Much like how yogic texts can deepen our knowledge of yoga, and poses deepen our knowledge of our bodies and inner selves, so stacked stones can tell us more about the environment around us. Or, when stacked by our own hands, be a meditative activity that allows us deep within ourselves. To move through our favorite yoga sequence requires patience, focus, and a deep stillness of the mind—these too are needed for the cautious, meditative practice of balancing stones.
This brings us to the Catskill Mountains in New York, out on the property of an old farm, where several large, deliberately placed piles of stones were recently discovered—seven in total. Curious as to what they might have been, local historians mapped out the coordinates of the piles only to find that they didn’t seem to point to anything geological as they would have imagined, such as a spring. Rather, they seemed to point upwards to the night sky.
The piles of rocks formed the shape of the constellation the Big Dipper—perhaps as a navigation tool for when the skies were clouded over. But there was just one flaw in their hypothesis: The Big Dipper points to the North Star, yet the man-made stone constellation was pointing off to the east.
It was all beginning to feel like a strange coincidence when suddenly historians remembered that the magnetic North Star moves slowly over time—predominantly westwards—and, if calculations were correct, at the time the North Star was where the stones suggested it to be, those piles must have been constructed a staggering 4,500 years ago.
Stones as Sacred Symbols
Will Soter is a New York State licensed guide with Upstate Adventure Guides. Over his time leading hikes not only in New York but across the country he has come across many similar piles of rocks. “Some, like the Big Dipper [rock formation], are the work of Native Americans and have been there for a very long time—as spiritual symbols, burial grounds, or to warn other travelers of danger, or to highlight a land feature such as a spring,” says Will.
While our modern society may no longer stack rocks as burial grounds, we do still rely on piles of stones as trail markers, or cairns, for hikers. And with good reason—there are few natural or even man-made materials other than stone that are as readily available and durable on the trail. Stones can withstand years, centuries, of rain and wind, and remain barely unchanged.
“In a very literal sense it feels like creating a state of union with the environment.” – Michael Grab
As a spiritual symbol the stone or the rock represents that which is eternal or truth itself. And in some traditions the stones are considered to be individual spirits, or—as in Jewish mystical traditions—silent beings. Even in yoga, stones and rocks are not without consciousness. They still contain the three gunas like all physical objects, but they simply have much more ‘tamas’—the slow and dense guna.
Stone Balancing as Yoga
In recent years, piling stones has become something of a spiritual practice in itself. Some people create towers of smooth pebbles in nature, each representing a prayer or thought of gratitude as a meditation on the divine. Others, like Shane Hart, choose more challenging rocks to balance rather than pile, using the practice like a meditation. He calls it “Upala yoga,” with “upala” meaning “stone” in Sanskrit.
This balancing of stones as a yoga practice is a meditation on impermanence. As Shane says on his website: “Upala yoga is temporal. Hours can be spent on a sculpture, and a subtle vibration or light wind can take it down in an instant.”
During the practice of balancing the stones, the mind is required to focus and become very quiet. The balance calls for three contact points that can often be intuitively felt only in deep stillness and silence. Michael Grab, who has been balancing stones since 2008, describes the experience as similar to states of samadhi. “There comes a point when the mind shuts off entirely, like in a deep, meditative state. And finally, when I approach the ‘zero-point’ with minute-final adjustments, it is like nothing ‘other’ exists. I am inside the vibrations of the rocks and everything in my surroundings becomes one. In a very literal sense it feels like creating a state of union with the environment.”
Meditating on Impermanence
Unlike the stones piled up as trail markers, or sacred monuments, stone balancing as a yogic practice is not designed to last. This ‘yoga of stones’ is much like the sand mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism where monks spend several days creating a giant sacred and geometric mandala out of different colored sands, only to destroy it, and return the sand back to its original place in nature.
“If we feel compelled to leave a mark, then we have to ask ourselves what our motivation is.” – Will Soter
It is in contrast to the rock-stacking craze that has swept through many areas of natural beauty over the last 20 years. Piles of stones can often be found peeking out of streams or in open areas left by hikers as an expression—perhaps to mark that they have passed through, maybe in the folly of a well-deserved snack break, or as an offering of art or prayer.
But stacking stones without an apparent use has its drawbacks. Environmentalists point out that when rocks are permanently shifted, insects and small mammals lose their homes, and the soil revealed beneath the stone that supports native plants is then eroded. Stones stacked in streams also disrupt the flow of water over time and alter landscapes. One must be mindful of the environment and the impact before starting to stack. But perhaps part of the beauty in this impermanent practice is that when the stones fall you can place them right back.
Checking Our Egos
Will says he advises anyone wanting to pile stones to remember the simple phrase: Take only pictures and leave only footprints. “Building cairns is a wonderful way to connect with nature, and we have done it for thousands of years, but we remind people to leave as little of an impact as possible,” says Will. And leaving stones randomly stacked can also present a bit of a conundrum, he says. “For one, if you leave your stone pile, you could well be leaving an unintentional and false trail marker that could lead other hikers off in the wrong direction.” But when we return our stones to where we found them, we leave the door open to others to have their own experience of discovery and interaction.
When we are practicing the yoga of stones—be that balancing stones or building piles of prayers, the underlying intention is to remove the ego. “If we feel compelled to leave a mark, then we have to ask ourselves what our motivation is,” says Will. Because as we have discovered, the stones could be there still in 4,500 years time. But if it’s helping our tribe locate the North Star on a cloudy night, then permanency may well be what is required.
Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.