Alison Zak is an author, yoga teacher, environmental educator and anthropologist, and in her self-written bio, she also adds, importantly, that she is an animal. Her new book Wild Asana launches June 27th and is a delightful mix of wildlife science, Hindu mythology, Eastern philosophy, and personal stories that help us draw connections between our bodies, our minds, and the animals that inspire our practices. As if writing and teaching doesn’t keep her busy enough, Alison also founded the Human-Beaver Coexistence Fund, a nonprofit that educates the public about the benefits of coexisting with beavers and provides resources and address human-beaver conflict.
Alison has a long history connecting with animals, and when her primate studies took her across the world to Indonesia, she learned firsthand how nuanced the relationship can be between humans and non-human animals, and she began to grasp the importance of deconditioning what we’re taught through society—that humans are superior and that other animals are only worth saving if they provide value to us. Of course, if you take the time to learn about different animals, you realize that each species possesses remarkable traits and skills that are integral to the ecosystems they live in. And if you do want to look through the lens of value-to-humans, it can be argued that every animal provides value because we are all intricately connected within the cycles that create our planet, our food, water, air, and soil. This truth has been known since the beginning of time, and modern research continues to publish findings daily that remind us of our interconnectedness.
Alison’s creative outlets and offerings suggest powerful, yet incredibly simple ways that we can begin to connect with our fellow animals, not only to understand our true role in the greater interdependent ecosystem of the planet, but to also experience the often sought-after feelings of awe, wonder, and unity that we go looking for in spiritual practice, travel or relationship. In her new book, Wild Asana, she teaches people how to connect with and embody animals through the yoga poses that are named after them: scorpion, cobra, fish and downward-facing dog, to name a few. She uses the framework of the Three C’s: Curiosity, Compassion, and Connection, suggesting that the last category of connection can be taken even deeper, practicing yoga with a capital Y, meaning union, and that if we can reach that state of union with another animal, there’s no longer a question as to why this other being is important, because he or she is me. There’s no separation.
Come with us, into a wild and wonderful interview that will leave you feeling inspired to learn more about the animals you encounter in your everyday life or those you have a secret curiosity about. I guarantee that after listening, you’ll want to go out into the world and experience it for the epic, magical place it is and remember that PLAY is one the most primal animal actions, shared by almost every species, certainly other animals like us in the mammal classification.
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Alison Zak (00:00:01):
You and I both were connected with a school of fish. We were physically in the same water together and rubbing scales and skin. The ultimate goal of all of this is not just connection, but actually union with and realizing that we’re not actually separate beings at all. And that’s like capital Y yoga, right? Yoking together our own experience with another animal’s, which sounds really intimidating and sometimes unachievable, but in these small moments, it is possible.
Andy Vantrease (00:00:51):
Welcome to the Dandelion Effect Podcast, a space for organic conversation about the magic of living a connected life. Just like the natural world around us, we are all linked through an intricate web, a never ending ripple that spans across the globe. Here we explore the ideas that our guests carry through the world, remember who and what inspired them along the way, and uncover the seeds that help them blossom into their unique version of this human experience. This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, whose mission is to help people find their direction through access to programs and experiences that support healing, education, community, and empowerment.
Alison Zak is an author, yoga teacher, environmental educator, and anthropologist. And in her self written bio, she also adds, importantly, that she is an animal. Her new book, Wild Asana, launches June 27th and is a delightful mix of wildlife science, Hindu mythology, eastern philosophy, and personal stories that help us draw connections between our bodies, minds, and the animals that inspire our practices. As if writing and teaching doesn’t keep her busy enough, Alison also founded the Human-Beaver Coexistence Fund, a nonprofit that educates the public about the benefits of coexisting with beavers, and provides resources to support and address human-beaver conflict.
Alison has a long history connecting with animals, and when her primate studies took her across the world to Indonesia, she learned firsthand how nuanced the relationship can be between humans and non-human animals. And she began to grasp the importance of deconditioning what we’re taught through society, that humans are superior, and that other animals are only worth saving if they provide value to us. Of course, if you take the time to learn about different animals, you realize that each species possesses remarkable traits and skills that are integral to the ecosystems they live in. And if you do wanna look through the lens of value to humans, it can be argued that every animal provides value because we are all intimately connected within the cycles that create our planet, our food, water, air, and soil. This truth has been known since the beginning of time, and modern research continues to publish findings daily that remind us of our interconnectedness.
Alison’s creative outlets and offerings suggest powerful, yet incredibly simple ways that we can begin to connect with our fellow animals, not only to understand our true role in the greater interdependent ecosystem, but to also experience the often sought after feelings of awe, wonder and unity that we go looking for in spiritual practice, travel, or relationship.
In her new book, Wild Asana, she teaches people how to connect with and embody animals through the yoga poses that are named after them: Scorpion Cobra, Fish, Downward Facing Dog—to name a few. She uses the framework of the three C’s: Curiosity, Compassion, and Connection, suggesting that the last category of connection can be taken even deeper—practicing yoga with a capital Y, meaning “union.” And that if we can reach that state of union with another animal, there’s no longer a question as to why this other being is important because he or she is me. There’s no separation.
So come with us today into a wild and wonderful interview that will leave you feeling inspired to learn more about the animals you encounter in your everyday life, or maybe those that you have a secret curiosity about and always wanted to learn more about. I guarantee that after listening, you’ll want to go out into the world and experience it for the epic magical place that it is. And remember that play is one of the most primal animal actions shared by almost every species, certainly other animals like us in the mammal category. I’m Andy Vantrease, and you’re listening to the Dandelion Effect Podcast with today’s guest and my new friend, Alison Zak.
Just five seconds ago, we were talking about kids and how easy it is for them to connect with other animals. They don’t have that myth that humans are separate from nature and separate from other species in the animal kingdom. And so I would love to hear from you like what your first memory, first profound encounter was with another animal. Because your life has been so dedicated to different species in different ways, and just this really genuine love of animals and remembering or reflecting back on where that might have started, or at least where your memory of that begins.
