Hay bale yoga: Searching for the peace of natural slowness

Issue 2021, vol. 75

*Invited submission to a special issue of Mennonite Life, “Scribing Slowness: An Ode to Slow Living During Fast Times”

The “lost year” was primarily the year of loss. Nearly three million deaths worldwide, 563,000 in the United States alone. Those fortunate enough not to lose a loved one, relative or close friend (me included) felt the loss of time with family and in social events, but also the unwelcome gain of unemployment, weight, homelessness, hunger, depression, alcohol intake and isolation.

Jolted into a frenzied slowness, I found myself wanting to escape. One Friday in late October, I left my suburb in search of more natural surroundings. I took a long walk, which I rarely made the time for before the pandemic. I was accompanied by our family’s rescue dog, Konza, whose golden-brown caramel color matches the shade of her namesake. We meandered to a nearby pasture packed with tallgrass, switchgrass, an occasional shimmer of bluestem. A property destined for another subdivision, owned by distant developers but not yet manicured. I noticed small hiking trails of resistance winding down to the remnants of a trickling creek surrounded by woods. It was love at first sight.

Routine set in. Every Friday afternoon thereafter, Konza and I would sprint out of the suburbs to stroll the trails of our little piece of wild in search of peace. I would not say I found it, but I came closer than ever. I looked forward to Friday, though not in the way our culture does. Konza and I embarked on sober adventures, as if plucked from the adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh. In bitter December, we ice skated on a pond surrounded by towering oaks. We climbed a hill so tall that we could see for miles around.

Our pièce de résistance was the dual row of round hay bales. Stacked neatly next to one another, they were four feet wide, with a one-foot gap in between, and 30 feet long. Konza’s tame turned especially wild, as if a switch in her flipped. She would bound across the bales with me, high above the Earth, on watchful lookout for predator and friend, alert to protect me and our newfound property. Should she stray too far, all I had to do was yell her name and she would bound back. A pack animal, who domesticated our ancestors long ago, played out her enduring bond and unconditional love. I balanced on the bales, testing my dexterity and ankle strength. I did yoga to stretch out the muscles, which I rarely enjoy doing. I have no issue with the act of yoga itself, but rather its typical indoor environment. If you have taken a yoga class at Bethel College in the Ad Building, then you know what I mean. It is nearly impossible to release and relax when squeezed into a cramped space reverberating with the notes of a clunky heater. If I am to stretch and sweat and stench, I would rather do so on scratchy strands than moistened mats. I would rather watch the lighted expansion of the unruly prairie than the darkened crack of a rear end.

I realize that doing yoga on hay bales is not normal, and that the average reader will likely make fun of me for it. So be it. When I am surrounded by the settled shrubs, migrating geese, faithful Konza and a picturesque panorama, my worries and insecurities melt away. For however brief a time, I truly understand Wendell Berry’s “The peace of wild things:”

I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief. I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting with their light. For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

If ever a time called for slowness, 2021 is it. Americans are stuck on a whirring, digital treadmill, a metaphor that doesn’t need to search far to find a forest of examples: instant communication, immediate social media immersion, information saturation. The average American checks their phone close to 100 times per day. According to compelling neuroscientific research, overuse of screens and digital mediums is rewiring our brains, draining our limited will-reservoir, supplanting focused concentration with task-switching, and limiting our ability to do what Cal Newport calls the uninterrupted, meaningful, “deep work.” Due to our brain’s neuroplasticity, frequent task-switching encouraged by our typical use of the internet can cause us to become more easily distracted … there’s a fat cardinal outside my window gorging itself on sunflower seeds. It changes how we read, write and think. Even English majors are admitting that they cannot read an entire book anymore.

Now, whenever there has been technological advancement, there have been the traditionalists, skeptics and naysayers. One can pigeonhole me into these groups — however, this digital age of distraction is qualitatively distinct from other eras given its rapid onset and ubiquitous embeddedness in all aspects of daily life. That debate aside, the point of these examples is that it is fine to run faster on a treadmill. Healthy even. But only for so long and only so fast. And by the looks of it, we are panting and stumbling, only inches ahead of a colossal faceplant.

