Yoga and Environmental Sustainability

Photo by  J A Y J A Y  on  Unsplash

Photo by J A Y J A Y on Unsplash

When you hear the word yoga, what are the first images that come to mind? Yoga has become synonymous with the physical aspect of the practice - the asana, or postures. But that is only one aspect of yoga. The meaning of the word 'yoga' is union, and through the ancient yogic texts like the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, we learn that there's much more to this practice than meets the eye.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written almost two thousand years ago, yoga is explained as having eight "limbs" or steps (Ashtanga means eight limbs in Sanskrit). The physical practice (asana) is actually the third limb. The first two are the yamas and niyamas - ethical and personal guidelines for living. It is in this section that we find most of the information that connects what most of us do on our mats to the rest of our lives and the rest of the world. The rest of the limbs (pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi) ultimately lead to the union of the individual soul with the universal soul. 

So maybe realizing a connection with the universe is a stretch for most of us. But it doesn't have to be so abstract and out-there - and the natural environment can help to serve as a way to see that oneness and union all around us.

There's a great excerpt of the book Metta Earth Yoga by Russell Comstock on the Metta Earth blog that says "How are yoga and sustainability related? What could standing on your head and the fate of the planet possibly have in common? Can practicing yoga help to make the world a better place? It is well known that yoga is founded upon principles that promote awareness of one’s sense of connection, inborn unity, and interdependence with all things. Clearly these central tenets convey innately ecological consciousness through the practice of yoga? And perhaps more importantly, can yoga inspire conscious, peaceful, environmental stewardship for the betterment of society and the Earth?"

Indeed, we often witness the evolution of friends and family members who start to practice yoga more often also making other healthy decisions in their lives, whether it's paying more attention to the food we eat or changing their lifestyle to accommodate healthier activities.

Michael Stone, a well-respected and well-loved meditation and yoga teacher, said in his book Yoga for a World Out of Balance that "The techniques of yoga - including body practices, working with the breath, and discovering the natural east of the mind - reorient practitioners to the very deep continuity that runs through every aspect of life until they realize that the mind, body, and breath are situated in the world and not apart from worldly life in any way."

One aspect of this reorientation is found in focusing on prana. Prana is defined as the 'life force' permeating the universe on all levels. And on the mat, in our physical yoga practice, there's often a focus on paying attention to this prana, this energy, within our own bodies. The philosophy of yoga then takes that teaching and expands it to cover all living beings. If we feel this energy, then that same energy that brings us life is also found within other humans, animals, insects, plants, and even the smallest organisms that make up this existence.

Paramguru R. Sharath Jois, the lineage holder of Ashtanga Yoga, explained in a recent conference that yoga makes you more sensitive to the world. Through this realization of shared energy and common life force, we learn to respect other living beings and understand that every animal has equal rights to live on this planet.

Planting trees is a part of yoga, too.
— Paramguru Sharath Jois

The closing mantra of the ashtanga yoga provides another example of how we as practitioners are directed to take this energy and awareness that we cultivate in our practice and take it out into the world for the betterment of 'all beings everywhere'.

May the rulers of the earth keep to the path of virtue
For protecting the welfare of all generations.
May the religious, and all peoples be forever blessed,
May all beings everywhere be happy and free
Om peace, peace, perfect peace
— Mangala Mantra

If we can open our minds to the originally intended purpose of yoga, in addition to the physical, emotional, and mental health that it brings to our lives, then there is hope for allowing this practice to encourage environmental sustainability. Yoga provides us with a set of guidelines and tools to help us deal with ourselves and with the world around us. It provides a framework for managing our inner needs and desires, and when applied to communities and societies, can be a toolkit for sustainable living and global change. We believe in practically applying the principles of yoga on an individual level can lead to large-scale change in our relationship to our planet.