“Breathe through it.” Claire recalls the advice of her teacher. “You’ve got all the strength you need. Channel it up from your core.”
She closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths. Her shoulders loosen. A shift comes, her arms gain strength, she imagines oxygen pouring into her limbs from her core. Her focus is steady and centred.
Smoke begins to fill her lungs as her arms stroke back and forth and up and down. Finally, a tiny red glow emerges from her fire sticks. After three months living in the bush and getting nothing but blisters and calluses, Claire exhales with relief as that sweet, warm ember turns into a roaring fire.
In 2010, Claire Dunn quit her forest campaigning job at the Wilderness Society to immerse herself in the Australian bush for a year. She was one of a group of six people who took part in a year-long bush survival course on the NSW north coast. Claire’s book, My Year Without Matches, tells the story of the trials, tribulations and realisations of going bush. She is now devoting her efforts to creating space for people to reconnect with their wild selves. Claire refers to this as “rewilding”, and sees this process as essential for environmental conservation to have a lasting impact – it’s a lot easier to destroy something if we’re disconnected from it.
“The greater change that needs to happen is a rewilding of the human soul,” Claire says. “We’re over domesticated. Unless we rewild – in the sense of having a connection with the Earth and letting that move us, letting that connection direct our passions and our flow – that’s where real change happens.”
Our connection to the earth should be steady and joyful
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the aspiring yogi is informed that the connection to the earth should be steady and joyful, or in Sanskrit, “sthira sukham asanam”. Sthira means steadiness, sukham means centred in joy and asana is our seat, or connection to the earth. In asana practice we take our seat in the forms and flow of nature on our mat, taking various shapes with the body. And although this sutra is giving us a very practical instruction – be centred and joyful as you take your seat – the word asana can be taken in a wider context, as not only the physical but also the spiritual connection to the planet and all beings that dwell on it.
Around 10,000 years ago, we humans began separating ourselves from the web of life as we embarked on the great agricultural project. We largely stopped being nomadic and subsisting on what we found in the wild, and began to grow crops and domesticate animals as our populations became denser. We also took ourselves out of our place in the food chain by killing the animals that preyed on us. The result is that we’ve become disconnected from nature and our former wild selves. Our relationship to the earth has become decidedly unbalanced and uncentred.
Rewilding the human soul
Yogis through the ages have left civilisation to find enlightenment in the forests. For many years the Buddha was a forest renunciate with a disciplined yoga practice. The wild was considered a potent place to explore one’s awareness – free from the distractions and limitations of society. In the wild, the renunciate yogis searched for their essence.
The alternative path was the path of the householder – remaining embedded in society, having a partner and family and using all of life’s experiences to move closer to enlightenment.
For most of us, secluding ourselves in the wild for a year is an unappealing notion. So is there a way to rewild while treading the path of the householder?
The popularity of asana practice is testament to that deep and perhaps subconscious desire to reconnect with nature. We take the form of the mountain, the cobra, the dog, the crow, the tree. We say our prayers to the sun and bow down to the earth and the body is in constant flux, just as nature is constantly moving.
Claire renounced the comfort and convenience of city life to tread the path less taken. Along the way her whole notion of “self” came unstuck and she had some deeply spiritual realisations.
“When I started giving up these old ways of being, the kind of structured, controlled bits of my day – especially when I started to spend a lot of time on my own – what I realised is the forest is constantly in flow,” she says. “When you’re immersed in that, all of the stuck places within you will move. So I started feeling quite rattled and shaken.
“In winter, this intense fear would grip me after lunch, after the last bit of structure in my day. I couldn’t understand what was going on at the time but it was the ego freaking out because it was losing all its scaffolding. It was starting to crumble because I wasn’t feeding it its usual fare of structure and achievement and list-ticking. Sometimes it would feel like a dying. I felt like the only thing that would resolve it is if I really surrendered.”
As Claire surrendered she was overwhelmed with ecstatic joy and a feeling of oneness with the land. “It really did feel like something got cracked open during that year.”
Nature: a cure for modern ails
Research has shown that time in nature lowers stress levels, vanquishes anxiety and increases our vitality. Excursions into wild places have even been shown to increase the immune system’s cancer fighting capabilities by increasing the body’s “natural killer” or NK cells.
In the early 80s the Japanese Forestry Agency began to promote the practice of “forest bathing” to tackle the ailments of city living – high-stress levels and a sedentary lifestyle. Dr Qing Li, vice-president and secretary general of the Japan-based International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, says the focus isn’t physical exercise but to “enjoy the forest through the five senses: the murmuring of a stream, birds singing, green colour, fragrance of the forest, eat some foods from the forest and just touch the trees”.
Dr Li recommends regularly taking two to three days away from the city to soak in nature. However, if that isn’t possible, visiting parks and gardens can have a similarly positive impact on anxiety and stress levels.
“We were meant for moving, not for being sedentary,” Claire says. “There’s something about being in the open air and in that silence – it’s like everything lets out a sigh of relief, the nervous system calms down and you can find more of a natural rhythm.”
Wildness is a state of mind
Claire had a spot she would sit in every day, to watch the life around her. Taking time in her “sit spot” allowed her to extract herself from the “doing” mindset that had ruled her life. She would also take long walks with no particular direction in mind – letting her intuition be her guide.
These are things we can all do without eschewing civilisation altogether. Whether we sit in a park or our backyard, or take long rambling walks among nature, there is life all around us. We can also cultivate a stable and joyful connection to the earth every time we come to the mat, practising with great reverence for the forms we take. We can use our asana – whether it’s taking a literal seat outside under a tree or in our physical movement on the mat – to connect with our wild self and become more at ease with the flow of life.
“I’m realising more and more that wildness is not so much a place but a way of being,” says Claire. “I can feel when I’m in it and I can feel when I’m out of it. When I’m out of it, I’m rushing, I’m clumsy, I don’t have a sense of being embodied in the world.I’m in planning mind, I’m worrying.
“When I’m in a wild state of mind, I’m much more present and centred and there’s just a greater level of trust. The fear element isn’t there. It’s just a sense of really trusting that the next step will present itself and knowing that it’s only in fluidity that we’re able to find our way.”
Anna Greer is a writer and Jivamukti Yoga Teacher at Jivamukti Yoga Sydney. yogannarchist.com
Practices for rewilding
Take time out of each day to stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), barefoot on the grass, in your back yard or a green space nearby.
Do an overnight bush walk or go camping.
Hug a tree.
Lie down on the grass and watch the clouds and birds move through the sky.
Sit outside and become aware of the flow of life around you. Don’t get caught up in the mind’s commentary of the experience, just be in the present, soaking in the natural world.
Get dirty, out in the garden, plant seeds and watch them grow.
Just wander, with no destination in mind. Go where your feet take you.
Take a course or workshop on bush survival skills or nature immersion (see claire-dunn.com to book in for some of her upcoming retreats).
[end side bar]