Alison Zak (00:05:35):
I tell this story in the fish chapter of Wild Asana. So I definitely grew up a kid loving animals for a reason that I still don’t really understand or can’t pinpoint. It just is! So, you know, I had like a collection of stuffed moose growing up, and then I really wanted a bird and I wanted to be an ornithologist. It was always some animal kind of like at the forefront of my life. But the one experience that really stands out to me, the one that I remember really well, is when I was in eighth grade, so I was about 13 or 14, and my middle school class took a trip to, I think it was Key Largo. So there’s a marine lab, kind of like education center down there. And I grew up in Tampa, so a few hours drive, but not too far away.
And we got to spend a few nights in the Keys at this incredible place learning about ocean life. And we were snorkeling and at one point my snorkel buddy and I were just all of a sudden completely surrounded by these bright blue fishes. And it was just a few seconds, but it was this moment that just like left me in awe. It kind of took me out of that very interesting place, like developmentally that being like a young teenager is where you’re not really thinking about nature or your education and all of these things. I was, just for those few seconds, just like with these fish, and I even popping up out of the water, I remember just looking at my snorkel buddy. We were like, What just happened?!
It’s kind of hard to describe just how extraordinary it felt because I basically describe it as I became a part of that school of fishes for just a few seconds, or that even more that, those fishes decided to make us a part of their school. You know, for a brief moment, but it just had this impact on me, and it was awe that I felt. And that’s kind of the moment that I remember because, you know, learning about animals is great and having pets is great, but then having like those really profound moments of experience and connection, that was the first one for me.
Andy Vantrease (00:08:10):
Yeah. I read a bit about that chapter in your book, and I kind of had a similar experience actually this winter when I was snorkeling. Like I was in this really shallow water and all of a sudden I kind of turn to the opposite side that I wasn’t looking at before and I was in a school of fish, and I just remember being a little bit scared, a little bit like, What’s it gonna feel like if one touches me? Like, how close are they actually to me? And there were all of these emotions, but one of them was just awe. And like you said, this gratitude of like, Oh my gosh, they’re choosing to swim next to me. They’re basically saying like, I’m allowed to be here. It’s okay that I’m here.
Alison Zak (00:08:57):
Andy Vantrease (00:08:57):
That was such a connective experience for me. These experiences that we get to have with other animals are so precious and in this conversation I hope that we can kind of unpack the myth of separation that we are so different from these other animals in the animal kingdom. And yeah, just kind of talk about and unpack some of those emotions. This emotion of awe that you talked about, and even like, you know, some of the fear, some of the like, Oh my gosh, what is happening, type of thing because we’re not having these experiences every single day.
Alison Zak (00:09:36):
Yeah. I’m so glad you could relate to the experience. I even had someone else read an early version of that and say like, Oh, that’s happened to me, but like, what’s so great about it? And I was like, What do you mean what’s so great about it?? Being a land creature, I know much more about terrestrial animals than I do about critters in the ocean, and some people really connect through those experiences, but others connect through the information and through knowledge. And so, you know, I call myself half scientist, half mystic and learning about the fish and how they have like a specialized organ in their body to be attuned to the movements of other fishes. And it just makes you appreciate all the more how they have decided in their own experience of the world, that there’s this giant mammal swimming along and they’re still deciding to be next to you.
Andy Vantrease (00:10:33):
That’s what intrigues me a lot about your perspective is that your book kind of says like part science, part mystic, part poetry, and I really found it to be that way. And I think that just seems like your perspective on kind of life in general and these connections we have with other species. So I’m curious of telling us a little bit about how you came to develop that perspective. You know, maybe give some highlights of your trajectory within that educational space and perhaps even pivotal moments along the way of why you made certain decisions that led you down the particular path of being part scientist, part poet, part yogi and mystic <laugh>.
Alison Zak (00:11:20):
It can be fraught, you know, sometimes those things are conflicting. I wanted to study wildlife biology and as you and I chatted about a little bit before Andy, we both struggled in some organic chemistry classes. <laugh> in college, and I ended up switching to study anthropology. Throughout undergrad I was more focused on cultural anthropology, religious studies, and realized that I could still study primates within the discipline of anthropology. And so after college I did an internship studying captive lemurs in central Florida, and I was kind of just reading—I’m also a book nerd—<laugh>. I was reading kind of anything I could get my hands on about primates, but always being drawn to the perspective of people who also recognized that to talk about primate conservation is also to talk about and involve humans.
So I was really coming to this strong belief that no conservation can happen without people and without their real deep involvement in the natural world. You know, a lot of people say they study animals because they don’t like people <laugh>. They don’t wanna interact with people. And for me it was kind of the opposite. I was like, You cannot have one of these things without the other. And so I found my way into ethno-primatology, which is the study of the interaction between humans and non-human primates, and ended up going to grad school for that and studying the behavior of crop raiding or crop foraging. So that means basically primates stealing farmers crops <laugh>. That’s what I did for my master’s research. Studying, you know, a little bit of conservation, a little bit of ecology all along the way, and seeing how this very scientific perspective, where historically you couldn’t name your animal study subjects—and even that phrase gives me the willies <laugh>. The sin of anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics to other animals. Like of course that’s what we do! We’re human. We’re animals with our own perspectives and we can never, as much as science may try, we can never completely be objective in that way. And so anthropology, studying that for so long really did shape kind of my very split personality between this scientific approach and this much more experiential, much more spiritual way of looking at things. Because I just embrace the fact that I’m a human animal and <laugh> of course, of course I’m going to try and understand other animals through what I know from my own experience.
Andy Vantrease (00:14:22):
Yeah. I’ve never studied anthropology. I’ve never kind of been in the deep science of this field. I have my perspective and my emotions on things, and I totally anthropomorphize all the time because I feel like it’s a way that I can connect and actually I feel like it is kind of empathy-building and compassion-building. I’m imagining it to be this very kind of rigid, kind of reductionist, like where is the heart, where is the emotion? Where can we bring in other parts of ourselves besides just our brains to organize and analyze and all of that? What were the challenges that you ran into as you were developing that more connective, spiritual piece to it?
