Updated: Sep 1, 2020
What do trees represent or symbolise to you?
The mighty oak tree for example is a symbol of strength, stability, morale, endurance and knowledge.
Trees like this one are likely to be over 200 years old. Think of the changes that have gone on all around her, yet she remains steadfast, deeply rooted in the earth and in the natural cycles. Hundreds of Autumn's shedding her leaves, about half her lifetime producing bright green acorns, some of which will one day grow as tall and strong as her. Imagine all the birds and squirrels that would have made their home or found nourishment within her branches. She has her own unique shape and qualities, displaying her story of growth and challenge through the years.
Under the heavily textured, rough bark is a vibrant source of life for the tree. Two layers, one which transports sugars made by photosynthesis in the leaves back down to feed the branches, trunk and roots and the other transports water and dissolved nutrients from the roots up to the leaves and lays down a new layer of heartwood each year.
They truly are amazing, the heart and soul of any woodland or park.
The 'Tree of Life' has many spiritual and religious meanings and can be interpreted in many ways. The beauty of that is you can find meaning in it's symbolism in a way that you relate to personally. Some of the universal representations of the Tree if Life are listed below:
Stability, strength, growth
Fertility and family
Calm, peace and relaxation.
Scientists have discovered that trees and plants communicate with each other and are very much connected.
"Some are calling it the wood-wide web" says Peter Wohllelben a German forester and author who goes on to say that "Trees are connected by underground fungal networks through which they share water, nutrients and communicate."
Trees also exchange messages through gaseous substances called terpenes. It is through these substances called terpenes that we are also connected to trees.
In Clemens G Arvay's book The Healing Code of Nature he illustrates that there is a strong link between the presence of trees and human health, explaining that "Our immune system, which according to the latest findings is a sensory system capable of communicating, reacts to these substances with a significant increase in defenses" protecting us against disease. He goes on to say that "our immune system is not strengthened by substances from the trees, but rather is weakened by the separation from these substances in modern life."
Many of us during lock-down have experienced the benefits of reconnecting to nature, noticing was missing from our 'old normal' but something we would like to bring with us into the 'new normal'.
This certainly would benefit our immune system's defenses and mechanisms in protecting us from viruses and diseases especially as we approach cold and flu season.
Even with the cold, damp weather approaching there couldn't be a better time to get outside and connect to trees and nature in general.
Being in nature not only brings the immune system benefits from terpenes but also has a beneficial effect on our Nervous System.
A modern busy way of life tends to over activate our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) which has us firing on 'busy mode'; highly alert and reactive, stressed or overwhelmed, worried or anxious - states of fight or flight. An over active SNS places our immune system under a lot of strain. On the other hand we have our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which is responsible for our 'rest and restore' states of being - supporting a healthy immune system.
Spending time outside in nature has been proved to reduce activity of the SNS and increase states of rest and restore increasing the activity of the PSN.
In Johann Hari's book Lost Connections there is a whole chapter devoted to 'Disconnection from the Natural World' as 1 of 9 causes of depression and anxiety - activity of the SNS.
It's easier to understand why being in nature makes us feel better and healthier when we understand that we 'are' nature, we are not separate from it but part of it.
The 'many leaves, one tree' concept; one small part of the greater whole.
We can see how we 'are' nature by comparing the similarities between the nature around us and the nature within us, shown below:
Our lungs look very much the image of a tree branch. They say the trees are the lungs of the planet and without them we would not breath at all. In fact our connection to the trees is in every breath we take and release. Yet many of us don't breathe fully and therefore aren't maximising the benefits of this connection.
As I sit here writing this, I'm conscious of my breath and reflect on how the air around has a different feel to it, signalling the change in the seasons. There is just a feeling in the air, a slight drop in temperature, a sense of change occurring.
The trees also sense these subtle changes in their environment and they begin their cycle of change again. There is no resistance or fear of this change, they don't hang on to their leaves hoping summer will last a little longer this time, they trust in the natural cycle knowing that this is necessary, to rest and restore so they can renew again in spring.
As we approach the shorter days and colder weather we should also allow ourselves to trust in the natural cycles. Perhaps we can't change our daily commitments too much, nevertheless it's important to adapt and schedule less on the calendars during Autumn and Winter, providing us with reserves of energy to renew again in Spring.
So you may be wondering how does this relate to our yoga practice.
This month our practice will be focusing on:
The health of our lungs through pranayama and integrating Ujjayi breath into our asana practice.
Strengthening our diaphragm muscle through pranayama and inversions.
Boosting our immune system by practicing outside (I hope you can join us in an outdoor class)
Including lots of twists and chest openers in our practice to build strength and space in the upper body, facilitating full diaphragmatic breathing.
Twists are also said to stimulate the digestive system - science now proves how good digestion and a healthy gut micro-biome positively affect the immune system.
Building strength and stability with standing asanas.
Extended relaxation (savasana) to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, our rest and restore state. The process of savasana encourages us to 'let go' of what no longer serves us, just as the trees start to release their leaves moving into their season of 'rest and restore' before returning again in the spring.
Like the branches of the tree spreading high and wide or the roots spreading deep and wide, the effects of our yoga practice 'on the mat' can reach deep and spread widely to enrich and support our lives 'off the mat'.
One way you can explore this concept is to journal and work with your own personal 'Tree of Life.
Shown below is a quick example of how we can do this.
The trunk represents Strength - whether that's our personal strengths or what aspects of our lives feel strong and stable. The trunk representing Strength can be interpreted anyway that resonates with you.
The roots represent our Support & Nourishment - this can be anything that supports your trunk. Whether that is support from family & friends, a healthy diet, time outdoors. How the roots represent Support & Nourishment can be interpreted anyway that resonates with you.
The branches and leaves of the tree represent Expression - how we express our individual self, how we express joy/gratitude, how we express feeling full of life and colour. Here again, how the branches and leaves represent Expression can be interpreted anyway that resonates with you.
The process of working out what our roots, trunk and branches reveal may further prompt aspects of your life you wish to journal or explore, whether that's 'on' or 'off' the mat.
I hope you are able to join me outside or online (pre-recorded or Live Zoom) to build our connections through our yoga practice, with the intention to deepen our roots, strengthen our trunks and reach our branches high and wide to communicate, support and nourish one another, to be more tree!
To book a class during September, Online or Outside, click this link.
See you on the mat.