Yoga and Ecology

Yoga and Ecology – Buddhism

By: Westin Harris, guest contributor

IMG_3266Lama (left) and Author (right)

Introduction: Self and/as Sustenance

Hitching a ride from the southern gate of the iconic Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, I set off for a place called Namobuddha. With only a few rupees tucked into my robes and a backpack full of ritual implements, I headed southeast from Kathmandu along the Araniko Highway, zigzagging my way deeper into the Himalayan foothills. Perched atop a mountain and surrounded by panoramic vistas of the Annapurna range, Namobuddha is a renowned pilgrimage destination for Buddhists across Asia. My Guru had instructed me to do a short practice retreat at this sacred place because its provenance is closely related with my meditative practice as a chöpa (Tib. gcod pa: “one who cuts”)—a term for a tantric Buddhist practitioner who practices the ritual of “cutting,” in which one visualizes cutting up and boiling their own body into an elixir that is offered to, and for the benefit of, all sentient beings. The practice of chö, like the story of Namobuddha itself, offer the Buddhist a mode of being in and relating to the world that is packed with ecological significance.

IMG_3267View of Namobuddha, from the main monastery (Photo: Author)

The legend of Namobuddha is connected to a jataka tale (stories of the Buddha’s previous incarnations) that goes something like this:

In a previous life, the Buddha was born as Prince Sattva but renounced his heredity to wander and meditate. At one point in his travels, Prince Sattva and a few disciples came upon a female tiger with her cubs. Emaciated and starving, the mother was not able to provide milk for her offspring, so she considered eating one or two of her own cubs in order to produce milk for the others. Recognizing the tigress’s plight, and wishing to save her from the dreadful karma that would be accrued by eating her own children, Prince Sattva sent his disciples to go in search of food. While they were away, Prince Sattva began to slowly cut off chunks of his own flesh, bit-by-bit, and fed them to the mother tiger. By the time Prince Sattva’s disciples returned, he had offered his entire body to the tigress and nothing remained but a pile of clothes. Rejoicing in the virtuous actions of their master, the disciples erected a stupa at that very location. For his deeds, Prince Sattva became known as Mahasattva, and the location of his stupa become known as Namobuddha (“Homage to the Buddha”).

jatakaThe Buddha and the story of Mahasattva on the wall of the temple at Namobuddha. (Photo: Abigail Bush)

The story of Mahasattva and the practice of chö not only present Buddhists with a relational mode as stated above; they also lend contemporary readers insight into Buddhist ontologies that differ radically from contemporary Cartesio-Protestant concepts of exploitation, consumption, progress, and dominion. Such ontologies valorize subjugation of the “self” in favor of benefiting the “other,” precisely because, as we will see, the self is regarded as empty and the other is regarded as none other than the self. In the face of widespread ecological suffering, it is worth asking the question: What else does Buddhism have to say about our relationship with the environment?

This question has no single answer or set of answers, especially because Buddhism itself is not a monolithic entity. However, in the scope of this short essay I hope that readers will find a helpful, preliminary overview of general Buddhist philosophy, as it specifically relates to ecological ethics. Following the chronology of Buddhist development, we will begin by examining early Buddhist philosophy, including the doctrines of dependent origination, emptiness, and non-violence. We will then explore the later advent of Mahayana, its concepts of the bodhisattva and bodhicitta, and their ecological implications.

Early Buddhism and Ecological Ethics

At the very heart of Buddhist philosophy is the concept of compassion. When the Buddha gave his first sermon on the famous “Four Noble Truths”—in which he acknowledged the reality of suffering, described its cause, prescribed its cessation, and outlined the path to accomplish its cessation—he was motivated by the compassionate aim of alleviating sentient beings from their suffering. We will return to this notion of compassion more explicitly at the end of this section; but in the meantime, it is imperative that the reader keeps this notion of compassion in mind as we discuss two of the more abstract philosophical concepts of Early Buddhism.

In his “Four Noble Truths,” the Buddha first establishes that an unexamined life is plagued by inevitable bouts of suffering. He determines that the cause of this suffering is attachment, predicated on desire and aversion: we are attached to attaining that which we desire and we are attached to avoiding that which causes pain. In a very linear fashion, the Buddha concludes that if one removes the causes and conditions for suffering, then suffering itself will cease. In this way, suffering is dependent on causes and conditions and originates from them. This is the concept of dependent origination (Sanskrit: pratityasamutpada).

But the doctrine of dependent origination does not only apply to suffering. The Buddha taught that all phenomena—life, death, and everything between, including the animate and inanimate entities that populate the interim—arise from dependent origination. All things and occurrences depend upon previous occurrences, and arise from them. In this cosmology, all phenomena are wholly interconnected within a matrix of causes, conditions, and influences. And because this matrix is subject to the incessant passage of time, its only predictable quality is that “things” will inevitably be influenced by other “things” in such a way that they will cease to be what they were previously, becoming something else entirely. Therefore, everything—that is every object, every phenomena, every mental state, etc.—is interdependent and impermanent.

A later sutra (“The Rice Sprout Sutra”) illustrates this concept by describing a rice seed. The seed itself is not the rice plant, nor is it the fruit of the rice husk, nor is it the person eating the rice. However, within the conditions of soil, water, and time, the seed, its sprout, its fruit, and farmer who consumes the lattermost are all interconnected, dependent, and impermanent. This presents an ontological framework in which the human being is not separate from nature, but is completely and unavoidably integrated within it.

Because everything comes from something else, and through the passing of time turns into something else, the Buddha described all things as being “empty” of an independent self or essence. This is the Buddhist concept of emptiness (Sanskrit: sunyata). That is, when viewing an object—for instance a human—in the temporal cross-section of a single moment, she may appear to be just so: a human. However, when viewed from the continuum of time, that human began as food that was consumed by her parents; her birth was dependent upon the sexual union of those parents; her body grew from minerals and substances that began as something else; and upon death, her body will decay, fertilizing the vegetables that later parents consume to subsequently give birth to a new generation—and so the chain of dependence continues.

Dependent origination and emptiness are among the most fundamental concepts developed in early Buddhism, and are indeed two of the most complex and profound—and as such, deserve much more elaboration then I can commit here. But within the scope of our ecological discussion, they become particularly meaningful when viewed in relationship to the third major doctrine of early Buddhism: that is, non-violence (Sanskrit: ahimsa).

Non-violence is generally considered a moral injunction based on philosophical tenets, rather than a philosophical concept in its own right (however, this is still a point of debate within Buddhism). At this point, the importance of compassion, as discussed above, becomes more explicit. By seeing all phenomena, and therefore, all life, as being interconnected, dependent, and “empty” of its own essence, no one being can be said to be essentially superior or dominant over the other. This, coupled with the recognition that the self, itself, is empty of a single essence (another foundational Buddhist concept called no-self [Sanskrit: anatman]), leads the Buddha to conclude that the only ethical basis for interaction with other beings is one of compassion—that is, seeing the other as being as important as oneself, because they are so interconnected as to be one and the same.

In some of the earliest sutras of the Sutra Pitaka, the Buddha teaches that if he wants to live and does not want to die, and if he wants happiness and does not to suffer, then it is clearly unethical for him to take the life of another being who wants the same things. He concludes that abstaining from taking the life of other sentient beings is the ethical decision. In other works from the same Pitaka, the Buddha goes further, stating that not only is it unethical to kill, but it is equally as unethical to cause someone else to kill on your behalf, as is causing someone else to incite a third person to kill.

These types of moral injunctions are rooted deeply in the doctrines of emptiness and dependent origination. In a similar way, these notions offer the 21st century reader a cosmological model of interconnectedness and mutual-importance that challenges the anthropocentric chauvinism of Post-European Enlightenment concepts like development and progress. The trinity of emptiness, dependent origination, and non-violence present a complete foundation upon which one might live an ecologically conscious life. However, in the idea of the bodhisattva, developed later with the advent of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, we find an even more explicit description of the ideal person—with powerful ecological implications.

Mahayana Buddhism and the Ideal Person

Based largely on the various Perfection of Wisdom scriptures (Sanskrit: prajnaparamita sutra), we find the concept of the bodhisattva enter Buddhist discourse around the first century before the Common Era. These sutras propound the cultivation of the so-called Perfections (Sanskrit: paramita), which are frequently enumerated as being six in total (although sometimes ten). The six are: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom. The highest embodiment of these six virtues is the bodhisattva, who vows to forgo her own liberation from the chain of cyclic phenomena in order to help all other sentient beings attain the same liberation—subjecting herself again and again to the sufferings of conditioned existence for the betterment of all others. The path of the bodhisattva became known as the Great Vehicle (Sanskrit: mahayana) because it is based on the altruistic aim of helping the great masses of beings achieve ultimate liberation.

Central to the notion of the bodhisattva is the doctrine of rebirth. While there is discussion of rebirth in early Buddhism, the concept is fully developed within the Mahayana schools. As beings take countless rebirths, they experience the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age, and death over and over again. In the face of such immense and eternal suffering, the bodhisattva is driven to dedicate herself to benefiting others due to her compassionate mind (Sanskrit: bodhicitta, lit. “mind of enlightenment,” showing the implicit connection between compassion and enlightenment in Mahayana philosophy).

The scriptures are careful to use terms such as “sentient beings” instead of “humans” because within the cycles of rebirth, a human in this life may have been a whale in the previous, and might be born as a flea in the next. Many Mahayana texts even use the term “mother beings,” implying that over countless eons of rebirth, all beings have been one’s mother or will be one’s mother during at least one lifetime. Therefore, to the bodhisattva, taking the life of any living being is tantamount to matricide.

