The view from the window of the airplane as I traveled away from Phoenix this evening gave me a view of the wild fires that have overtaken parts of Arizona in the past couple of weeks. I expected them to be larger, even from the air. In fact, I could not see the flames at all, but I could see smoke and even after I could no longer see the billows, the airplane followed the expanding mass of smoke for a long time until the wisps became interchangeable with the clouds.
Fire is the element of the third chakra, the center of self, will and ego. We ignite fire in our yoga practice to detoxify, refine and cleanse, to weep away the toxins we take in and create through environment and behavior. We create fire through the friction between structure and flow–connecting to the stability of the earth through the soles of our feet and the grounding of asana. We rub that ground against the flow of breath, emotion, agility and the creativity of movement.
When looking at fire, it is easy to be drawn toward the flame like a moth entranced by the glowing spark of illumination. More difficult to encounter is the accompanying smoke that veils the refining heat and makes our vision clouded, our lungs heave. After the most amazing and refining practice, do you find yourself longing for a drink, overeating, or snapping at your partner or roommate when you get home? Too often I have traveled from the high of heat to the disorientation of smoke, hiding from what the fire has revealed.
In a cabin in Colorado last week I stoked a fire before bed and enjoyed a calm evening of reading and warmth in the blue quiet of the mountain night. After I had gone to sleep, I woke suddenly with the panic of something wrong. There was not enough cross breeze from the windows for the chimney to draw air, and I was nearly smoked out of the cabin. With a breeze the flame was nurturing, but when the chimney breath died down, I was overcome.
Like a moth I am drawn to the flame. The discipline of tapas is seductive, and a scorching vinyasa class attracts my pitta drive. But as pieces of distraction happily catch flame in my practice, the surrounding brush in the groundwork of my life smolders and I walk away from class. I forget to breathe, and in the absence of a cross breeze coals turn to ash and my vision and intention become gray and clouded.
The beauty and intensity of the flame is easy enough to be consumed by. It takes great patience to sit long after the flame has died down, still with deep breath and firm ground. There the coals spark and dim to reveal what the fire has left behind.
My cabin in Colorado was situated in a valley surrounded by a forest that’s now been destroyed by wildfire. It was difficult at first to return to that space — to miss the pines and aspen, to see black ash covering bare tree trunks and mountain trails, to view the destruction of wildlife. But in the few years since the fire I have continued to return and this year found rich color scattered on the mountainside as tiny wildflowers tested and restored the ground.
And now long after the smoke from the fire has cleared, a new encounter of the land is accessible, one that allows for a sweeping vista of the rolling earth and a sharp vision of heights and horizons that used to be shrouded by the trees. Although it caused destruction worthy of deep grief, there is something new to be experienced long after the flame and the smoke, if I am willing to sit long enough to see it. And where there used to be anger and sadness and grief, there are now gasps of wonder at the tiny flowers taking root.