The morning is crisp and purple-blue, and stars twinkle in the still-dark western sky. My breath curls up away from me, and the rat-a-tat-tat-tat of a woodpecker echoes through the woods from across Prindle Pond.
It is dawn in January, and the New England air is biting cold. I am well-dressed for it, with multiple layers and a down coat, my face and ears burried in a scarf and woolen hat, and my feet tied snugly into warm boots. Snow crunches and crackles underfoot as I make my way down the path along the stone wall towards my chosen “sit spot.”
With my insulated coffee mug cradled between my gloved hands, I slip between the stones where there is a break in the wall and settle into the spot I cleared on the first day of our retreat—a flat rock beside a fallen birch near the edge of the pond. I am careful not to disturb the animal tracks that pass through the small clearing and I wonder again about the creature that left them (a muskrat perhaps?). When I first sit, the stone beneath me is solid and icy cold through my jeans. I cross my legs, letting my knees sink down below my hips and bring attention to my spine, lifting the back of my head slightly and inviting space between the vertebrae. I let my jaw relax and the muscles of my face soften.
Breathing in, the cold strikes the back of my throat. Breathing out, heat pours from my mouth, billowing into the air around me.
In the woods along the pondside, the other bundled-up students in my training shuffle into their own chosen places. Looking out through the tangle of hardwoods, I can see their soft human silhouettes, leaning against tree trunks, resting on intentionally-placed yoga mats and cushions, all of us snuggling into our cocoons for our daily morning practice.
The “sit spot” is a place we come to every morning at dawn. There are about 30 of us scattered throughout this section of woods, here to practice mindfulness and learn about teaching meditation to teens.
We are accompanied by the skilled and compassionate staff of iBme (Inward Bound Mindfulness Education), a nonprofit organization that runs teen mindfulness retreats all over the world. Nearby, on the Hilltop Campus, 45 Harvard University students and Lama Rod Owens are also beginning their morning meditation practice. It is the first morning of their retreat and it inspires me to know that I am sharing the winter woods and this practice that I love with the spirits of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, and the young, heart-centered leaders and brilliant minds who will help to shape our planet’s future.
As I gaze into the snowy forest around, my eyes rest on the barren trunk of a long-dead tree where a woodpecker has bored three perfect circles. I am reminded that even in death, this tree can offer a resting place, food, warmth, and a home to the creatures of the forest. In all of the stages of its life cycle, a tree is a mother and nourisher, always giving and never asking for anything in return.
In this moment, I am sharply aware of the interconnectedness of humans and plants, and that each breath I take is a way of participating in this cycle—the continuous exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that for most of us goes un-noticed. I am reminded of the myriad ways in which the plant world invites interaction, curiosity, healing, exploration and play.
After some time, my bottom becomes too cold against the stone to continue sitting, and I rise to my feet, planting them firmly into the snow and settling into a standing mountain pose. Resting here, I raise my arms slightly as if hugging a ball to my chest and I breathe, bringing attention to the sensations in my arms and shoulders, heat building as the intensity grows. Gradually, I begin to allow my arms to move slightly, expanding and contracting with the rhythm of my breath, and a gentle sway comes into my body. In Chi Gong, this pose is called “standing like a tree.”
There is a gust of wind and for a moment it seems as if the trees are singing. Whispering. Laughing. Talking to me. I listen, bringing all of my attention to sound, letting myself hear the movement of the branches, the chattering of the birds. In the distance there is the back-up beep of a truck, the engine roar of an airplane passing overhead, the hum of the city. From within a nearby building I hear the clatter of dishes, the gentle rise and fall of human voices. I consider how different this land is now than when the Nipmuk lived here; how much it has changed since the times of the transcendentalists and early naturalist writers who learned and shared such wisdom, gleaned from their quiet time in solitude and contemplation here.
My attention expands outwards, like a zoom lens pulling out over the canopy and the pond. I cannot help but consider the perspective of the trees, having lived their entire lives rooted to this one place, and their capacity to bear witness to ever-changing animals and seasons as they pass by. I am reminded by my mentor that there are trees on earth that have lived for thousands of years, and I imagine what they have seen and what they might say if they could speak. I think perhaps they are already speaking, and we have only to learn how to listen!
I note: Thinking. Thinking. Thinking.
I return my attention to the sensations in my feet and come into a Warrior 2 pose, straightening my arms out to the sides. I feel strength in my shoulders and throughout my body, the straight lines of my arms inviting determination and solidity to infuse my heart and mind. I turn my front hand up towards the sky and tilt backwards into a Reverse Warrior, taking on the striking upward angle of the trees that surround me, my eyes gazing upwards to where they disappear into the sky. In this posture, I can feel their strength.
I scan for tension and holding, striving and resistance. I relax into the posture—tall, engaged, and at ease.
Moving through my standing yoga sequence, each posture I take seems to match the angle and shape of a nearby tree. As I become aware of this, it becomes possible to bring the solidity of the trunk itself into my body. In this way, these postures allow me to rest, just for a little, soft and open-hearted while still being strong and stable, solid and gentle, flexible, yet steady with rootedness and resolve.
When practicing yoga and meditation outdoors in wild spaces, I experience within my own being a sense of “tree-ness”, a sense of being a home to the creatures of the earth, a sense of stability and nourishment, and non-doing that invites my mind and my nervous system to work a bit less. Trees have this to offer us, and so much more.
From behind me there is the soft chime of the meditation bell, signaling the end of the practice and the transition to our indoor circle before breakfast. This is the final day of our retreat, and later today I will be flying home to Colorado. I take a moment to thank the trees around me, and the stone, and the set of mystery tracks in the snow.
Sitting to meditate outside is a very different practice than sitting indoors, and my attention is very much on my human relationship to the natural world and the world at large. When I sit indoors, on the other hand, my attention is much more focused on the inner life, and my relationship to myself. Indoor and outdoor meditation are very different practices and there is a role for each in my life. While I may not have the opportunity to do my “sit spot” practice in the same way at home, I will continue to offer my attention to the natural world and the ways in which it supports strength, resiliency, reciprocity, and human connection. And it is possible to sit outside, even in the cold.
As the other students begin to emerge from the woods onto the trail, and the sound of crunching feet fills the air, I resolve to keep this “tree-ness” within my being as much as I can, and to offer it to others in whatever ways are available. It is the least I can do, given how much the trees have offered to me.
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound’s the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening By Robert Frost