So I ask you to deeply reflect: Where is the peace in all of this craziness?

For me, it is in the gaps between needing to keep pace and knowing how and when to slow down. In this vein, the takeaway of this essay is simple: Never stop searching for your hay bale. Even if you cannot find it, the search awakens us to the natural slowness and peace you need to stay sane in our frenzied culture.

The privilege of slow living

Before continuing, a caveat to my claim. The search for slow living is an immense privilege. For example, take the #grind group, the late millennials and early Gen Z’ers who embrace three jobs and 80- to 100-hour work weeks as normal and the standard path to success. Akin to systematic Stockholm syndrome, the grind group embraces the economic system’s exploitation of their excess labor, chalking it up to their work ethic. They are prisoners, but not of their own choosing. They are fighting the uphill battle against structural wealth accumulation and inequality.

The wealth gap is startling no matter how many times I hear it. The richest Americans are worth 21 times what they were in 1982. Real wages have not kept up with the price of college tuition, food, rent and other basic necessities, and Black families are twice as likely as white ones to have no wealth. The longer this unequal system continues, the more normal it seems to those grinding at the bottom of the class ladder and who feel powerless to change the system. The grind becomes expected not just to climb, but to get by.

When this is the socioeconomic reality, it is no surprise that the search for slowness trickles to a halt. Slowness is a mindset that is cultivated through deliberate, attentive and intentional practice, focus and presence. But, like anything, sustained mindset change requires additional time and energy. Who has the energy to walk through nature when rent and student loans need to be paid? Who can afford to expend the energy to be mindful? Slowness becomes replaced by hurried sleep. Who can afford to get off the treadmill and into nature when exhaustion inevitably sets in? The adventure for natural green becomes overshadowed by the monotonous lurch for artificial green.

Branching binaries: Living slowly by overcoming the nature-culture dualism

That the search for slow living is a privilege is ever more reason to promote its access for all people. Although physical training in nature is not the only way to find peace, a swelling body of research has found that exercise that takes place in natural environments can improve psychological and physiological health, compared to its indoor counterpart. Experimental trials have shown “green exercise” to produce a significant increase in stress reduction, relaxation and nature enjoyment among adults and children. These results should come as no surprise to Mennonites. As hardy as the wheat our ancestors transported from Russia, we have been defined by our lineage of agricultural labor. Even as the creep of technological fundamentalism invades our relatives the Amish with smartphones and engines on horse-drawn plows, unfettered naturalism remains core to Mennonite faith. Slowness that is de-centered by the glare of the “unnatural” and devoid of its origin is not true slowness. Fast slowness is simulacra, disguising the cultural culprit of our depression, anxiety and the other effects of our detachment from our origins.

My argument — that slowness requires deepening a connection to nature — forwards two theoretical assumptions that need unpacked: 1) The nature-culture split is more or less rigid, and 2) nature is foremost idealized, idyllic and benevolent.

First, second only to chaos-order — in terms of the fundamental, archetypal dualisms that define and shape our species — is nature-culture. From the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden to Buddhism’s Nature Doctrine to the philosophizing of ancient Greeks to the medieval times to the Enlightenment slinging of the progress arrow to present day, nature-culture has radiated at the core of sapiens’ ruminations. Are we “a part of” or “separate from”? To what extent is who we are due to the eddies of evolution or the dictates of our decision-making? However we choose to define terms and draw boundaries, our arguments end up favoring one or the other, one nested within the other, or a “yes, and” gray area that contains the complex intertwinement of both.

