people come home to themselves and the earth, and he is finishing his master’s at Goddard College on nature awareness and mindfulness practices. He lives with his wife and children in the Berkshires. For more, visit micahmortali.com.

Read Rewilding today!

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The Hidden Meaning of The Belly in Yoga

The Hidden Meaning of the Belly in Yoga Blog Header ImageMost of us have lost our connection to the mysterious forces at play in the abdominal region, as well as to the appearance, function, and location of the organs and glands within it. We know that this area is responsible for digestion and assimilation, but in most Western cultures, a belly is considered healthy only according to its outer appearance: flat, “cut,” and firm. Good posture is supposed to be chest up, shoulders back, gut in. Emotionally, for many, the belly receives the brunt of our dysfunctional attempts to deal with negative feelings such as anger, fear, or low self-esteem.

In general, popular Western culture has placed more prominence on the head (objective intellect) and heart (individual soul) centers for discernment and transformation, while overlooking what many Eastern or so-called primitive cultures consider an essential step—the prerequisite descent into the depths of our being (lower centers), which is necessary before the ascent toward higher levels of awareness (upper centers). Our attention has moved away from the profound intelligence of the lower physical and emotional center of the body—our “guts.”

However, remnants of understanding are still found in common expressions in our languages, intimating a time when we recognized the power of the lower centers. In English, to have “a gut feeling” suggests a deep understanding that often is hard to explain logically, and in the past, feelings that come from deep in our center were considered more reliable than those that came from “above”: the heart or the head. Then there is someone with “guts,” which implies courage and unwavering integrity.

In Japan, the word hara can be simply translated as “belly,” but the roots of its meaning extend far beyond the physical abdomen. In Japanese culture, hara takes on a meaning that involves almost every aspect of life. It implies all that is considered essential to a person’s character and spiritual evolvement. Hara is the center of the human body, but not just of the physical body. In many idiomatic Japanese expressions where the root word is found, the meanings suggest a deeper context for the term. In his book Hara: The Vital Center of Man, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim describes one such expression: Hara no aru hito. It suggests not only one who possesses “center” physically, as in posture and balance, but also one who maintains balance in every way, including emotionally and mentally. This person is capable of tranquility in the face of strain, moves in and about the world with serenity, and possesses an inner elasticity that allows quick and decisive responses to any situation that arises. The hara is also seen as the place where the body’s vital life energies collect and are expressed, whether through physical movement or energetic presence.

Hara means an understanding of the significance of the middle of the body as the foundation of an overall feeling for life.

—Karlfried Graf Dürckheim

It is this very quality of hara that we look for in our yoga practice. What is referred to in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as sthira sukham is a state of unconditional calm that is not dependent on any outward circumstances. When in it, we command heightened sensitivity and an increased readiness to meet the unexpected. Here we realize that our capacity for appropriate response in the practice of asana can only come from the genuine absence of tension, coupled with the correct attitude of mind and lightness of heart. Throughout the practice of yoga poses, cultivating softness in the belly helps release a subtle downward flow and sense of fluidity that can be felt there and moving down into the pelvic floor, providing an intuitive invitation to move more deeply in all poses, especially those that turn or lengthen through the waist.

How the belly “thinks” intuitively could be a function of what science is now calling our second brain, or the enteric nervous system, which is an extensive network of neurons embedded in the lining of our gastrointestinal tract, from esophagus to anus. In addition to its handling of nearly all the digestive functions of our intestines, it is important to understand how this system of neurons intimately connects with our autonomic nervous system and, through the vagus nerve, becomes a critical component of parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and intestines.

The vagal channel of communication between the abdominal organs and the brain includes branches of cardiac and pulmonary ganglion, which suggests a shared relationship among these organs as well and offers a scenario in which the interrelationships are established both anatomically and energetically. The enteric system includes many of the same neurotransmitters found in the brain, including dopamine (in the intestines, it reduces peristaltic movement and maintains the inner linings of the intestinal tract; in the brain, it stimulates desire and motivation for reward response, or pleasure), serotonin (in the intestines, it stimulates peristaltic movement; in the brain, it regulates mood, appetite, and sleep), and acetylcholine (in the intestines, it stimulates peristaltic movement; in the brain, it regulates arousal, attention, memory, and motivation).

Numerous scientific studies have shown that the voluntary control of slow breathing has a substantial positive effect on our parasympathetic response. There is multidirectional communication via vagal signals to and from the brain to quiet frontal cortical activity, as well as an inhibitory influence upon the heart and sympathetic nervous system activity to and from the gastrointestinal tract that improves peristaltic function while strengthening immune system response in the gut.

Breathing is not merely an in-drawing and outstreaming of air, but a fundamental movement of a living whole, affecting the world of the body as well as the regions of the soul and mind.

—Karlfried Graf Dürckheim

This is an excerpt from Gravity & Grace: How to Awaken Your Subtle Body and the Healing Power of Yoga by Peter Sterios.

 

Peter Sterios is a popular yoga teacher and trainer with over four decades of experience. He’s the founder of LEVITYoGA™ and MANDUKA™, as well as KarmaNICA™, a charitable organization for underprivileged children in rural Nicaragua. Sterios taught yoga at the White House for Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiatives for three years, and in 2018 he was invited to the Pentagon to share yoga’s therapeutic effects with the US Marine Corps. He resides in San Luis Obispo, CA. For more, visit LEVITYoGA.com.

Read Gravity & Grace today!

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