The New Gastronome

Gentle Giants

Of Trees, Yoga and Energy

When plants come to you, pay attention, for they are bringing you something you need to learn, is an old saying indigenous herbalists hold close to their hearts (Kimmerer, 2021).


For me, it came true when I moved into a new home in Barbados. I had just gone through a break-up, something always associated with heartbreak, grief, anxiety and sadness, and, not long before, I had lost my 89-year-old grandmother to old age and a natural death. Life changed fast; saying goodbye, packing belongings and moving – not just into another season of my life, but also into a new home.


On the island of Barbados, it can be hard to find a cottage that comes fully furnished, but mine even included an 80-foot giant tree, Ceiba petandra, known as the Kapok or silk cotton tree. It was my grandma’s favourite kind, one she had had in her childhood village in China. Belonging to the Malvaceae family, the silk cotton tree grows in West Africa and throughout the Caribbean. They are considered sacred and are part of ancient Mayan, African and Amerindian folklore and tradition (Quesnel, 2021). In this epoch of uncertainty, it became my teacher in the miracle of breath.


For the past 15 years, a combination of zen mindfulness and tantra yoga has supported me on my journey, reminding me that our inner ecosystem reflects the greater whole, especially during the process of change. My favourite ritual is to wake before sunrise. We call this brahmamuhurta, Sanskrit for the ‘ambrosial hours’, which is the best time to set intentions and pray (Prabhupada, 1989). I move mindfully, sipping my tea slowly and opening the window to greet the massive trunk of this special tree. When I step outside, I feel the roots beneath my feet; I feel the life within its leaves. It fills me with a sense of discovery from the moment light first touches it, illuminating its majestic height. By standing tall in the morning sun, it does the work of the world.


Long ago, ancient sages in India observed how plants and animals lived in harmony with their environment and bodies, before starting to imitate them. These imitations became asanas, or yoga poses, of which Vrksasana, tree pose, is a timeless classic. It goes beyond the opening of your hips and toning of the abdominal muscles. One establishes strength and balance in the legs and feels centred, steady, and grounded. In its greater essence, yoga means ‘to unite’; it’s a rich tradition full of symbolic meaning rather than the exercise class it’s often known for in the West. Like the branches found on a tree, there are actually eight limbs of yoga, of which asana is only one (Iyengar, 2002). True yoga is purifying and helps to harmonise body and mind, so we may feel more connected and at peace with the world around us. After being in tree pose, I wish that I, too, could perform photosynthesis.


“We did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves ”
– Chief Seattle (Brother Eagle, Sister Sky)


When I sit by the tree’s side, I think of Buddha’s teachings – “this is because that is” (Hanh, 2021). The core belief of Zen, or any spiritual path, is to realise the oneness of life in all its aspects (Glassman & Fields, 2013). A tree cannot exist by itself. Through interbeing, it becomes an integrated whole rather than a collection of parts. One can see the entire universe in a tree, within every single cell of their body. Their out-breath is our in-breath; our exhale is their inhale.


Growing up in Trinidad, hiking through the tropical rainforests served as a reminder that the earth itself has lungs. In the midst of climate change, this giant green ecosystem pulls enormous quantities of carbon dioxide out of the air and transforms it into oxygen. Trees, therefore, provide more than food, medicine, wood and paper – their breath cleans our planet. They are where everything in the cosmos comes to and can reveal itself to us. Our humanness depends on them, and, in return, they rely on us (Buhner, 2002). There is an intricate connection between everything; ourselves included: deep ecology recognises the intrinsic value of all living beings, viewing humans as one strand in the web of life (Næss, 1972).


As humans, we can be very disconnected from our bodies, each other and nature. Yet, to truly understand the role of trees and forests, we must first understand our own landscape. Mindfulness is cultivated and practised by paying attention, which is developed and refined through meditation.


The body is both familiar yet strangely unknown. Not many realise that our lifespan stretches across the past, present and future, belonging to our ancestors, parents and future generations. We must return home to the place within which the biological senses and the mind reside. When we sit, our breath slows down in accordance with our state of calm. It shows that mind and body are not separate; they are one and the same. A shift from a culture of doing to one of being helps us respond and adapt to stress more easily.


A. D V. E. R. T. I. S. I. N. G



Neuroscientific research shows that a few weeks of daily meditation or 10 to 20 minutes of mindfulness can alter the structure and function of the brain (Chiesa, Calati & Serretti, 2010). We must turn inward to explore these subtle sensations, which refine our awareness of the present moment. To notice our breath in a conscious way can help us to feel alive, happy, fulfilled and, in time, more connected to ourselves, those around us and the world as a whole.


This kind of connection can be called tantra– weaving together the different parts of a person’s entire being (Wallis, 2013). It goes beyond quantum physics. Everything that exists in the vast external universe, the macrocosm, also appears in the internal cosmos of the human body, the microcosm. This includes the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether) and the three governing forces or doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha). Vata represents movement, Pitta transformation and Kapha structure (Centre, 2018). The planetary environment affects the human environment; that which flows into the trees also flows into us. While we have little control over the larger cycles, we have a new chance every morning with the beginning of a new cycle, the beginning of a new day. We can affect the macrocosm of a lifetime with the microcosm of a 24-hour cycle. Therefore, keeping our bodies healthy is an expression of gratitude to the whole cosmos (Hanh, 2005).


One lesson from this pandemic has been resilience through community. In yoga and mindfulness, we refer to this as sangha– those who share the same spiritual values and offer a source of support to one another. The Kapok tree does not stand alone as it is surrounded by several other trees that share fungal connections below ground.


To communicate through the network, trees send chemical and hormonal electrical signals (Wohlleben, Grady & Limited, 2016). They also send messages through the air, using pheromones and other scent signals. With their deep roots, they even draw up water and make it available to shallow-rooted seedlings. They help neighbouring trees by sending nutrients. When one is struggling, the others detect their distress signals and increase the flow of nutrients accordingly. Such networks of trees feed rain systems, each tree releasing tens of thousands of gallons of water into the air annually (Wohlleben, Grady & Limited, 2016). There are infinite reasons why farmers, scientists and economists revere forests in agroecology; they are a model ecosystem, as all resources are recycled. Trees live longest, reproduce most often and evolve to help each other.


The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of life itself and what sustains us – our mountains, rivers, oceans, and trees. Like yoga and mindfulness, forests serve as guides to the art of living in relation to the world around us. If we can learn to take better care of ourselves and each other, we have a greater chance of solving the world’s social and environmental problems like poverty, social injustice, food insecurity and global warming. Until then, we can argue whether trees have conscious life or rights.


Before bed, I say goodnight to the Kapok tree. Sometimes, I feel my grandma’s spirit with me. Like our elders, we must give more respect to our forests, allowing trees to grow old with dignity and die a natural death.


We are all connected. We are all one.



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About the author

Rheanna Chen

She is a passionate leader with a lifelong commitment to sustainable development, using strong system thinking, capacity building and communication skills to design inclusive spaces for food sovereignty, climate resilience and community empowerment