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Yamas & Niyamas as powerful intrinsic motivators for adopting a Sustainable & eco-conscious

Human val­ues and atti­tudes lie at the heart of achiev­ing sus­tain­able devel­op­ment. Yes, tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments and sound poli­cies are impor­tant at a nation­al and glob­al lev­el and lifestyle changes and switch­es are impor­tant when we look at adopt­ing a sus­tain­able lifestyle at a per­son­al lev­el. These action plans at all lev­els are wide­ly dis­cussed, and are no doubt, impor­tant. At a deep­er lev­el, how­ev­er, it becomes impor­tant to under­stand the intrin­sic moti­va­tions of peo­ple and reflect on the kind of val­ue sys­tems that would lead to pro-envi­ron­men­tal behav­iours lead­ing to the adop­tion of low car­bon lifestyles. Peo­ple are at the heart of all sys­tems and the suc­cess­ful imple­men­ta­tion of any pol­i­cy, how­ev­er well planned, only depends on the integri­ty of the peo­ple involved in its imple­men­ta­tion. Peo­ple should want to take deci­sions not just for short term rewards or because they are mon­i­tored, but because it aligns with their val­ues and they believe it is the right thing to do. In the face of unprece­dent­ed glob­al chal­lenges, such as cli­mate change, jar­ring socio-eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ties, loss of bio­di­ver­si­ty, the almost end­less list in which most are caused by anthro­pogenic fac­tors, inter­ven­tion strate­gies must also be designed such that pro-envi­ron­men­tal behav­iours are intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed for sus­tained results. Research shows that indi­vid­u­als endors­ing tra­di­tion­al world­views may be more like­ly to make per­son­al lifestyle changes and let go of or mod­er­ate their wants for a com­mon larg­er good, and adopt envi­ron­ment-friend­ly lifestyles. [1]

In this arti­cle, we will specif­i­cal­ly look at the Yamas (Social guide­lines) and Niya­mas (Per­son­al dis­ci­plines) from the Ash­tan­ga Yoga of Mahar­ishi Patan­jali and under­stand how they are pow­er­ful intrin­sic moti­va­tors to guide and encour­age peo­ple at a deep­er lev­el for mak­ing last­ing and sus­tain­able lifestyle changes. The Yoga Sutras are pre­cise, to the point and not too philo­soph­i­cal or descrip­tive. Mahar­ishi Patan­jali was a sci­en­tist of the mind, and under­stood human behav­iour and psy­chol­o­gy. He lays the foun­da­tion and struc­ture of Yoga as a holis­tic sci­ence, accu­rate­ly detail­ing all aspects of human expe­ri­ence, aspi­ra­tions, con­se­quences and lay­ing out guide­lines and meth­ods to gain mas­tery over one­self and the var­i­ous dimen­sions of life.

Adopt­ing Patan­jali Maharishi’s Yamas and Niya­mas in every­day life can act as com­pelling green nudges. Accord­ing to the 2016 Yoga in Amer­i­ca Study, 51% of yoga prac­ti­tion­ers were try­ing to adopt a green lifestyle when com­pared to 30% non yoga prac­ti­tion­ers in Amer­i­ca. [2]. Asanas and phys­i­cal pos­tures are one aspect of Yoga for health, but the tools that the Yog­ic sys­tem pro­vides for all aspects of life have, when embraced in its entire­ty, can help us tran­si­tion towards a lifestyle that is con­scious, ful­fill­ing and sus­tain­able.

YAMAS — Restraints

1. Ahim­sa: Non-vio­lence or non-harm

Ahim­sa, or non-vio­lence results from com­pas­sion towards all beings — sen­tient and insen­tient. Him­sa or harm to oth­er beings can gen­er­al­ly hap­pen at three lev­els — through our actions, words, and even thoughts or at the lev­el of inten­tion. But our lives today are so inter­con­nect­ed that even a sim­ple pur­chase we make at the super­mar­ket often comes at a huge envi­ron­men­tal cost and could inflict harm on beings in oth­er parts of the world.