From the Mahayana point of view, not only is all life interconnected and interdependent, it is ultimately one family. In this worldview, achievement is not measured by how high one can vault oneself, but rather upon how many “family members” one can uplift into bliss before allowing oneself to indulge in the same. In this way, the bodhisattva is much more than a vegetarian or vegan (although that is certainly a prerequisite). The bodhisattva is an ideal, eco-conscious person: the daughter of every single living being, motivated by limitless compassion which is cultivated through virtuous effort, and sworn to value her cosmic family more than herself.


In the spirit of cyclicism, let us conclude where we began by returning to the jataka tale of Mahasattva. Regardless of the historicity of such stories, their pedagogical value as demonstrative morality tales is undeniable. The story of Mahasattva is populated by three major categories of characters: Mahasattva himself, his human disciples, and suffering animals who inhabit the natural world. The disciples might represent humanity as a whole; Mahasattva could be seen as the ideal human—the bodhisattva; and the tigress and her cubs could symbolize the rest of sentient life, or nature.

That the ideal human sacrifices himself for the betterment of non-human life is an ecological statement that is hard to miss. Furthermore, the fact that non-human life is central to such stories further promotes an eco-conscious agenda. In fact, among the more than five-hundred known jataka tales, a great many of them place animals at the center of the narrative, including: the Four Friends, the Brahmin and the Mongoose, the Moon Rabbit, the Ox and the Pig, the Brahmin and the Tiger (in which multiple non-human beings testify to their harsh treatment by humans), and many others. Accompanying this frequent employment of animal characters is the recurring trope of self-sacrifice.

As these jatakas illustrate, the bodhisattva occupies an environment in which self, other, and mother are the same, in which compassion is the aim and altruism is the means, in which the alleviation of suffering is not a personal affair but an inter-personal responsibility. To many, especially in the West, this is a world seemingly irreconcilable with the one in which we find ourselves. Yet, the various Buddhist paths offer roadmaps that chauffeur the wanderer to this sacred space—not by orienting them in a particular geographical direction, but by orienting their mind towards unity and their actions towards love.

Before closing, it is worth mentioning that the term bodhisattva is not only reserved for those who have achieved its highest ideal. Rather, anyone who charters the Great Vehicle is regarded as a bodhisattva. This is a subtle but encouraging point, for it idealizes perfection while patiently valuing intention and progression. The path of the bodhisattva is described as having ten stages, and regardless of which stage one has achieved, all are equally deserving of the name. Such being the case, accessing the equipoised world of the bodhisattva is as accessible as simply aspiring for it.

(Written by the fraudulent yogi Jigme Senge Drayang at the request of his smarter and better-looking colleague, the Christ-Bearing Mill Keeper. By this merit, may all mother beings, without prejudice, be liberated from the sufferings of conditioned existence and may the supreme bodhicitta increase like the surging tide.)

Author’s Bio:

Westin Harris is a PhD student in the Graduate Group for the Study of Religion at the University of California. He is a translator of Classical Tibetan liturgical texts from the tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, and his doctoral research focuses on the representation of “holy madness” in the hagiographical corpus of Tibetan tantric saints. Westin is also a tantric yogi in the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Vajrayana, and often signs his work with his Guru-given name: Jigme Senge Drayang (“Fearless Lion’s Melodious Roar”).

*If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between Yoga and Ecology, we will be hosting a workshop in Zurich, Switzerland on August 6, 2016, from 2 to 6PM:

Yoga and Ecology

Yoga and Ecology – Bhakti: The Lake of Zürich, or the Bay of Bengal?

In our introduction to German class, one of the first phrases we learned was “bei schönem Wetter,” which literally translates as “by beautiful weather.” More colloquially, in English this phrase might be translated as “When the weather is beautiful,” and is a clause that precedes all of the outdoor recreational activities one can undertake during the beautiful, though sometimes rare, summer days in Switzerland. Having been here for two weeks now and having experienced the sporadic beautiful weather, I’ve become accustomed to using this phrase when making future plans to head outside. And when the weather is indeed beautiful here, we head to the lake of Zürich for sunny refreshment.

All along the lake, there are public and private beaches that serve as places for recreation and relaxation, here known as “badis.” Swiss have for generations enjoyed the summer weather at their treasured badis, where one can swim, play volleyball, barbecue, etc. For those from California, it’s quite similar to a nice summer “day at the beach.” I first experienced badi culture when my friend Dave, who lives here, took me to one such place in Winterthur, and I was immediately “hooked.” Summer days are long here in Switzerland, and when work lets out, a rush of professionals dressed in their work clothing jet to the badis to catch the rays of sun at the day’s end.

On Gurupurnima, the day which honors teachers on the first full moon after the summer solstice, my wife and I had been invited by our friend and yoga teacher Michela Güttinger to a special lakeside full moon class at a public badi along the shore of the lake of Zürich in Wollishofen. Our nerves were a bit wracked when we arrived to the yoga class, as we had literally been bumping shoulders with other hurried Swiss who, like us, were bobbing in and out of traffic on their motorbikes to make their way in the same direction after work.

We arrived to a beautiful scene – it was 7PM, and the sun began to make its descent toward the western horizon. We made a half circle facing the east, admiring the way the sun illuminated the lake and opposite shore in front of us. Michela proceeded to lead us through a yoga class in honor of our teachers on this special full moon day, and with special emphasis on connecting to the natural surroundings around us. As we twisted and turned, we were perpetually reminded to connect mind, body, breath, and environment together. The wind blew lightly through the tall trees around us creating an ongoing rustle. Each time our gaze went skyward, we followed these trees to their tops and into the vast blue sky above us. As the setting sun’s rays reflected against the trees’ shimmering leaves, we listened to the lake’s waves gently lapping against the shore. A truly idyllic location for connecting to nature through yoga.

After a long and restful savasana, Michela led us through a meditation of expansion. At the very end of class, we were abruptly interrupted by a drunk man who loudly proclaimed – “This is not yoga!,” as he walked away to get some more booze from his friends. With grace, Michela instructed us to “send him some love.” Just then, she also alerted us to the fact that the full moon had just come over the hilly horizon on the other side of the lake! In awe, we all sat in a brief silence, and Michela then invited each of us to write down a question to which we sought an answer, and, like curious children, to deposit our question into a bowl that we would burn together, eventually offering the ashes to the lake and moon.

Michela also invited me to say a bit about Gurupurnima, and I told the story of Siva, the original yoga teacher, who on this special day, disseminated the seven yogas to the seven sages in the Himalayas in order that they might teach these yogas to others. We then paid homage to the Alps to the southeast, which rose above the lake in the distance, resembling their counterparts in Pakistan, Tibet, North India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

Relaxed and refreshed from the class, we then made our way over to the shore where a small stream enters the lake from the city. By this point, the badi was packed and full of life. Having spent three months at this particular location during the summer of 2014, a flood of fond memories came into my mind as we took in the sounds, sights, and smells around us. There must have been about 200 hundred beachgoers with at least 20 barbecues cooking up Swiss favorites. Some were partying and listening to music, some were spending some quality time with their families – all were soaking in the warm, late evening sun. A familiar site at any part of the lakeshore this time of year (bei schönem Wetter, of course).

Amidst the festivities, we approached the lake with a sense of seriousness and attentiveness in order to complete the community ritual that Michela had initiated just minutes before. It was there, as we reached the lakeshore, that we were all brought to silence. I should have known what we were about to see, as I had already smelled and spotted the bundle of incense sticks burning brightly from a distance, a sight not uncommon along waterways in South Asia. For there, standing in waist deep water in the mouth of a creek entering the lake, facing the full moon which now lightly shimmered on the lake’s surface, was one single, fully clothed woman offering fruits and mantras. Our entire group stopped in disbelief – immediately transported to another time and place – as we watched this woman, with intense devotion, offer mantra after mantra.

As we continued to watch, Michela and Patricia Schurr (another student in our class who is a Pilates instructor here in Zürich), began to burn the pieces of paper upon which we had written our questions. I quickly waded into the water after them toward the lone woman who had captivated our attention. As I got closer, I realized indeed that she was chanting Sanskrit mantras, and, after she dunked herself under the water three times and emerged, we heard her say, “Om Namah Sivaya.” As she turned in my direction, I repeated the same to her, and she smiled and asked if we knew Amma, the hugging saint from Kerala. I affirmed that we did and had indeed spent some time with Amma at her Ashram a few years back, which seemed to delight her as she said that Amma was her friend.

FullSizeRender (1)Photo of devotee (middle) with author (left) and Michela (right) facing the moon at the river mouth, taken by one of the other students from the shore.

I asked the woman, who was fully clothed and now soaked from head to toe and shivering, whether she was here to honor Amma for Gurupurnima, to which she replied “Yes, I see her right there,” pointing at the full moon. She was, as she then told us, an Indian Hindu who had been raised in Malaysia and was now living in Switzerland. “We have access to our guru no matter where we are,” she told us, “the guru is right here in nature.” She cupped water in her hand to demonstrate her point, and asked us to chant the Mahamrityunjaya mantra with her:

Om Tryambakam Yajamahe
Sugandhim Pushtivardhanam
Urvarukamiva Bandhanan
Mrityor Mukshiya Maamritat

We Meditate on the Three-eyed reality
Which permeates and nourishes all like a fragrance.
May we be liberated from death for the sake of immortality,
Even as the cucumber is severed from bondage to the creeper.


She chanted the mantra, and then invited us to chant the Gayatri mantra:

Aum Bhur Bhuva Svah
Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi
Dhiyo Yo Naha Prachodayat

On the absolute reality and its planes,
On that finest spiritual light,
We meditate, as remover of obstacles
That it may inspire and enlighten us.

