PhD Executive Director and Co-Founder,
The Give Back Yoga Foundation
President Ex-Officio and Advisor,
Yoga Service Council
In an earlier career, I was a social scientist working with a distinguished group of well-known climatologists and policy makers on the socio-economic impacts of climate change. It was the consensus of the international climatological community back then—in 1980—that if worldwide use of fossil fuels continued to increase atmospheric carbon dioxide, humans would likely cause a significant average warming of the Earth’s surface within the next fifty years. We made best guess estimates of the costs of say, Miami, or even for that matter, New York, after 80 feet sea-level rise, or the consequences of waves of refugees moving across continents.
We could not imagine in our book, Climate Change and Society, that the Department of Defense would ever be involved in climate change policies and state with confidence that climate change will “threaten domestic stability in a number of countries.” Now, according to Untied Nation’s data, nearly 64 million people face climate turmoil (e.g., sudden-onset disasters like floods and storms, and low-onset disasters like drought). These events can lead to “environmental migrants” or “climate refugees.”
We can’t wait any longer to act. We are running enormous risks. As a leader of the ever-growing yoga service movement, I feel obliged to speak out publicly against Trump climate-change policies, and remind yogis within the service community that they can both resist these policies and change behavior in the fight against climate change. Cutting our own carbon emissions is a personal transformation itself, and is the subject of an excellent book I recommend, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.
I’m encouraged by the increasing number of groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby, which is focused on non-partisan and community-based approaches to climate education. Other savvy grass-roots organizations with excellent online resources include EmergeAmerica.org and RunforSomething.net. While students at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University have organized “Resistance School”—an online course designed to sharpen the tools activists need and sustain long-term resistance. As uncertain as today’s reality is, many yogis are finding a salve for their frustrations and shock following the election: exuberant service and just taking action! Our work as yoga service organizations has never been more needed than it is today, and here is how it relates to climate change and how you can get involved:
Self-Regulation & Global Sustainability
We often rush to blame greedy corporations and self-centered nations for climate change, forgetting that it is individuals who design systems, build organizations, and constitute nations. We are the corporations and self-centered nations. We are equally quick to look outside ourselves for solutions to climate change, but we often forget that our efforts to change our external environment need to be balanced by our efforts to change our internal environment, ourselves.
Policy makers and planners have learned a lot by asking how humans contribute to climate change, but we rarely ask why we leave a larger-than-necessary carbon footprint. Why do we confuse what is a “want” with a “need”? Why do we choose what is pleasant in the short term and not what is good in the long term? If we are serious about avoiding the worst effects of climate change, we must question economic growth itself. In addition to economic changes, we need personal as well as social changes that shift our emphasis away from materialistic values—the cause of global warming and ecological collapse.
It is a practice, however, and I’m still working on it. I ride a bike most places, eat mostly locally grown food. I waste food. I buy products that are part of the problem rather than the solution. I often confuse “need to have” with “nice to have.” And I haven’t entirely quit flying places—one of the most important changes we can make. But I’m also on a yogic path that helps me in becoming aware of these habits and patterns. As my yoga teacher Beryl Bender Birch says, “All ‘yoga’ practices are about learning to pay attention… as we become more aware, the veils of advidya (ignorance) begin to get fainter and fall away as we get closer to the true experience of yoga, which is recognition of boundlessness.”
The eight steps of Raja Yoga, which are an optimal approach for personal transformation, can create these shifts. The first step is the practice of 10 powerful and interrelated moral and ethical principles (yamas and niyamas), such as nonviolence, truthfulness, non-coveting, discipline, and self-surrender.
Acting in accordance with these principles affects our carbon footprint as a species because they represent ethical guidelines for living that also happen to be sustainable, such as developing a sense of inner abundance, voluntarily embracing simplicity, letting go of what is not essential, and making choices for long-term good.
The next two steps are yoga postures (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama). Asana provides us control of our bodies, through stress resilience and the healing of trauma, while pranayama creates connection between breath and emotion. These transformative skills literally rewire our brains.
The next three steps are a progressive inward journey consisting of introspection (pratyahara), deepening into concentration (dharana), and deepening into meditation (dhyana). Meditation enables our minds to become a little more calm and still, and less frenetic. As we build our capability to regulate our emotions, it affects everything we do—what and how much we eat and drink; what we read and watch; who we hang out with and what we discuss; what/when/why we buy; and how we work, live, and play—in short, it determines our carbon footprint!
Based on article with B.K. Bose, Matthew King, Rob Schware, How Yoga can Reverse Climate Change. Really!
The Yoga Wheel
We can think of the yoga practice as a wheel, where yoga starts out providing us with optimal tools for stress management. As we develop stress resilience, we develop self-awareness. As we develop self-awareness, we gain greater ability to regulate emotion and the ability to act rather than react. And we develop the self-control to resist an impulse to acquire something that we may want but do not need.
As we continue to traverse this wheel, we spiral toward an evolution of our consciousness. This spiral leads us toward the eighth step of yoga, self-realization (samadhi), which is the awareness that we are all intimately interconnected and interdependent. As we move around the wheel aligning our thoughts with actions, we can adaptively reduce our individual carbon footprint and even curtail desires that lead to larger carbon footprints.
Yoga Can Contribute To A Slowing Of The Earth’s Warming
We need to extract the essence of yoga, distilling the practice down to a few minutes that can be done regularly by anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Imagine the possibilities if most of the one billion people in the developed world, where consumption is most rampant, were acting through emotional regulation and self-mastery most of the time, with each striving to be mindful of future generations. Humanity would make great strides toward leaving the smallest possible carbon footprint. And imagine the possibilities if every child in the world could learn these transformative life skills from childhood.
Read more: download our white paper, Yoga, Personal Transformation, and Global Sustainability.