Yoga and Climate Action
International Yoga Day
Program of the Mission of India to the United Nations
June 21, 2019
by Kusumita P. Pedersen
What is the relation of Yoga to the climate emergency and climate action? Ethically the connection is deep and strong. The philosophies that frame Yoga affirm the unity of existence and hold that all living beings are interrelated as they share an inner nature, which is their real nature. This is called the jīva, the Buddha-nature or the soul or self – the ātman – and has divine attributes of consciousness and bliss. It goes from birth to birth, taking different bodily forms according to karma, or the cosmic law of action and result. In this world view there is no question about the “value” of Nature, as everything has a soul – or in theistic language, the Divine is in everything. As my own spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy, has said, “In His transcendental aspect, God is the Lord of Nature. In His universal aspect, God is Nature itself.” The practice of meditation makes it possible to perceive the oneness of all existence and experience the divine Presence in Nature. When we realize the unity of all existence, this knowledge leads naturally to compassion and love for all beings. This ethics is widely accepted across Yoga traditions. If one has love for all beings and wishes them to be well and happy, then climate change is an immense problem because it threatens the well-being of countless lives on a massive scale.
The first ethical norm of Yoga in Patañjali is ahimsa or non-harming. It is an indispensable foundation for practitioners of Yoga. Ahimsa means not harming any living being, not only human beings, by action, word, or even in thought. It also means not tolerating or standing by when harm is being done to others or is likely to be done. Harm should be stopped if underway and also should be proactively prevented. Harm to individual beings is of course prohibited, but since damage to ecosystems or habitats will bring harm to many individuals this also must be avoided. The imperative of non-harming and love extends to beings yet to be born as well: the future generations of human and other-than-human beings. Given the vast harmful impact of climate change, commitment to non-harming as a moral principle makes climate action imperative.
The second ethical norm or yama in Patañjali is satya or truth. This means that we must not only tell the truth but also pursue the truth. We must not turn away from truth, in this case the reality of climate change, by ignoring it, tolerating the falsehoods of others, or, worst of all, communicating and deliberately promoting falsehood. The next two norms are asteya or non-stealing and brahmacharya or restraint and right regulation of life-energy. Again, the application to climate change is clear. We should not allow ourselves to have what others do not have, “to take what is not given,” steal resources and security from others – and we should not steal the future from those who will come after us. The restraint of life-energy can enable us to engage the climate-related issues of excessive consumption and overpopulation. Finally, the last of the five ethical norms is aparigraha, or non-possession / non-possessiveness. It directly engages consumption and greed, and also prescribes that money and so-called “economic” considerations cannot be the only, or dominant, factor when making decisions.
This thinking is now widespread among Yoga groups. Turning to some concrete examples of Yoga-based climate action, the movement called Green Yoga has worked to develop the environmental interpretation of Yoga teachings and practices, with thorough study and dialogue and the publication of a Values Statement by the Green Yoga Association. Attention has been given not only to philosophy and ethics, but to specific practices in Yoga studios and centers. We should here mention vegetarianism, so much associated with Yoga; being vegetarian or vegan is very often mentioned as one way to help mitigate climate change.
At Satchidananda Ashram in Yogaville, Virginia, founded in 1980, students of Swami Satchidananda practicing Integral Yoga carry forward the Yogaville Environmental Solutions (YES) initiative: running their facilities on solar energy, achieving certification from GreenFaith, and adopting vegetarianism following the teaching of Swami Satchidananda of love for all beings and our duty towards Nature. They have formed a local interfaith environmental justice coalition with African-American churches and other faith communities to forcefully and expertly oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. This is a 600-mile and 7.5 billion-dollar natural gas pipeline, routed largely through communities of people of color, which would place a gas compressor in Union Hill adjacent to Yogaville with destructive effects on well water, biodiversity, the land of those who have lived there for generations, and more. YES is a stellar example of the expression of the ethics and practice of Yoga in climate action.
The Isha Foundation in Tamil Nadu, South India, was founded by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, who spoke here at the UN in this very program a few years ago. Isha Outreach in 2004 began Project Green Hands, whose 2 million volunteers have now planted 35 million saplings. Its website states: “Our Vision: To inspire people to plant trees, develop a culture of care towards the environment and re-establish their connection with nature. Our Mission: To increase the green cover of Tamil Nadu by 10% in order to reverse desertification, reduce soil erosion, restore self-sufficiency, recreate sustainability, and survive climate change. Through education, agroforestry initiatives, and most importantly, community participation, we aim to provide the necessary inspiration and support to plant 114 million trees in the shortest span of time possible.”
The Govardhan EcoVillage in the mountains of Maharashtra north of Mumbai is a 100-acre spiritual community of practitioners of Bhakti Yoga or the Yoga of devotion. It is a retreat and conference center, with an array of scientifically rigorous, leading-edge environmental programs aiming at the welfare of all. Its founder is Radhanath Swami, a senior teacher in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and it is deeply rooted in the millennia-old eco-centric theology and ethics of the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism. The climate-related programs of the EcoVillage include solar energy and energy conservation, building construction that reduces the carbon footprint, and sustainable agriculture. It should be mentioned that this is not ISKCON’s only “EcoVillage,” and that all of ISKCON’s temples, centers, and restaurants are molded and inspired by its Earth-honoring and climate-engaged philosophy (including more than 40 eco-villages or organic farms). As Krishna has said in the Bhagavad Gita, we must act to maintain the right order of the world (3.20), and “Yoga is skill in action.” (2.50)