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Animal Behavior

Animals, Yoga, and Connections to the Natural World

"Wild Asana" is an embodied exploration of the animals that inspire yoga poses.

Source: Elina Fairytale/Pexels
Source: Elina Fairytale/Pexels

I'm always interested in how various nonhuman animals (animals) make their presence known in activities that seem far removed from who they are and what they do. However, among my friends who are serious about yoga, I always hear about different postures and movements that are named for different animals, such as downward dog, which resembles a play bow that dogs and other animals use to get others to frolic with them. The description of Alison Zak's new book, Wild Asana: Animals, Yoga, and Connecting Our Practice to the Natural World, grabbed my attention:

"In illustrated chapters on asanas like Tittibhasana (Firefly), Garudasana (Eagle), Bidalasana (Cat), and Ustrasana (Camel), Zak invites you to bring the deep nature of animals into breath and movement"—as did the extremely positive accolades. This includes one by award-winning author Sy Montgomery, who wrote, "Wild Asana is inviting, imaginative, and restoring, reestablishing our ancient connection with all of life in an original, welcoming, freeing way. A great way to celebrate and honor our bodies and our world!”

I wanted to know more about a topic about which I knew next to nothing, and I'm glad Alison could tell us more about her interesting and wide-ranging book.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Wild Asana?

Alison Zak: It occurred to me that on our yoga mats, we practice something called "cobra pose" hundreds of times without thinking about the animal called a cobra as we do it. I wanted to inspire readers to find their way back to the animals who originally inspired these poses, to wonder about their lives, to feel compassion for them as they mimic and embody other animal forms, and ultimately to connect with nature.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

AZ: I am trained as an anthropologist who works in the field of human-wildlife conflict and coexistence, and I have always been interested in how our species interacts with others. Sometimes those interactions are positive, and sometimes they are negative, but they are almost always complex. In addition to teaching yoga and writing, I also founded the nonprofit organization, the Human-Beaver Coexistence Fund, which helps landowners find nonlethal solutions to beaver-caused flooding and tree-chewing. The biggest question in my life has always been: How can we coexist with our fellow animals in ways that minimize suffering for all?

MB: Who is your intended audience?

AZ: I like to call Wild Asana a nature memoir through a yoga lens. For nature lovers, I write about topics such as scorpion maternal care, fish schooling behavior, and canine play bows. I weave personal stories from my own observations of wildlife with Hindu mythology and other religious and spiritual teachings. At the end of each chapter, students and teachers of yoga will find practices such as poses, meditations, or other mindful activities that encourage a deeper, experiential connection to the themes within and to the animal about which they have just read.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

AZ: When we learn about animals, we realize we are more alike than different. Even with those species who experience the world in drastically different ways than we do, we can find sparks of curiosity and points of connection. For example, in the yoga world, turtles are often associated with pratyahara, one of the eight limbs of yoga that refers to withdrawal of the senses. But only certain species can completely withdraw into their shells, and some (like sea turtles) can’t do it at all. Sometimes, this symbolism can limit our ability to learn more about and really connect with turtles. In fact, it is said that everyone has a turtle story! In the Kurma chapter, I share the stories of a handful of passionate conservationists and their extraordinary encounters with turtles and tortoises to demonstrate how these resilient creatures are about so much more than the shelter of their shells.

Another important message of the book is to encourage adults to be more playful on (and off) their yoga mats. It’s not just kids who get to make animal noises during yoga class! For example, in my own practice, as soon as I started thinking about the pose "downward facing dog" as a play bow, I was able to let myself move in the pose and ultimately enjoy it more. It was a behavior I have observed in my own dog for many years, and one that makes me happy, so I have more fun in the pose because I made this connection.

Alison Zak/with permission.
Source: Alison Zak/with permission.

MB: How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

AZ: There are few books out there that combine such personal stories and scientific research on the topics of nature and yoga. Micah Mortali’s Rewilding is similar (and wonderful), but Wild Asana is specifically focused on the animals with which we share our beautiful planet. It’s a genre-bender, for sure.

MB: What do you hope people learn about how important it is to connect with animals?

AZ: Most of all, I hope people read Wild Asana and remember that they are animals too, and that we’re all interconnected. When we get curious about, show compassion for, and connect with other animals, we’re really connecting with ourselves. When we help other animals, we help ourselves. That’s the real yoga—the yoking of ourselves to other beings to make our world a happier, healthier place for us all, now and for future generations.

References

In conversation with Alison Zak, an environmental educator, author, yoga teacher, anthropologist, and executive director of the Human-Beaver Coexistence Fund. Learn more on Twitter and Instagram @animal_asana.

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