Alison Zak (00:15:06):
Within anthropology itself, from my own experience, that’s not exactly where the challenges were. I found myself always surrounded by a lovely group of very like-minded, usually women, who are studying primates—not because, you know, the reason that anthropologists historically studied primates to learn more about human evolution or human biology—but because we’re passionate about the other primates on the planet with us right now. Where I did run into those challenges was in courses outside of anthropology or even in some of the other subfields where, in an ecology class, my friend and colleagues, were just like, Oh, that’s the, those are the monkey girls. And you know, they always have these like hippie ideas <laugh>. And we’re not scientific enough. And interestingly, in other parts of the world, primatology isn’t under the umbrella of anthropology.
I worked with Italian colleagues when I was in the field in grad school. They were biologists and studying monkeys, and we just had these fascinating conversations in the evenings because we had come to studying this same species, but from such different perspectives. There were certainly challenges along the way, and even me deciding to leave academia and become an educator and a writer, you know, instead of a research primatologist. That was very challenging because I was really passionate about my research, but I had this moment where I was like, Well, I’m writing about these patterns of this monkey’s behavior and the farmer’s response to it, but no one’s reading it except for other primatologists. And what does that mean? I wanted to have more of this applied, immediate, more personal impact with my work. That’s why I went the direction that I did into environmental education, and to eventually writing a book and teaching yoga. All of my yoga teaching is inspired by my experiences in nature. And you know, I try to inspire that in my students as well, because that’s such a part of my yoga practice. So making my own path where I’m combining all of those perspectives,
Andy Vantrease (00:17:31):
Yeah, totally. And it’s such an interesting path. I was just talking with a friend about how I just stopped going to zoos a while ago, and kind of the final straw for me was when I went to the zoo, I don’t know, 10 years ago or something, and there was a primate area, and there was a little chimpanzee at the glass just sitting there. And I like sat down on the other side of the glass and we just looked into each other’s eyes and I just started bawling my eyes out because I was like, What are we doing? I felt like I was looking at a person and I just had this whole thing, and then I read this book, Ishmael. Have you ever read that?
Alison Zak (00:18:13):
I have not read Ishmael.
Andy Vantrease (00:18:16):
Oh my gosh. Sounds like you know it though?
Alison Zak (00:18:18):
I do know it.
Andy Vantrease (00:18:20):
So, I read this book, Ishmael, and it’s essentially like this guy answers an ad in the paper to have like a teacher. He wanted to be a student, and he wanted to like learn about life. And so he shows up to this discreet, kind of cryptic message in the Craigslist or something, and it’s a gorilla on the other side of this glass. He is the teacher. The whole thing kind of goes into this dialogue between the gorilla and this guy. I mean, that was one of the things that blew me open. And then right after having that experience with the chimpanzee of just really questioning the ways that humans have ranked themselves within the animal kingdom as superior and as able to capture and cage other animals. Like I had this whole thing, you know.
Alison Zak (00:19:13):
Andy Vantrease (00:19:14):
We’re coexisting. And I think that part of the reason for you to be doing the work that you’re doing is like, How do we coexist? It is the main question, it feels like.
Alison Zak (00:19:25):
It’s the main question on like every level in my life. It’s the main question of how I coexist with, let’s say a spider in my office right now. I know that there’s this little jumping spider living in here, and I haven’t seen him in a couple of days—or her, not sure. And I’m stressed about it all the time. I don’t wanna squish it, but I also don’t want it to like spook me. So on that very small, silly example, to the work that I do with the Human-Beaver Coexistence Fund, which is the nonprofit that I founded a couple years ago. So every day I’m asking on a more regional scale, like how does a landowner who’s experiencing flooding from a beaver who has made a dam where a human didn’t want them to… how can they coexist? To kind of what you were alluding to: How do we all coexist with each other on this planet by doing as little harm as possible and just like supporting each other, connecting with each other. So yeah. At every level of my life, that is the big question <laugh>.
Andy Vantrease (00:20:33):
Yeah. I mean, it kind of is always these moment to moment bases that then create the larger picture. Your spider example, and then even just our fish experiences, like that was a coexistence that was very brief in the moment of like, Okay, we’re in the water with them, but there’s even a coexistent relationship when we’re out of the water. How are we treating their habitat? How are we looking at certain fish as food? How are we talking about the oceans?
Alison Zak (00:21:03):
That’s reciprocal too. You know, like how is what is happening in the ocean right now (that we are not aware of at all), how is that impacting us as well? You know, it really goes both ways.
Andy Vantrease (00:21:17):
Yeah. Well, and that interdependence kind of at the core of this also. We have our perspectives and can only really know our perspectives as humans. We live in such this, I don’t know this right term, but like human-centric way. I think that people are starting to wake up to that interdependence and reciprocation, but I think it’s really hard to get out of that mindset that like we are at the center making decisions about everything else, that it’s a one-way action.
Alison Zak (00:21:54):
It’s interesting because I think the big challenge there for a lot of people is not only that we’re living in a society that is constantly telling us we’re the only species that matters… I mean, all of society is basically reinforcing that for us, right. That we’re all that matter and that we can use the land as a resource and that we can control other species for these purposes. I also think even if you can kind of see that and start to reflect on the problem with that, it’s really hard to kind of zoom out and see that interdependence because the impacts are not immediate. And we’re living in this society where everything has to happen right now. The evidence of our connection and our interdependence with all of these other species, and with the land, it’s something that there’s such a time delay that it’s just not tangible for people. And so I think part of what I’m trying to do, for example, with Wild Asana, or just teaching yoga in a way that’s inspired by nature, is to try and create these little moments of connection that show a tiny little example of that right in the moment. It’s really challenging <laugh>. I’m not gonna say that I know how to do it, like I have the key, but I think that’s what motivates a lot of my work. Just trying to make those connections more apparent, more immediate, more meaningful for people.
