Plant Spirit Yoga: A Conversation With Lydia Russell
This interview was originally published on Numen Blog.
I first met Lydia at Sage Mountain. She was an intern and cooked some of the most fantastic meals I’d ever tasted. Since then, our paths cross often: at festivals, at the coop, at herb conferences and, most happily, while dancing! I finally had the chance to take one of Lydia’s plant spirit yoga classes at the recent Village Building Convergence held in central Vermont this past June. I loved it! As we moved through the asanas, she talked about the mycelium beneath us all, the web that connects. She talked about the importance of paying attention and of yoga as a practice of paying attention to the invisible world that sustains us all. I wanted to find out more about how she creates her classes and the themes that weave through them. Thank you, Lydia, for taking the time to share your thoughts!
More information about Lydia’s classes and the ideas that inspire and inform her teachings can be found at Saprema Yoga.
Ann: I love the way you weave plants and nature into your yoga classes. Can you say a bit about how you came to teach classes on what you call plant spirit yoga? What, for you, is the potency of this particular combination?
Lydia: The plants have always been my primary teachers. Before I was a yoga teacher I was an herbalist and nutritionist, and before that, a gardener and farmer. Before that I was a child who loved to wander in the fields and woods and pay attention. The plants would talk to me and I would talk to them. There was a sense of belonging, of kinship.
To me, yoga is about paying attention and realizing we’re not alone. It’s about remembering that we are all part of a web of life more intricate, elegant, and powerful than we can fully comprehend. I believe that this remembrance is something about which to be reverent, curious, and celebratory. So, that’s how my yoga classes are. Well, except when I’m being irreverent, curious, and celebratory!
When we invite the teachings of a particular plant to be present in our yoga practice (whether asana or meditation), we are simply tapping into a connection that is always there. Some people might take what I do as metaphor or story-telling and that works fine. Other people might understand that the spirit or energy of the plant is actually present. This works, too. What I am trying to get across through my teaching is that we’re not alone. We’re connected; we’re supported; we have been given many gifts and therefore we, too, have something to offer, to contribute, to share.
One of the meanings of the word tantra is “web.” The word “yoga” has to do with connection. It’s from the Sanskrit yuj, meaning “to yoke,” as in an ox to a cart. It implies relationship and responsibility. To me, yoga is about remembering that we are already connected to this web of power and vitality that weaves together all things. Recognizing this, we then get to ask the exciting question of, what shall I do with all this power, all this life force, all this possibility that is me?! It is here that the really interesting yoga begins!
Ann: Who are some of the teachers, living and not living, who have most influenced and inspired you in your particular approach with plant spirit yoga? Can you say a bit about why and how? In what ways did they help you take the next step in defining/clarifying your own vision and approach to your teaching?
Lydia: Well, again, it was mostly the plants who taught me this. I have had some extraordinary yoga teachers from the Anusara Yoga tradition, many of whom teach through story, myth, and metaphor and who have great reverence and appreciation for Nature. But I can’t say I’ve ever come across anyone else who teaches Plant Spirit Yoga. If there’s anyone else out there I’d love to meet you! I was told just last week by my dear friend and herbalist Amy Goodman-Kiefer that the late naturopath Bill Mitchel did something similar using herbal tinctures to invoke the essence of healing plants during his asana practice. I wish I could have experienced that with him!
Rosemary Gladstar of Sage Mountain here in Vermont is my primary herbal teacher (and fairy godmother!) who first validated for me that talking to plants was perfectly normal. Until then I wasn’t sure I should tell anyone about it! I am forever and deliciously indebted to her for being such a guiding light in my life.
Deb Soule of Avena Botanicals in Maine was the first herbalist I ever heard speak explicitly about issues of social justice as they relate to herbalism. She helped me bridge a huge gap I had in my mind about how to integrate my activist self and my herbalist self. Now I take for granted that healing can be a form of activism, that change inside makes change outside and vice versa.
Douglas Brooks, one of the world’s foremost scholars of Tantric philosophy, has also been a profound influence, not so much in the plant realm, but in offering a spiritual view that deeply resonates with what I have known in my heart to be true since I was a child. I am very grateful for the integrity and respect with which he shares these Indian teachings, passed down through centuries and across cultures.
Two authors who I have met in person only briefly, but who have greatly inspired me, are Dale Pendall and Stephen Buhner. Read their books! Also, David Abram. And Martin Prechtel. And Mary Oliver. Oops, this is dangerous…I could go on and on with this list! Suffice to say, I am grateful for those who have gone before me, herbalists, philosophers, storytellers, yogis, and wild wandering poets!
