Yoga of Climate Action: Asana

We have a thought, or we perform an act, repeatedly, but on a certain day the real meaning of the thought peals through us for the first time, or the act has suddenly turned into a moral impossibility. All we know is that there are dead feelings, dead ideas and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and live within us, everything has to recrystallize around it.  -William James

Yoga is the union of our fleeting individual existences with the endless entirety of the universe. And since this union is the nature of existence, yoga is simply the increasing realization that everything is connected. Which is what environmental activists have been saying, more and more frantically, for a long time.

I look at the immense international popularity of yoga, and I look at how much work we have to do if we want to curb carbon emissions in time to keep on enjoying this planet, and the relationship seems very clear. The connections between yoga practice and environmentalism may also be clear to you. Or it may appear just as natural as finding a $60 hemp mat bag at Whole Foods; more a question of aesthetic shorthand than of actual philosophy. Yoga is a radical practice for an uncertain time, but we need to separate the transformative elements from the nonsense that has accrued around it over the years, and we need to put carbon reduction at the center of our single-pointed focus.

Last spring I taught my first workshop on this subject, called Yoga for Climate Action. It was challenging to get systematic and explicit about the connections that were always on my mind. Both disciplines are not just bodies of information but structures of thinking that are as vast as the world and as fine-grained as our consciousness can perceive. But the harder I work at both disciplines, the more their threads weave together. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras speak urgently about the radical potential of yoga:

            Atha yoga anushasanam (1.1) — Now is the time to practice yoga.

Now, too, is the time to act against climate change. The first yoga we encounter, almost always, is the physical practice, or asana. (A classmate of mine in teacher training, a veteran who had suffered severe nerve damage, was first given a pranayama, or breathing, practice, but this is pretty unusual.) Asana is actually the 3rd limb of the practice of yoga, after yama and niyama, the ethical behaviors. But we begin with asana, and statistically speaking, we probably begin with hot yoga, or vinyasa flow.

Asana is the mechanism through which I dragged my freewheeling consciousness laboriously back into my body after a bookish, chubby American adolescence. I began with once a week classes, and then doubled down after I slipped a disc in my lumbar spine doing something stupid with a piece of heavy furniture. The more I practiced the better I felt, 85% of the time. Sometimes I would aggravate an injury, or create a new one. This still happens.

In yoga we typically begin by observing, moving and caring for our own bodies, not because we’re so special, or the body is so important, but because it is the tiny plot of the universe that we have access to on the intimate level. I study myself compassionately, not because I’m special but because I’m the only one I’ve got. If yoga is practiced well and thoroughly, this intense awareness of the self grows beyond newfound digestive preoccupations, and we feel clarity and deeper connection to others.

Some things we never noticed before become difficult to ignore: the yamas and niyamas become easier to follow, because it feels gross in the body to do wrong. Disembodiment is an ethical numbing. If you live the way we’re encouraged to live by our culture and economy, there’s so much background noise of discomfort it can be hard to pick up on the signal of conscience. But as our bodies become more robust, paradoxically, our tolerance for certain kinds of discomfort drops. There is an ethics of the body practice, but.

But! This is the part where we need to perk up: there is a fork in the road here, and it is easy to wander off the path. When our awareness of the body is sufficiently developed, we get nonstop broadcasts from the guts about what we should eat, what we shouldn’t have eaten. We become pretty brash about doing poses in public because our body says we need to. We have a harder and harder time overeating, under-sleeping, drinking alcohol, smoking the occasional cigarette, because we feel so shitty immediately afterward. These are all fine evolutions, but it’s what we do with them that matters. Our innate human tendency is to avoid all suffering, but the yogic goal is to accept and observe unavoidable suffering. We mitigate what suffering we can, but we need to really turn up for that which we can’t avoid. We are building a relationship with challenges.

