Bears are more like us than we think

by Susan Eirich, PhD

As Jean walked into the bear area, he caught something unusual out of the corner of his eye. He turned to his right. Teton Totem was in his pool enclosure facing east, bathing himself in the early morning sun. He was balancing on his ample bottom, with his feet up in the air in a “v” shape, his front paws holding onto his back paws. He was holding perfectly still. Jean couldn’t believe it. He rushed to get someone else to witness it; “Do you see that? Do you see that? Teton is doing yoga!”

Drawings by Jean of Teton Totem (Left) and Humble Bumble (Right) stretching

It wasn’t a fleeting action. He held the position for several minutes. And he hadn’t placed himself casually. He was facing east, in the only spot the sun was reaching at that moment.

Teton finally released his feet and then laid his back on the ground in a full stretch. His legs were straight out in front of him, arms over his head with his claws interlaced and his back
was arched off the
ground. He held that
position for sever-
al minutes, totally
into it, until the concentrated energy of
two human beings
staring at him apparently penetrated
his awareness. He
glanced over, then
released the position, rolled over,
and got up.

It seems like a radical idea – a bear doing yoga? But that was what struck Jean as an immediate intuition. And really, why not? It might not be done with the finesse, elaboration, and detailed discipline we humans have added to it. But the fascinating implication is that yoga is an innate expression of a body intelligence shared by other creatures. It might not have the spiritual dimensions we humans have perceived it to be – but then, depending on one’s definition of spirituality, perhaps it does. Following an innate, deep, quiet body wisdom that ultimately comes to us from a larger source. (Actually, how do we know much of anything except through in innate intelligence connected to something larger than ourselves?)

When Jean told me about it afterwards he kept repeating, ”It was so remarkable”. I asked him to clarify. “That he was striking that pose, knowing that he had back problems in the past. It was as if he knew what to do now”. As soon as Jean said Teton knew what to do I suddenly had a flashback:
Several years ago Teton had been all but paralyzed, unable to walk. After western medicine failed we asked an intuitive energy healer, Penelope Smith, to see if she could help. For what- ever reason, after a few sessions with her Teton began to walk again. She explained that she had sent him images of what was wrong and how he could move in such a way as to help himself. She had given him help from the outside, new information and tools with which to deal with his situation. I wondered; had those learnings stayed with him and thus, “he knew what to do now”? Had she helped him help himself?

When he first began to walk again Jean had serious doubts whether Teton would ever be able to stand up on his hind legs, 1,000 pounds of weight on his frame. But after a year or so he was in fact able to stand and still can. Perhaps he had been practicing with his new yogic wisdom ever since, revising and applying it as he improved. He now “knew the right thing to do” to help himself. Or perhaps it was a combination of innate intelligence, and an immediate recognition of what to do once it was shown to him. A won-der-full combination of human help and animal wisdom.

The other day Jean saw Humble Bumble Bear lying on his back, feet in the air, rocking back and forth on his spine. Was he doing bear chiropractic? Jean thought about other heavy-bodied animals. Perhaps when we see buffalo wallowing or rolling it isn’t just a dust bath or scratching their backs. Maybe they are straightening their spines, putting vertebrae back into place.

There is a video on the internet of a bear in a zoo doing something similar to Teton’s stretches. In the background you hear a cacophony of ex- cited giggles and comments from visitors as if they are watching a cute and entertaining show. Which in a way it is. But where we fall short is leaving it at cute and entertaining and not looking more deeply into the implications. Our general education fails us in this, in encouraging us to question and explore “with a child’s mind”. This allows us to actively engage the potential of our superb humans brains in a way that we become more deliberately conscious as we observe. That is how new discoveries are made and how the profound connections between us and other living beings are discovered, enriching us all.

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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