Venturing Beyond Oneself
This has also been featured on Supply Yoga.
For a while now, I had been intrigued by Roger Deakin’s “Waterlog” (1999), a British nature writing classic inspired by John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” whose protagonist undertakes an aquatic journey swimming from pool to pool through American suburbia. In place of urban chlorinated water bodies, Deakin embarked on a much wilder adventure to traverse England, Wales and Scotland and douse himself in their seas, rivers and lakes. At the time of discovering this book, we were entering the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, summer had come to an end and a second lockdown was imminent. Already an avid swimmer, this story sparked my imagination.
With the previous confinement period, the inability to go out and socialise in the city led to a deep hunger to engage further afield with the outdoors in the countryside. As temperatures started to plunge, I felt the pressing need to embody the resilience of people in Nordic countries, where despite sub-zero winters, still head outside and revel in the wilderness. The Finns call this never-say-die attitude sisu – it’s been described as essential to the Finnish way of being, that to be a true Finn, one must persevere at all costs and lean into the friction. Some might criticise this behaviour as unrelenting but there was something about the tenacity of will to still find and derive joy and pleasure in spite of upheaval that became a touchstone for me amid a collective uncertainty wrought by the pandemic.
I have loved swimming since my father first threw me as a child into the deep end of the pool unannounced. Instead of sinking, I managed to stay afloat. Like the idiom, I naturally took to water just as a duck would. No longer able to swim in the gym pools during confinement, like Deakin, I chose to look to those seas, rivers and lakes of England: “…and grew convinced that following water, flowing with it would be a way of getting under the skin of things. Of learning something new I might learn about myself too.” Swimming outside through the seasons even in winter has been a kind of personal rite of initiation into selfhood and a test of my capacity to adapt to change. Each immersive encounter between my body that swims and the body of water that I’m swimming in has felt not only like a communing of nature, but also an intermingling of our natures in a petri dish where every element of this macro-ecosystem has come microscopically alive in me and I, in it.
I am not the only wild swimmer to have become seduced this way. According to an annual report done by Outdoor Swimmer magazine, participation in outdoor swimming in the UK has increased by between 1.5 and 3 times since 2019 with 43.4% of swimmers citing “health and wellbeing” as the main reason for swimming outside. There is a general term for this positive connection between humans and nature that is known as ecopsychology. This emerging interdisciplinary field sets itself apart from conventional psychology by looking closely at personal challenge and struggle in the wider context of the ecological environment. This sort of thinking can be traced as far back to the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who in his book “Civilisation and its Discontents” (1929) when broaching the tension points between individual and civilisation already acknowledged the relationship between the internal mind and the external world: “Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive—indeed, an all-embracing—feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it.”
This pandemic has surely not only been a shift just for me, but for all of us – a disruption of the ties that bind between us and the world about us. But these limitations of connection have provided an opportunity for reorientation – to slow down, become more aware and connect with all that life is i.e. the consideration of non-humans to be just as relevant. David Abram is an ecologist and philosopher who is known for bridging phenomenology (the study of consciousness and experience) with environmental and ecological issues as well as coining the phrase “the more-than-human world” to refer to terrestrial nature. In an interview, he touches upon how the pandemic may have left devastating loss in its wake, but that it also “forc[ed] us very viscerally to recognise the deep reality of the physical world, the biological world, the world our bodies have always been a part of.” In other words, humans have an instinct to connect with nature and in turn, nature has a robust effect on us, physically, mentally and emotionally.
In a 2019 scientific study of 20,000 people in England led by a team of researchers at the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, it was discovered that people who spent at least two hours a week in green spaces were more likely to report good health and wellbeing than those who didn’t. The outcome cut across various demographics: occupation, ethnicities and socio-economic levels. This study is a recent iota of a growing body of research that is demonstrating the correlation between nature and wellness. As long as people feel safe outdoors, nature can be an antidote: lowering blood pressure, reducing stress hormone levels, hyperarousal in the nervous system, anxiety and even, feelings of isolation. Moreover, another study of 2,000 people in the UK done earlier in 2015 found that exposure to nature has considerable social consequences: fostering greater social cohesion, a sense of community wellbeing, therefore substantially lowering rates of crime and aggression. Underlying the research is the notion that contact with nature might improve the quality of social and community engagements because it deepens a sense of connection with the outside world. This idea is rooted in the biophilia hypothesis derived from evolutionary science and developed by biologist E.O. Wilson who posits that “all humans have an innate affiliation to other living organisms and organic systems such that people intrinsically connect and relate to natural environments.”
While Supply Yoga may not be providing access to yoga out in nature, it has in its own evolution (to meet the changing circumstances shaped by the pandemic) harnessed the power of the virtual realm as a bridge to the outside world to continue to share its wellness practices and cultivate a “social experience of togetherness” with communities, particularly those who may be hard-to-reach, underrepresented and live at risk of social isolation amplified by our current times. It is an organisation that since its inception has always adopted a democratic approach to health and wellness that challenges the notion that poor health is an individual problem isolated from a broader context. In fact, it argues that the true value which underpins our wellness is not the practices themselves but the opportunity to relate and engage with one another that brings a vital sense of belonging.
This is how fostering relatedness to the outside world can foster a relatedness to others. It reiterates how a sense of place is closely tied into a sense of community, that our construct of perception and identity is much wider, and our sense of wellbeing, more all-encompassing.
“It seems to me that falling in love outward with the more-than-human earth is the deepest medicine for this, because if there’s anything that the local earth wherever you live teaches, it’s the need for diversity, the need for the whole, weird multiplicity of shapes of life and styles of sentience—all of them shaped so differently from you and from one another—to be interacting with one another in order for the land to be strong, to be healthy, to be resilient. And so as we open our hearts and open our senses to the wider sensuous earth, I think we imbibe this deep teaching of diversity, of the need for an irreducible pluralism, and for celebrating otherness and radical alterity, radical otherness in our world, not looking to just shelter ourselves among those who think just like us or speak just like us or look just like us, but taking deep, new pleasure in otherness...” – David Abram