Andy Vantrease (00:23:33):
I think that you’re really onto something, at least it feels resonant for me, having different experiences with animals that are like in my… wherever I am. You know what I mean? Like yes, you come across certain animals in your life and others you learn about, others you’re educated about or you do research about or you come across in a documentary or whatever it is. Like Octopus Teacher—oh my gosh! Really making the case for the magnificence of this creature that we don’t necessarily think about very often. Unless, you know…
Alison Zak (00:24:10):
That’s the perfect example. I want to make these moments of connection with other animals accessible to people and not intimidating. You know, some people will never see a wild octopus in their life. Many people, many people, even like the yoga students that I teach, I’ve never seen a wild octopus. We don’t have to see the animal in the wild. We don’t have to go on these grand adventures. We can connect with animals in the simplest of ways in our own homes with our families. One of the ways that I do that, and I encourage other people to do that, is through yoga or through an asana practice, because there are already these poses that are named after animals. We put our body into these shapes that mimic the forms of other animals. But a lot of people who practice yoga don’t even think about the animals when they’re in those shapes.
And so like, what a perfect, simple opportunity to just spark that curiosity of another creature. You know, Cobra, for example, not everyone is gonna see a cobra, but you don’t need to see a cobra. Like you can watch a documentary on Netflix about these animals. You can read about them. Honestly, sometimes even knowing nothing is better than being an expert on a certain species, because then you have this beginner’s mind from which to start questioning what would their experience of the world be like, from whatever limited knowledge you have. And how we start to do that is to make these little methods of connection more accessible to people and more fun and more playful and acceptable. Like yeah, adults can make animal noises too!
Andy Vantrease (00:26:01):
Yeah. Tell me about how you got the idea to take this study of animals and your more scientific background and weave that with yoga and come up with like, What if I taught about animals through yoga? Like how did that happen?
Alison Zak (00:26:21):
I wish I knew the answer.
Andy Vantrease (00:26:23):
Alison Zak (00:26:24):
I’ve just been me for so long that it just started. I don’t think there was ever a moment when I was like, Oh, this is the brilliant idea. You know, I think that moment did come when I had been kind of doing it in all of these small ways for long enough that I could see that a book might make sense. But you know, if you ask any of my yoga students or any of the kids I’ve taught in nature programs, I’ve just been doing this stuff since the beginning.
Andy Vantrease (00:27:03):
But when you say doing this stuff, what does that mean?
Alison Zak (00:27:06):
That means, like in a kid’s yoga class, for example, instead of Cobra pose, we practice hognose snake pose because that is a species of snake that lives here in the habitats that we’re going to explore together. And the hognose snake does this hilarious, amazing thing: When it’s threatened, it plays dead, and it rolls over on its back and its tongue hangs out. And, you know, we get to explore movement in such a playful way, but also like learning about the hognose snake, just little things like that.
Andy Vantrease (00:27:42):
Alison Zak (00:27:43):
Or in an adult yoga class, for example, I refer to our yoga mats as a river. When we’re orienting where on our mat props go, it’s across the river, or down the river. And just like bringing these nature references into a yoga class because that’s what I connect with, you know?
Andy Vantrease (00:28:04):
Yeah. Yeah. And bringing the sounds in and like for a moment or for an hour or whatever, they’re embodying these animals?
Alison Zak (00:28:16):
Mm-hmm. You know, pigeon pose, for example, we’ve all seen a pigeon.
Andy Vantrease (00:28:20):
Yeah. Why is pigeon pose the way that pigeon pose is? <laugh>
Alison Zak (00:28:24):
Yeah. What makes it a pigeon? Well, these are the questions that I kept having that really started sparking things. But as far as I understand it, and I don’t—even after having written a book on animals and Asana—still don’t know why some of the poses are the way that they are. But in pigeon pose, it’s really a chest opening pose and it’s about the fluffiness of like a pigeon’s breast, basically. I mean, I’m sure there was an answer to that at some point, but some of the answers we’ll never know because Asana is an ancient practice and it’s been passed down for so long. And one of the things I think is really cool about connecting animals to Asana is coming up with your own explanations for why the poses look the way that they look. You know, some of them are really obvious, like scorpion pose, it looks like a scorpion <laugh>. But then there are some that just really baffle me, like camel. I can’t ever quite figure out. I’m always overthinking, Are we the hump? Are we the whole camel? So we must be a dromedary camel, you know, but like, that’s the little simple thought process that sparks the curiosity and then you’re like, wait a minute, what does a camel really look like? And then you search a picture of one, and then next thing you know, you’re knitting with camel wool, and meeting a camel named Aladdin. Beware of this path!
Andy Vantrease (00:30:01):
<laugh> Yeah. These things can escalate quickly. Tell me about the three Cs that you kind of use as pillars of exploration in this journey of animal Asana.
Alison Zak (00:30:16):
So the three C’s: curiosity, compassion, and connectedness. I keep giving these examples of all the little things that you can think about or consider in your yoga practice that would spark curiosity about the animal whose physical form you’re embodying for a moment or two on your mat. And so that’s the first step, right? And so for some people, for the more mystical side people, they’re gonna go towards seeking out maybe an experience with that animal or learning about them through maybe just watching a video. And then other people, if they value that knowledge first or that’s where their curiosity takes them, they’re gonna start reading books and learning all of the facts, everything they want to know about that animal. Ideally, that exploration, that curiosity, leads to some sense that our experience as humans and that other animal’s experience of the world, that there are similarities.
And so that’s where compassion comes in. Or maybe you do start to learn that there’s something that humans do that cause suffering for that animal. And then that will inspire compassion. You know, the ultimate goal of that—and the ultimate goal of all of this, of Wild Asana in general—is connection. And even more than connection. So I can say that in a really tangible way, like you and I both were connected with a school of fish. We were physically in the same water together and rubbing scales and skin. The ultimate goal of all of this is not just connection, but actually union with and realizing that we’re not actually separate beings at all. And that’s like capital Y yoga, right? Yoking together our own experience in another animal’s, which sounds really intimidating and sometimes unachievable, but in these small moments it is possible.
Andy Vantrease (00:32:21):
Yeah. And why would you say that having that union, that connection is important? Like why create something like this that hopes to create the space where people can have these experiences?
