For many people, yoga is a form of relaxation. But in India, the birthplace of the exercise, yoga is beginning to stretch beyond the boundaries of one’s self and into the ecological realm. A new movement called “Green Yoga” encourages men and women who practice yoga — called yogis and yoginis — to strive for bettering their environment.
Green Yoga was pioneered by an influential Indian figure, Swami Ramdev. Stuart Sarbacker, assistant professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, has studied Ramdev, who hosts a daily show in India combining yoga and activism. He has attracted some 250 million viewers of all ages.
“Part of what drew me to study Swami Ramdev is this notion that inner transformation should be reflected outwards in some sort of transformation of the external world,” says Sarbacker. This idea is paramount in Green Yoga as well.
“What happens on the mat, so to speak, should translate into a transformed relationship with the world. That transformation may be reflected through personal choices, such as choosing organic foods, or it might mean buying a yoga mat made from natural rubber instead of plastic,” Sarbacker adds.
But Green Yoga doesn’t stop at consumer goods. Ramdev has used the practice to establish landmark status and protection for the heavily polluted Ganges River. Previously it was believed that the Ganges could not become dirty despite the dumping of untreated sewage and chemicals. But through non-violent protests and Green Yoga, Ramdev has created awareness for the river in both the people and the political leaders.
“One of the things that interests me very much is the idea that the Ganges historically was viewed as inherently pure. For most Hindus, it is in fact a Goddess, Gunga,” says Sarbacker. “Instead of thinking you can put whatever you want in the Ganges and she will always be pure, the discourse has shifted more towards what are we doing towards our sacred river, to our goddess by pouring our waste into it?”
Sarbacker has written extensively on the theory, history and practice of yoga and is looking into the relationship between spirituality and environmental philosophy. He has focused specifically on Ramdev. “I’m using ethnographical and anthropological methods to create a snapshot of the development of a particular institution and really the life of a particular teacher, at a certain moment in time.”
Sarbacker wonders if Ramdev will next champion the topic of climate change in India. With the Ganges River being fed by receding glaciers, the water system is at risk, yet little attention has been brought to this issue. Whether Ramdev’s prominence will be sufficient to tackle it is yet to be determined, however with a stardom that has been compared to Oprah’s, he is in a position to do so.
Sarbacker is a certified yoga teacher in addition to being a professor. In spring 2013, he will teach a course at Oregon State about Green Yoga with an ecological consciousness.
Listen to a podcast with Stuart Sarbacker here.