Despite this inevitability, it is important to define terms. Throughout this essay I use “culture” loosely, but with reference to a Western, enlightened, technological culture, unless otherwise specifying human culture. Although it is a good habit to dissolve dualisms in order to embrace spectrums and complexity, it is more or less fixed from a long-term, functionalist perspective. If we can agree on this conception of Earth’s “nature” and consider it a priori as an objective fact (co-evolution of humanity notwithstanding), then human nature either moves away from or moves toward Earthly nature. The fixed pole is nature. Nature-culture has always assumed the weight of the signifying concept to be more or less equal, but because the Earth existed before us and will after us, human culture is subsumed by nature. The material ontology of our species is not in the same league as nature, and therefore, the weight of the significations that spawn from nature and culture are nowhere near equal. In other words, the material weight of “nature-culture” is not close to even. Now of course, neither Earth nor humanity is fixed but are constituent parts in a processual-relational flow; by using this version of “nature,” our society is invariably connected with and co-evolves with all other creatures and ecosystems. Yet from a snapshot view of billions of years, the nature-culture divide is there if only because we know the Earth will continue on regardless if humans do or not.

This functionalist stance at the human-nature nexus is alive and well in contemporary social theory. German sociologist Niklas Luhmann refers to the functioning of the social systems as “autopoetic.” Autopoesis was originally a biological term referring to the property of a living system, usually in a bacteria or multicellular organism. Autopoesis allows the organism “to maintain and renew itself by regulating its composition and conserving its boundary.” Luhmann and his contemporaries theorize that there are function codes that live at the core of (sub)systems, such as science, economy, law, religion, politics and others. These systems act as bacteria in that their sole goal is to survive and reproduce. One key Luhmannian idea is that, as systems increase their boundary to take on more complexity in the “Environment,” they weaken their sustainability. It is here, I will argue, that the temporal intersection of the present boundary and a new, emergent whole where the opportunity for presence, peace and slowness fully presents itself. Of course, nature is within and of culture, but culture requires rapid maintenance beyond the rate of a natural state. For instance, abandoned cities like Chernobyl quickly re-nature, but require even faster configuration, development and maintenance to stay a part of culture. Nature, in its ever-changing forms, can be heuristically considered the constant in this dynamic relationship. Therefore, breaks from nature are inevitable and necessary if culture, as humans know it, is to reproduce itself. We can only rest in nature for so long before we are maimed or killed by natural forces. From a global, social scale, the cushy living we now enjoy, a broad brush perspective relative to previous millennia, could not exist without our exploitation of, and separation from, nature. The point at which you can rest in nature before returning to culture is precisely the place where slowness resides.

Another natural metaphor to highlight the split-second moment in time in which we can find slowness is by thinking of a tree’s formation of branches akin to the formation, continuation and increasing complexity of social systems. A tree forms buds, or small bundles of growing tissue. These develop into leaves, flowers and shoots necessary for the tree’s health and survival. There is a point in time at which the small bundle becomes no longer a bundle but a branch. This moment marks the transition from what is to what becomes, from past-present to future-present. Eventually the branch takes shape, its xylem cells provide strength and vessels allow water and nutrient flow into the leaves and new bundles of future growth. In turn, this increases the tree’s overall complexity. Culture has progressed in much the same way, adding additional bundles, shoots, roots and leaves, complexifying at every moment. The distance between the new and the old increases over time, differentiating in complexity, even as the new and old always belong to the same trunk and root mass. Law develops and grows complexities far different than those grown in the functioning social systems of science or religion. Yet their origin and source of nutrients are the same, perpetually intersecting and overlapping.

I’ve been contemplating this theoretical metaphor for a while, but it fully rooted itself in me when, on one of our Friday strolls, Konza bounced boisterously off the base of a newborn bur oak, shaking its limbs and scratching its bark. However slight the disruption and however resilient the oak, the domesticated disturbance would no doubt affect its future growth. Every limb, ring, bud and evolving, hierarchical structure — considered both vertically and horizontally — is connected to its trunk or root. No matter how far they distance, they die if the roots or trunk die. The differentiated complexity that branches out over time never loses its information source: its roots and the surrounding soil.