Alison Zak (00:32:37):
There’s kind of two layers to that answer as well. And so the first one is that the reason why I write, the reason why I do the beaver work that I do, the reason why I started out with my primate research, it’s all to acknowledge that there is animal suffering. And not even in like an animal rights-y way, necessarily, but like we all know that species are declining and habitat is disappearing. And there are a lot of really overwhelming problems to grapple with when it comes to our own and other animals’ existence on the planet right now. And so the first layer of that is that I want this curiosity, this compassion to lead to people actually doing something in their lives that is going to lessen suffering for another being. And then the kind of second level to that is that if we do achieve yoga with the capital Y, connecting with other animals is connecting with ourselves or helping another animal is helping ourselves. So if we’re not even separate, then there’s no argument for why we should connect, right? We’re the same, we’re having the same experiences, the same challenges.
Andy Vantrease (00:33:59):
Yeah. Yeah. And I think both are really important and I think people will resonate with perhaps both or one of them or or none of them <laugh>. But that’s okay. You know, they’ll get to it in a different angle. And you know, we always talk about it at the Feathered Pipe Ranch, we’re hosting 18 retreats every summer, and each teacher has a different spin on how to open the gates to presence, to awareness, to contemplative practices, to union, to connection. Like I have really developed a gratitude for how many different avenues there are and how many different options there are for the ways that we can exist in the world.
Alison Zak (00:34:46):
And try to understand it.
Andy Vantrease (00:34:48):
And try to understand it, exactly. And part of yoga has really helped me to attempt to hold that non-duality that like one avenue isn’t better than the other. Like not having a judgment on the ways in to these questions. And it’s so interesting what you’re up to with the animal yoga because to make it fun as well, I think is really important. Kind of another kick I’m on right now is healing and achieving these states of awe and connection and wonder, it doesn’t necessarily have to come in like a completely dramatic, intense way. You know, there are definitely avenues of that, of course. Different types of plant medicine and dark nights of the soul and like all these things that we go through in life and some of the things that we reach for.
But how interesting, this window into getting curious about other animals and embodying them and what sounds might they make and what does that feel like in your body and what does that ring true for you as you’re sounding this way? And what imagery and what emotions are coming up for you as you’re asked to slither like a snake? I mean, there’s so much story around all these animals as well that we’ve either been taught directly through religion or through ancient tales or ghost stories or whatever. That also plays into the exploration, the dance.
Alison Zak (00:36:28):
Mm-hmm. Can I share a story related to this?
Andy Vantrease (00:36:32):
Alison Zak (00:36:33):
So I love everything you’re saying. So first of all, this doesn’t have to be yoga. This doesn’t have to be Asana. Like if that is not your jam, there are other ways to still achieve this connection with other animals. And for example, one of those is play, like you’re saying, to not take ourselves so seriously with it. One of the very first yoga classes I ever remember taking the teacher said that downward-facing dog was a resting pose. And I remember thinking in the moment like, What? How could that be? Because I’m in some discomfort here and my hamstrings are really tight. I’ve been practicing Asana for over, I don’t know, like 16 years at this point, and my heels don’t touch the floor. Like my knees are bent. My downward facing dog doesn’t look like what the picture of it looks like in all of the books.
And it certainly still doesn’t feel like a resting pose. But as soon as I was able to connect the shape of downward-facing dog with actual canines, who engage in a behavior called a play bow, which looks just like downward-facing dog, it was like a switch was flipped and the pose became playful for me. Like if I thought of it as a play bow instead of a downward facing dog, which is supposed to be rest, but doesn’t feel like it, like all of a sudden, this pose was fun for me. There wasn’t discomfort anymore. It was like I could move in it, I could howl in it, I could wag my tail. Like all of the things that I do with kids when we practice the pose. Why can’t downward dog be a play bow for us as adults too? It just totally transformed the pose for me because of that perspective switch. Just me knowing a little bit about other animals, and what their experience is like when they’re in that shape. You know, they’re not in a play bow for 10 breaths. They’re in a play bow for a couple of seconds and then their whole body’s wiggling and they’re doing something fun and it’s all playful.
Andy Vantrease (00:38:52):
I love that example because I think for a lot of people, yoga can slip into this category of having to be so serious. You know, you walk into the doors of a yoga studio and you put on this persona sometimes, and there’s a lot of teachers that are really fantastic about like listening to your body and all of that. But I still think there’s a little bit of an air sometimes of inaccessibility or…
Alison Zak (00:39:19):
Or just feeling like you have to fake this seriousness <laugh>.
Andy Vantrease (00:39:24):
Alison Zak (00:39:25):
I struggle with that teaching restorative yoga because it’s a style of yoga that I came to for a reason. I had to learn it. I love it, and I teach it, but I’m like the restorative teacher who’s like cracking jokes and sometimes I’m in my head like, Oh, I shouldn’t. This is supposed to be a very calm, restorative atmosphere, and I shouldn’t make the jokes, but like it’s me to make the jokes or to, you know, just say something silly even though it’s a restorative class. And I just have to remind myself to keep letting myself be myself in that way.
Andy Vantrease (00:40:02):
You know, some of the greatest teachers that I’ve learned from, they really strike that balance between responsibility and accountability and seriousness and like discipline and self-study—absolutely. AND the sacredness of silliness and the ability to play. And I think that there’s something that happens in our bodies that can be released when we do play and when we do laugh. It’s why we all love comedians because they’re telling the truth, but we’re laughing. And there’s this big release and we’re all allowed, you know, we’re allowed to laugh. I was just doing this singing workshop a couple weeks ago and one of the exercises that we did part of just warming up the body and just getting loose and like starting to allow the sound to come out of us. So one partner had to lay on the ground, the other partner was standing, and you basically just had to make a sound like, ahhh, and the other partner jiggled your body to help release that sound.
Alison Zak (00:41:12):
Oh my goodness.
Andy Vantrease (00:41:13):
So it looked like I’m laying and I’m going like, ahhhh. And she’s like kind of pounding on my chest so that the Ah-ah-ah-ah, turns into that. And then she’s like grabbing my arms and swinging my arms all around, and she’s shaking my diaphragm and torso and shaking my stomach. And at one point she picks up my feet and is like shaking my feet all around and kind of like wiggling them, like up and down back and forth. I went into like a laughter fit for five full minutes. And so did she. Everyone in the room was laughing, doing their own things. And then once we couldn’t stop, everybody started laughing at us, with us, the whole thing.
