Get Your Green On
Environmental crisis got you down? Let yoga inspire you to make life better for yourself and the whole wide world.
By Allison Wellner
It took two years of yoga practice, one trip to the supermarket, and an amazing organic dinner to transform Ashley Currie from a person who never thought much about green issues to a budding environmentalist. It started in New York City, just after Currie's regular Wednesday evening yoga class. She and a classmate decided to make dinner together and headed to the supermarket to gather ingredients. Currie, a 23-year-old professional actress and dancer, felt the way she always does after practice: peaceful, centered, happy. She'd started yoga for the workout but cherished the blissed-out feelings it brought and the life view it was helping her develop. "When you have a strong practice and you do yoga long enough, it's hard to not start seeing the philosophy behind it," she says. Indeed, after practice, she says, she'd come to appreciate how "everything is connected."
Currie's friend started piling organic food into their shopping cart—a move that Currie, who lives on a tight budget, hadn't previously considered. But the dinner they prepared was delicious, and Currie had a revelation: Organic food was not only very tasty but was also probably better for the environment—in other words, for the "everything" here on the planet that she felt so connected to in yoga class. She realized that she could extend her postpractice feeling of interconnection by living greener—and that she could start with the food she put on her table each day.
For Currie, respecting the link between her own actions and the health of the planet primarily means eating organic food as much as possible—organic farming emits far fewer greenhouse gases than conventional farming, so it's a great place to start. Currie now regularly hits the Internet to get better informed on environmental issues, so she can figure out how else she can help. "We're killing the planet," she says. "We've got to do something about it."
These days, just about everyone with a pulse is starting to get this message—the ominous signs are all around us. Climate change, most scientists agree, is a reality. The average global temperature has climbed sharply in the past 30 years. If the current warming trend continues, the earth's temperature in the coming decades could reach heights not experienced since the time of the dinosaurs. In just one year, the Arctic Ocean has lost an area of year-round ice cover the size of Texas. The results of all this warming could be cataclysmic, experts warn. Coastlines will shift as polar ice caps melt; storms, droughts, and floods will increase; massive human migrations could take place. The world is in danger.
But what does this have to do with yoga? Quite a bit, it turns out. The essence of yoga is balance, and that means not only balance in our bodies or our emotional lives, but also balance in our relationship to the world. Yoga's core principles can motivate you to take meaningful actions that are good for the planet and also appropriate for you, whatever your circumstances. And while your yoga practice is deepening your commitment to living green, it can also help you to cope with the anxiety that the state of our world can provoke.
First, Do No Harm
While concerns about making greener lifestyle choices are fairly new, caring about the planet and all of its inhabitants has been a part of yoga philosophy for thousands of years. Many of yoga's yamas, or principles, are relevant, explains Georg Feuerstein, founder of the Yoga Research and Education Foundation in Middletown, California. First among these is ahimsa, or nonviolence. "Genuine yoga is impossible without it," he writes in The Deeper Dimension of Yoga. Indeed, Jainism, which shares its roots with yoga, is based on what some would consider a deep concern for the environment. Strict adherents don't dig in soil, mold lumps of clay, disturb a puddle, or do anything else that might affect another living organism negatively. They even wear masks over their noses and mouths to avoid inhaling tiny bugs.
Obviously, not everyone will go to such extremes. But the general principle of nonharming can influence daily choices. Some people choose not to eat meat, to eat lower on the food chain. By doing this they not only spare animals' lives but also help the environment by reducing emissions. A recent University of Chicago study found that a person who eats a typical American diet, which includes meat, contributes 3,274 pounds more greenhouse gas emissions to the environment each year than a person who eats food that comes only from plant sources.
Food choices are just one way that yogis practice caring for the environment. Julie Roddham, 41, the wardrobe manager for Cirque du Soleil's O show in Las Vegas, experiences a sense of interconnection with the natural world when she practices yoga several times a week and says, "The biggest challenge is to take that intention and feeling and to live it off the mat."
