Be Transformed by the Savanna

by Jill Sockman

The African Savanna is a place that has captured people’s hearts for centuries. Even those who haven’t yet been able to experience the savanna face to face can’t help but be inspired by the images of a migrating herd of wildebeest or the lion pride that captures its unfortunate stragglers. Perhaps the best example of how humans love to view nature in its “purest” form is the 8-minute You-Tube video called, “the Battle at Kruger”. In a very short period, an extraordinarily lucky tourist filmed lions stealing a baby buffalo from its herd, a crocodile that immediately tries to pinch the catch leading to an intense tug-o-war, only for the buffalo to walk back up to the lions and throw them completely out of the picture, rescuing back what belongs to them. This heart-wrenching footage with 64 million views to date, was even turned into an hour long National Geographic episode.

Part of our obsession can be explained by the desire to know that what is “wild” still exists. It is hard to imagine a world without elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino, otherwise known as the “Big Five”. But I know it is more than that, because once you stand in the savanna, you are forever transformed. In this way the savanna is like the practice of yoga. When you begin taking yoga classes, the effects are immediate, and it soon becomes impossible to avoid class. At first it is hard to describe why, but as the transformation process sets in, we begin to realize we are changing from the inside out.

The savanna represents all the same lessons we long for in our yoga practice. The Savanna ecosystem is precarious at best – it would not exist without the right balance of earth, water, fire and air. With a little more water and large amount of fire, you instead have a grassland. Take away fire, and you now have a forest. And just when you think it is perfect, with a few large majestic baobabs surrounded by open fields of grass, a herd of elephant walk by and push over the remaining trees. Matriarchal and seemingly wise, African elephants remind me of Kali, the great mother energy that tears away your attachments and challenges your deep-seated ego.

These conservation areas remind us that our own habits of fencing off all we think is bad, or finding a way to keep those things that make us uncomfortable on the other side of a boundary, are historical legacies of human existence. We don’t only do this in our personal lives, but it also manifests itself in the way we try to preserve what we love in nature. When we begin to accept what is uncomfortable and contradictory we can see, even in the beauty of the Kruger National Park, the subdued legacy of apartheid.

Interestingly enough, despite our protective mechanisms, the savanna changes anyway, as do we. If anything, the savanna represents that great yogic philosophy that we hear in our daily practice – everything is temporary. Maybe that is what people love in the savanna; they cannot deny, that when they return, it will be different. Furthermore, it seems to me, the only chance the savanna has at surviving is for us to begin moving outside of those fences into the world that we once blocked off because it was uncomfortable. We need to address our long-seated fears, and stop identifying the human race as something that is inherently bad. What happens if we step over that fence? Savannas are “nature” in its most spectacular form, but they are also places where humans have lived, for millions of years.

This yoga retreat will provide you with a real savanna experience–a place that breaks your heart with its extreme beauty, but also challenges you to dig deep into your own personal belief systems. Together we will move across the fence around Kruger, and see what it means to live on the other side. You might be surprised to find abundant love and happiness in the face of extreme poverty. I must warn you in advance, however, after this experience, the savanna and its people will haunt you in your dreams. You will always desire to come back.

~ Melissa McHale, PhD, assistant professor of Urban Ecology, North Carolina State University, EcoYoga South Africa organizer and guide