How your yoga practice can heal the world
By Rachel Ashley
Draw your awareness back to your body. Gently move your fingers and your toes. In your own time, hug your knees to your chest and roll to your side. With eyes closed, mindfully move to a seated position. Bring your hands to pranamasana, prayer pose, and lean slightly toward your heart space. Breathe in for “OM”.
It’s hard to leave a yoga class without feeling slightly more calm and prepared for whatever you need to face in your day. Given the U.S. political climate and the reality of the climate crisis, it’s hardly surprising that more people are seeking out yoga for physical movement and anxiety management. In fact, the number of Americans practicing yoga increased by 50% between 2012-2016: as of 2018, 36 million Americans regularly practice yoga.
Photo Credit: @namaste_af via Instagram
Yoga, the Industry and the Ego
What do you imagine when you hear the word Yoga? Posh women wearing Lululemon in a Lyft? Instagram influencers in tough yoga poses, contorting their body for more likes?
The Yoga industry is booming, raking in revenues of $11.9 billion in 2018, 20% of which is through merchandise sales.* Despite Yoga’s deeply holistic and spiritual roots, modern American yoga is often an exclusive house for privileged liberals consuming postures and striving for an ideal lifestyle. It’s about having the most in season yoga outfits and checking in at the most exoctic resorts for yoga retreats. Frankly, it is not yoga.
90% of people find their way to yoga as exercise through the physical postures. To be sure, yoga can dramatically improve your wellbeing and in some cases, address chronic pain and injury.
Yet postures are just one aspect of the yogic journey. In fact, the yogic journey comprises of eight limbs, or an “eight-fold path”. The other seven “limbs”, or paths, relate to our own ethical code and self-discipline, how we relate to others and the world, and how we relate to ourselves.
So what does Yoga have to do with the planet? Ahimsa, or non-harming, is the lense through which to view your entire yoga practice. According to Desikachar, founder of Viniyoga (yoga as we know it in the U.S.), ahimsa “means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things.”** In other words, do not harm yourself or others, and do not harm the planet.
In This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, and the Environment, Roger S. Gottlieb describes the Buddhist take on ahimsa:
The practice of ahimsa or non-harming derives naturally from a true experience of compassion. All the Buddhist precepts are based fundamentally on non-harming or reducing the suffering of others. Practicing the first precept, not killing, raises ethical dilemmas around food, land use, pesticides, pollution, and cultural economic invasion.
Ahimsa on your yoga mat might mean being present to your body and boundaries and don’t worry about what others think of you. For example, use blocks for support toward hanumanasana, or splits pose, to avoid pulling a muscle.
Practicing ahimsa off the mat is just as challenging. In Greta Thunberg’s address in Berlin, she called out privileged people for not acting for the climate for fear of giving up international flights to yoga retreats (amongst other things). Explicitly naming yoga as a cause for the climate crisis is harsh, but the true reality of flying to paradise for self discovery.
To really practice ahimsa, recognize the unintentional harm you may cause to the planet through your daily activities. As one practice of ahimsa, we looked into the carbon footprint of your yoga practice. What we found? Practicing yoga on your own mat, without going overboard on clothing on expensive flights and retreats, has a very low carbon impact. So keep caring for yourself and the planet, and get out on a mat this week.
Yoga can be one of the most grounding and non-harming forms of exercise. However, it can also represent the consumerism and excess that defines much of our society. Here’s a quick breakdown of two faces of yoga:
Basic Yoga Practice: 95 kgs CO2e per year
equivalent to ~2 days of the average American’s total carbon footprint. Assumes 2x yoga/week, 1 mat, 6 outfits.***
- Mat: 0.221 kg CO2e per class (23kg PVC mat)
- Yoga Clothes: 0.69 kg CO2e per yoga class
Fancy Yoga Practice: 1,200 kg or 1.2 tons CO2e per year
equivalent to ~22 days of the average American’s total carbon footprint. Assumes 2x yoga/week, 1 mat, 12 outfits, 1 international roundtrip flight.***
- Mat: 0.221 kg CO2e per class (23kg PVC mat)
- Yoga Clothes: 1.38 kg CO2e per yoga class
- Food: 36 kg CO2e (Assuming plant-based meals: 2 kg x 3 meals/day x 6 days)
- Flight: 1 ton CO2e (Boston, MA to Tulum, Mexico)
Next level enlightenment
Here are three suggestions to lower your yoga carbon impact and practice ahimsa on and off the mat.
Lay a sustainable foundation. Most mats are made of PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), a type of plastic that isn’t good for you or the planet. Buy a mat made with less chemicals to lower the carbon footprint to 5-10 kg CO2e and support a healthier pranayama or breath practice.
What you wear and how you care. Not only do yoga clothes produce carbon, they shed microfibers into waterways when washed, ultimately ending up in our oceans. Check out our blog on sustainable fashion to learn more about your fashion purchasing-power to change the world. Get bonus points for washing yoga clothes in a Washing Bag to trap microfibers and keep them out of our oceans.
Lighten the path. Flying to far off places produces a ton of carbon (literally). But yoga retreats don’t need to be hundreds of miles away. Consider yoga retreats within public transit or driving distance. Search for retreats in your own backyard and tell your favorite yoga teachers you will join them for nearby retreats.
Yoga and Ahimsa in the world
Extend your yoga and ahimsa practice to your everyday life. Eat a little less meat, bike or take public transit, buy less stuff, and use your voice to advocate for the planet. Gandhi embodied ahimsa through nonviolent protest against colonial rule and racial discrimination. Today organizations like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion mobilize people and use nonviolent advocacy to address the climate crisis.
Let your yoga practice stretch beyond your muscles and see how ahimsa changes your view of your role in addressing the climate crisis.
* IBISWorld Industry Report OD41185 Pilates & Yoga Studios in the US, Ceilia Fernandez
**The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar
***How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, by Mike Berners-Lee.