A more direct exam­ple would be meat con­sump­tion. Every year, a stag­ger­ing 72 bil­lion land ani­mals are raised and slaugh­tered for human con­sump­tion. That is almost 10 times the num­ber of humans on earth. The inhu­mane liv­ing con­di­tions of ani­mals in fac­to­ry farms and cru­el killing meth­ods are worse than the slaugh­ter itself. Yoga extends well beyond what is prac­ticed on the mat, its aim being to real­ize the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of the prac­ti­tion­er with all of life and nature. Many prac­ti­tion­ers of Yoga almost find it nat­ur­al to give up meat and adopt a veg­e­tar­i­an lifestyle. A study in the US showed that the preva­lence of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism is more than 6 times high­er in yoga prac­ti­tion­ers than in the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. [3]

Though we may not direct­ly engage in caus­ing vio­lence, some ques­tions for reflec­tion and intro­spec­tion would be: Does our lifestyle cause harm to oth­er liv­ing beings? Does our seem­ing­ly harm­less con­sump­tion choic­es cause vio­lence else­where in anoth­er part of the world? Under­stand­ing where the prod­ucts we con­sume are sourced from, and how they are pro­duced can help us make bet­ter informed choic­es. We not only need to move towards con­scious and respon­si­ble con­sump­tion of resources, but also com­pas­sion­ate con­sump­tion and respon­si­ble dis­pos­al.

2. Satya: Truth­ful­ness (Hon­esty and Integri­ty)

The qual­i­ty of being truth­ful and hav­ing integri­ty strength­ens oth­er val­ues as well. Our Iti­hasas and Puranas are replete with civ­i­liza­tion­al heroes and role mod­els who stood for satya and were ready to give up their life in pro­tect­ing their prin­ci­ples. It some­times takes only one hon­est offi­cer to trans­form an entire vil­lage or city and one leader with integri­ty to trans­form an entire nation. Cor­rup­tion, lack of account­abil­i­ty and using pub­lic wealth for per­son­al greed are clear breach­es of this prin­ci­ple, and is often the rea­son why excel­lent poli­cies fail on the ground dur­ing imple­men­ta­tion.

3. Asteya: Non-steal­ing

Asteya, though lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed as non-steal­ing, also refers to the qual­i­ty of non want­i­ng to pos­sess what does not belong to one. Patan­jali Mahar­ishi beau­ti­ful­ly describes the result of Asteya as:Asteya pratish­tayam sar­va rat­na upasthanam — (PYS 2.37)

Mean­ing: When one estab­lish­es non-steal­ing, all pre­cious jew­els in the world become his.

The aban­don­ment of desires to pos­sess what does not belong to one, itself cre­ates abun­dance with­in.

When does using Nature’s resources become steal­ing? Nature is a self-sus­tain­ing, com­plex and high­ly intel­li­gent sys­tem, but the rate at which we are plun­der­ing, min­ing and using up Earth’s resources is way faster than her abil­i­ty to replen­ish them. Accord­ing to the UN Environment’s Glob­al Resources Out­look 2019, “Resource extrac­tion has more than tripled since 1970, includ­ing a five­fold increase in the use of non-metal­lic min­er­als and a 45 per cent increase in fos­sil fuel use” [4] — all this to fuel eco­nom­ic growth and the ever increas­ing need for con­sumer goods. Is every­one in the world enjoy­ing the fruits of this kind of eco­nom­ic growth? Sad­ly, not. Amer­i­ca, which con­sti­tutes less that 5% of the glob­al pop­u­la­tion, con­sumes one thirds of the world’s resources, and cre­ates 30% of the glob­al waste. [5] With mil­lions of peo­ple still liv­ing in dire pover­ty with lack of access to basic resources, high con­sump­tion lifestyle by devel­oped nations amounts to steal­ing.

4. Brah­macharya: (Self-con­trol and con­scious­ly direct­ed use of ener­gy)

Brah­macharya refers to a sense of restraint and not mind­less­ly giv­ing into desires. It means, to hold back our com­pul­sive desires and make con­scious deci­sions, guid­ed by a larg­er pur­pose or deep­er val­ues. A sense of dis­tance and restraint helps us put our intel­lect before rush­ing in to indulge our desires. Tak­ing the time and giv­ing one­self the men­tal space to process the con­se­quences our actions have on our­selves and the plan­et before indulging and direct­ly feed­ing the sens­es can def­i­nite­ly lead to more well thought out and com­pas­sion­ate actions.

