Yoga was traditionally practised in the forests of India, under the shade of trees that were revered as symbols of tolerance and protection. Here the sages of ancient times taught their students, who absorbed not only their teacher’s words but also the peace and beauty of their environment.
So the natural world is very much at the heart of yoga’s ancient roots. We can see this in the asanas named after animals that the yogis sought to imitate – the Cat, Cobra and Downward Facing Dog, for example – as well as plant-inspired postures such as the Lotus and the Tree that offer lessons in poise, stability and grace. Even insects and birds were sometimes the source of useful guidance, as seen in the Locust and Eagle poses.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “union” and its many forms – including Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga (meditation) – work with the principals of harmony, balance and unity that underlie the workings of the universe. In this way they have restored a sense of wholeness to the mind, body and spirit of practitioners for thousands of years.
The unifying effects of yoga seem to naturally flow into a sense of being harmoniously attuned to the external world – particularly when natural environments are involved. You may have noticed this delightful feeling after a yoga/meditation class, or personal practice.
Yoga and meditation are supported by philosophies that revere the world of nature. Some of these philosophies are linked with the religious traditions of Hinduism. In ancient texts known as the Vedas there are many hymns to deities linked with natural phenomena such as Surya (sun), Agni (fire), Dyaus (sky or heaven), Vayu or Vata (wind), Apas (waters) and Usas (dawn). These hymns convey gratitude to the world of nature for its abundant gifts and support for human life.
Hindu spiritual traditions also express reverence for particular animals. For example elephants are appreciated for their intelligence, strength and devotion (the god Ganesha has an elephant’s head) and monkeys are sacred due to their association with Hanuman, the monkey god. Cows are also traditionally held in very high regard and their slaughter is illegal in most states of India. (You can read more about this in the section on non-violence).
Both yoga and Hinduism are woven into the rich spiritual life that developed over the centuries in India. Their shared reverence for the natural world has led to the inclusion of many Hindu-based nature themes in the yogic worldview.