Meditation on Nature
Samadhi is a natural state of deep peace, clarity and insight. There are many pathways to achieve this, and one of the most profound and effective ways is an immersion in pristine nature.
Yoga is a return to nature, a return to natural living and a rediscovery of our essential nature.
Yoga and Nature Photography
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to spend three days at Foz Iguazu - one of the most spectacular wonders of the natural world. Situated on the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, this cascade of 150-300 waterfalls (depending on volume) is set in lush tropical jungle. On visiting the falls, Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed "Poor Niagara!"
On the flight back to New York, the images I had recorded continued to resonate in my mind. I knew I had captured some wonderful photographs and was excited to edit and share them. It took me three days to do a rough edit of 900 images and when I did share them, the response was a kind of awe: "It looks like you are isolated in paradise!"
But I had omitted to include an image like this:
I was focused on taking photographs and although other people did cause some obstructions, my interest was on using the opportunities I had to maximum effect, so they did not bother me.
Many of the vantage points were on metal or wooden walkways that vibrate as people walk or move around. Since I like to use long shutter speeds to smooth the effect of the water, any vibration has to be eliminated - so I would have to grab just the right moment to take a photo.
Even if my drishti (point of concentration) had not been through the camera lens, the sheer power of the falls, the spray and deep rumbling vibration of falling water and lush jungle was enough to overwhelm any other impressions. On the second and third day there were far fewer people and in the end I was able to have the falls completely to myself for a few hours.
I find there are many parallels between photography and yoga. If yoga is chitta vritti nirodha - the aim is to eliminate distracting vrittis (thoughts/impressions) while intently focusing on an object. For me, composition is as much an art of exclusion as inclusion - the focus is on the subject, but distracting elements have to be eliminated while framing the subject.
Yoga is designed to bring us fully into the moment, to be completely present - the press of the shutter also captures a moment - "the decisive moment" as Henri Cartier Bresson called it.
Photographing nature adds further dimensions to photography's connection with yoga. The precious times for yoga practice are also precious for nature photographers.
Dawn and dusk are times of sattva predominance and are ideal for yoga practice, but these are also the times when the light is most deeply saturated with color. The sun being at a low angle casts lighter and longer shadows thus adding subtle contrast. In the middle of the day colors are washed out and contrast is much starker - the sun's higher angle eliminates subtle shadows that delineate form. Although one can take photographs at night and in the middle of the day, obtaining subtle and deep ranges of color and contrast is best facilitated by these ideal times.
More importantly still, photography gets me out into nature more often. I find that nothing is as rejuvenating and refreshing as spending time in nature. Even meditating on the memories or photographic images has a rejuvenating effect.
Yoga is a natural state that with busy lives and smartphones requires quite some effort to achieve - but certain natural phenomena - such as a powerful waterfall can induce the state of yoga without the help of asanas and pranayamas.
Nature as Teacher
As a teacher, I am always trying to extend my understanding beyond the purely physical into the realm of the subtle. The same formative forces which mould our bodies can be observed in the natural world also. One way to explore the relationship between the human body and nature is through the idea of five bodies (physical, energetic, sensual, intellectual, causal) related to five elements (earth, water, fire, air, space).
To understand prana - or life force, can we observe the ways forces of natural movement in water and air currents create forms in nature? Prana travels through nadis in the body - the word nadi means "river". Does the way water sculpts rock inform the way fluid elements in the body shape bone structures? Does the way water fall mimic the way muscle attaches to bone?
The aim of yoga is knowledge and emancipation and the principle way to obtain knowledge is visual - the word for knowledge in sanskrit is vidya - to see. Again, it is easy to see the analogy between gaining knowledge and the photographic process of recording and interpreting an image.
Stop and Smell the Flowers - Appreciating the Present Moment
A few years ago I was in Washington State and decided to take some photographs on the last day at North Cascades National Park. I underestimated the driving time and arrived shortly before sunset. I knew there was a spectacular vista from the top of Mt Baker Highway, but as I drove higher and higher, the going was painfully slow and I could see the light fading.
Almost at the summit I rounded a bend and there before me was a beautiful calm lake with the iconic, perfectly formed peak of Mt Shuksan reflected sharply in its mirror-like surface - the setting rays of the sun illuminated a few clouds and the snowy peak in a rosy hue. A group of photographers were snapping the stunning scene. I hesitated but pressed on to the peak with the intention of returning after I had seen the "view of views" from the top.
10 minutes later I was at the peak. A small cloud sitting over the vista point prevented any views from being seen. Of course, by the time I returned to the lake, the light had faded and the clouds had partially obscured Mt Shuksan. I came away with some fairly disappointing photos and had another 4 hr drive to Seattle airport to catch my flight.
The incident made me think of a book I had read many years before - Mt Analogue by Rene Dumal - a story about a group of spiritual seekers who make an expedition to a mystical island mountain that somehow spans heaven and earth. Mountains have always been associated with higher knowledge and yoga - the man of knowledge sees as if from the top of a mountain and perceives what is obscured from view by obstacles on the horizontal plane by virtue of his elevated viewpoint.
I learned a couple of lessons that day. Many of us today in our endeavor to attain high goals forget to stop and enjoy the sights and pleasures along the way. What is the point of struggling for some future happiness or attainment if you can't enjoy in the moment? One could drop dead tomorrow and all the effort will have been wasted.
Now I sometimes deliberately leave the camera at home and make sure I fully appreciate the beauty of nature without a utilitarian end in mind.
Asana practice is listed as just one of the 64 yogic arts and sciences that may lead to Self Realization and samadhi - I suspect that photography would easily fit into this group had it been invented when this list was originally compiled.