This is where the metaphorical comparison between trees and proliferated human culture ends, for the new branches of a tree do not acquire more complexity at the direct expense of its base. In contrast, the price of our culture’s “advancement” and “progress” (as we’ve learned to define those terms) comes at the direct cost of the natural source. Sure, we can design in ways that go along with instead of take from, but it is clear that, as a collective whole, we have chosen the latter path. A tree does not purposefully self-harm or self-maim, and a tree certainly does not think that it can detach itself from its trunk and rocket to Mars to colonize anew.

A similar, overarching tree metaphor extends through Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, which synthesizes research on how trees develop and communicate, as well as through Richard Powers’ Pulitzer prize-winning eco-novel, The Overstory. Besides revivifying the 1970s hippie tree-hugging movement and evidencing that we have to anthropomorphize nature to understand it, the books’ connections between tree life and human life allow us to see our culture reflected in nature, and nature reflected in our culture. Ultimately, they do not shy away from how Western culture’s tendency to self-serve will distance us from nature in ways we think we want, but in ways that also result in destruction of ourselves and “it.”

In sum, my central claim’s first assumption — that slowness requires deepening a connection to nature — is that nature is more or less temporally constant in relation to our culture’s hastiness. It follows that culture has needed to outpace nature to survive (in the short-term, that is), and so the truest form of slow living happens, for however brief a time, at the precipice of the emergent boundary. At the branching bud.

Second, the idea that slowness best occurs at the nature-culture precipice assumes nature to be more benevolent than not. After all, who wants to sit in natural slowness if you are forced to be more attuned to its dreadfulness than its decadence? Nature’s benevolence-cruelty spectrum (from the perspective of we cultured humans) is as old as nature-culture itself. The Overstory emphasizes nature’s benevolence and culture’s cruelty by interweaving the stories of several characters who, to varying degrees, aim to be attuned to what trees have to teach. Yet as they age, they are forced to turn away from the trees’ lessons to live their cultured, cruel lives. The texts’ tone is unhurried, yet repeatedly impresses upon its readers a hasty need to truly understand trees, so as to not continue to decimate them beyond regrowth. A measured urgency.

In reality, nature is not benevolent. As Alan Levinowitz argues, our more recent belief in nature’s goodness leads to harmful fads, unjust laws and flawed science. It can also lead to injury or death. For instance, as I climbed high trees and rested in them during my walks with Konza, my slow moments were interrupted by the crawling ticks carrying debilitating Lyme disease (as my fiancée knows all too well), the potential of a splintered spine from a 25-foot fall and the primal fear of beasts below and birds of prey above. Peaceful. In my later moment of trunk-clinging, I realized the story of Icarus is not simply a tale of ego or arrogance, but of survival, passed down by our tree-bound ancestors. Do not fly too high or fall too far, avoid predators, control the terrain and find nooks and crannies in the unforgiving landscape. All necessary to survive. I was slow getting down.

For individuals, the cruelty of nature becomes especially apparent, even if unnoticeable. On one of my walks, I saw a patch of pretty green flowers I had not seen before. Naturally, I sat in it. I focused up, attuned myself to my surroundings and immersed myself in the patch’s presence. I relaxed. But after a minute my brain’s survivalist, anti-ignorance response interrupted my immersion. I had never seen this type of flower before and was curious what it was. I pulled up my trusty Plant Net app (which uses a web-based community of picture takers to identify plant, tree, leaf and shrub species), snapped a hurried photo, sent in the picture and awaited the name. Ding! Poison hemlock?! I sprang off the patch, rolled in the nearby dirt like I was on fire and then furiously googled “poison hemlock, emergency room, touched or ingested?!!” Luckily the first. I ran home, applied ointment to stop ailment, scratched what needed scratching and lost a bit of faith in nature’s goodness. The point is, it does not matter if you have the mind of Socrates or the stomach of Stalin, nature catches up to us all in its own way. The time to rest slowly in its presence is brief — usually no more than a minute — before needing to sprint ahead of it. If nature is the turtle, then culture is the hare. And we all know who wins in the end.

