Meditations That Might Make You Sweat

A while back I shared a few meditative exercises that played off of nature to help better connect you with your body, breath, and Earth. Today, I offer you some literal meditative exercises that will help strengthen your body, your meditation practice, and your connection with Gaia.

Grip Gaia

I’ve done yoga for about 20 years. And during that time I have probably had 50-60 different yoga teachers, maybe even more. And never did one of them tell me while I was in a warrior pose to grip the floor with my toes.* To be fair, why would they? And yet, my karate teachers regularly remind their students to grip the ground. It offers stability, immovability, strength. Plus, if you think about it, you’re anchoring yourself more fully into the ground and Gaia.

So try that either in a Warrior pose, downward dog, your tree meditation, or simply while standing anywhere barefoot. At the least it’ll wake up your feet and the muscles you probably use too little because of how much time you spend in shoes. And it might also help connect you better with the Earth.

Planks of Contemplation

Ok, I’m trying to dress this up as a meditation but really, I just want to promote plank pose, which an osteopath friend of mine noted is a key core strengthening exercise. But even more so, I find it is a key way to combat floppy fin syndrome, which for me manifests as a tight ribs and vertebrate tightness in my mid-back. The more regularly I do plank, the less I suffer from these symptoms. But planks hurt—and unlike the world record holder who held a plank for nine and a half hours in 2021 I’m lucky if I can hold one for a minute. But I wondered, is there a way to distract myself from this discomfort? And I realized that doing a zoomed-in or micro-sit spot where you really examine a small aspect of Gaia: a bed of moss, an ant hill, a patch of wildflowers is a perfect way to redirect one’s attention. Why not do that in a plank pose? Hopefully that way, the beauty of what you’re observing will distract you from the discomfort in your shoulder, back, and arms—or at least pull you to do a few repetitions more than you might have.**

These aren’t the planks you’re looking for. Though they’re pretty too. (Photo by KlausHausmann via Pixabay)

Tree Sitting

When I say “tree sitting,” I don’t mean living up in a tree to guard it—though that’s surely good exercise and a great place to meditate. I simply mean taking your wall sits (i.e. sitting against a wall with your thighs parallel to the floor holding yourself up using leg strength)*** and being in communion with your favorite tree. A key benefit of tree sitting (as opposed to wall sitting) is that you are connecting directly with another living being while exercising (not to mention breathing fresh air). Getting the tree’s support as you work to strengthen your own physical form might make it a bit easier.

Another bonus, unlike a wall, is that the tree is curved, helping you further stretch out your back, countering the tendency to roll your shoulders forward in our computer-work dominated lives. (Why else do you think I can only plank for a minute?! Because I sit in front of a computer most days instead of using my body!) So get outside, find a tree and ask him or her to give you a spot and a bit of support while you do your tree sits.

Not the type of tree sitting I meant, but a really good exercise and meditative opportunity nonetheless. (Photo by Laura Borealis of the Tar Sand Blockade via flickr)

A Box within a Box

If you meditate, you probably have heard of “box breathing,” or simply breathing 4-4-4-4: counting 4 while breathing in (into your belly), holding for 4, exhaling for 4, and holding for 4. Navy SEALs supposedly use this breathing method to calm down before battle or if they find themselves in fight-or-flight mode.

This is a simple moving meditation that you can do anywhere is to find a small square: four squares of concrete, a 4-square in a playground, two-thirds of a parking space, or a bit of field (nature is less square than the human world, but you can surely find a squarable spot somewhere). Now slowly walk along the square’s perimeter while box breathing: one side per 4 count. You can even try taking 4 steps per side, but when I’ve tried that, it felt more confusing than calming.

It doesn’t get much simpler than this. (Illustration by Erik Assadourian, Photo by jeonsango via Pixabay)

Bonus: Om, Gaia

Not a physical exercise, but I have returned to chanting “om” sometimes—especially after watching Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the beautiful anime film in which giant creatures called Ohmu evolve to defend Gaia from (future) human abuses. The sound is really perfect—the vibration, the deepness, I imagine if any sound stimulates nitric oxide production (which helps the body absorb oxygen, as discussed in Breath), this is it. So I reappropriated it—having first appropriated it unmindfully in yoga classes long ago without any understanding of the mantra. But in yoga classes, when the chant went from om to shanti (“om, om, om, shanti, shanti, shanti, om”) I always felt uncomfortable chanting shanti, meaning peace, as it felt new-agey, artificial-y.**** If only another two syllable word fit there…. Click: Gaia, of course! So next time you want to chant, try: “Om, Om, Om, Gaia, Gaia, Gaia, Om.” It felt a bit silly, as chanting always has to me, but it felt more right too.

Imagine instead: outdoor yoga class ending with “Om, Om, Om, Gaia, Gaia, Gaia, Om”


*If you’re looking for more instructions, I mean grabbing the floor like you were trying to pick up a pencil with your toes. Really dig your toes into the ground, even if it’s a hard floor. It increases your stability and strengthens your feet.

**The original idea for this exercise was called the “Plank of Pain,” incorporating one uncomfortable exercise to distract you from the discomfort of the extended plank! I incorporated the “breathing coordination” exercise I learned from the book Breath: Inhale, then exhale through the mouth counting 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 over and over until your lungs are completely out of breath (whispering the last few rounds barely audibly with your last bit of air) and then inhale (controlledly). Quoting Nestor, “this technique helps to engage more movement from the diaphragm and increase respiratory efficiency.” Try to do a few breath exercise repetitions in plank pose, and then one more than one more than that until you get to 9.5 hours worth. And let me know when you get there!

***You can start with your thighs less than parallel to the ground (angling down like a tree root) to reduce the difficulty of this.

****In this nice introduction to the mantra, the author points out that shanti, or peace, means inner peace—even in the face of the difficulties that surround us. That’s a valuable reminder, especially as the challenges accelerate in the years ahead. But the bigger point in replacing shanti with Gaia: there is no peace—inner or outer—if we don’t reconnect ourselves with nature’s laws, if we don’t follow a Gaian way. And for humans, there’s no Om—no self, larger or smaller, no ultimate reality, no consciousness—without Gaia either. Hence the substitution of Gaia for Shanti.

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2 Responses

  1. Catherine Folio

    Erik: I want to thank you for including the 2022 Goldman Prize winners here. I was not aware of the prize and find it exhilarating that such a prize exists to celebrate those who fight and galvanize others in the protection of Gaia! Wonderful news which I will share with my environmental science students when our next term begins.

  2. Catherine Folio

    And I just read “Flowers to Flame” by Bart. Wonderful information and reflection regarding the summer solstice. Some parts of it have widened my worldview a bit more. Thank you, Bart!
    I hope to join you tomorrow evening for “Spinning in Place”.

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