We followed her lead, and in the spirit of the triveni, we lifted water above our heads in cupped hands, pouring it back into the lake three times. The woman then said to us, “Praise Mother Ganga, whose waters are everywhere, there is no difference between this water and that of the sacred river, and all rivers lead to the ocean. Look out at the water, look at the waves moving toward you, and ask whatever is on your mind. Perhaps, if your heart is pure enough, you will receive an answer.” Pointing at the legions of partying beachgoers who remained near the lakeshore, she said, “Look at all of these people, look at what they are doing, and look at what is happening in this world right now. I was here worshipping alone, and now you have come, this is a blessing,” followed by an outburst of contagious laughter. Without passing any further judgment, she then offered a prayer for humanity to the rising moon, instructing us to do the same on our own, and, as quickly as she had entered our experience, made her way back to the lakeshore and vanished.

What had we just witnessed? For the brief moments that we spent with this woman, whose heart was filled with contagious devotion, we had indeed entered another world, an oceanic landscape right here on the lake of Zürich. As a surfer, I used to come down to this very place on a daily basis, always thinking that I had found a secret surf spot – the shape of the river mouth (which is really a small creek) resembles some of the finest point breaks I have surfed in the world, and the lake waves, though too small to ride, take the appearance of perfectly shaped barrels. For a surfer, this is as close as it gets in land locked Switzerland, and to me this little spot was my own fantasy surf spot.

As I mentioned in a prior post, my summer travels involve preliminary research that looks for new ways of understanding and defining the “boundaries” of the Indian Ocean, a project sponsored by UC Davis’s Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds Mellon Research Initiative. The angle I’ve taken here is to try to find practices that have origins in Indian Ocean worlds (mainly South Asia) in order to see how they might produce hybrid landscapes in other coastal areas around the world.

It turns out that both myself and this woman had a special fondness for this particular place on the lake, and that the practices and imaginings we were both undertaking here were, in various ways, transforming the landscape and bringing the Indian Ocean to Zürich. For her specifically, this space resembled a tirtha, or a sacred place of “crossing over” toward the divine. Countless such places exist in India, one of which is at Ganga Sagara where the Ganges enters the Bay of Bengal on India’s east coast. A few years back, I accompanied some surfers to a river mouth surf break just south of this special place, where the Ganges flows due to the great yogic austerities performed by King Bhaghiratha who impressed the god Siva to such an extent that he sent the waters of the holy river to earth to wash away the sins of humanity and revive the lives of 60,000 deceased kingly sons who had been killed here for interrupting the meditation of the sage Kapila. Even today in India, a special festival is held each year where bathers pay homage to the great sage Kapila who once lived here and who created yoga’s metaphysical counterpart, Samkhya philosophy.

For a few brief moments, the Zürichsee (the Lake of Zürich) had become the Zürichmeer (the Ocean of Zürich), transformed through the intense devotion of one woman amidst a summer crowd of Swiss badi-goers. I’m thinking here with Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, Michel De Certeau, Mircea Eliade, J.Z. Smith, and Smriti Srinivas: For Lefebvre, space is lived, dynamic, subject to multiple interpretations and politically loaded – in other words, space is not a static entity separate from human activity but is, rather, continually shaped, molded, and reformed through human intentions and practices. Foucault referred to the multiple overlapping realities that result from spaces’s multiplicity as “hererotopias,” while De Certeau emphasized the need to pay careful attention to people’s everyday practices wherein we can expect to find bodily tactics which deviate from the expectations set by popular culture, policy makers, city planners, and corporate and civic authorities – tactics which reclaim and reshape space in the process.

Within religious contexts specifically, Mircea Eliade once argued that sacred space pre-exists for us to find in the landscape, while his student J.Z. Smith later made the counter argument that sacred space is produced by those who are religious – in other words, places in the landscape are only sacred because religious practitioners imbue them with meaning and make them sacred. One example of such spatial transformation is found in the work of Smriti Srinivas, who shows how the body can serve as a mnemonic that allows devotees to body forth religious memory into the urban, transforming daily city space into a sacred landscape as a result.

The devotion we all witnessed on Gurupurnima was all of these things: a bodily practice which deviated from what one would expect to find in the Swiss badi on a typical sunny, summer afternoon that produced an alternative, sacred landscape – there, as our devoted companion suggested, the Ganges met the Bay of Bengal; the Lake of Zürich became the Ocean with its small tributary becoming a sacred river flowing into a sea of consciousness.

Before closing, I would like to reemphasize that the woman we met also insisted that if we had pure hearts to hear, we would be able to receive a message from nature, the lake waves of which, reflecting and distorting the light of the bright full moon, perpetually moved towards us as we stood in the river mouth. Her message perhaps suggests that our often unquestioned Cartesian worldview, which assumes a mechanical world separate from the body and mind, and which Lefebvre implicitly critiques in his analysis of space, may be unduly influencing the way we study the relationship between religious practices and sacred space. Perhaps instead of assuming that sacred space is merely produced, we might instead, as our friend suggested and as Kapila’s emanationist philosophy suggests, begin with the assumption that nature already possesses an ineffable power that moves devotees to consider it sacred, a power which interacts with one’s innermost being reciprocally in a process which, if one carefully observes it, serves to make one aware of their inherent inseparability from the world around them. And perhaps, as Thomas Berry once suggested, we can begin to hear this message if only faintly, and even begin to play it through in our thoughts, actions, and daily work so as to dramatically improve human-earth relations.

Just before leaving for the summer, we met a householder yogi named Michael Gabriel who lives in Davis, California. On my way to the airport, he handed me a copy of the Uddhava Gita, The Last Message of Krishna. Here, Krishna expounds his final message to Uddhava before leaving earth. When asked how he has found bliss in the Self alone, Krishna replies,

“I have many teachers, O King, whom I resorted to through the intellect, receiving wisdom from whom I roam on earth at large. Listen to who they are. The earth, air, sky, water, fire, the moon, the sun, the pigeon, the python, the sea, the moth, the bee, the elephant; The honey-gatherer, the deer, the fish, the courtesan Pingala, the osprey, the child, the maiden, the arrow maker, the snake, the spider, and a particular insect known as Bhramara-kita. These, O King, are the twenty-four teachers whom I have resorted to; from the characteristic traits of these I have gathered all my lessons.”

In his book People Trees, David Haberman shows us how some humans do still indeed communicate with non-human persons. Have we lost our ability to listen and how can we begin to develop our capacities to listen and respond?

Amidst the mayhem on one beautiful summer evening, we were lifted up and moved to deep reverence by one individual in a crowd of hundreds who directed our own awareness to the lessons of the natural world around us. What a perfect moment to honor all of our patient teachers, both human and non-human, who generously, slowly, and humbly share their knowledge and wisdom with us, just as the moon gently reflected the luminosity of the sun on one special summer evening at the Lake of Zürich.

*If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between Yoga and Ecology, we will be hosting a workshop in Zurich, Switzerland on August 6, 2016, from 2 to 6PM:

Yoga and Ecology

Yoga, Surfing, and Ecology

I’ve spent the last two weeks surfing and practicing yoga in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica with my friend John Haas, a legendary surfer from Florida who is now a retired expat living in the hills with his wife Karen above the ocean, where he makes his daily descent to charge big waves at the young age of 62.

Having received a grant from UC Davis’s “Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds Mellon Research Initiative,” I came here to do some preliminary research that might give us new ways of understanding the “boundaries” of the Indian Ocean. The angle I’ve taken here is to try to find practices that have origins in Indian Ocean worlds (mainly South Asia) in order to see how they might produce hybrid landscapes in other coastal areas around the world. Here in Santa Teresa, I was specifically interested in the confluence of yoga, a practice with origins in India that has become a transnational phenomenon, and surfing, a sport with origins in Hawaii (or perhaps Peru) that has also gone transnational. I was curious to see why these two bodily practices intersect in Santa Teresa, and the type of culture and landscape they produce.

My questions began to arise back in 2013 when I met a group who called themselves the “surfing yogis” in Puri, Orissa. After spending a couple of months surfing uninhabited river mouth surf breaks and watching my yogi friends enjoying chillum after chillum between sessions, I moved to Hawaii to practice yoga and surf as much as possible. While there, my wife and I met Deborah Koehn while I was teaching at the Hawaii Yoga Festival. Deborah and I were happy to connect – we discovered that we were both surfing yogis, and that we could slip away from the festival madness to rejuvenate at my favorite Big Island surf spot, Honoli’i. I later messaged Deborah to find out why surfing and yoga go so well together, and she responded with the following:

“There is so much beauty and relationship to yoga and surfing… funny you ask today as I was in the water this morning for 4 hours catching beautiful glassy wave after wave here in Kona and if it wasn’t for need to hydrate and get out of the sun would probably still be there… meditation in action for sure… and a flood of connectedness to yoga and benefits comes to heart as I bring the question to mind… such an unexplainable feeling but isn’t that what love is!!! All of the joy and all of the challenges!!”

I too felt the love, but also still found myself unable to articulate why surfing and yoga were such a perfect pairing. Thus, I began to sniff around through the internet and academic journals to find out why, and eventually made my way to Santa Teresa, Costa Rica.

Santa Teresa is certainly not the only place that surfing and yoga are paired together. The Yoga Farm in Punta Banco, Costa Rica, for example, runs a retreat called “Surfin’Yogis” and says the following about the combination:

“Surfing and Yoga have a long history of mutual influence on one another. Both practices bring balance, inner peace, and joy to the practitioner’s life. This week long camp was developed to demonstrate for participants how great it feels to be both a surfer and a yogi.”

As someone who has practiced both yoga and surfing for years, I could not agree more. Somehow, both of these practices have always seemed to fit together “like peas and carrots,” as I mentioned to John the other day on our way down to the beach.