The focus on nature’s wrath is largely individual-centric. From an Earthly perspective, nature is still more benevolent than culture, due to the rate at which we have decimated nature, and me then attributing my moral valence to that decimation rate. Anthropogenic climate change, pollution, mass extinction of species, plastic pile ups and deforestation: all are constituents of the new Anthropocene era. We have heard this list many times over. The science social system has made it abundantly clear that we are disrupting and devastating natural processes at a rate far surpassing the natural rate. And because culture is always within nature, what we do to nature we do to ourselves.

The aggregate sum of culture racing ahead of our origin has been great for our survival, but has produced too many people and too much stuff to live sustainably within nature. Our fast-paced extraction, excess and external extinction maintain with the aim of winning the unwinnable race. We must eventually climb down the tree and get out of the poison hemlock, but in an effort to completely distance ourselves from the perils of nature, culture has catapulted us beyond the non-negotiable nexus, or the slow, sustainable threshold. The 4,000-square-foot fire stations of homes tacked up over the formerly-plowed prairie? They are unsustainable. The oil wells that continue to creak, up and down? They are unsustainable. We attempt to live beyond the means provided by our benevolent origins.

Nature is brutal and Sapiens need to stay just ahead of it to survive. But in the Western, Enlightenment culture we have attempted to so distance ourselves from nature that we are out of touch with its reality. And as the Anthropocene indicates, we have dramatically tipped out of balance. Therefore, when we honestly look at our culture’s attempted out-pacing of nature, it is ultimately unsustainable. So, when we continue to willingly threaten our only origin — Nature, One Earth, Gaia, Ecosphere, Blue Marble, whatever you want to call it — then my moral code and values system cannot, in good conscience, consider culture more benevolent than nature within the dualistic and temporal context of this relationship.

I recognize the limitations and implications of my assessment. I know that even as far back as 12,000 years ago, only 25% of the Earth’s land was untouched by humans (compared to 19% today), indicating humans had a sizable impact before the more recent, untenable culture. I know that idyllic wilderness is largely a myth predominantly created and perpetuated by white men who have the historic and demographic luxury of using power and status to be concerned with nature and erase People of Color and native peoples from the mainstream environmental movement. I know that painting with a broad brush covers up strokes of complexity. These and others warrant further attention and discussion. However, for the purposes of my central argument about the necessity of finding those bits and pieces of nature to truly practice slow living, I will continue as I have and leave these for another time.

With these two theoretical assumptions assessed — 1) The nature-culture binary is more or less fixed, and the point just beyond the intersection is the place for slow living, and 2) nature is foremost benevolent when compared to culture — I have argued that true slowness requires a deeper connection to, though not necessarily total immersion in, those grand Earthly processes that I have been calling “nature.” Finding those moments of slow living requires a deep understanding of our place in the inevitable and omnipresent nature-culture divide. It means sitting in those moments of natural bliss before having to throw ourselves back into our over-corrective culture. As I age, I wish to relish those moments as much as I can, because those moments never return. And there are so few left to enjoy.

At peace with natural slowness

When one finds those moments of slowness in nature, then one can find peace. Of this I am convinced. Just as Mennonites have long been attuned to nature, Mennonites have also long preached peace. Parcels of peace are ubiquitous in the Gospels, but I find myself constantly returning to Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The peacemakers, not the peace receivers; blessed are those who actively seek, create and make peace. Often you hear conceptions of peace that are passive; i.e., peace results that arise from inaction or the absence of conflict. However, as Mennonites well know, peace is an act that requires continual patience, willpower, resolve and grace. Google “peace quotations,” and the first search result returns twelve of the most quoted peace sayings. The first quotation comes from Wayne W. Dyer, who said, “Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.” It seems as if this notion contradicts an active, faith-based perspective of peace: the status quo is unjust, and peaceful actions that we think should morally occur will happen if we work to make life as we think it should be. However, peace among persons is different from peace with oneself, the version of peace that Gandhi envisioned. Peace among persons should stem from a person’s own sense of peace. But because we always maintain a degree of “separateness,” according to Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving, true peace cannot be found among people in any social sphere, especially as the number of people in the peace negotiation increases. Because we are fundamentally alone, in that no two souls can absolutely unite as one, inner peace must be the constant by which outward peace is measured.

