Yoga Philosophy: Patanjali's Yamas for Environmentalists
Yoga is inward focused in many ways. Although we often practice together in groups, yogis are always encouraged to make their experiences personal, learning to listen to their own bodies and tune 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 speak of extends beyond the physical borders of our bodies to encompass other people, living creatures, and the natural world. To be a yogi is to care deeply about our planet and all its inhabitants. To be a yogi is to be an environmentalist.
Yoga, the Earth, Patanjali, and You
One of contemporary yoga’s favourite classical texts, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, provides us with five rules (called the yamas) for how to act in an ethical way toward other people. Below, we'll discover that the yamas can naturally be extended to offer guidance on how to behave toward nature as well. This merger of yoga and environmentalism takes the yamas beyond their original intent to support modern yogis as we negotiate the challenges facing our planet.
The first yama, ahimsa, has the most obvious connection to conservation. Ahimsa means not-harming. When we’re going about our twenty-first-century lives, we can make lifestyle choices that do the least harm to the planet whenever possible. While most of us aren’t world leaders responsible for negotiating international environmental policies, we shouldn't assume that we don’t have any power or influence. Grassroots level priorities trickle up to affect commerce and politics.
Asteya, which means not stealing, also lends itself to ecological interpretation. For too long, humans have treated the Earth as if we owned it. This planet and all her natural resources don't belong to any individual or corporation. Taking more than your share at the expense of others is stealing.
Aparigraha means not coveting what others have. Don’t feed the nagging need for more stuff with junk. 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, inspires us to find our voices and make a few waves if necessary. Speak up at your workplace or to your local government for more opportunities to recycle, use cleaner energy sources, and protect green spaces. As the Earth becomes even more imperiled, many of us are expressing ourselves more openly and discovering that we can effect change.
The final yama is brahmacharya, which traditionally meant chastity. Brahmacharya is often interpreted to mean the conservation of vitality, which is a pretty apt description of what we want for our planet.
As yoga’s popularity and influence continue to grow, we have the opportunity to bring yoga’s ancient values to the environmental movement. The ethical foundations laid centuries ago are as relevant now as ever.