The Yoga of bird watching

Yoga is a great way to get in touch with that pesky inner self. It is a great tool to challenge us, physically, mentally and emotionally. We mostly see ourselves in two worlds – the world outside and the world inside, of which we are the centre. In this fragmented world, nature is something that we see as being on the outside, as being apart from us. Birds can show us our immediate connection to nature around us. They can be a way to help us realize that ‘we ARE nature’. The colors, behavior and their peculiar characteristics can closely mirror our own. David Attenborough, the natural biologist, (and man whose voice can make anyone do anything) made me see the beauty of birds like no one else could. Watching him talk about these magnificent creatures – big, small, colorful, camouflaged, helped me find parts of myself that would otherwise have remain untouched – there was something yogic in his approach.

Images (L-R: Barbet, Sri Lanka; Adult and Juvenile Coot, Bangalore; Harrier, Bangalore; Female Oriole, Bangalore; Streaked Laughing Thrush, Bhagsu; Varanus, Sri Lanka; Wagtail, Bangalore)

I first started watching birds about twelve years ago at the foothills of the Himalayas in India. I was studying environment science, and this place helped fuel my understanding of natural environments. Since then, my obsession with them has only grown. They have been wonderful teachers and companions. The first time a pair of hummingbirds hovered a foot away from me (how do they do it!), on the island of Jamaica, filled me with an unmatched sense of ecstasy. When I have nothing more pressing, I can sit with a pair of binoculars and watch the birds whizzing about my garden. When my mind is a whirlwind of thoughts, opinions, and when all the news in my newsfeed shows me that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, just sitting and listening to the sound of birds outside can calm me down. It may seem like hyperbole, but I experience more yoga in a couple of hours of bird watching than in a couple of hours of yoga asanas on the mat. Nature is able to provide an unmistakable, comprehensive feeling of union.

One cool January morning, my friends and I were out walking around a lake in Bangalore, India, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elusive oriole. We looked and looked but could not find him. Just as we were complaining loudly about how unfair the universe is, we saw, not one, but three orioles – two females and one male, flying from tree to tree. The melodic calls, the harsh chitters, the almost impossible camouflage of the bright yellows and greens, all added to this amazing experience as we watched them (appear and disappear) with awe. For a long time, the orioles eluded our every attempt to photograph them. When we did finally capture them on the camera, we celebrated with whoops, high fives and birdcalls (soft ones, of course!). We went to breakfast with happy hearts.

Here are some lessons I have learned from clocking hours on the field.

  • Mouna (silence): a practice of silence is essential both to the practice of yoga and bird watching. Birds are able to be silent when they should and chatter away being social, making warning calls or trying to attract their mate. A lesson in silence is one learnt well – treading gently. Being silent brings us closer to the world of birds. Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) is an essential part of Mouna. Learn to listen for the slightest sound and you may be able to hear the sounds of chirping from a nest, or the call of one mate to the other. Practicing silence will make a better sādhakā and a better bird watcher.
  • Ahimsa (non-harm): never touch the birds or their young. Adult birds will try to defend their chicks by leading you away from the nest, coaxing you to follow them instead. If they become agitated when you come close, move away. Be aware of how your movements affect them. Ahimsa is a difficult concept to grasp and birds have taught me how and where to draw the line. Birds are best enjoyed at a distance. This is difficult when all you want, is to take a little peek. By cheating ahimsa and peeking, we are agitating the birds. Watch them squabble amongst themselves over food and territory. We can learn a great deal about cooperation and competition from these winged creatures. This has taught me well to go just so far in my own practice – giving oneself time and space.
  • Patience and Effort (sādhanā): patience is a cultivated virtue and for both yoga and bird watching, we need tonnes of it. Some days, when the weather is grey and there are storm clouds overhead, we may not see any birds at all. Perhaps it is too cold and the birds are all hibernating. Sometimes, we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever it is, maybe it just isn’t the day. Practicing patience by being present in every moment and movement, and making the effort (sādhanā) is enough. Maybe we don’t see that magnificent-winged raptor, but look around and find the warbler in the reeds, or the monitor lizard. Abhyāsa (or continued practice) of bird watching and yoga are both important.
  • Ekāgrata (one pointed awareness) – whatever a bird does, there is a purpose to it. When it is eating, it flits from flower to flower, it sits silently, waiting and watching, it swims in the water knowing it will catch its prey. When watching an eagle or a kingfisher hunting for its prey, there is a single-minded focus to what they are doing – complete awareness of everything around them. When building a nest, they are acutely aware of what they need and where to get it. In contrast, in our daily yoga practice, we are experiencing ups and downs, sometimes not knowing what is the right way to do something. Birds can teach us Ekāgrata, and the single-minded purpose that we need to keep in our lives.
  • Santosha (contentment): You are not always going to get to see the bird that everyone has been raving about – that marvelous keystone species. Sometimes, when you let go and flow with the process, the universe throws you a treat. We were out looking for a Bronze winged Jacana in the reeds of a lake, but we could not spot it. Instead, we had a vision of adorable baby coots. This was the first time we had seen juvenile coots and we were amazed. As long as we did not threaten them in any way, the birds were happy to let us watch them. That is contentment at its best. Not what you want, but what you get, is what you need.
  • Shānti (peace): birds teach us to be peaceful. They know when to be silent and at peace. They know that as dusk approaches, it is time for them to shut themselves into their homes. For me, watching them, there is something remarkably calming. This peace in our hearts, we can bring onto our mats and into our lives. We can find that connection with them that reminds us that we are one with nature, not apart from it.

Happy bird-watching yoga!

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