On certain Friday evenings starting on the 5th, the WetLand barge will become home to more than just artists, gardens, and chickens. This eccentric menagerie will be joined by a rotating cast of yoga teachers from Dhyana Yoga, who will be leading a variety of classes on the pier. One of those teachers is Malik Wilson a Philly-based Vinyasa yoga teacher and personal trainer. He brought his philosophical advice and expertise to WetLand on August 29th as a way to help others more deliberately connect with the natural world.
For Wilson, being in nature is an integral part of the practice of yoga, bridging the gap between people and the five elements that he sees as comprising each one of us - earth, fire, water, metal, and wood. “Nature, and being in tune with it, is is the ultimate foundation and groundwork that I use,” he said. During every class, Wilson asks his students to stand like trees, extending their roots into the earth, to feel the ground through their heels while reaching their crown towards “the life-giving source.” He encourages his students to “feel free to wobble,” to sway like trees, embodying a gentle strength. In addition to using natural principles in his teaching, Wilson prefers to lead classes outside. Doing so, he feels, erases some of the exclusivity that might seem to surround yoga. “Outside,” Wilson said, “the mystique is gone and everyone is just here to practice.”
However, he admits, staying focused outdoors can be a challenge, especially in light of yoga’s emphasis on stilling the mind. He describes someone sitting down in a field on a beautiful day, closing one’s eyes, and then being jolted out of peace by a buzzing fly and thinking, “This is a dumb-ass idea, why did you want to come out here?” Wilson’s advice: “You just need to chill out, like the flowers [...] Everything else is chilling out,” he said, gesturing to the earth, wind, and sky.
Wilson cares about environmental issues with the eloquence of a close-to-the-earth yogi. He sees our current global warming predicament in terms of animals caught in a bind, unable to tap into nature’s gift of adaptation. While most creatures have the instincts to change with their circumstances, humans are a different story, “with these big-ass brains that we don’t use,” he said. Wilson is excited to be involved with WetLand, a project that sees adaptation as a deliberate - and necessary - choice, but one that requires radical action rather than automatic adjustment. Dhyana Yoga encourages its teachers to give back through community service in addition to their classes, and Wilson sees his collaboration with FringeArts and the WetLand project as an opportunity to involve himself more deeply with two efforts he cares about: conservation and bringing art to as many people as possible.
When Wilson moved back to Philadelphia four years ago, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. One day, he was walking up Walnut Street when a sign for free yoga in Rittenhouse Square caught his eye - and then he remembered. “The one common ground that I know is going to be in my life is yoga,” he said. “It’s like freedom.” Wilson first discovered yoga in 1996, when he used it to warm up before practicing martial arts. “I couldn't keep those long martial arts practices, but the yoga stuck,” he said. The free yoga class eventually led to a job which led to a career, and Wilson’s path began to take shape.
However, Wilson thinks, being lost can be the starting point for evaluating where you are. Figuring out one’s destination at this point is not important. “If we’re on the bus to New York and lost,” he said, “Nobody’s going to be talking about, ‘Where’s New York?’” Using these moments as catalysts for self-exploration is integral to Wilson’s philosophy. It’s important, also, to be in our own bodies, once we figure out where we are. “Your down dog isn’t going to look like mine,” Wilson tells his students. “Be where you’re at.”
Preventing us from being perfectly or fully, from self-realization and the peace that yoga promises, are restraints that Wilson is fully aware of. He paraphrases the Japanese philosopher, Suzuki, who divides beings into the self and becoming, “our inalienable right to be just as much as we can possibly be without being disturbed.” Being disturbed, Wilson believes, can be a result of racism or politics or stereotypes. Although we have the right to journey on the path to becoming, Wilson does not view his rights passively. “It’s something you still have to struggle to establish and maintain. You can’t take your rights for granted.”
Before we can become, too, we have to be. “There’s no radical transformation without first having radical acceptance,” Wilson said, referring specifically to situations that challenge us, the ones we may not want to inhabit. Another aphorism that Wilson has adopted is that of the tree, from which you cannot receive fruit until it’s grown. We cannot receive what we need until we cultivate a foundation and establish ourselves in a place and time. Wilson believes strongly in the importance of “owning your story, owning your shit, being able to sit in your shit and not be disturbed by it.”
Yoga on WetLand almost seems redundant. The practice and the place have a lot in common. They both emphasize the importance of breaking out of routine, becoming more self-sufficient and strong, balancing the individual and communal, aesthetic beauty and strength, wildness and urbanity. WetLand, as it floats, barely tethered to the pier, almost seems to be closing its eyes, trying to find its balance in an unstable world.