5. Apari­gra­ha: Non-hoard­ing

Indi­an soci­ety has always held the prin­ci­ple of Apari­gra­ha or non-pos­ses­sive­ness in very high regard. It is the oppo­site of ‘pari­gra­ha’, which means ‘to hoard’ or ‘to amass’. Apari­gra­ha pro­vides a prag­mat­ic approach to respon­si­ble con­sump­tion by mak­ing one under­stand what actu­al­ly is ‘need­ed’ accord­ing to one’s con­text. But it can’t be that easy right? Adver­tise­ments feed our desire to acquire and make us feel the ‘need’ for more things, blur­ring the lines between needs and wants. The avail­abil­i­ty of too many prod­ucts at very cheap prices has also led to this “stuffo­ca­tion”. There is enough evi­dence today to show us that the exces­sive greed and unsus­tain­able con­sump­tion is the cause for all major envi­ron­men­tal issues the plan­et is faced with. A sim­ple activ­i­ty would be to open the wardrobe and look at each of the clothes we have pur­chased and we own and how many of them we use. It would also be a good idea to go back in time and reflect why we got each dress. Was it the fash­ion trend? Did we just need a dress? How many times have we worn it? Or are we just hoard­ing clothes every sea­son dri­ven by adver­tise­ments and dis­count offers?

NIYAMAS — Personal disciplines

1. Saucha: Cleanliness and purity

The yog­ic def­i­n­i­tion of saucha goes well beyond just main­tain­ing clean­li­ness ‘out­side’ and extends to keep­ing one’s body free from dirt, keep­ing one’s sur­round­ings clean and hav­ing uplift­ing thoughts and ideas in the mind. To keep a space clean would require con­stant work and mind­ful­ness. Even sim­ple declut­ter­ing our room or liv­ing spaces brings back the focus on core essen­tials and helps us main­tain them well, instead of cre­at­ing a long­ing for new­er ones.

2. San­tosha: Con­tent­ment

San­tosha is what we all seek, but often in the wrong places. The san­tosha refers to a calm con­tent­ment, and not the excit­ed hap­pi­ness that is derived by sat­is­fy­ing crav­ings. san­tosad anut­tamah sukha-lab­hah - (PYS 2.42)

Mean­ing: From con­tent­ment, the very best in hap­pi­ness is obtained

Con­sumerism has the mod­ern soci­ety mea­sur­ing hap­pi­ness and even our life’s worth by the things we own. Has it always been this way or has it been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly engi­neered to be this way? Seek­ing hap­pi­ness in mate­r­i­al objects has nev­er been the way of life in India and has been scorned in our lit­er­a­ture. Hap­pi­ness and con­tent­ment have been looked at as deep­er states achieved through estab­lish­ing a sense of inter­con­nect­ed­ness with all life. Sim­ple liv­ing, judi­cious use of resources and envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship were cel­e­brat­ed val­ues. So, how was con­sumerism engi­neered to be a mea­sure of hap­pi­ness? Econ­o­mist Vic­tor Lebow in The Jour­nal of Retail­ing in 1955 is quot­ed as say­ing: “Our enor­mous­ly pro­duc­tive econ­o­my demands that we make con­sump­tion our way of life, that we con­vert the buy­ing and use of goods into rit­u­als, that we seek our spir­i­tu­al sat­is­fac­tion and our ego sat­is­fac­tion in con­sump­tion. We need things con­sumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and dis­card­ed at an ever-increas­ing rate”. Impul­sive buy­ing, being brand savvy, and the idea of shop-till-you-drop reflect a soci­ety that places con­sump­tion and con­sumerism at a very high pedestal. The own­er­ship of mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sions as a mea­sure of the qual­i­ty of life has been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly engi­neered through adver­tise­ments, dis­counts and so on, to keep the mate­ri­als econ­o­my flow­ing .

3. Tapas: Aus­ter­i­ty

As the say­ing goes, Old habits do die hard. The momen­tum that we have already gen­er­at­ed, along a cer­tain direc­tion say, by fol­low­ing unsus­tain­able lifestyle prac­tices are not easy to break free from. Tapasya or con­cen­trat­ed effort in the new eco-con­scious direc­tion we wish to pro­ceed is need­ed to build new habits and cre­ate a new nor­mal. Stud­ies show that it takes any­where between 18 days to 254 days to devel­op a new habit [6] and it varies from per­son to per­son. The Yog­ic sys­tem encour­ages peo­ple to put in intense effort for a peri­od of time and gen­er­ate new momen­tum in the direc­tion they wish to pur­sue.

