Across all categories of the 2016 Yoga in America Study, yogis were nearly twice as likely as the general population to act in an environmentally friendly way. The study highlights that “Over 50% of practitioners report eating sustainable foods and living green compared to a third of Americans.” This shouldn’t be a surprise to yogis. Yoga practice and philosophy teach mindfulness and ethical guidelines, known as the yamas and niyamas. Mindfulness, the yamas, and the niyamas cultivate the quality of compassion (karuna), which inspires individuals to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle.
People who are eco-conscious show compassion for the environment, their fellow humans, animals, and all life. They make choices in their daily lives to alleviate the suffering of the planet as a whole. They understand how the health of the environment affects themselves as well as others.
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Step into any yoga class and you’ll get a lesson in mindfulness through paying attention to your breath, body, and brain chatter. Mindfulness is bringing your awareness to what is happening in the present moment. Elisha Goldstein wrote, “The goal of mindfulness […] is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes, recognize the connectedness between people, and operate in the world with greater compassion towards others and ourselves.” Fostering compassion, having empathy and understanding the suffering of others, leads people to make choices that cause less or no harm to those around them.
The yamas and niyamas directly influence eco-consciousness. The yamas are practices to renounce while the niyamas are practices to cultivate. In Meditations from the Mat, Rolf Gates explains, the yamas and niyamas “bring us into right relationship with ourselves, others, and the spirit of the universe.” The yamas non-violence (ahimsa), non-stealing (asteya), and non-hoarding (aparigraha), and the niyamas, contentment (samtosha) and purity (shaucha) guide us to right relationship with the environment.
The first yama is non-violence at the level of thought, speech, and action and applies to our environment, our fellow humans, and ourselves. Non-violence influences dietary and consumer choices that do no harm or less harm to the environment. Vegan, vegetarian, organic, and locavore diets are all based on non-violence. Vegans and vegetarians don’t want to harm animals. Organic foods reduce pollutants. And locavores search for humanely raised meat and dairy. Non-violence also means ensuring all people and animals have access to fresh air and clean water. Pollution, whether from the food we grow, the energy we use, or the products we manufacture, negatively affects air and water quality and therefore human health.
Non-stealing is not taking what is not ours and not taking more than we need. Non-hoarding is knowing when we have enough. When we consider the environment, these two yamas mean leaving a healthy, resource-laden planet for future generations. We are borrowing the land we live and grow food on, the water we drink, and the materials we harvest from our children. We take what we need to survive and leave enough for the next person. Non-stealing also applies to environmental justice. If what we consume pollutes the environment, then we are stealing from others who are negatively impacted by poor air quality and contaminated water.
The niyamas tell us to cultivate contentment and purity. Contentment is the other side of non-hoarding. We know we have enough and we are content with what we have. We accumulate less stuff, use less energy and water, and have a smaller environmental footprint. When content, we take what we need and leave the rest.
Purity has layers. At the level of the body, we consider dietary, makeup, and even clothing choices that are free of pesticides or other harmful chemicals. Purity also applies to our immediate environment, our homes. Using non-toxic cleaning supplies positively affects the air you breath every day. The choices communities make in farming and development impact air and water quality. And the choices we make when we heat our homes, buy our clothes, and eat, impact purity on a local and global scale.
These yoga practices teach us how to live in and interact with the world around us. We learn that we are not isolated but deeply connected to each and every living being. As we learn to live the yamas and niyamas, we learn that they apply to everything. As we become more mindful, we are more compassionate. When we feel compassionate, we are more likely to make choices that have a positive impact on the life around us.