Alison Zak (00:41:55):
That’s the best.
Andy Vantrease (00:41:57):
And it was truly, I mean, I just had sore muscles in my face, and I felt so childlike and so joyful, and I just really felt like it was very healing for me. And this mixture of sound and movement, intuitive. Like I had met this girl the day before, you know, she was just grabbing flesh. And of course, you know, I think we’re kind of conditioned for everything to be tight and fit. No, we’re going for jiggly here! Everything about it was so healing and, and that part of the play can happen in various ways, but to your example of like the play bow, I think that it’s such an important part of how we get back into our bodies. You know, we bring the energy from the head back into the body and let the body lead.
Alison Zak (00:42:48):
I have had a similar experience with a very curated experience turned into just like the most genuine community laughter. It’s transformative. It’s collectively transformative.
Andy Vantrease (00:43:02):
Yeah. I think that laughter can really help us achieve those states of bliss. Um, you know, you mentioned that one of the animals that you’ve really studied and work with now through your nonprofit are beavers. And I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody that has studied beavers.
Alison Zak (00:43:21):
You’ve never met a beaver believer?
Andy Vantrease (00:43:23):
I’ve never met a beaver believer! <laugh>
Alison Zak (00:43:26):
Andy Vantrease (00:43:27):
I have a curiosity about beavers because I’ve seen a couple in the wild, and of course I’ve seen dams, like when I went up to Maine, there was this lake that was really amazing because there were dams on the lake and then all around the lake there were like trees that had been whittled away. And it’s like, Oh my gosh, this is beavers. So I know that in addition to the yoga, in addition to the writing that you do, a huge part of your work is through the Human-Beaver Coexistent Fund. Let’s get into that. Like how did you begin focusing in on this particular species? I just feel like there’s so many things that they do and ways that they live that we can really learn from.
Alison Zak (00:44:16):
I came back from the field in Indonesia, and I decided that I wanted to do some more applied type wildlife conservation related work. So I started working at a nonprofit in Northern Virginia called the Clifton Institute, where I was teaching education programs. It’s a 900-acre nature preserve that had beavers on the property. And it was my first time seeing a wild beaver. And like you said, you’ve experienced too: One of the great things about beavers is that we don’t actually have to see them to know that they’re there. They leave the most obvious evidence of probably any animal that they have made their mark on a landscape, by dams and their lodges and their chewed stumps all over the place. And so I just began observing these beavers and was fascinated. And what I always say is that beavers filled the monkey-sized hole in my heart <laugh>.
I still had this passion for the work that I had done across the world, but here was this animal, like right in my own home, that had this incredible impact on the landscape that lived in these family groups, generations living together in a lodge, essentially creating the conditions that they need for their families to survive and thrive. And I was just blown away. So I picked up a book called Eager by Ben Goldfarb when that came out and started learning. This was, you know, again, partially my experience watching them, but then, you know, learning, learning, learning all the facts I could about beavers. And then I became known in the area as this person who could help answer questions about what to do if a beaver is chewing down my trees, and I don’t want them to. So it became very clear to me that this was a perfect example of human-wildlife conflict and coexistence right here in my own backyard.
There was a gap of available resources in our region, and so I started the Human-Beaver Coexistence Fund, which I’ll call HBCF from here out, just cuz it’s such a long name. I started HBCF in June of 2021. We support landowners and land managers, anyone who is dealing with a beaver “problem.” I put that in quotes because that’s only the definition from the human perspective. But, we help landowners figure out what to do when beavers are chewing down their trees or flooding a road or clogging up a culvert. All of the things that beavers do. And, we can completely understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. <laugh> Luckily there are these great non-lethal ways to address those issues. And so we are trying to educate people more that those non-lethal alternatives actually exist because a lot of the response to a beaver problem is still to just trap and kill the beavers and remove them from the landscape. But they are keystone species, they’re ecosystem engineers, and they’re an animal that we would just benefit so much from having them on the landscape versus just getting rid of them.
Andy Vantrease (00:47:38):
What are some of the things that you’ve learned about beavers that have been impressive to you? I mean, probably so many things, but impressive and resonant in a way that you wish people would know because it would give them a greater admiration for the species and potentially like a hint at how humans could live in a more cohesive way.
Alison Zak (00:48:03):
What do I choose? You know, I will go back to the example that they live as families. You know, beavers are rodents, which is kind of like strike one against them as far as like the general human perception goes. In addition to that, they’re labeled as a nuisance or a pest so often. So people really don’t realize that they don’t reproduce like rodents, like the way that we think of rodents. They have just a few kits every year—kit is a baby beaver. They stay with the parents. So there’s always a mated pair, a male and female beaver. And their kits will stay in that area for two years before dispersing to find their own habitat, which for an animal that lives, you know, maybe only 15 years out in the wild—even that would be a nice long life for a beaver— that’s a long time. So they’re living in the lodge with potentially even two previous generations of offspring that are all helping to teach the new babies how to swim and what to eat. And they’re communicating with these adorable sounds. You really must go straight to YouTube after this and listen to the sounds of baby beavers. And there are people in the beaver world who are still saying, you know, well their brain is only the size of a walnut and that means nothing to me really, because they’re just not given enough credit for how intelligent and how social they are. One of the things that I’m often talking about in my work, in kind of the angle of trying to convince other people to value beavers, we are often talking about the benefits that they provide for people or for other species.
You know, some people are surprised that I have a nonprofit that’s specifically focused on one type of animal that’s not even endangered. Beavers aren’t, their conservation status is not threatened. They’re doing fine, their populations are even growing. But it’s because of those ripple effects, no pun intended, <laugh> that they have for so many other species. They literally create wetlands that support other wildlife. The biodiversity at a beaver pond is just incredible. The dams actually function like water filters on the landscape, so they’re filtering out pollutants and literally improving our water quality. They’re storing water to prevent more catastrophic flood events and, you know, these heavier storms that we’ve been seeing due to climate change. And so they do also provide many benefits for people. I talk a lot about those, but I like to remind people that when it comes back to who I am, that, you know, beavers are inherently valuable.
Andy Vantrease (00:51:02):
Meaning they don’t have to provide all of that value to humans in order for us to want to care about them.
Alison Zak (00:51:11):
Yes, meaning I slightly resent the fact that I am constantly having to convince people that they shouldn’t kill them because they help us <laugh>.
Andy Vantrease (00:51:20):
Right, right, right. I understand.
Alison Zak (00:51:22):
But that’s the work that has to be done.
Andy Vantrease (00:51:24):
Alison Zak (00:51:25):
The other last one that I’ll share is, you know, there’s been for the last few years here, such devastating wildfires in certain parts of the country and beaver wetlands have been shown to slow the spread of wildfires and even to like extinguish them in certain places. In addition to providing these refuges where other wildlife can go when everything else is being scorched, there’s like these wet lush valleys that just aren’t seeing the negative effects of the wildfires.
Andy Vantrease (00:51:59):
Wow. So we need more beaver wetlands in Montana. <laugh>
Alison Zak (00:52:03):
Yes. And many other places.
Andy Vantrease (00:52:04):
Yeah. One of the things that you mentioned, and I’m curious to kind of bring this to our location at the Feathered Pipe Ranch is that they coexist and they kind of create the ideal conditions for other species to live, whether that’s aquatic creatures, whether it’s like other big mammals like moose and deer and some other things. Like we have a moose at the Ranch that has been coming the last couple years and no other moose were really around in the decades prior. I mean, the Ranch has been open since 1975 and there used to be like tons of bears and mountain lion sightings and things like that. But I hadn’t heard any stories about moose. And in 2020 when we didn’t have an open season, this moose showed up and it was actually quite magical because it was like eight months or so after India Supera, our founder, had died and Crystal, her daughter, took over. We were just kind of all sitting at the Ranch one day trying to figure out, Do we have a season? Do we not? The covid restrictions were always changing and trying to figure out what’s best.
And so Crystal decided like, I am gonna call it. I’m not gonna have this season. I can’t remember if it was like right then or earlier that day or later that day, but it was that day this moose showed up in the infamous lake at the Feathered Pipe. And you know, I think she saw it as a message from her mom just saying like, Yeah, let this land rest. Let the other animals come back. Let yourselves rest. Let’s just take a break this year and then we’ll have a season next year and things will carry on. And so it was really special to have this visit from this moose. And we were all kind of wondering, Oh, what’s gonna happen when people come back? But he has stuck around! Now we have the, I guess challenge and honor of like, How do we coexist with this big animal? But like, do you think that that means there’s gonna be beavers now or what? <laugh>
Alison Zak (00:54:27):
Well, I love that story. I am hopeful that someday I will get to visit Feathered Pipe and see this lake and this bull moose. I always say beavers and moose go together like peanut butter and jelly <laugh> in places where they already overlap of course. But it’s interesting because at the Feathered Pipe, it sounds like it’s almost the reverse order of how I would expect things to happen. But it is really notable in general that more wildlife or a different kind of wildlife felt more comfortable coming around the area when there was this break from it being so busy with people, but now it sounds like the moose is getting habituated to some extent, to more activity around and, you know, an animal as potentially harmful as a moose, it’s a great example of taking how to coexist seriously and keeping the safety of everybody in mind.
Certainly moose can be aggressive if they’re threatened, and so it’s a great lesson for people who visit the Ranch to be really mindful of their surroundings when they’re out for a hike. And to know the right way to respond if they do encounter a moose. But usually what happens is that a beaver will create the pond, like you had started to say, that that really is what kind of creates the conditions for all these other wildlife. So with beavers and moose, typically in a beaver wetland, the moose are attracted to the types of aquatic plants that are growing. And so then the moose are walking through the water and foraging on the aquatic vegetation that potentially wasn’t even there if there weren’t beavers. But it sounds like, I think overall the presence of this moose at Feathered Pipe is hopefully a great maybe foreshadowing of more wildlife coming back. And I think you had mentioned that there used to be beavers nearby as well.
Andy Vantrease (00:56:40):
Yeah, up the ridge there used to be a place called Beaver Lake or Beaver Pond. Some of the people who worked there in the seventies, eighties, nineties, talk about that. They would hike up there a lot and I mean, I would imagine that maybe that area, the runoff and the creeks from that area actually trickle into what is now the lake at the Ranch.
Alison Zak (00:57:04):
Right, feeding the lake. Overall, what I’m seeing in like the mid-Atlantic part of the country, beaver populations are growing. I’m hearing this from my colleagues elsewhere as well, that beaver populations are still in a lot of ways rebounding from the fur trade when they were almost completely wiped out—to make hats. But it’s a positive, hopeful story that there are more beavers and also there’s more human tolerance for beavers now. And there are, you know, organizations like mine all over the country that are helping people figure out ways to keep beavers alive and doing all the good things they do for themselves and others. So if you ever hear word that there are beavers at the Ranch, let me know. That will be very exciting. <laugh>
Andy Vantrease (00:57:57):
Maybe that’ll get you there. Maybe we have to call you and say, Alison, there’s a beaver in our lake. Get here this year! <laugh>
Alison Zak (00:58:05):
It would probably take less than that. <laugh>
Andy Vantrease (00:58:08):
Yeah. Well, and I think that kind of the sentiment and the moral behind all of this is really like creating these spaces where these animals can be in their natural habitat and be as undisturbed as possible. And I think that the places where that can happen alongside people is really this cross-section of exploration and learning that is very delicate, but it also can be really profound what that can teach us and how we can see actually what’s possible. What’s possible in the ways that we can be here together and also create and revive the magic of the fact that we are here together. I think it was last summer we were all sitting on the picnic tables, like everybody goes out and eats meals overlooking the lake and on the lawn during breaks and everything. And in the evening, usually like the couple mother deers would bring their babies down. There’s usually anywhere from three to six fawns running around each summer. And there was one night where we were all sitting there and just chatting after dinner and all the babies and all the moms were on the lawn and the babies were chasing each other around like puppies!