Some sim­ple prac­ti­cal steps could be — avoid­ing pack­aged or processed foods for a man­dala (a peri­od of 48 days), or giv­ing up meat for 7 days and observ­ing one’s health, or going plas­tic-free for a month. While to prac­tice it ‘for­ev­er’ might seem over­whelm­ing, tak­ing extreme eco-con­scious steps for a lim­it­ed peri­od of time push­es one to take the first step and learn, reflect and redesign strate­gies accord­ing to their con­text.

4. Swad­hyaya: Self-study and reflec­tion of inspir­ing sto­ries from lit­er­a­ture

Hold­ing on to prin­ci­ples might seem like an uphill bat­tle due to ques­tions and doubts that arise in one’s mind. One may feel alone, deject­ed and demo­ti­vat­ed in the jour­ney and even start ques­tion­ing why one should hold on to one’s prin­ci­ples in the first place. Many peo­ple who try mov­ing towards a green­er lifestyle also feel over­whelmed and start won­der­ing what dif­fer­ence their seem­ing­ly small actions make, when they look at people’s apa­thy towards the envi­ron­ment and heaps of garbage and plas­tic despite their indi­vid­ual efforts. Sus­tain­ing the enthu­si­asm requires con­stant dos­es of inspi­ra­tion, which his­to­ry can pro­vide. Many mod­ern eco­log­i­cal move­ments trace their inspi­ra­tion to sim­i­lar his­tor­i­cal move­ments. The for­est con­ser­va­tion Chip­ko move­ment, which began in the 1970s where women hugged trees in forests to save them, was inspired from the 1730 AD true sto­ry of the brave lady Amri­ta Devi of the Bish­noi com­mu­ni­ty who refused to let the king’s men cut the trees by hug­ging them. Her and 300 oth­er wom­en’s heads were sev­ered by the King’s men and they gave up their lives pro­tect­ing the trees. The found­ing phi­los­o­phy of the Bish­nois com­mu­ni­ty of Rajasthan was based on eco­log­i­cal con­ser­va­tion, wildlife pro­tec­tion and liv­ing in har­mo­ny and close con­nec­tion with nature. Study­ing the lives of great women and men who stayed firm on their val­ues, who fought was what is right and who put them­selves before oth­ers gives us a renewed sense of enthu­si­asm and cheer­ful hope. The Indi­an tra­di­tion has laid great empha­sis on read­ing the lives of great men through a strong sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion. Iti­hasas and Puranas, are rich sto­ries with com­plex char­ac­ters and mul­ti­ple lay­ers, describ­ing var­i­ous prac­ti­cal aspects of life and its strug­gles. Tak­ing just a few min­utes each week to read, reflect and res­onate with var­i­ous aspects of such sto­ries from his­to­ry will strength­en our resolve and bright­en up the path.

5. Ish­vara Pranid­hana: Let­ting go and sur­ren­der­ing to a high­er intel­li­gence

We have a very Anthro­pocen­tric view of life, which blurs our vision from see­ing how life and nature oper­ate. Despite our best efforts, the world may not (and will not)change overnight. There is a mul­ti­tude of oth­er forces at play that are invis­i­ble from our eyes. A sense of let­ting go and sur­ren­der to this high­er intel­li­gence gives us a sense of free­dom and helps us stay cheer­ful. As is said in the Bha­gavad Gita, we will have to let go of the results after putting in our best efforts, and the efforts nev­er end.


[1] Hed­lund-de Witt, Annick. “Rethink­ing sus­tain­able devel­op­ment: Con­sid­er­ing how dif­fer­ent world­views envi­sion “devel­op­ment” and “qual­i­ty of life”.” Sus­tain­abil­i­ty 6.11 (2014): 8310–8328.

[3] Cramer, Hol­ger, et al. “Dif­fer­ences between veg­e­tar­i­an and omniv­o­rous yoga practitioners—Results of a nation­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive sur­vey of US adult yoga prac­ti­tion­ers.” Com­ple­men­tary ther­a­pies in med­i­cine 40 (2018): 48–52.

[4] Glob­al Resources Out­look — 2019

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