Taking Yoga Off the Mat: Sustainability and the Yogic Path

“Busy, busy, busy, is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

Within yoga culture there is a great deal of discussion about the need to take yoga off the mat. Part of this is driven by the increasingly popular practice of seva, or selfless service, that is usually interpreted by the yoga community to mean some form of community service, often involving teaching asana classes to populations considered at risk or in need. Social justice activists have been drawn to this idea of taking yoga off the mat because it implies a moral imperative inherent in the practice of yoga for yogis to get involved in advocacy around and involvement in social justice causes. While I wholeheartedly agree with both these interpretations of taking  yoga off the mat (although seva should arguably entail a bit more than offering “karma” yoga classes…), I’m going to talk today about an additional viewpoint that discusses the popular trend of yogis being involved with a more general cultural ethos of organic eating and green living.

It’s very common for yogis to be interested in other cultural trends relating to healthy, organic eating (including the popular, if somewhat troubling, trends of green juice cleanses). Eating whole foods, lots of vegetables, and supporting local producers are common elements, as are a number of green consumption practices like reusable water bottles and buying products made in green ways (like the popular–and awesome–green yoga legging company Teeki that makes their products from recycled water bottles). And while there are less sustainable consumption practices orientated with the yoga lifestyles (like high end athletic or boho fashion industries) I think the interconnections between yoga culture and other green and sustainable living practices indicate there is an inherent attraction and similarity between these cultural elements. In fact, I would argue that if we are really going to adopt the yoga identity and live a yogic lifestyle we must take our yoga off the mat, not just through seva or social justice, but also through the practice of sustainability in all areas of our lives.

Yoga is more than simply asana. As a process and way of knowing, yoga can be used to achieve any goal or end, including ones that are less than just. This is why we have seen the yoking of yoga and mindfulness practices to consumer capitalism and industry in recent years with the McMindfulness phenomenon. However, yoga, as a process and way of knowing guided by ethical principles, has the power and potential to do great good and help us build better selves, better societies, and better futures. I think it’s always important to be skeptical of “tradition,” because traditions by definition rarely change and not all past traditions are appropriate to the times we live in and the needs and desires of people living now (rather than then). I have to admit I’m not a yogi who blindly believes in the philosophical traditions of yoga, and honestly I think blindly following anything is a recipe for some form of damage. Critical awareness is necessary in all areas of life, including yoga, in order to lead healthy and balanced lives as our practice encourages. But I do believe that the ethical guidelines in yoga are key to taking yoga off the mat in a way that is beneficial to our lives and the lives of others.

According to Patanjali’s eight-fold path, these ethical principles are called the yamas and comprise the first limb of yoga, dealing with our behavior in connection to others. The yamas include: ahimsa, roughly translated to nonviolence; satya, or truthfulness; asteya, or non-stealing; brahmacharya, often interpreted as a virtuous form of self-control involving a voluntary restraint of power (usually associated with being celibate or faithful to your chosen partner); and aparigraha, or non-covetousness or non-possessiveness. If we want to live our lives true to these ethical principles, taking our yoga off our mats, it’s imperative that a yogic path also be a sustainable path. Sustainability doesn’t necessarily mean some of the trends we see in the consumption of alternative green and organic lifestyles popular with yogis today. It can, but not necessarily. In fact, a lot of popular green/organic living trends reflect attempts to practice sustainability without a critical reflection on what sustainable means, and what it means to truly be sustainable (I am guilty of this too).

So let’s break it down. Sustainability… sustain… ability… Sustainability is the ability to sustain, keep up, or keep going, toward a particular goal, maximizing the use of our limited resources in a way that conserves those resources. Sustainability means living in symbiosis with our ecosystems so that we minimize our negative impact, instead building positive relationships that replenish the environments (including social ones) around us. It involves the cultivation of a contained, mutually beneficial web of interconnection with the world around us that I would argue is one of the best applications of these ethical principles of yoga we can see in the real world.