And what was so amazing was like the Ranch has become this place where the deer know that they’re safe. Nobody’s getting near them, nobody’s feeding them, nobody’s hurting them, nobody’s hunting them. Like this is a sanctuary that they have started to understand over the years and over the decades. Like, there’s national forest behind us, which is hunting area. And I think that they’ve all like told their buddies, Hey, go to the Feathered Pipe. It’s a safe haven. So the fact that these does will bring their fawns so close to humans and just let them play is amazing. And then we get to be the observers of these other beings that bring us joy, bring us laughter, bring us that sense of wonder and that reciprocal feeling when somebody trusts you. It’s definitely like an honor.
Alison Zak (01:00:27):
Yeah. You’re really, at that place, setting an example of what it can look like. The whole coexistence goal. We’re really oftentimes in a place as a society where our interactions with other animals are either, like, we’re characterizing them as bad, full of fear. Like we’ve gotta manage this and, you know, react. Or on the flip side of that, where we’ve been so removed from these experiences with animals, that when we do see them, our reaction is almost positive to a harmful extent. Like in places like Yellowstone where people are getting too close to bison and…
Andy Vantrease (01:01:16):
Putting baby bison in the back of their car!
Alison Zak (01:01:18):
Oh my goodness. Exactly. <laugh> So like, we can’t handle it on either end of the spectrum. And what we need are these places where the interactions with other animals are on everybody’s terms and they’re calm and they’re meaningful and they’re just like the way that they should be. Both parties have agency and both parties are respectful of the other. And so Feathered Pipe is setting an example in that way.
Andy Vantrease (01:01:49):
Yeah. And it’s really challenging. Like one of my really good friends works for the Western Landowners Alliance, and they are doing a lot of work with how ranchers coexist with wildlife that are predators to their livestock. That’s a huge overlap. And what’s really interesting about his work is that a lot of people are finding out that allowing the wildlife to be there actually creates better conditions in some cases for the actual land that the livestock is on, and the entire diversity of the ecosystem that is on these people’s properties. Like if you can figure out ways to minimize how many of your livestock that the wildlife are feeding on, but still allowing them to be there.
Alison Zak (01:02:41):
Andy Vantrease (01:02:42):
It’s not like these challenges and these problems are going to go away. Like, I mean, we kind of hope that they don’t go away. Because when it’s not existent, that’s when there’s a lot of other issues that are going to happen if these species aren’t actually in our ecosystems. Just the ripple effect with land, with water, with soil, with other animals.
Alison Zak (01:03:09):
Andy Vantrease (01:03:09):
And that perspective of, It’s only called a problem if we’re looking at it from the human perspective.
Alison Zak (01:03:18):
I had, I jokingly call it an existential crisis when I had to write up the results from my master’s research, and I had to call what the monkeys were doing something and my choices were kind of crop raiding or crop feeding. There was one term that honored the farmer’s experience of it, which is of course “raid.” And then there was the other term which more honored the monkey’s experience of it, which was that they’re just finding good food where they can find it and foraging like they do anywhere else. I just had this moment where it was like, I can’t choose one of these terms because I can’t honor one of these perspectives more than the other. And then what I settled on was honoring the farmer’s perspective in the sense that it is only people who will be reading this paper. <laugh>.
Andy Vantrease (01:04:06):
Alison Zak (01:04:07):
It’s just a small example about how, exactly like you’re saying, these problems are never… first of all, are they even problems? But it’s more like we’re redefining them. And so we’re constantly adapting to whatever the situation is. And I think that just to bring it back to like my whole thing, it’s like we can only do that successfully when we understand kind of the human component of the situation, but also the other animals as well. But it’s not easy.
Andy Vantrease (01:04:39):
Mm-hmm. I can imagine. But it’s worthwhile. It’s worthwhile for so many reasons. We talked about so much connection today and what I consider to be really the magic of getting to exist on this planet. The tagline of our podcast is “the magic of living a connected life.” When you hear that phrase, what does that mean to you? How is it that you feel connected and stay connected?
Alison Zak (01:05:06):
What comes up is remembering that we’re animals ourselves. It means to me rejecting this idea that there is a dichotomy between humans and other animals. Remembering that we are part of nature and not separate from it. You know, these are big statements that can be kind of hard to wrap your head around practically speaking, but like from my heart, that is just the only truth I know. Be an animal, be with other animals. That’s what it’s all about.
Andy Vantrease (01:06:04):
Alison Zak—a joyful, purpose-driven human that I had a blast getting to know through this conversation. Our foundation president, Anne Jablonski, first tipped me off to Alison’s work a couple months ago, and she was sure we’d be two peas in a pod. She was certainly right, and this conversation was uplifting and filled with laughter and lightness, amidst topics that can be complex and difficult to unpack.
We got to geek out about experiences with animals throughout our lives, and the magic of existing here with species so beautiful and smart, it would blow your mind to know the true capacities of the creatures of our planet. My dream as a kid was to be a veterinarian and I studied animal sciences in college at Virginia Tech for a year before switching to professional writing. So this conversation touched on so many of my personal fascinations and interests that at one point were part of a career track for me, but now I consider to be part of my spiritual practice or my wellbeing.
To learn more about Alison and her work, find her on Instagram @Animal_Asana. Visit Coexistwithbeavers.org and AlisonZak.com where you can pre-order her book, Wild Asana: Animals, Yoga and Connecting Our Practice to the Natural World. A big shout out to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move throughout the world.
This podcast is brought to you by the Feathered Pipe Foundation. Help support us by donating at featheredpipe.com/gratitude and leave us a review on Apple Podcast with your feedback on this episode or the show as a whole. Also share episodes with your friends when you think they can be helpful, because this is the most organic way that the show grows. And I even get to meet people at the Ranch who first heard about us through a friend sharing a podcast episode. We only have two episodes left in season three, so keep the Dandelion Effect going, and have a beautiful day!