Ann: Can you talk about some insights that have come to you in working with particular plants and particular asanas? Or a particular practice or journey?
Lydia: Some of the teachings that come through the plants are quite personal. Others seem more universal. For instance, this past winter in a plant spirit meditation class I was teaching, all of the students independently had the experience of being visited by their grandmother when we journeyed to Rose! On the other hand, rose also offered really unique, specific insights to each person.
I could write an entire essay (or more) about each plant with which I have ever communicated, moved, danced, or meditated! Each one is so unique and has so much to offer. And, of course, they hold different teachings for different people.
Moving with the plants is a beautiful way to feel and even embody their energy and healing qualities. Yoga asana can be a potent tool for allowing the forces of a particular plant to move through you for insight, healing, and understanding. Allowing oneself to be danced by a plant is a wilder, more shamanic experience. For me, sitting in meditation with the plant tends to yield stronger visions and more nuanced journeys than moving does. But moving really allows the energy of the plant to just move through you without so much mental focus. It can be quite cathartic and ecstatic.
My workshops and classes offer various paths to plant spirit communication. We practice meditation, pranayama (breath-work), asana (yoga poses), dance, and the more traditional “journeying.” Sometimes we work outside with living plants; sometimes we work inside with teas, tinctures, or even just visualization. Though anyone can access these teachings, it is a practice. The more you pay attention to the plants and talk to them, the more invited they will feel to come and share their energy and teachings with you! (Well, and there are, of course, the uninvited ones, the loud ones, to whom you can’t help but pay attention!)
Ann: How does your focus as a yoga teacher build on your previous experience working more directly with food and herbs as healing?
Lydia: Though it seems that I’ve switched careers a lot (environmental educator, Waldorf teacher, whole foods cook, food justice activist, organic farmer, holistic nutrition counselor, herbalist, yoga teacher), a lot of these jobs actually over-lapped and complemented each other. I have always had the same mission which is to help people remember that we are part of nature. I believe that when we heal ourselves we are helping to heal the whole. When we help to heal the earth, we are healing ourselves.
My intention is to hold space for people to recognize that we, in all our wild diversity, belong to something more beautiful, powerful, and conscious than any of us can really fathom, and that if we choose, we are free to cultivate that connection and really do something with it. Again, it’s about relationship and responsibility. When people become cognizant of the fact that they are not separate from Nature, they make different choices.
Whether I am teaching chair yoga in a corporate office building, teaching urban kids how to make an herbal salve, teaching teen moms how to make a kale frittata, or teaching plant spirit meditation in a retreat center garden, my intention is the same. It’s a very subtle form of activism. We all are changing the world all the time merely through our presence, the choices we make, and the actions we take (or don’t take). So we might as well act consciously, with awareness and intention, being, as Gandhi said, “the change we wish see in the world.”
The remembrance of our interconnectedness, which seems so obvious and simple to some, is profoundly healing and life-changing for others. So it’s important to me to make what I do accessible. I offer sliding-scale, pay-what-you-can classes and workshops and try to reach out beyond the typical yoga demographic. And, I know that what I offer is not everyone’s cup of tea! And that’s okay! There are so many ways for a person to remember their connection to the whole: story-telling, singing, dancing, art, spending time outside, gardening, praying, making herbal medicine, cooking, eating, making love, looking up at the night sky…even watching an inspiring film like Numen! It doesn’t really matter how it happens.
However, for most of us, we consistently forget and need to remember again. So this is why it’s helpful to have a practice. Yoga and meditation offer one such practice and, to me, seem natural doorways to the continual remembrance of the web of which we are part. The plants are perhaps some of the greatest teachers of our own interconnectedness, our own yoga, or union-with-all. Every time we breathe in (are in-spired), it is a gift from those green ones. And with each exhale we offer a gift in return. This sacred dance of reciprocity, of mutuality, is only the beginning of what the plants can remind us. All we have to do is pay attention.
This article was republished from Numen Blog.
Numen is an award-winning documentary film celebrating the healing power of the plants. Featuring stunning footage of medicinal plants and thought-provoking interviews with Drs. Tiearona Lowdog and Larry Dossey, the late Bill Mitchell, ND, author Kenny Ausubel, herbalists Rosemary Gladstar, Phyllis Light and many others, the film calls for a re-awakening of traditional knowledge about plants and their uses. Watch the trailer here.