In the Brihadaranyakaya Upanishad (trans. Max Muller, 1879), Ganaka Vaideha asks, “Who is the Self?” Yâgñavalkya replies: “He (or She) who is within the heart, surrounded by the Prânas (senses), the person of light, consisting of knowledge”.
Understanding this “being within the heart” involves understanding what one is united with, or yoked to (the derivation most commonly ascribed to the word “yoga”). “Surrounded by the senses” also means being aware of what the senses bring in to us and how. We are porous, interacting with the world around us at a molecular level, through how we react to circumstance, what we eat, and most obviously, through breathing in, and breathing out.
So when we breathe in, what we breathe in is air but the air is full of human attitudes: how our food is produced is influenced by how people understand their connection to the animals, plants, soil, water and air. If those attitudes are mainly fueled by exploitation, then that is what we imbibe and ingest. When manufacturers pump oil from lands purely for profit, with no regard for the impact on ecosystems, our very air is filled with the results of that attitude.
From clothes to yoga mats, we cannot avoid the effects of cheap or forced labour, of migrants exploited in factories that spew dioxins into the air, and chemical effluent into the water and soil. Our own attitudes shape these systems, whether we see what the effects are or not.
Knowledge, and enlightenment, characterise the person of light. The attitude of light, of knowledge, is coloured by what the old texts speak of, Eliot’s ‘What the thunder said’: damyata (restraint), datta (charity), and dayadhvam (compassion).
So when we breathe out, it is not just air but our own attitude, including our words, that resonate in the air. The being within the heart retrains us, and restrains words that create conflict, suffering or further samskaras. By being at one with the person of the heart, we can allow love to do what needs to be done, with generosity, patience, and compassion as our guides.
Technological innovations that simplify, speed up, or otherwise make our lives easier are to be appreciated deeply. We have better health, on the whole, as a species, than our forefathers, and even if the news would have us think otherwise, we have safer, more stable societies (particularly those of us lucky enough to live in the global North). But we allow the dark dream of Maya to perpetuate if we ignore the side effects of these innovations, the pollution that is pumped into the rivers, legally or illegally, the waste that’s dumped on land or at sea, the huge urban sprawls created by the manufacturing sectors in countries where people have few choices about what work to take.
This is not a blame game. Deforestation, desertification, chemical pollution, climate change, extinction of species, loss of habitat, fragmentation, and the insane barbarity of factory farming explode the myth that we can exploit without cost. There is an unbroken chain linking a booming stock market to loss of livelihood in drought-husked Kenya, refugee crises in Syria, tar sands, pipelines, plundering the newly opened NorthWest passage to access oil. But blame, fear, hatred of others, anger, grief, denial, depression or resentment will not address this. We need to realise the person within the heart, the light of awareness, compassion (karuna) in every breath, restraint by stepping back so love can do what needs to be done. Love always does what needs to be done.
This is happening now, on our watch, under our gaze, as we meditate or stretch. We need to make friends (maitri) with one another and the more-than-human world, to look for and feel joy (mudita) at every opportunity, to focus not on results, but on process, on the way, the practice, on how we interact, in every step, in every breath, and thus to develop equinamity, a deep peace (upeksa).
It can feel overwhelming. That is the challenge that Arjuna faced in the Gita: How can we hope to succeed in action when the outcome is so uncertain? This challenge confronts us every day, but practicing an attitude of non-attachment to the outcome, as Krishna recommends Arjuna, helps us detach from the end. We will not know the end. We can only know the way.
Practicing yoga gives us the strength and resilience to act. To practice means both to get better at, and to do something as part of a way of life. When we practice yoga, we confirm we are at home in the universe. We are at one with all the systems and processes that are unfolding in and around us, because they are what we are. This is union.
The practice motivates us to do all the small things, the local things: buy less stuff in general, buy more stuff from local, ethical producers. Challenge food waste in supermarkets—collect the food and redistribute it - and challenge ourselves to become more aware about what systems we are embroiled in. We can help each other do this, with deep humility, with kindness, with friendliness, without judgement. This is yoga as skill in action.
We can do the intermediate things, plant gardens (and waysides) with bee-friendly flowers, lobby the local council to allow your group to plant free food in wastelands, vegetables and herbs that anyone can pick. Lobby to have glyphosates banned. Organise local clean ups of rivers, coastlines, and woodlands, and recycle the resulting plastics wherever possible.
Finally, when we can communicate skillfully, we can get into the big stuff. Petition institutions and businesses to divest their investment funds from Big Oil, challenge governments on climate change actions that inherently contradict other policies, ask questions about air, water and soil pollution in our areas, lobby for more cooperation, less exploitation, less competition in every organisation we encounter (including in the yoga industry…)
The practice of yoga is fundamentally the practice of living an enlightened, integrated life through which love can do its work. Systems are always in flux but love is the thread that weaves through all of us, the eternal, unchanging desire to manifest love. A healthy practice is to take on as much as we can without overstretching. We cannot do everything. Just as in our practice on the mat, we need to find a line between effort and surrender, so in ecological practice we find:
“The small, old path stretching far away [that] has been found by me...on which sages who know Brahman move on to the Svarga-loka (heaven), and thence higher on, as entirely free”