Ego to Eco: 10 offerings from yoga for living in harmony with the planet
We engage in yoga and mindfulness practices to live healthier and more peaceful lives. We practice to feel connected with the environment and our fellow beings. But if we want our children and grandchildren to also have the opportunity to live in health and peace on this planet there is a truth we have to live with: the rapid destruction of our natural world needs to slow down significantly in our lifetime. It is our duty to act.
You already know this. But sometimes it can feel too overwhelming and it’s hard to know where to begin.
So, here’s an idea: begin with the Yamas and Niyamas. These first two of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga offer ten ways we can use the basic foundations of yoga as guides to live a more eco-conscious life rooted in a respect for the generosity of our Mother Earth. Action that comes from a desire to make our world better is a salve for a heart’s deep sadness. Taking mindful action will help you feel less depressed about the state of the planet and more hopeful about our future.
Here are the Yamas and the Niyamas as they relate to our relationship with our planet. Disclaimer: just about all of us get these wrong some of the time. I am writing this from a plant-based café where my green smoothie just arrived in a single-use plastic cup – oops. Let’s be realistic and try to do this most of the time.
The Five Yamas
Ahimsa (non-harming in thought, words and action)
Non-violence is rooted in awareness.
No one reading this has plans to take a chainsaw to the Amazon rainforest. But on a more subtle level, we can consider ahimsa in each of our small actions -and our failure to act- and how these actions affect the livability of our planet.
Every time you remember to bring a reusable bag or container so you don’t have to contribute to this waste, you are practicing ahimsa. Americans throw out $165 billion worth of food every year, and take-out containers make up 45% of US landfill contents, so this is a great place to start.
Want to go a step further? Are you able to compost your organic yard or food waste? This is also ahimsa. If the city doesn’t pick it up, local farmers markets and community gardens often accept organic waste (if you can only do this once a week, you can use a bag in the freezer to store it with no smell).
If that’s not possible, you can choose to buy from companies and farmers that support regenerative farming practices –the farming of the future. This type of farming works in alignment with nature rather than as an adversary and actually sequesters carbon in the process, reducing the impact of global warming.
Live in reality or reality will come and live with you.
Accepting the truth that humans are screwing up our only livable environment in the universe is a hard one to swallow. It is easier and more convenient to deny it. This may be a partisan issue now, but it won’t be for long.
On a personal level, we can be honest with ourselves moment to moment about how we are contributing to the problem or the solution. We know plastics are bad. But let’s take a moment to talk about greenwashing. Just because a cup or spoon is compostable doesn’t mean it isn’t harming the environment. A compostable cup rotting in a pile of mixed trash turns into methane gas as it breaks down. This is the difficult truth. Bringing your own cup/water bottle/utensils reflects your acknowledgement of this truth. This is Satya in action. Our day-to-day actions add up.
Don’t take what is not yours.
Stealing resources with methods like fracking is taking where we should not take. I don’t frack and I’m sure you don’t either. But look into the companies you support or invest in. Are they stealing from the earth to increase their profits? If so, a quick internet search reveals that there are many alternatives.
Brahmacharya (right use of energy)
Harness your energy.
Brahmacharya traditionally meant celibacy, but many modern yogis interpret this as containment of our personal energy. When we think of ourselves as part of the planet, this expands outward into how we are using the planet’s resources. Our universe already provides us with sun, wind, and water that we can harness for our needs. Fossil fuels are out of style like orange make-up. Solar energy is Bramacharya. If you drive, electric and hybrid cars are getting better and better. You can also easily switch over to renewable energy in your home with no interruption to your service. Check out your options locally.
Aparigraha (non-greed or non-hoarding)
Take only what you need.
It has been scientifically proven that more stuff makes people less happy. That’s because happiness stems from meaningful relationships, fulfilling work, and experiences. Not stuff. When I think about what I actually need, it’s not all that much.
And this brings us to the first of the Niyamas.
The Five Niyamas
Begin with the end in mind.
If you think of cleaning as throwing things away, it’s time to turn that around. Keeping our planet clean means LESS things in the trash! Fewer things in general.
When you acquire something -from a take out container to a piece of furniture- think of its life cycle and where it will end up. Everything you acquire comes with the responsibility to dispose of it cleanly- recycle, up-cycle, compost, give away, re-use- this can get complicated! It’s better to pause before you acquire and have less to deal with.
Mother nature never hurries, yet everything gets done.
One way to accumulate less is to cultivate a sense of contentment with what you already have. This is a radical act. After all, we live in a culture that is designed to make us want more, to feel like we need more and to congratulate us when we get more. We are encouraged to be “doers” who go, work, and do, ALL THE TIME. This creates a culture of stress and waste. Studies have proven that the average person spends 47% of their day distracted. People report being less happy when their minds wander off the present moment, regardless of what they are doing in that moment (this includes mundane activities like washing dishes or a morning commute). When we slow down we can appreciate the taste our food, feel the air on our skin, really enjoy the company of friends and loved ones and our physical engagement with the word. When we live in this way we are less in need of tuning out. The more we appreciate all we have, the less we need to fill up with more, more, more.
Tapas (discipline, or “burning enthusiasm”)
What motivates you?
The worldwide lifestyle shift that is needed to keep the earth livable is asking a lot of us creatures of habit. This will take Tapas – discipline, and some fire under the butt.
Think specifically about who or what is that is motivating you to help clean up the planet. For me, it’s my hopeful eight-year old boy who wants to be a scientist when he grows up. I want breathable air and clean oceans and for him. I want him to be able to live without constant looming natural disasters.
If you are looking for some Tapas inspiration, look up Swedish teen Greta Thunberg. Remember when I said just about all of us get these wrong some of the time? Well, I don’t think Greta ever gets these wrong. She is more evolved than me. We need an army of Greta Thunbergs.
Be the change.
Each of previous Yamas and Niyamas implicitly involves Svadhyaya. The first step towards positive action begins by observing our own behaviors and how they are contributing to the big picture. A meditation practice helps us to bear witness to our own experience, rather than get caught up inside it. By taking time to observe how our minds work we can get more clear insight into how best to help be part of turning this ship around.
Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to or contemplation of a higher power)
We aren’t saving the planet. We are saving ourselves.
In this case we can consider Mother Earth as the higher power: a living breathing entity that supports human life and who we will ultimately surrender to, like it or not.
The planet knows how to survive us. The fact is, we are trying to save ourselves from our own misguided actions. Contemplating the history of our universe brings a greater appreciation to what we have and how much we stand to lose.
It’s a lot. And when you live in a city, sometimes, despite your best efforts you end up with your smoothie in a plastic cup. But if you are feeling upset about what is happening to the earth, pick the Yama or Niyama that resonates the most with you and spend a little time contemplating it. In truth they are all paths to the same goal.