Yoga, the Earth, Patanjali, and You
Yoga is inward-focused in a lot of ways. Although we may practice together in a group setting, yogis are always encouraged to make their experiences personal by learning to listen to their own bodies, tuning out external comparisons and distractions. But yoga doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s also about forging connections to everything around us. The union we so often talk about extends beyond the physical borders of our bodies to encompass other people, living creatures, and the natural world. That’s why to be a yogi is to be an environmentalist.
One of contemporary yoga’s favourite classical texts, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, offers us five yamas: guidelines for how to act in an ethical way toward others and, by extension, toward nature. There’s one very important thing to remember about the yamas: although they carry the aura of ancient wisdom, if you have any sort of moral compass, they actually just reinforce what you already know is right.
The first yama, ahimsa, has the most obvious connection to conservation. Ahimsa means not-harming. While most of us aren’t captains of industry or in the position to broker international environmental treaties, that doesn’t mean that we should assume we don’t have any power or influence. When we’re going about our twenty-first-century lives, we should make choices that do the least harm to the planet whenever possible. Grassroots level priorities trickle up to affect commerce, policy, and elections. Practicing ecological ahimsa is important.
This approach aligns us with another of the yamas, asteya, which means not stealing. We shouldn’t rob the Earth of her resources for personal gain, nor support others who do.
Aparigraha (not coveting what others have) fits right in here too. Don’t feed that nagging need for more stuff with junk food. Cultivate a discerning palate for objects of beauty and function that align with your core values, regardless of what others are doing.
Satya, or truthfulness, can be understood to mean taking a stand instead of just going with the status quo. Finding your voice and making a few waves if necessary. Lobbying at your workplace or local government for more opportunities to recycle, use cleaner energy sources, and protect green spaces. As the Earth seems more imperiled, many of us are expressing ourselves in this way and discovering that it does have an effect.
The final yama is brahmacharya, which traditionally meant chastity. Since celibacy doesn’t sit well with most modern yogi ‘householders’, brahmacharya is often interpreted to mean the conservation of vitality, which is a pretty apt description of what we want for our planet.
It’s not necessary to go to the misty mountaintops or seek out idyllic deserted beaches in order to connect with nature. We can do it anywhere we lay our mats, whether it be in our own back gardens or snuggled against our neighbours in a crowded public class.
As yoga’s popularity and influence continue to grow, it’s important that it does so in an environmentally conscious way. As individuals and as a community, we have the opportunity to move from the personal to the global. We must regard the health of our planet as an extension of our own health because they are one and the same.