While I was in La Paz, Bolivia, my lower back seized up and I fell to the floor. It was hours before I could move, so I passed the time taking stock of my life: I’d been working 15-hour days trying to save the Bolivian rainforest, but to little effect. Year after year, the rainforests continued to disappear at the rate of an acre every two seconds. My stress and guilt about this had transformed my back into a tightly woven tapestry of tension and angst. And left me immobilised.
When I finally made it to the hospital, the doctors told me I had chronic osteoarthritis and prescribed physical therapy and painkillers, but neither worked.
Meanwhile, my Bolivian friend Sham Kaur, the radiant 35-year-old director of a climate-change non-profit, invited me to a Kundalini Yoga class she taught. I’d always declined her invitations. The planet needed saving: who had time for the luxury of yoga? But with my back in crisis, I decided to try it. Plus, Sham seemed to have a secret. Her environmental career was similar to mine, but she accomplished more than I did with a seemingly effortless grace. As a conservation professional, I had spent the past decade running rainforest projects, asking legislators to support bills to slow global warming, and reporting on endangered species and cultures. But I’d never felt, on a fundamental level, that I was part of the environment. Nature was always “out there”, a bunch of threatened cloud forests, coral reefs, watersheds and orangutans in need of saving from the “bad guys” I was fighting. Little did I know, I needed yoga.
At first, I found Kundalini to be odd. I didn’t love staying in the poses for such extended periods of time. But I figured there must be something to it: this ancient yoga, brought from India to the West by the late Yogi Bhajan in 1968, had spread around the world. Still, I wanted explanations. For example, what was the use of chanting the mantras? The Descartes in me, that “I-think-therefore-I-am” rationalist, demanded straightforward, practical answers. I didn’t get answers then, but I did get healing. As the months passed doing yoga at Sham’s samadhi centre, my back pain vanished. Several times a week in class, I did Breath of Fire, practised the spinal flex and sang. I increasingly loved the mantras and found myself humming them while in my kitchen, cooking.
My back had improved, but my mind was still anguished. A tribe I was working with in the Bolivian Amazon slipped into extinction when their final elder died. This angered me to the core. I was aware that, around the world, entire ethnic groups were disappearing along with their destroyed rainforest homelands.
“We’re continuing to kill the planet,” I complained to my teacher friend, Sham. A deep depression began haunting me as anger and guilt tightened their suffocating grips on me. Sham looked at me with both patient wisdom and understanding. “Do your anger and stress help the forest?” she asked. “Could you become the change you want to see?” Observing incomprehension on my face, she said, “Let’s try something a little unusual”.
In the chilly high-altitude air of La Paz, Sham gathered her students the next day—and we all died. Wrapped in llama-wool blankets, we lay in Savasana (Corpse Pose) as the late Yogi Bhajan, via a recording, led us through a visualisation exercise. With his guidance, I felt the life in me blow out, like a rush of cold wind, through the top of my head. I shivered, my body cooling and then decomposing. The water inside me drained into the ground; teeth and bones crumbled to minerals.
Walking home, I felt an unusual freedom. I’d later learn the rationale for the visualisation: we must “die” in the physical body to get past the limited ego and connect with the unity of all life. For now, I simply felt fearless. I’d already died, so what could I possibly fear? I understood that I must leave my stressed, isolated self behind and become a part of the environment, forging greater outer change from an inner place of calm and connection.
My assignment in Bolivia ended, and soon afterward I moved to New York City with a new outlook. My environmentalism now came from an increasingly joyful heart rather than a brooding mind. This shift took work, but yoga made it possible. I paired my daily home practices with regular visits to the Golden Bridge Kundalini centre in Manhattan, where an enthusiastic community of teachers and students bolstered my practice.
As an independent consultant, I found that my environmental work was having a much greater effect than before. As my consciousness shifted, the world around me reflected my internal change. On a three-month assignment, for example, I helped Liberia enter into an ecological timber agreement with the European Union. From a solid, peaceful state, I let go of an ego-driven need to save the whole world and actually helped in saving one particular forest.
One day, I got a call from my friend Sham in Bolivia. She asked me if I was ready to plunge deeper. We met up in northern New Mexico for the annual Summer Solstice Sadhana Kundalini Yoga retreat. White tents rose up out of the red desert. Some 1700 people gathered together in the desert for nine days that would culminate in White Tantric Yoga, a practice that was known to be very difficult.
The first morning at 4 a.m. we streamed into the Tantric Shelter and, with a thousand other beings, practised Kundalini Yoga and sang mantras as dawn broke gorgeously over the mountains. For six mornings we rose at 4 a.m.; our days were filled with long hours of yoga classes and evenings of music. My body stretched and strengthened, and a detoxifying diet cleansed me. This routine fortified us for the finale: three days of much-anticipated White Tantric Yoga.
I felt the life in me blow out, like a rush of cold wind, through the top of my head. Dressed in white, we formed several lines, each hundreds of people long, with men on one side, and women on the other. We each stared into our partner’s eyes for 10 hours a day, while holding what I had previously thought to be impossible yoga postures, often while chanting, and usually for a full hour at a time.
The practice was excruciating, but the collective energy buoyed me. Thirty minutes into a pose, I would be shaking, and Sham, my partner for two of the three days, would say, “Fuerza” (strength). When she weakened, I’d send fuerza back to her.
But on the final day, I felt as though I couldn’t take it any more. We were 50 minutes into a difficult pose: Half Lotus, with our hands stretched over our heads at 45-degree angles. A wave of giddy laughter rippled through one section of the group—an escape valve—then a series of groans followed. I was ready to give up. I could picture myself slumping blissfully into Child’s Pose.
Lifting the Veil
But then it happened. Somehow, all the work on the mat allowed me to slip into a deeper level of consciousness. I perceived the long lines of men and women in white fusing into a single field of white; as the distinction between “me” and “them” disappeared, the veil of separation lifted.
As my consciousness shifted, the world around me reflected my internal change.
The final minute of the kundalini posture arrived. Everyone was singing the mantra. Sweat bursting from each pore, I felt I could hold Half Lotus forever. Later, whether I was pushing for the inclusion of rainforests in the Copenhagen Accord, growing my own food in an organic city garden or publishing a new book on local solutions to the global environmental crisis, I would tap into this vast source of strength. Yoga has continued to deepen my positive impact on the environment in ways I could never have foreseen.
But for now, Sham’s radiant eyes reflected the field of white energy around us. Beyond our group the sun shone clear, and white towers of cumulus clouds stacked up at the southern horizon. A hawk glided through that sky, glided through me. The sweat on my forehead was the water in those clouds. This, I realised, is where the ego melts, where emotions calm, where your mind quiets its ticker tape, where light arises and spreads from your core to the world around you. This is the level of consciousness where we and the Earth, together, will heal.
William Powers is the author of four books, including Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid.