Balancing with Nature

The Green Yoga Association Gets Practitioners on the Green Path

Near the door at my local yoga studio, a calligraphied sign reads, "The way you do anything is the way you do everything." The mantra reminds students to remain conscientious in all that they do, both inside and outside the studio. It’s an important reminder even for non-yogis, one especially true for eco activists, says Laura Cornell, founder and Executive Director of the Green Yoga Association (GYA).

© LIsa Blackshear

"When you practice as an environmentalist out of fear or anger at the opponent, that changes the chemicals in your body and that makes your work as an activist more difficult—your body is too stressed from always battling. If you shift the motivation of that battle to a love for the planet and for others, including your opponent, you re-energize and find the work less stressful."

This philosophy proved beneficial for Michael Green, executive director at the Center for Environmental Health. In a lecture he gave about toxins in yoga mats, he spoke about discovering yoga after experiencing burnout as an environmentalist. By using meditation and yoga, he said, he was able to gain energy and refresh himself in that work. He’s not the only person to discover the energizing benefits of yoga in recent years. A study conducted by Yoga Journal shows that over 16 million Americans practice yoga today—a 136 percent increase since 2000.

As the ancient Vedic art has come back into the mainstream, though, so too have a number of companies more interested in cashing in on a $300 billion industry than in supporting yogic philosophy. That’s why the Green Yoga Association stepped in.

Yoga On and Off the Jute Mat

Premised on the notion that yoga is inextricably linked to nature (with poses named for trees, mountains and fish), the GYA is a compendium of yoga students, teachers and scholars whose mission is "to foster ecological consciousness, reverence, and action in the yoga community." To achieve their aims, the association’s members navigate a two-way street—bringing eco friendly principles to the mat and using Earth-friendly yogic philosophy in their lives off the mat.

Since its inception four years ago, GYA has worked with over 100 teachers and 69 studios around the world. One of their biggest coups has been in increasing awareness of the PVC present in most yoga mats. As Cornell says, "Even if people aren’t taking a stance or changing their practice, most people at least know now that non-toxic mats are available." Thanks to the GYA’s efforts, most mat manufacturers now offer eco-friendly alternatives to the standard PVC-filled ones.

The GYA also offers a five-month online seminar called The Green Studios Program. With a Green Yoga handbook as a guide, studio owners use weekly e-mail and phone discussions to brainstorm ways to balance nature and yoga in their workplaces. The advice ranges from making small but simple changes, like selling only fair trade, sustainable goods in the studio’s shops, to tips for complete overhauls, like installing bamboo instead of hardwood floors.

Because no two studios are alike, the association also offers consultations to help owners uncover ways to go green and supports them in whatever changes they are ready to make. "We try to take a positive, encouraging approach. We don’t like pressuring people to make specific changes," Cornell says, though she admits she sometimes wants to see studios do more.

"Right now we feel like we’re picking at our navel when we talk about replacing petroleum-based candles with beeswax ones instead of looking at bigger environmental issues, like food and travel. I want studios to do more education with students about eating local foods and having less protein in their diets [i.e. eating vegetarian] and about practicing locally so they bike to class instead of driving."

Yoga teachers play an important role. On the mat, when teachers wear sweatshop-free threads or drink water from a reusable bottle, students see how easy it is to make small changes. And when teachers take their yoga knowledge out into the world—either by leading a class outdoors, as they do in New York City’s Union Square, or by donating part of their proceeds to bettering the community, as The Yoga Loft in Cologne, Germany did after itsTransatlantic Yoga Festival—they inspire local residents to take another look at how yoga contributes to the health of both the practitioner and the planet.

It’s that ideal combination of healthy bodies and a healthy Earth that drives the association. As the values statement reads, "The health of our bodies depends on clean air, clean water and clean food. Yoga is grounded in an understanding of this interconnection. If humanity is to survive and thrive, we must learn to live in balance with nature." Especially when that balance includes standing on tip-toes, arms reaching for the sun.

COURTNEY TENZ is a freelance writer living in Germany.