Do no harm? Sustainable systems, if they are truly sustainable, seek to minimize harm and maximize the positive impacts of their processes. Truthfulness? Sustainable methods can only work if we deeply understand the nuances of our world, including ourselves and the environments we live in. To do so, we have to seek truth, and deep truth, not just truth when it suits us. Non-stealing? Requires an understanding and recognition of the needs of the systems we are embedded within and the social worlds we are connected to. Sustainable paths support the needs of the worlds around them in ways that help them thrive (the very essence of non-stealing). Self-control? Sustainable systems demand the practice of self-control, of limiting our desires to practice forms of self-restraint to only use what we need and not live beyond those means. Non-possessiveness? Living sustainably means living with as little impact on the surrounding environments, so it naturally involves minimizing our possessions and recognizing (and supporting) the needs of others through a non-covetousness nature.

Getting behind the idea of sustainability is easy enough, but in practice it’s much harder to do. This is largely because our social systems (as they are now) make it very difficult for people to live sustainably. It’s often expensive to disconnect from unsustainable systems (like, for example, trying to live on green energy solutions, which are largely only available to the wealthy, or attempting to live off the land which is only available to those who, unsurprisingly, can afford to buy property and have the start up capital to make such living feasible from the outset). Our economic system, and our workplaces, require us to live in unsustainable ways in order to simply live. It’s also difficult because we are socialized into cultural systems that don’t value sustainability, so we often internalize cultural values that encourage us to engage in lifestyles that are at their very root unsustainable–for example, consumerism. So I understand that living sustainably is a challenge, and a huge one, and one that I myself am still very far from achieving because of the very reasons I just mentioned.

But if we truly want to live a yogic path, adhering to the yamas of yoga in our practice both on and off the mat, we have to do so sustainably. And this must go beyond the cultural ethos popular in yoga today that encourages yogis to achieve sustainability primarily through consumption. It’s not enough to practice sustainability by consuming green products, we have to question the need for those products in the first place. We have to think about the art and practice of consumption itself, and begin to deeply question why we consume, not just how we consume. If we are going to be truly sustainable we must change how we orient our actions, including consumption, in ways that fundamentally alter the game itself.

We have to change our orientation to consumption, orienting toward different goals. This means cutting back on the stuff we buy in the first place (reduce). We have to acknowledge the insidious nature of stuff, and orient our approach to long-term use, potentially life-time use of the products we buy. For those things we do get rid of, we need to do so responsibly and encourage reuse and recycling as much as we can. And this ultimately means we need to be more careful in our product choice, doing more product research before purchasing to be sure we are meeting sustainable needs. (And yes, I realize this is difficult for some populations who might not have the means to do so, like the poor, uneducated, or elderly. So we also have to help make these types of lifestyle choices more accessible.)

When applied to yoga on the mat, this means we need to orient our practice towards sustainable health and well-being of the body and mind, and practice asana devoid of ego with long-term, lifelong goals in mind. What type of practice will, in the long term, support your body and your long-term needs? How can we practice asana in sustainable ways, ways that sustain our body and allow it to maintain strength and health over time? How do we deepen our practice in a way that don’t simply pursue “growth” as more advanced postures, more intensity, or more time on the mat, but that are instead is aligned with a broader mindset of growth in sustainable ways? We have to orient our practice not towards “bigger-ing” our practice (recall the Lorax by Dr. Suess), towards constantly “growing” for the sake of growth itself, and instead focus on growth towards the goal of sustaining a quality of practice across the long-term.

We cannot force our practice, or force growth in our practice if we are to be sustainable. Sustainable systems do change, and grow, and evolve, but if you try and force that evolution too quickly bad things happen (really, just watch the Jurassic Park film series). The thing about growth is that it must happen organically. Forced growth leads to complications, because all living beings have natural limits that can be stretched, but if stretched too far break. Healthy growth demands time, patience, and prolonged favorable conditions like proper nutrition so plants can develop a proper root system to thrive. Sustainable systems give back, benefiting the environment around them in symbiotic ways, the plant returning nutrients into the ecosystem as it grows and eventually dies. Forced growth is not only potentially dangerous, it takes more energy, leaving us with less to give back into the systems surrounding us in supportive and sustainable ways.

When we take our yoga off the mat, or practice it on the mat, we need to try and do so sustainably. And understand, too, that we live in a world that makes sustainability a difficult thing to achieve even for people with the best of intentions. I hope you enjoyed these thoughts of mine and that they struck a chord within you; sometimes I am led down strange roads. Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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