By Sandeep Chakravorty
Consul General of India in New York
There is a fervent need to change the way we have been interacting with nature. Thus far it has been man v/s nature. This is clearly not sustainable. Man is part of nature and can only prosper in harmony with nature and all that is part of nature, living or nonliving. One may wonder what is the link between sustainability and yoga? Is a link being established just because we are commemorating the International Day of Yoga? To understand the link one needs to go no further than delve into Indian philosophy which posits the human being in the lap of mother nature. Let me elaborate on just one tiny example from our scriptures which explains our position in the world. It is from the Upanishads.
“If all the Upanishads and all the other scriptures happened all of a sudden to be reduced to ashes, and if only the first verse in the Isha Upanishad were left in the memory of the Indians, our civilization would live forever.” With these words Mahatma Gandhi paid tribute to the remarkable Isha Upanishad, which by long tradition usually comes first in Indian collections. The first mantra of Isha Upanishad says:
“Isavasyam idam sarvam
Yat kincha jagatyam jagat
Tena tyaktena bhunjitha
Ma graddh kasya svid dhanam”
The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all
The Lord is the supreme Reality
Rejoice in him through renunciation
Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord.
Everything inanimate or animate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota and one should not accept other’s things, knowing well to whom they belong.
So when everything belongs to the Lord or to nature and we are only in trusteeship, who are we to ruin it, pollute it and destroy it to satisfy our greed?
When one hears the word yoga, what are the first images that come to mind? Asanas and exercises. Lately, it seems like yoga has become synonymous with the physical aspect of the practice – the asana or postures. But that is only one aspect of yoga. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yoga is explained as having eight limbs or ashtanga which 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. The rest, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, ultimately lead to the union of the individual soul with the universal soul.
Victoria Marzilli, founder of ‘Yoga for Humanity’, says that realizing a connection with the universe may be a stretch for most of us, our connection doesn’t have to be so abstract and out-there — the natural environment can help to serve as a way to see that oneness and union all around us. Green Yoga practitioner Russell Comstock asks, “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?
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 show that yoga can perhaps inspire conscious, peaceful, environmental stewardship for the betterment of society and the Earth.
We see the evolution of friends and family members who start to practice yoga all around us. They begin to make healthy decisions in their lives, whether it’s paying more attention to the food they eat, what they wear, what they buy or changing their lifestyle to accommodate sustainable practices. For example, in my personal case, my yoga consciousness doesn’t necessarily mean that I am doing asanas, but it translates to maintaining societal hygiene, working towards reducing use of single use plastics and a passion for trees and water. The late Michael Stone, a well-respected and well-loved meditation and yoga teacher, in his book “Yoga for a World Out of Balance” says “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.”
Yoga has the power to make one 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 tree or animal has an equal right to live on this planet. If we can open our minds to the original 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. It is my firm belief that practically applying the principles of yoga on an individual level can lead to large-scale change in our relationship with our planet. As the world grows increasingly complex, it has been easy to lose touch with the simple reality which has come down to us through ages in our scriptures.
At this moment when we are grappling with the situation created by Covid-19, which I believe has come about by breaking the rules of nature, we have to redevelop the pathways for reclaiming the connection to nature and enhancing the capacity for compassionate action. Yoga can inspire conscious, peaceful, environmental stewardship for the betterment of society and the Earth. Through the practice of yoga we become more sensitized to the interconnections of thought, energy, and action. Yoga teaches us to care for our bodies and to make choices that are life enhancing over those that diminish quality of life. Improving air and water quality is one such example. With a greater awareness of our surroundings and what goes into our bodies, we can begin to make choices that support clean air and water for all. It may mean walking to destinations more, using less plastics or reducing energy consumption.
Similarly, we can become more aware of the foods we eat and the water we drink. We can then choose not to buy bottled water or consume less processed foods. We can become aware of the various correlations and what it takes to bring food from the farm to the table or water from the forests to the jug. Our choices in the marketplace impact the producers and in turn the environment those companies operate within. Thus the yoga we practice at home (Hatha and Kriya), and in our lives in general (Karma, Bhakti, Jnana and Tantra), not only changes us as individuals, it impacts the wider world in which we live.
Bringing yoga and environmental awareness together is beneficial for all. The practice of yoga generates new habits of thinking, and the fate of our world is dependent upon creative, new initiatives for long-term survival. If anyone does not agree with what I have said please visit Govardhan Ecovillage, near Mumbai in India. The need of the hour are hundreds and thousands of such institutions re-engineering our lives around our age-old philosophy. The need for Green Yoga can be more deeply felt than in this very moment.
References and Acknowledgements: Yoga for Humanity, Metta Earth Institute, Michael Stone, Santanam Swaminathan (Speaking Tree).