As I began to ask people around town and in the yoga studios why surfing and yoga go together, the most common response I received was that it was “just natural.” When I tried to dig a bit deeper, I was often told some variation of the following two answers: 1) yoga makes one a better surfer by inculcating physical and mental discipline (this is what I will refer to as “therapeutic” yoga below) or 2) both yoga and surfing are spiritual practices of some sort and as such are a potent combination for those wanting to live a spiritual life.

In a truly enjoyable article, Bron Taylor shows how surfing is indeed a religion of sorts, one which, though connected to an environmentally destructive multi-(million?billion?) dollar consumer industry, can still impart spiritually significant experiences upon its many adherents. Almost every surfer, for example, has a story of feeling kinship with nature and animals while out in the water, catching awe-inspiring waves, or a sense of feeling connected to something bigger than themselves. These experiences often incite an ethical response, which we see manifest in events such as beach cleanups and protests of coastal development, along with the formation of non-profit organizations such as Surfrider, Heal the Bay, and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

As Taylor shows, surfing’s environmental ethos – that sense of being connected to and also responsible for stewarding Mother Ocean –  is at least in part a direct result of yoga philosophy’s influence upon 1960’s and 1970’s surf culture. As we’ll soon see, the countercultural moment helps us understand how both surfing and yoga came to fit together so “naturally.”


Pictured here in padmasana (lotus pose) is another surf legend, Gerry Lopez (left). Lopez is famous for his heroic wave riding at the Bonsai Pipeline, an incredibly technical wave on Hawaii’s north shore that is not for the faint of heart (I tried surfing a wave just down the road that was supposed to be an easier bet and was dragged across the reef on my first try). Surfing waves of such enormity requires incredible concentration – one wrong move and it’s wipeout time. On this threshold of life and death, many surfers during the countercultural movement found spiritual significance in their surf life. According to Lopez,

“We became hippies and got into yoga and that whole self realization thing and started to realize that those moments when you were completely focused on riding a wave are actually kind of spiritual…religious moments.”

“To be truly successful at riding a wave we’re approaching a Zen state of mind…and you’re in the pure moment. Other parts of your life might be in shambles, but because you’re tapping into the source you’re truly happy.”

– See Taylor 2007

Here is a shot of Lopez tapping into the source in the barrel at Bonsai Pipeline in the 70s:

lopez in barrel.jpg

In a more recent interview with Surfer Magazine, Lopez goes so far as to say that yoga transformed surfing,

“… in the ’60s… surfers gravitated toward a lifestyle that had a lot of similarities to yoga. We started to care about our bodies and minds, and we began to exercise. So today, a lot of the values we have as surfers are really in line with that of yoga. I’d say yoga changed surfing.”

In this same interview, Lopez reminds us that big wave surfers including Greg Long are currently using yoga to improve their chances of surviving big wave wipeouts. Other famous surfers also practice – free surfer Dave Rastovich, as one of the yoga teachers here in Santa Teresa reminded me, has what she referred to as “quite an advanced yoga practice,” which he uses to counteract the muscle tension created from paddling (watch his pre-surf warm up here).

Both Long’s and Rastovich’s performance-enhancing yoga represents what I earlier referred to as “therapeutic” yoga. As Joseph Alter has shown, in the early 2oth century, Indian scientists and nationalists such as Swami Kuvalayananda at Kaivalyadhama brought yoga under a medical-scientific lens in order to legitimate yoga in the face of colonial/western rationalism. While earlier gurus like Swami Vivekananda mentioned yoga’s scientific nature and health benefits, Kuvalayananda subjected yoga to rigorous empirical testing to prove its therapeutic efficacy within an increasingly biopolitical framework. Kuvalayananda’s work, as Alter shows, complicates the old argument that “the West has bastardized yoga by stripping it of its spiritual context.”

Having mentioned this brief history, however, I should also mention that Indian yogis never really dropped their concern for spiritually contextualized practice. For example, Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, who is a medical doctor in Pondicherry as well as the Chairman of the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research (ICYER), says the following with regard to his father’s teachings:

“The goal of human existence is not health and happiness but is Moksha (liberation). Most people today are so busy trying to find health and happiness that they forget why they are here in the first place.”


Similarly, while yoga can be quite effective for therapeutic purposes as well as for performance enhancement in sports including surfing, many surfers including Gerry Lopez find that the combination of both lifestyles moves beyond mere concern for the psychosomatic spectrum to include a harmonious relationship with nature:

“Out of control emotions and imaginations plague our minds, those negative confused thoughts take prescient over the more powerful positive ones put is in a state of turmoil. Self-discipline can help us control our minds and our bodies, bringing a sense of peace. Surfing and yoga teaches us about living a life of harmony with nature.”

Gerry Lopez

While countercultural surfers such as Lopez found yoga to be complementary to their surfing, countercultural spiritual teachers also found that surfing complemented their yoga. In 1971, for example, Richard Alpert, now known as Ram Dass, wrote the famous text Be Here Nowwhich, among its many psychedelic designs, included an eclectic image of a Siva-Nataraja Jesus figure riding a wave which included the caption that follows:

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Alpert, who spent several years training in India with his guru Neem Karoli Baba, found it useful here to compare the cosmic dance of Siva with the sensation of riding a wave (more on this cosmic dance below). More recently, within a western Buddhist context, John Kabat Zinn said, “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.”

Altogether, during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a highly influential and talented group of north shore surfers led by Gerry Lopez wedded surfing and yoga. The influence of this historical moment has endured into the present, where both professional and recreational surfers continue to combine both activities. Santa Teresa has become the surfing/yoga hub of Central America, due in no small part to the fact that this area on the Nicoya Peninsula receives consistent year-round surf. Why yoga is so well concentrated here is still a mystery to me, as it is to all with whom I have spoken, though my guess is that the natural beauty of this region has something to do with it. But what does nature have to do with yoga?

Most modern yoga studios are situated in buildings, shopping centers, or gyms – a far cry from what we might consider “nature.” Here, as Elizabeth De Michelis has shown, practitioners undergo a healing ritual as they retreat from the chaos of urban, industrialized, modern life. In these types of yoga classes, we are encouraged to “leave behind our outside worries,” to honor our “body, mind, and spirit,” and we are so often congratulated for “taking care” of ourselves. Indeed many modern yoga sequences are designed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to lead the body into states of relaxation and calm. With nowhere to run on the outside, we are directed to find solace on the inside, and some brilliant scientists and yogis have figured out just how to do that by manipulating the body and its internal systems. Farah Godrej recently argued that this kind of yoga has the potential to reinforce neoliberal subjectivity, while alternative renderings of yoga might actually undermine and subvert our society’s implicit economic ideology. Pacification of stress and anxiety through yoga is, then, a form of self-care that potentially serves the interests of the economic elite in the worst case. What if, instead, there were a place to go on the outside to find such solace, and what might it look like?

Recent research has shown that spending time in the outdoors has many of the same effects on the body as yoga – it reduces anxiety and stress while also relieving depression. As humans who come from the earth, who have evolved with the earth, and who rely upon it for our ongoing sustenance and wellbeing, it is no surprise that being in nature should have a positive effect on our mental state (assuming we aren’t being chased by a predator – which would activate our sympathetic nervous system, or the fight or flight response – an example often used in yoga class). Contemporary society has strayed far from nature, however, severing an important connection between the human species and the countless other species that inhabit the planet. How do we begin to heal this broken link in a world where people are increasingly alienating themselves from both nature and each other? After these three brief weeks of exploratory field work, It turns out that at least part of the answer to this question lies in the combination of yoga and surfing.

During my trip, I spoke to Sandra Tedeschi, the owner of Vajra Sol Yoga Adventures, who hosts monthly surf/yoga retreats that run for a week at a time here in Santa Teresa. Sandra pairs the two together and tries to make them more integral since, as she told me, both involve similar types of experiences. Sandra described these experiences for me over lunch, which I’ll summarize here as concentration, ionization, and oneness/connection (both with nature and socially with others). Here I will try to explain each (and apologies to Sandra if I’ve missed something!):

By concentration, Sandra means to say that there is only one thing on your mind when you are surfing, which is to catch a wave (I can certainly vouch for this, as can Gerry Lopez!). Your mind cannot go elsewhere and particularly in that moment when you are taking off it cannot afford to think of anything else. She further asserted that the mind likes to be in this state, free of distraction and not pulled in different directions, which is the same thing that happens in yoga – we use the breath and movement to still our mind, and particularly for her this is accomplished in a vinyasa class.

By ionization, I am referring to Sandra’s scientific description of the visceral outcome of surfing, often referred to as “stoke.” Here, with regard to surfing, Sandra shared with me a recent study that shows that the body is positively charged ionically while natural landscapes, and particularly the mist that comes off the waves while surfing, are negatively charged. By placing ourselves in the ocean, we thus “rebalance our bodies,” which are made of 80% water and are profoundly affected in this exchange. In the artificial concrete settings of our daily lives, we are not able to benefit from this natural exchange (e.g. in cities). Yoga provides a similar balancing act though through the movement of energy through the body. Yoga in nature next to the ocean is thus a double whammy as far as balancing goes – and as this picture shows, there are no walls in Santa Teresa’s yoga studios but instead open spaces through which the views and sounds of the crashing waves and verdant landscapes all provide an intimate connection with nature:

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Finally, by oneness/connection, Sandra is referring precisely to this connection that we get to nature, and most specifically to the vast ocean, when we surf. We experience this when we are out in the water by ourselves usually, staring out at the horizon, and are consumed by the vastness and power of the ocean. This connection leads, she explained, to an experience of the “oneness” of all of reality – an experience that we also get through yoga, or the sense of “oneness” and a “connection to ourselves.”