One way she tries to do this is by being a good steward of the land around her home. When she bought her house in the desert seven years ago, there was a lawn in the front yard. She realized she had a choice: She could water, mow, and distribute chemicals on grass that would struggle to survive there, or she could replace the grass with native plants that would thrive. "I chose to take the grass out, and I planted cactus and desert herbs," Roddham says. As a bonus, she's learned to use some of the herbs as household cleaners—which allows her to avoid the standard commercial versions she believes will harm the water supply.
The more closely you look at yoga principles, the more clearly they point toward taking action to care for the earth. One of the yamas, astyea, or nonstealing, is a good example. Adopting astyea means not using more than you need and making good use of the surplus. By focusing on what you really need, you can help counteract the thousands of consumerist messages you're exposed to each day. Another principle, aparigraha, or greedlessness—sometimes referred to as nongrasping—reminds us to respect others' rights to share a clean environment.
Recycling, a long-standing cornerstone of a green lifestyle, is an excellent application of both nonstealing and greedlessness. Roddham, for example, has taken over responsibility for the recycling program at her workplace—she asks her co-workers to drop off recyclables in her office, and "when the sack gets so big that I can't get in my door," she totes them home and puts them out with her own recycling. She's currently working to expand recycling options at Cirque du Soleil's other properties.
Just as people at all fitness levels benefit from the physical practice of yoga, so yoga principles can help you become greener, whatever your starting point.
For some practitioners, like Currie, yoga is the entry point to greener living. For others, green living is already so much a part of their daily routine that it simply goes without saying. But even people who are well on their way toward living a green lifestyle often find that their yoga practice deepens their commitment to the earth.
This is the case for Brian Raszka, a Reno, Nevada, artist. His ecological awareness began in high school, when he made his first donation to Greenpeace. He and his wife follow an array of earth-friendly practices, including riding their bikes to work; when they must drive, they batch errands to use their car less often.
"Yoga is about balancing all aspects of your life," he says. "If we balance our lives, it's easier to think outside our immediate experience. This opens us up to consider, for instance, green issues."
Linda Mason Hunter, 60, an author and home design consultant in Des Moines, Iowa, has been practicing yoga and steadily moving toward a greener lifestyle for the past 25 years. She too sees a strong connection between the two. "You can certainly live a green and sustainable life without practicing yoga," she says. "But I don't see how you can do yoga and not be interested in a green and sustainable life."
For her, the link between the two is mindfulness—she practices mindfulness during her asana practice, which reminds her to bring that attention to the rest of her life. So as not to get overwhelmed and paralyzed by all the choices before her, she has systematically directed her gaze onto different areas of her life, taking the greening one step at a time. For a while, she focused on reducing the amount of chemicals she used. Now, she's focused on cutting her energy consumption. She's planning to purchase a fuel-efficient car and has taken the big step of spending part of the year in Vancouver, in order to reduce her use of air conditioning during the hot summers in Des Moines.
The work, she says, will never be done—but she's in it for the long haul. "I see a lot of things that I still have to do, but I don't get uptight about it. It has to be an evolution," she says. "It's a process, and it's going to take time."
That Inconvenient Truth
But time is the one thing we don't have, says Emily Figdor, a clean air and energy advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C. "The scientific community tells us that we have a 10-year window of opportunity to act to prevent the worst impacts of global warming and to stabilize our emissions of global warming pollutants," Figdor says. She adds, "That's a very narrow window, and we're past the point of taking the modest first step. We can't just put a Band-Aid on the problem."
Figdor also says that while individual actions—such as eating organic foods, recycling, and watching our energy usage at home—are commendable, there's a danger of deciding you've done your part and don't need to do more. Indeed, Matthew Kotchen, an environmental economist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, recently published a study suggesting that consumers who buy premium green goods (rainforest-friendly shade-grown coffee, for instance) may be less likely to donate money to environmental causes. That's bad news, because pooling your money with others helps fund large-scale change. It's great to vote with your dollar in the marketplace, but if it causes you to scale back your charitable contributions, you may actually have a net negative effect on the environment.
"This is where honesty comes in," says Bo Forbes, a Boston yoga teacher and clinical psychologist. "You have to get informed about the changes that are possible for you to make, and to ask yourself whether you're doing as much as you can." While you're asking yourself this question, be sure that you're not giving yourself a pass for taking only the green actions that benefit you in other ways—for instance, are you eating organic food for the environment, or for your health? Are you buying a fuel-efficient car for the environment or, as gas prices climb, for your wallet?
Of course, it's not wrong to take positive actions on behalf of your health or pocketbook. But Forbes would urge you to remember the importance of selflessness and altruism in yoga. If you find you're only taking the green steps that benefit you directly—and scaling back on other selfless actions—you may want to consider where your motives lie and whether there's more you can do.
It so happens that Figdor has an idea about how all of us can do more on behalf of the environment: "Get involved politically," she urges. Our most significant global warming problems are most likely to be solved not by individuals taking action on their own, but by federal, state, and local governments creating policies that regulate industrial emissions and provide funding to develop long-term, widespread clean energy sources. Many changes that will really help the environment can only come at the policy level, she says.
The idea of political activism might seem problematic for yoga practitioners—one of the limbs of yoga, after all, asks us to keep our gaze focused inward and accept the world as it is. Can we do this and take action on behalf of the environment? Absolutely, says Forbes. "Sustainable living is an issue of nonviolence toward the earth and the environment all around us, and ahimsa trumps everything else in yoga philosophy," she says. "It's the primary principle."
Entrepreneur Jonathan Fields, 41, owns several companies, including Sonic Yoga in New York City. He doesn't really consider himself an activist, although he's long been interested in environmental issues. Last year, he saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. "My mind immediately went to my daughter, Jesse—she's five," he says. "What kind of a world will I be leaving her?"
So Fields started taking action at his yoga studio as well as in his personal life, including switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, signing up for wind- and water-generated power, and offering his students a $10 credit for buying compact fluorescent bulbs or switching to green power at their homes.
"You could say that since yoga emphasizes accepting yourself and your circumstances as they are, without your being compelled to change them, you should say, "That's just the way it is; deal with it.' But I don't think that's yoga's larger message," Fields says. "I'm very attached to the desire to create the healthiest planet possible for my daughter."
Where there is attachment, anxiety is sure to follow. Since most of us are doubtless quite attached to life on earth as we know it, in this era of distressing headlines, a certain amount of anxiety about environmental issues is quite normal, says Larina Kase, a Philadelphia psychologist who frequently works with patients on anxiety and fear issues. In this case, a bit of fear is a healthy thing, she says, because it can propel us to make changes. The trick is to keep the anxiety at a manageable level.
"If someone reacts with intense fear and anxiety, they're likely to feel helpless," she says. Yoga practice can help with this, too—for instance, Fields calms his anxiety on this and other issues with a regular practice of meditation and pranayama. Focusing on the present is also beneficial, says Forbes. "Stay within the reasonable present, and focus on the small steps you can take," she says—whether those steps are personal or political.
Of course, all of those small steps can feel like just that—small—in the face of such a large environmental threat. Caroline MacDougall, 54, of Santa Barbara, California, has spent years practicing yoga and living green. These practices have touched many parts of her life: Her car is a hybrid, and the tea company she runs, Teeccino, helps protect rainforest trees by purchasing and using the nuts of the ramon tree—a relative of the fig—in some of its products. And yet, she says, "I always worry that I'm not doing enough."
MacDougall finds an encouraging metaphor in her yoga practice, however. "What I love in class is that we're all practicing together. I can feel everyone breathing and moving through the postures. There are people in my class I may never talk to, but I feel bonded to them," she says. "I realize that if I do my part, and everyone else does their part, then together we can create change."
Alison Stein Wellner lives in New York City. She wrote "Kind Ambition" in the April 2006 issue.