Here are some ways this heightened bodily awareness can be used in service of reducing one’s carbon footprint, and the ways it can go wrong:

1. Food matters: appetite regulation and the vegetarian diet. Two major groups are always suggesting that people should become vegetarians: environmentalists and yoga teachers. In the case of yogis, this has to do both with the ethical practice of ahimsa (non-harming) and with digestive ease. For environmentalists, vegetarianism is a way to reduce the amount of resources that go into feeding ourselves, and to vote against the destructive, cruel and wasteful practices of industrial agriculture. Yoga practice will also tune one’s body better to fullness signals, making it harder to eat against one’s hunger. The common ground here is contentment with a modest diet that meets our needs, rather than our desires.

1a. We go astray when we follow yogic food trends for rare, faraway and expensive ingredients, when we become worshipful of our own preferences, spending $23 at the Whole Foods salad bar for an international greatest hits of nutrition. Everyone needs to cultivate their own relationship to treats, but generally, we eat simple foods that grow nearby with minimal intervention.

2. Temperature regulation. The more we practice, the easier it is for our bodies to maintain a comfortable temperature. We sweat more easily, but not excessively. And asana is full of tools for raising or lowering one’s body temperature: the two major energetic qualities of practice are brahmana (expansion, increasing, heating) and langhana (reduction, contraction, cooling). A brahmana practice might include sun salutations, ujjayi breathing, backbends, arm balances. A langhana practice might stay low to the ground,  extend the limbs far from the torso, focus on sitali breath, or include a long salamba sarvangasana (supported shoulder stand). In short, if  yogis are cold, we can spend a few minutes in utkatasana (chair pose) instead of turning up the thermostat. If we are hot, we can take a restorative pose in a well-ventilated area before we turn to the AC. Change comes from within.

2a. The flip side is NO BIKRAM. NO HOT YOGA. OMFG. These styles are the height of carbon-intensive perversity. If we’re trying to accept and observe what is, we need to practice in an environment that resembles the real world. If you live in Pondicherry or Chicago in August, hot yoga is your reality. Otherwise, leave the thermostat alone. We must adjust to our environment, not the other way around.

3. More ease, energy, ability. The longer and more regularly we practice, the more energy we have, and the more comfort we feel in the joints and muscles. Physical tasks that were difficult frequently grow easier, and the body becomes more dependable for getting things done. These changes could manifest as less Advil, less coffee, or more spring in one’s step. Maybe more sex, more restful sleep, or more mental clarity. A surplus of clean energy is sorely needed right now, so we use ours. We choose to do it ourselves instead of using a machine or fuel whenever possible. We do without the energy-intensive or material comforts we no longer need, because we already feel a-ok.

3a. Market forces have wrung from yoga all kinds of products to please the senses, empty our savings accounts, and ultimately occupy a landfill. Avoid the consumption trap: if a studio’s lobby is a boutique, tread carefully. Everything they sell us for yoga? We need none of it, even if it’s made from bamboo and good wishes. Yes, a mat is nice, but it is not a bar of admission; Light on Yoga recommends a blanket. A home is full of props in the form of pillows, belts, dictionaries. T-shirts and gym shorts, thrift store leggings, what have you. The urge to amass yoga gear is one of a hundred traps that keep us from a radical practice. Similarly, if a style of yoga is copyrighted and/or includes wild, leg-swinging movements to rhythmic music, it might not be yoga at all. Be wary of the intersection of yoga and private corporations.

Asana practice alone won’t change the world any more than will composting or biking to work. But it is the muscle behind the yoga practice, and it is constantly changing my life. Yoga contains many of the best tools to live with more pleasure, less fuel. But they must be understood as more than an add-on to a busy, ordinary life. Yoga isn’t for mitigating the costs of living wrong. It can do that the way your computer can add numbers using the little calculator widget on the dashboard. It can do that the way Nina Simone could have played chopsticks on her piano.

Yoga is a vast, various body of wisdom: technologies of healing, love, and living right. But unlike most bodies of information of a similar size, yoga rewards empiricism as strongly as devotion. There is no either/or between what you find to be true and what you’re told is true. Its boundaries are porous, constantly receiving inflows of science, psychology, other practices of movement and introspection. But the core is simple, sturdy, and radical: you are so connected to every living thing that if you look clearly enough inside yourself, you will find the whole world. And now the world is demanding all of our compassionate attention.

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