In the social realm, Sandra describes to me that surfing and being in the ocean breaks down barriers between people so that they can better connect to one another in ways not necessarily possible outside of the water. She told me the story of a visiting friend with whom she was able to connect with in ways that were only made possible by the vast setting of the ocean and water they were playing in with stand up paddle boards. According to Sandra, in her experience both personally and professionally, the oceanic setting can dissolve barriers and open hearts to each other. Perhaps it is the vastness of the ocean itself that provides one with a sense of the infinite no matter what race, creed, etc. that they belong to? I can certainly attest to this, having seen the ways in which the Indian surfing community has broken down caste barriers, allowing for surfers from all walks of life to forge strong friendships that would otherwise be impossible outside of the water (see Fancy Fechser’s award-winning documentary film Caste a Wave for the full story of Mahablipuram’s ecologically conscious surfing community).

So far, Sandra seems to suggest an innovative yoga philosophy – paired together it seems that yoga and surfing allow for the connection between the mind-body-nature/social world spectrum whereas in the urban yoga studio, with its closed walls and space-as-refuge from the outside world mentality, we focus mainly on our own mind and the body alone. Yoga here in Santa Teresa has open walls where the breeze moves through, the ocean rumbles, and plants and birds play. In class, we are often encouraged to connect with nature in various ways, not to try to escape from it. Nature thus seems to provide a therapeutic landscape that allows humans to be human as nature intended!

Sandra imparts these three categories of experience (concentration, ionization, and oneness/connection) to her retreat students, who have the opportunity to surf/SUP and do yoga each day of their trip. She has a variety of individuals from around the world, and many from America. Most seem to be busy professionals – doctors, lawyers, etc. who need a break from the craziness and isolation of modern day life. Sandra points out that our stress comes from an unending cycle of cortisol shots that we give ourselves in the frantic pace of this life. She gives her students permission from the start to jump out of that pace to take time to explore themselves and play, while also emphasizing that all the labels of identity (doctor, lawyer, etc.) are to be dropped during the retreat. Everyone is on an equal playing field and play (and self-reflect) they must! Most students take the opportunities she presents and have provided her with positive feedback afterwards, often times transformed by the experience. Sandra’s students come with a variety of interests and intentions – some to play, others to introspect, others for both. Some leave surprised to find that they learned something new about themselves that was previously unknown.

In any case, Sandra’s intentional integration of surfing and yoga highlights a missing piece of the modern yoga puzzle – nature – something that urban yoga studios usually cannot provide. When busy professionals arrive on retreat, it seems that the combination of yoga and surfing demonstrate alternative potentialities of human experience, most notably through the opportunity to enjoy and connect with the natural environment around them. It makes more sense now, as I reflect on my experience here, that the combination is “just natural.

We could now start a discussion regarding the neocolonial development of which surfing and yoga tourism in Costa Rica are indisputably a part, the impact this development has on local communities, the ways in which vacation liminality might reinforce neoliberal subjectivity for most of those who travel here, and all of the other critiques that have been put forth against those who pursue “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability.” But this has already been done – and what I wish to reinforce instead is the value of finding ways to reconnect with nature through yoga or via auxiliary activities appended to yoga practice in such a manner so as to dissolve our sense of alienation and separation from our social and environmental surroundings. Combining surfing and yoga may be a good place to start, though there are many other outdoor activities such as hiking that are currently in use as well.

In my experience (and I know I am not alone here!), surfing, like yoga, can on the one hand be quite blissful – when one catches a wave they are, as Ram Dass’s image above suggests, riding the universe: wind energy transferred into water by storms produced by the ongoing redistribution of heat from the sun that moves across the planet, breaking over a variety of earthly formations (reefs, sandbars, rocks, lava fingers, etc). It is, perhaps, these intense moments of connectivity that define surfing’s peak experiences – whether in the tube or not. In any case, one is placed front and center with the natural world in a way theretofore unexperienced.

In addition to bliss, surfing teaches many (sometimes hard) lessons. In this regard, I have shared some my own early experiences elsewhere (read 1.42-1.44 here for the full story). Being in the water for prolonged periods of time, carefully watching the wind, the tides, the moon cycle, the swell forecast, and the weather everyday develops within one a special relationship with their local surf break. In my case, after the first rain storm of the year, I was surprised, as I entered the water in December 2002, to find trash and pollution literally everywhere. I then realized, for the first time in my life, that everything is connected – the trash had been flushed out from the city by the rain, and some of it was likely my own. Little did I know it, but this was my first encounter with yoga.

What is the takeaway here? I think that what we learn from all of these accounts – those of Deborah Koehn, Gerry Lopez, Sandra Tedeschi, as well as our own personal experiences – is that a holistic yoga practice does not merely entail the integration of the mind and body as so often proposed in yoga class, yoga marketing, yoga magazines, etc. Rather, as the combination of yoga and surfing shows us, a complete yoga practice takes a final step by yoking the mind and body to the world in which it is emplaced so that it can see this world as it truly is. Surfing seems to be a potent means for doing so, but a variety of new techniques might also be developed to push modern yoga forward to become a practice of developing intimacy with the landscapes that still exist for us to cherish. At best, perhaps such intimacy will help us to realize the structural inequities inherent in our exploitative, class-based global economic system, instill in us a drive to protect our sacred natural spaces from destruction and pollution at the hands of the 1% within this system, and encourage us to preserve these spaces for the worship of future generations. It may also push us to encourage the surf industry to make sustainable surfboard production the norm rather than a market niche, so as to keep harmful chemicals out of our environment.


*If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between Yoga and Ecology, we will be hosting a workshop in Zurich, Switzerland on August 6, 2016, from 2 to 6PM:

Yoga and Ecology

Yoga and Ecology – Classical Yoga

As we move into India’s classical period, two related philosophical systems are codified: Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (ca. 200 AD) and Īśvara Kṛṣṇa’s Sāṃkhya-Kārikā (ca. 300 AD). These texts are related because Patañjali’s text is grounded in the proto-Samkhyan metaphysics that the Sāṃkhya-Kārikā later systematizes (as we can see from the dates of the texts, it is likely the case that the Yoga Sūtra was published first). A careful analysis of the metaphysics of the Sāṃkhya-Kārikā and the concomitant practices found in the Yoga Sūtra reveals the ecological implications of what we might refer to as the classical Sāṃkhya-Yoga system. Sāṃkhya is at first a bit challenging to grasp, but gaining an understanding of the way the system maps reality can be life-changing and thus well worth your time.

Systematized by Īśvara Kṛṣṇa, the Sāṃkhya-Kārikā (ca. 300 A.D.) begins with the assertion that to be alive is to suffer (duḥka).[1] The text asserts that Sāṃkhya has been passed down with compassion[2] as a means to assist aspirants in their quest to counteract this suffering[3] through the cultivation of spiritual knowledge (jñāna) that eventually leads to the realization of the inherent freedom of one’s consciousness.[4] Sāṃkhya provides the prescription for attaining this knowledge via the disciplined analysis (abhyāsa) of twenty-five fundamental and irreducible categories of reality known as tattvas.[5] See Figure 1, which will be a useful reference for understanding how the Sāṃkhya system works throughout this article.


Screen Shot 2016-07-03 at 1.39.49 PM.pngFigure 1.

Taken together, the tattvas (literally “that-ness”) provide a comprehensive schema to help one understand the ongoing, indissoluble link between the physical world, their body, and their emotional and mental experience. By realizing for oneself the way in which this schema repeatedly unfolds, one gains knowledge (jñāna) of the ontological difference between one’s pure, indwelling consciousness (puruṣa) and the entire emotional-mental-physical matrix (prakṛti). To possess such knowledge is tantamount to the experience of liberation (kaivalya) from suffering existence (see Figure 2).

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Figure 2.

Prakṛti is a term used to refer to everything that exists; one’s emotions, thoughts, senses, body, and the physical world at large. As the seed of all human experience, prakṛti remains dormant until coming into the proximity of puruṣa. Unlike prakṛti, puruṣa is merely an indifferent, inactive witness. Puruṣa’s sole function is to see, and it can do nothing but watch prakṛti. Furthermore, while puruṣa is purely conscious, prakṛti remains utterly unconscious. Due to the fundamental differences between the two, puruṣa and prakṛti rely upon one another in a relationship of mutual reciprocity: one acts, while the other merely watches.[6]

According to Sāṃkhya, suffering results when puruṣa and prakṛti become unduly misidentified with one another: “…the unconscious one [prakṛti] appears as if characterized by consciousness [puruṣa]. Similarly, the indifferent one [puruṣa] appears as if characterized by activity [prakṛti]…” (see Figure 2 above).[7] The extent to which this fundamental misidentification occurs stimulates a creative unfolding (pariṇāma)[8] that results in varying degrees of psychosomatic experience and suffering in the world.

During this process, the relative proportion of three perpetual qualities (guṇas) known as sattva (buoyancy and luminosity), rajas (activity, movement, and stimulation), and tamas (inertia, darkness, and density) wholly determines the quality and manner by which prakṛti‘s creative unfolding, and thus the extent of one’s psychosomatic experience of suffering, occurs. The guṇas exert their influence on one’s experience from within one’s intellect (buddhi, the third tattva, see Figure 1 above), which will necessarily be predominated by one of these three qualities.[9] First, if one’s buddhi is predominately characterized by sattva due to a personal history of acting powerfully, virtuously, and with dispassion, this individual will manifest in the world as a powerful (aiśvarya), virtuous (dharma) and continent (virāga) human being.[10] In the sattvic condition, Gauḍapāda writes, “the organs are Sāttvika, pure and capable of apprehending their objects”.[11]

Having cultivated sattva, the buddhi, devoid of attachment, weakness, and vice, is predisposed for the experience of liberation from suffering as the routine misidentification of puruṣa with the prakṛtic matrix ceases. Thus in this condition, rather than projecting consciousness outward, the sattvic buddhi serves its main purpose as it merely reflects experience from the world, through the body, and back to the witnessing consciousness (puruṣa). In this state, destructive, addictive tendencies cease as the senses remain under the control of the powerful, continent, and virtuous yogi. No longer craving temporary satisfaction in the material, one gains unending contentment in the knowledge of the self (puruṣa) alone.