The truest version of peace I know surfaces when I fully acknowledge, embrace and accept the fact that I will die. I fundamentally believe that the impetus for all human action stems from a response to either escape or embrace our own mortality: to fully confront it through full actualization, spiritual immersion and aestheticism, or to avoid it through distracting ego, humanistic achievement and hedonism. Of course, as with all things in life, it is important to strike a balance, a Buddhist “Middle Way.” This begins with finding your hay bale. Forget the high up and high end of society, where towering hedge funds managers and lawyers industriously scan their concrete kingdom for anything but a sap in which to sit — hay bales are the highest you should ever need to be. For on top of hay bales you have perspective of the “creaturely” world. For on top of hay bales you can focus. You can truly come to terms with the fact that you come from the Earth and will soon return to it. You cannot simply know it; you must internalize it. Devoid of distant distraction, you can look over the prairie and into yourself and rest in untamed peace. You can set yourself free of it all, if only for a moment.

Thrust back into fast culture

When Wes Jackson first happened upon his future homestead in Salina, Kan., overlooking the Smoky Hill River, he saw the ravines, the bur oak, green ash, black walnut, hackberry, box elder and gray dogwood, and the Wellington shale. He did not desire to fish, hunt or alter the landscape, for “the place was Eden.” It was love at first sight. He struck a deal with the landowners, bought the place and got to work digging holes, building a house for cheap, installing water and sewer and so forth. Establishing his patch of culture. When needing a break, he returned to the same place overlooking the river. The view had not changed, “but Eden was gone. I tried to bring it back by opening and shutting my eyes, to imagine what it was, but it never returned or even came close.” As Wes explains, this interpretation of Genesis is that humanity’s fallen condition comes from insisting that we participate in the Creation. The place where Wes’ grandchildren — including me — played on a merry-go-round, feasted from a cherry tree and toiled in the garden. Because of this paradise, “the loss of Eden was a bargain.”

Culture is inevitable, and so too is the loss of an idyllic Eden and natural, slow living. While we can find those Friday afternoons to deliberately and mindfully rest, stretch and exercise slowness, they are infrequently available if you insist on living in a fast-paced culture bent on distancing itself from nature. In late February, just before my birthday, I embarked on my regular Friday stroll. That week was a particularly stressful week, and so I especially looked forward to meandering over the hay bales and through the woods, across the prairie and up into the tree branches. As Konza and I began to cross from the road onto the prairie trail, a nearby suburb family rushed out of their home to confront me.

“Do you know whose land you are on!?” barked the teenager.

“The developers?” Though now I was unsure.

“No,” the mother chimed in, “that farmer up the road. We are good friends of his, and he’s pretty conservative and likes his land to be a certain way.”

Although they were prepared to say more, they didn’t need to. I got the message: The landowner was tired of us trespassing on his property, and if we tried again, he’d probably load up his 12-gauge. No more slow strolls with Konza in the place we’d come to know and cherish. No more choose-your-own-adventure chapters: the conclusion had been written for us. I asked the mother if the paths were walked by other, fellow suburbanites, as I assumed they had. They said I was the only one, and that those paths were actually the farmer’s four-wheeler tracks.

I turned back to my house, my brisk walk morphing into a defeated sprint. As I ran back to my cage of comfort, fast knowledge and rushed life, I broke down in tears. I knew the family and farmer had every right to protect their land from strangers, but I did not believe that I was a stranger. Even if I had lost the hay bales on which to do yoga, I could find another nearby patch of wilderness to meander through, I tried to console myself. I say “tried,” because my tears blocked my reason. My patch of slow peace that had helped me through the pandemic was gone forever. I was one step closer to the great inevitable.