In direct contrast to the sattvic condition, a buddhi characterized by weakness (anaiśvarya), vice (adharma), and sensual incontinence (rāga) will result in the manifestation of a tamasic experience. Rather than possessing self-control, virtuosity, and power, just the opposite will emerge. The tamasic condition threatens, as Frank Podgorski writes, “deeper entanglements and unfoldings with more ingrained misidentifications within our observable world.”[12] Addicted and out of control, the senses unduly ensnare one’s consciousness in the allure of phenomenal existence.[13] Contentment is only found in the presence of desired sense objects such as food, intoxicants, and consumer goods, while in their absence suffering ensues.

A third possibility, rajas, represents the movement and activity that manifests in daily life. A buddhi with a predominance of rajas will result in an agitated state of mind leading to restlessness and discontentment. Such a state propels an individual into a seemingly endless search for satisfaction in various activities such as work, exercise, and entertainment that can only exacerbate, rather than obviate, their suffering.

As we might expect given our understanding of the ways in which these three guṇas affect the quality of our human experience, Sāṃkhya-Yoga asserts that it is a metaphysical imperative that one strives to cultivate sattva to the utmost.[14] Cultivating sattva draws one’s consciousness inward and thus out of its undue ensnarement within prakṛti, where one would otherwise be bound to the emotional-mental-material world in unhealthy, addictive, and restrictive ways. Our current, globally implicit neoliberal ideology, which by definition relies upon sensory attachment, addictive consumption, and a grueling work ethic, precludes the sattvic condition as it necessarily encourages the cultivation of rajas and tamas, and, consequently, the undue exteriorization and ensnarement of one’s consciousness.

As a potential alternative to the neoliberal mindset, Sāṃkhya instead prescribes a sattvic process of purification where in addition to relinquishing undue attachment to the phenomenal, sensory world, one also cultivates knowledge, or jñāna, the only mechanism that will ultimately liberate an individual from suffering forever. Jñāna, as Sāṃkhya describes it, is liberating knowledge, or the direct perception of the difference between puruṣa and prakṛti. This experience, referred to as kaivalya, is the realization of the distinction between one’s pure witnessing consciousness and the emotional-mental-physical world.

One begins to cultivate jñāna by critically observing the phenomenal world in which they find themselves, the densest strata of prakṛti. This world is to be monitored closely beginning with its most foundational components, the gross elements of earth (pṛthivī), water (jala), fire (agni), air (vāyu), and space (ākāśa). As one gains intimacy with these elements both individually and in concert, sensitivity to the inextricable link between the gross physical world and one’s psychosomatic experience arises. The entire prakṛtic matrix comprised of one’s emotions, thoughts, body, and world come to be understood as an indissolubly connected reality operating in service to an independent, witnessing consciousness (puruṣa). Furthermore, increased sensitization to the elemental world reveals that any action undertaken, whether it be burning fossil fuel, littering, consuming consumer products, etc. has unavoidable and deleterious consequences for his or her psychosomatic being and the world at large. As an alternative to neoliberalism’s “free trade faith,[15] the ontology of the Sāṃkhya-Kārikā provides a different perspective from which one might begin to recalibrate their relationship to the world; another way to be human.

Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra employs Sāṃkhya metaphysics in order to help one understand the nature of the reality in which they find themselves. This serves two functions. First, the text demonstrates a practical path for liberation from suffering existence as suggested in the Sāṃkhya Kārikā. Secondly, it also provides the foundation for understanding the various powers (vibhūti, siddhi) yogis will acquire as they come to grasp the inter-workings of reality. Thus, rather than emphasizing spiritual liberation alone as Sāṃkhya does, the accumulation and expenditure of powers via the practice of yoga is a prominent feature of Patañjali’s text.[16] By concentrating the mind through penetrating states of meditation and absorption (saṃyama), the yogi gains fantastic knowledge and capabilities such as the capacity to read minds (from concentrating on others’ motives) or the ability to attain knowledge of everything (from concentrating on one’s intuition).[17] Essentially, wherever one carefully places their awareness, a certain level of mastery arises that provides the practitioner with superhuman capabilities with regard to the object at hand. Though the powers enumerated in the Yoga Sūtra tend to be fantastic in nature, as a whole they suggest that one’s singular focus upon a particular phenomenon will endow them with mastery, knowledge, or control over said phenomenon.

While the attainment of yoga powers can serve as a faith-boosting reaffirmation of yoga’s metaphysics,[18] Patañjali warns that they can also act as distractions[19] from yoga’s main aim; the restraint of the activity of the mind (yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ)[20] and the contemporaneous experience of freedom (kaivalya) wherein the seer (puruṣa) is abiding in its own form (tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe ‘vasthānam).[21] According to Ian Whicher, in this liberated state, the spiritual aspirant has purified any ignorant, egocentric misidentification between the observing puruṣa and manifest prakṛti.[22] In this sense, the exercise of one’s accrued powers would be indicative of one’s selfish desires, which, according to the Sāṃkhya-Yoga system, must ultimately be relinquished.[23]

To eliminate the attachments that perpetuate suffering and tempt the misuse of power, a process of purification is carried out through a practical way of living via Patañjali’s eight-limbed path, which begins with the negation of five fundamentally ignorant activities that ultimately lead to suffering in the world: violence, dishonesty, theft, sensual incontinence, and possessiveness. The attachments that lead one to participate in such behaviors are systematically purged through the production of their opposites (pratipakṣa bhāvana) of non-violence (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), sensual continence (brahmacarya) and non-possession (aparigraha).[24] Whicher explains,

“Through yoga one gains proper access to the world and is therefore established in right relationship to the world. Far from being denied or renounced, the world, for the yogin, has become transformed, properly engaged.” [25]

Thus, though a practitioner of yoga can accrue and exercise power from the practice of yoga, these powers pose difficulties and can serve to prolong bondage on the path to freedom as expounded in both the Sāṃkhya Kārikā and the Yoga Sūtra. Rather, one ought to focus upon the liberating capacities of human experience, which entails an ethical approach to daily life and the withdrawal of sensory attachment to the manifest world.

As Thomas Berry once observed, the “Myth of Economics” has convinced us that our industrial system is evolving towards the creation of a “wonderworld existence.”[26] In this sense, our mental and emotional worlds have been conditioned to serve and take for granted the ambiguous notions of economic development and progress. The current state of our physical existence is a testament to this conditioning, as we continue to accept and serve neoliberal economic policies  (often unknowingly) throughout our daily lives. The earth is commoditized in multifarious ways as natural “resources” are extracted and reconfigured for human consumption, while our air is increasingly polluted in the process. Furthermore, waterways including rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans also come under increasingly centralized governance and disembodied corporate control as our population grows and seeks to flourish in the face of climate change.

Thomas Berry also suggested that this deleterious, anthropocentric condition is, at its root, the result of a spiritual crisis.[27] Due to our dualistic Cartesian conditioning which sees the mind, body, and world as separate entities, as well as our unconditional acceptance of the “rational” neoliberal economic framework, we have forgotten who we are and lack the appropriate spiritual framework within which we might come to terms with ourselves in relationship to the world.

With respect to our spiritual confusion, yoga, particularly as it is articulated in the Sāṃkhya-Yoga system, offers a philosophy intended to purify and recalibrate one’s relationship to the psychological and physical features of existence. Most relevant for the purposes of our discussion, Sāṃkhya espouses an individual practice of ongoing, careful observation that cultivates refined sensitivity to the world and the ways in which our every thought and action affect this world.

By carefully reconsidering the radical purification that remains fundamental to the Sāṃkhya-Yoga system, we can find an alternative way to flourish together on our shared planet as we moderate our addiction to the physical, and, as a result, improve human-earth relations.

*If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between Yoga and Ecology, we will be hosting a workshop in Zurich, Switzerland on August 6, 2016, from 2 to 6PM:


[1] Gerald James Larson, Classical Sāṃkhya: An Interpretation of its History and Meaning, (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998), kārikā I, 255. For the purposes of this chapter, I have engaged Gerald Larson’s translation of the Sāṃkhya-Kārikā as presented in Classical Sāṃkhya: An Interpretation of its History and Meaning.

            [2] Ibid., kārikā LXX, 276.

            [3] Ibid., kārikā I, 255.

            [4] Ibid., kārikā LXII, 256.

            [5] Ibid., kārikā LXIV, 274.

            [6] The Sāṃkhya Kārikā uses the metaphor of a blind man (prakṛti) and a lame man (puruṣa) to illustrate this:

The proximity (or association) of the two, which is like that of a blind man [i.e. prakṛti] and a lame man [i.e. puruṣa], is for the purpose of seeing the pradhāna [i.e. prakṛti] and for the purpose of the isolation of the puruṣa. From this (association) creation proceeds. Ibid., kārikā XXI, 262.

            [7] Ibid., kārikā XX, 262.

            [8] Ibid., kārikās XXI, XV, XVI, 260-62.

            [9] The first perceptible expression of prakṛti from her unmanifest state, the buddhi constitutes the storehouse of all of one’s past memories and deeds and is the source from which habituated action proceeds.

            [10] Regarding virtue, knowledge, non-attachment, and power, Gauḍapāda writes, “These four dispositions are Sāttvika; the Tāmasa ones are the reverse.” Har Dutt Sharma, Īśvara Kṛṣṇa, and Gauḍapāda, The Sāṃkhya-Kārikā: Īśvara Kṛṣṇa’s Memorable Verses on Sāṃkhya Philosophy with the Commentary of Gauḍapādācārya, (Pune: The Oriental Book Agency, 1933), 57.

            [11] Ibid., 38. The “organs” to which Gauḍapāda refers are comprised of eleven tattvas identified by Sāṃkhya as the manas (mind), the sense organs (buddhīndriyas, nose (ghrāṇa), mouth (rasana), eyes (cakṣu), skin (tvak), ears (śrota), and the action organs (karmendriyas, organs of excretion (pāyu) and procreation (upastha), feet (pāda), hands (pāṇi), and voice (vāk) (Larson, Classical Sāṃkhya, kārikā XXVI, 264). As kārikā XXXI asserts, the organs’ “only motive is for the sake of the puruṣa” (Larson, Classical Sāṃkhya, 265).

            [12] Frank Podgorski, Ego: Revealer-Concealer. A Key to Yoga, (Lanham: University Press of America, 1984), 97-98.

            [13] In the Sāṃkhya Kārikā, phenomenal existence manifests in the tamasic condition referred to as bhūtādi. From the subtle elements (tanmātras) of smell (gandha), taste (rasa), form (rūpa), touch (sparśa), and sound (śabda) manifest the gross elements of earth (pṛthivī), water (jala), fire (agni), air (vāyu), and space (ākāśa). One’s reality will always be comprised of some combination of these elements working together to create one’s present experience in the world. For illustrative purposes, we might say that the subtle elements represent memory traces of one’s interaction with the gross elemental world that seek to find repeated fulfillment (when the past experience was pleasurable) and repeated avoidance (when the past experience was painful). Dr. John Casey, my former Sanskrit professor, used to use coffee as an example of how this works. Walking into a cafe and smelling or seeing coffee, one is reminded of its taste and the delightful psychological effects of consuming the warm beverage. Based on prior sensory memories of coffee and the current sensory stimulation, this multisensory experience immediately propels one toward buying a cup of joe. Similarly, any memory of a negative experience would propel an individual to avoid it when triggered by a seemingly negative sensory experience. Perhaps the sound of the dentist’s drill is a particularly apt example here. Either way, subtle past sensory experience affects one’s experience in the gross, elemental present.

            [14] Gauḍapāda writes, “Sattva is light and bright. When Sattva predominates, then the limbs become light, the intellect becomes bright and the organs become clear (i.e. acute). Sharma, Sāṃkhya-Kārikā, 22. In Yoga Sūtra 3.55, Patanjali writes, “When the same purity belongs to sattva and puruṣa, there is kaivalyam” (sattva-puruṣayoḥ śuddhi-sāmye kaivalyam), author’s translation. In other words, when one purifies the intellect through the cultivation of sattva, one comes to possess the knowledge of the inherent freedom of consciousness (puruṣa).

            [15] Pierre Bourdieu, “The essence of neoliberalism,” Le Monde diplomatique, December 1998, (accessed May 23, 2015).

            [16] The accrual and expenditure of powers through the practice of yoga has been a prominent feature of the many and varied yoga systems developed throughout history. For examples in both the past and the present, see: David Gordon White, Sinister Yogis, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) and Stuart Ray Sarbacker, “The Numinous and Cessative in Modern Yoga,” In Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Mark Singleton, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 161-183.

            [17] Yoga Sūtra, sūtras 3.19, 3.33, respectively, from author’s translation.

            [18] Bryant, The Yoga Sūtras, 368, citing sūtra 1.35.

            [19] See Yoga Sūtra, sūtra 3.37.

            [20] Yoga Sūtra, sūtra 1.2, author’s translation.

            [21] Yoga Sūtra, sūtra 1.3, author’s translation.

            [22] Ian Whicher, “The Integration of Spirit (puruṣa) and Matter (praktṛi) in the Yoga Sūtra,” In Yoga and Ecology: Dharma for the Earth, edited by Christopher Key Chapple, (Hampton, VA: Deepak Heritage Books, 2009), 35, 40.

            [23] Yoga Sūtra 1.12 states, “Restraint [of the activity of the mind] arises due to repeated practiced and when there is freedom from desire.” (abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṃ tan-nirodhaḥ), author’s translation.

            [24] Whicher, “The Integration,” 48. Collectively, non-violence (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), sensual continence (brahmacarya) and non-possession (aparigraha) are referred to as the yamas (ethical restraints).

            [25] Ibid., 43.

[26] Anne Lonegran and Caroline Richards editors. Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology. Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications, 1987, 10.

            [27] Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century, ed. by Mary Evelyn Tucker (Columbia University Press, 2009), 69.

Yoga and Ecology

Yoga and Ecology – Jainism


At the same time and perhaps before the Upanishads were written, two yoga traditions that rejected Vedic authority (and thus the Upanishads) arose. These traditions are known as Jainism and Buddhism, and are sometimes referred to as sramana. Most are familiar with Buddhism, however, many are not familiar with Jainism or the fact that Buddhism may be a product of the Jain tradition. In this post we will briefly consider Jainism, followed later by a discussion of Buddhism.

Jainism is known for its strict asceticism. During its early history, monks performed austerities in the forests, often fasting and meditating. Mahavira, the founder of present day Jainism and a contemporary of the Buddha, developed a strict lifestyle intended to free the soul from the fetters of karma. Interestingly, in Jainism, yoga (“to unite”) is actually a pejorative term, indicating that particles of karma have adhered to one’s soul, preventing it from liberation. One therefore aims for ayoga, or “no-yoga,” in order to stop the accrual of karma.

The process of a-yoga requires an extreme reduction in activity that seems nearly impossible to attain. Nevertheless, we can take some inspiration from the many monks who still practice such extreme asceticism in India’s urban centers today. By adapting a modified form of a-yoga to our own lives, we can make significant contributions to the wellbeing of our planet.

a-yoga requires, among other things, the practice of five basic ethical vows (vrata): ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (not stealing), brahmacarya (sensual restraint), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Patanjali later adds these five vows to the Yoga Sutra, and we will discuss them in more detail in a future post. It is important to note here that the vows must be applied to every action that we undertake, and are prescribed in varying degrees depending on whether a Jain is a member of the monastic or lay community. Ultimately, the vows serve to shed one’s karma and lead one towards a better future rebirth as a monk or nun, or, in the best case, toward liberation.


The primary innovation of Jainism is the paramount vow of ahimsa (non-violence). Ahimsa has its roots in the early forest wanderings of Mahavira, the founder of contemporary Jainism, who developed intimacy with the natural world around him, seeing every bit of creation, including the earth, water, fire, and air, to be imbued with life and therefore worthy of respect. According to the Acaranga Sutra,

“…Mahavira meditated (persevering) in some posture, without the smallest motion; he meditated in mental concentration on (the things) above, below, beside, free from desires…

Thoroughly knowing the earth-bodies and water-bodies and fire-bodies and wind-bodies, the lichens, seeds, and sprouts, [Mahavira] comprehended that they are, if narrowly inspected, imbued with life, and avoided to injure them…”

Jaina Sutras, The Akaranga Sutra. The Kalpa Sutra, trans. Hermann Jacobi. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1884. 80-81, 87

From his insights, Mahavira (the supreme spiritual hero), declared,

“Knowing them, a wise man should not act sinfully towards [earth, water, fire, wind, plants, and animals], nor cause others to act so, nor allow others to act so. He who knows the causes of sin relating to [earth, water, fire, wind, plants, and animals], is called a reward-knowing sage.”

The Akaranga Sutra, Jacobi, 5, 6-7, 8, 10-11, 12-13, 14

Though Mahavira has laid forth some strict suggestions here, it is an inescapable fact that in order to survive, humans must enact some form of violence upon the world. In Jainism, it is only permissible, however, to eat one-sensed beings, which is largely comprised of food sources that come from plants, in order to sustain human life.

We can see from Mahavira’s insights that even particles of earth, water, fire, and wind are imbued with life. Each, according to Jainism, possesses a jiva, or soul, and each and every jiva has the will to live and perform its respective function in the ecological systems of which they are an integral part. According to Umasvati’s Tattvartha Sutra, rather than inflicting violence upon one another, the function of these jīvas is to instead “help one another” (Shugan Jain, translator and editor, Jainism, Key to Reality: Tattvārtha Sūtra by Ac Umā Swāmi, Hastinapur: Digambar Jain Trilok Shodh Sansthan, 2011, 184, Chapter 5, Verse 21).

Humans, who also possess a jiva, are endowed with a cognitive faculty that permits compassion and empathy, characteristics that tend to go against what we consider our “animal nature” but which, nevertheless, present an opportunity to transcend our animal instincts in daily life. This is the gift that human life presents, and non-violence to all forms of life is the practice through which this gift is enacted.

While we may not walk around naked, eat one vegetarian meal every other day, or stroll through the streets sweeping the bugs out from our path all along the way as contemporary Jain monks are known to do, we can take inspiration from these individuals to overcome many of our consumptive habits and, as a result, improve our relationship with the planet. We might begin with dietary changes that include more environmentally friendly, non-animal derived foods (animal husbandry is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions), the use of public transport or methods of transportation that do not require the burning of fossil fuels, and the limitation of purchases of frivolous consumer goods such as electronics (that will eventually be disposed or burned to pollute the earth, water, and air of communities in Asia and Africa).

Much more could be said about Jainism’s implications for the environment. For our purposes here, the takeaway is to consider non-violence as a guiding virtue in all that we do. Considering non-violence will undoubtedly lead, at a minimum, to increased awareness of the ecological implications of all of our actions, and, at best, to permanent modifications to our consumptive behavior.

*If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between Yoga and Ecology, we will be hosting a workshop in Zurich, Switzerland on August 6, 2016, from 2 to 6PM:


Yoga and Ecology

Yoga and Ecology – The Upanishads: Part II

Having discussed the connections (Upanishads) between the self (atman), the human body, the environment, and the cosmos in the previous post, we’ll now look at some of the practices that Upanishadic texts put forth for recognizing these connections and for achieving liberation. If we can accept that our destructive global consumer culture is the main cause of our current ecological situation, then we will see that these practices have immediate ecological implications.

We do in fact find, for the first time, specific prescriptions for yogic practice in the Upanishads. Within these practices, two techniques remain central: the recitation of the syllable AUM as well as the necessity to withdraw one’s senses from undue attachment to the objects of the manifest world. Anyone who practices in a modern yoga studio will be familiar with AUM, and some may also have engaged in some form of sensory withdrawal. Let’s take a look at each.


AUM consists of three syllables: A + U + M, followed by silence. If you make the sounds individually (try it!) you will notice that the sound of each becomes increasingly subtle and that the mouth moves from a wide-open position, to a semi-closed position, to completely shut. There are many interpretations describing why this is the case, and one that is commonly made links each syllable to specific aspects of reality:

A,” which reverberates deeply from an open mouth, corresponds to earth and water, the densest/grossest elements that we experience in everyday life.

U” corresponds to the atmosphere, comprised of air, which, as a gas, is subtler than both earth and water.

M” corresponds to space, or the subtlest element, which is the infinite, empty totality in which all of the other elements manifest and interact.

Finally, the silence that ensues at the end of AUM corresponds to the pure, undivided consciousness that permeates all of reality (brahman) and which resides within each of us (atman), experienced as a result of the purifying fire generated from ongoing yoga practice.

As we recite AUM, we are thus harnessing our awareness, in one short syllable, to the totality of reality. We are acknowledging that this reality is unified and interconnected, comprised of earth, water, fire, air, and space, and that our bodies are indeed composed of these very same elements. Furthermore, in this Upanishadic yoga, we are progressively bringing ourselves toward that pure consciousness so as to eventually realize that we, along with the rest of reality, are indeed, it. Within pure hearts, the recitation of AUM serves as an expedient means for attaining this realization.

Sensory Withdrawal

Along with the syllable AUM, the Upanishads also prescribe sensory withdrawal from the objects of desire as an act of purification. This technique was, in fact, the first explicit yoga practice to be taught in these texts.

In order to gain knowledge of the presence of pure consciousness (brahman) as the ground of all reality, one must come to understand the indissoluble link between their consciousness (atman) and the mind-body-world continuum. This knowledge is attained through self-restraint and by taking control of distracting, sensory impulses. The Katha Upanishad uses the metaphor of a chariot to demonstrate this concept:

“Know that the Atman is the rider in the chariot, and the body is the chariot, Know that the Buddhi (intelligence, ability to reason) is the charioteer, and Manas (mind) is the reins. The senses are called the horses, the objects of the senses are their paths…”

Katha Upanishad, 1.3.3-1.3.4


In everyday life, the horses (senses) tend to take the paths made by the objects of sense (e.g. food, intoxicants, consumer products), following the individual will and desires of the charioteer. In this condition, the soul remains obscured and unnoticed, and one remains bound to the world of suffering. Nevertheless, if one comes to understand the analogy of the chariot and restrains one’s selfish sensory actions, one comes to a place of unified tranquility, asking,

“What is left here?”

“Truly, this is that (Atman).”

Katha Upanishad, 2.4.3

Upanishads and Ecology

The Upanishads describe some of the first yoga practices, showing that the cessation of egotistical sensory desire is an integral component of yogic technique. As we will see, this theme will continue to be developed into the classical and epic periods. Various forms of Tantra will later question this assumption, but nonetheless do not necessarily condone unchecked satisfaction of greed and selfishness.

We saw in our first post that there is a direct correlation between consumption and environmental degradation. A yoga that can address our ecological challenges will thus necessarily need to address our unhealthy consumption patterns, while also helping us to realize our direct connection to the world around us.

Because Upanishadic yoga calls into question mundane consumer consciousness and egotistical striving while prescribing that the opposite, sensory withdrawal, has the potential to open an individual to recognition of the blissful unity of reality as it manifests from one’s innermost Self (atman), we have identified the beginnings of a promising “ecological” yoga practice.

In our next post, we will briefly look at some of the yoga traditions that emerged at the time of the Upanishads that also make an important contribution to our discussion surrounding yoga and ecology.


*If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between Yoga and Ecology, we will be hosting a workshop in Zurich, Switzerland on August 6, 2016, from 2 to 6PM:


Yoga and Ecology

Yoga and Ecology – The Upanishads: Part 1

In our previous post, we observed the deep reverence Vedic society had for the natural world. Members of this world propitiated the gods through the sacrificial fire, and in return the gods returned wealth and the rewards of the good life. And who would not want the good life?

It turns out a lot of people. While proper performance of the sacrifice ensured that material rewards would come, some people in society began to question whether or not there was more to life beyond the unending need to satisfy all of one’s desires. In their opinion, as long as there was desire, there would always be suffering. As a result, a particular type of sage – the sramana, or an ascetic spiritual seeker – emerged alongside and in response to Vedic culture some time around the 9th-6th century BCE. These individuals, in one way, shape, or form, turned away from the concerns of daily life and toward a path of liberation from suffering.

There are a variety of sramana traditions and you have probably heard of some of them – for example the Buddhists, Jains, and Ajivikas, to name a few. There were also many Hindu strands of these sramana traditions, and from these diverse groups a new and important genre of spiritual texts emerged that reflected the major shift in consciousness we are referring to here. These texts, were, of course, the Upanishads. In the Upanishads, we find that Vedic concerns for the good life are now accompanied by a will to escape from the suffering that life entails.

There are a number of Upanishads and their contents are both similar and divergent. For the purposes of our discussions surrounding ecology, we are going to focus on two different themes within these texts. In this post, we’ll explore the Upanishadic notions of microcosmic-macrocosmic connection. In the next post, we will look at the yoga practices prescribed in some of the texts that seek to merge one with cosmic consciousness.

You probably recall from the previous post that Vedic society portrayed the elements of nature as parts of a divine cosmic body. From this cosmic body spread all of the parts of creation, and in the Upanishads there is an added and ongoing fascination with the correspondences and connections between the parts of the divine body and the parts of the human body. In fact, this is exactly what the word Upanishad means: “connection.” If one can discover the hidden connections between themselves and the world and universe around them, one can eventually reach the highest reality and attain liberation. For example, the Chandogya Upanishad says,

“From the earth and fire divine speech enters him. Divine speech is that which makes whatever one says happen. From the sky and the sun the divine mind enters him. The divine mind is that which makes a person always happy and never sorrowful. From the waters and the moon the divine breath enters him. The divine breath is that which never falters or fails, whether it is moving or it is at rest.”

– Verses 1.5.17-20

As human beings, we are composed of divinity through and through, and via yoga we come to experience the extent to which this is true. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is to take in a deep breath and realize that the air you are breathing is the air that is shared and spread across the entire planet. From the Upanishadic perspective, each time we take an inhale we are absorbing the breath of the cosmic body, and each time we exhale we are returning that breath back to the cosmic body. In reality, there is no difference between our breath and that of the cosmic body, save a few chemical reactions. Is that not incredible? Every time we inhale we take in the divine, and every time we exhale we breath back into the divine. We are divine!

There are two critical terms used to describe this process. The first is atman, which comes from the verbal root an, meaning “to breath.” The word atman is indeed cognate with the German verb “atmen,” which also means “to breath.” In the Upanishads, atman refers to the individual self, or soul.

In order to free oneself from suffering, one must unite one’s atman with the cosmic soul, known as brahman, which is a term that comes from the Sanskrit root bṛh, meaning “to expand.” Brahman represents an equanimous, unitary reality that lies at the root of existence and out of which all worldly experience emanates. If one can figure out how to merge one’s atman with brahman, one’s sense of separation and alienation from the world dissolves, and one realizes their own inherent divinity with the pinnacle insight of, “aham brahmasmi,” meaning “I am brahman.” According to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad,

“In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (atman), thinking: ‘I am brahman.’ As a result, it became the whole… If a man knows ‘I am brahman‘ in this way, he becomes this whole world.”

Verse 1.4.10 

Several other texts make similar claims with the phrases “prajnanam brahma” (consciousness is brahma), “tat tvam asi” (though art that), and “ayam atma brahma” (this atman is brahman), found in the Aitareya, Chandogya, and Mandukya Upanishads, respectively. One expedient way of achieving this type of realization is with pranayama, the breath control techniques found in many yoga texts, which we will discuss in more detail in a future post (remember atman comes from the verbal root meaning “to breath”).

So where does the ecology come into play here? As we can see, the Upanishads recognize and declare that there is no separation between the human body and the divine body as manifest in the earth, water, and air. Indeed everything exists in a complex web of relations, and the human body remains integrally connected to this web. Therefore anything that we do to the environment not only potentially harms the divine cosmic body (Purusha, see previous post), but also unavoidably harms our own divine bodies!

Upanishadic yoga helps us realize the connections between self and world, or atman and brahman. In the next post we will explore some of the practices that these texts prescribe to get us to this realization. Until then, breathe deeply and blissfully and just repeat to yourself “I am brahman” (tat tvam asi), being always mindful of the presence of divinity in every moment. And if you’re really up for it, hug a tree joyfully like our friend Miggi here:

miggi cover shot



*If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between Yoga and Ecology, we will be hosting a workshop in Zurich, Switzerland on August 6, 2016, from 2 to 6PM: