Healing Ourselves and the Planet with Ahimsa
The Yoga Journey
Many years ago, I went through a quarter-life crisis that had me turning everything upside down, leaving my corporate marketing job, renting out my condo and finding myself in a Yoga ashram in the middle of the Himalayas. What was supposed to be a month-long trip turned into eight years of living, breathing, and immersing myself fully into Yoga and meditation in the mountains of India and the tropical beaches of Thailand. My hippie days have since turned into a lifelong love affair with this beautiful practice of the art of living consciously.
The journey along the path of Yoga evolved with the realization that a strong and flexible body must always be cultivated alongside a calm and peaceful mind and a wise and compassionate heart. At the centre of it all, Yoga taught me about interconnection: we are all inherently connected, not just to each other, but also to nature and to life itself. But what exactly does “interconnection” mean, and how can we take time to care for ourselves and the planet when most of us live such busy, stressful lives? For most people exploring Yoga for the first time, their immediate concern (and understandably so) is to deal with daily stress, mental or emotional issues, and health concerns. But as we delve deeper into Yoga and interconnection, we begin to discover that whatever we do to each other and to the planet, we also do to ourselves. A healthy mind and body ultimately depends on a healthy ecosystem.
Yoga Philosophy & Ahimsa
One of the philosophical texts of Yoga (the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) espouses beautiful and inspired teachings about freedom from the bondage of suffering. In it, Patanjali describes the Yamas (your relationship with the world) and Niyamas (your relationship with yourself)—the Ten Commandments of inner and outer moral conduct—as being the foundation for our Yoga practice. Starting with the Yamas and Niyamas is essential for us to train our mind to go beyond the shallowness of day-to-day living, to cultivate aspects such as discipline, focus, truthfulness, moderation, honesty and integrity, which are also vital for our physical health due to the connection between the mind and the body.
First and foremost among these principles is Ahimsa, upon which the rest of the principles are based. Ahimsa comes from the ancient Sanskrit language and means “nonviolence” or to “do no harm.” It has been woven into Vedic teachings for thousands of years, but is widely associated in our modern times with Mahatma Gandhi’s stance to gain independence for India through the practice of nonviolence. For the great yogis and sages to place such emphasis upon this principle speaks volumes to the importance of integrating it into our day-to-day lives. At the fundamental level, it starts with seeking to do no harm to ourselves or to others (including people, animals, and the environment). Most would interpret that as actions and deeds, but at a deeper level, Ahimsa also applies to thoughts and words. At first glance, the correlation between self-care and stewardship of the planet might not be so obvious. However, if we consider ourselves to be an integral part of the whole, and if a healthy ecosystem with fresh air and clean water leads to better human health, then an unhealthy, toxic planet could also lead to declining states of health.
The Five Elements
Yogic wisdom premises that the building blocks of the universe, the Five Elements—Earth, Water, Fire, Air & Space (or Ether)—are also present in our mind and body. The way that the elements manifest in the world around us is fairly easy to understand, but it may not be so obvious how they manifest within ourselves. International Yoga Teacher Prasad Rangnekar states: “Within the framework of our body, the Earth element would be symbolically represented by our bones, muscles and our physical structure, as well as our mental and emotional stability. The Water element by all of our bodily fluids—blood, sweat, saliva and lymphatic fluids, as well as our sexual and creative impulses. The Fire element by the entire digestive system, but also how we digest experiences and thoughts. The Air element by the lungs, heart and the breath, as well as the Prana, or life-force energy, that we draw in from the world around us. And Space or Ether is the stillness and container for all of life to manifest. Without Space, nothing would exist as everything would collapse in on itself.”
As Mahatma Gandhi so beautifully articulates: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
The Effects of Plastic Pollution & Climate Change
On a more obvious and practical level, whatever toxins we put out into the world, we will receive back in the food that we eat, the water that we drink, and the air that we breathe. For example, the tremendous amount of plastic pollution that is in the oceans is now showing up as microplastics in our sea salt, seafood, tap water and even beer! We in turn ingest this microplastic, which has been shown to translocate from our gut to our lymphatic and circulatory system, causing a multitude of health issues such as hormone dysfunction, allergic reactions, cancer and heart disease. As a result of all the carbon and greenhouse gases that we are releasing into the atmosphere (through industrial and agricultural processes, our dependence on oil and gas, the deforestation of the planet, and the degradation of the plastic waste in our oceans and landfills), the combined land and ocean surface temperature for the globe during January–June 2018 was 0.77°C (1.39°F) above the 20th century average and the fourth highest since global records began in 1880. NASA research shows that the planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2°F (a little more than 1°C) during the last century alone and 2016 was the third consecutive year in which global temperatures were more than 1.8°F (1°C) above late nineteenth-century levels.
Extreme weather patterns are just the beginning signs of global warming, and unprecedented heat levels this year have resulted in forest fires in places as remote as Norway and Sweden, and in deaths all around the world. There has even been a study linking mental health issues to rising temperature rates. Rising temperature levels also contributed to an increase in insect-borne diseases from ticks, fleas and mosquitoes, tripling from 27,300 cases in the United States in 2004 to 94,000 in 2016.
How We Can Heal
Conversely, this article from the Lancet medical journal states that moving away from carbon-intensive energy technologies to clean energy sources could improve public health today by reducing other types of air pollution including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides and save us billions of dollars in health costs and economic losses. And it stands to reason that spending time in nature is powerful medicine for the mind and body. There is ample evidence-based research proving that “forest bathing” is beneficial for our health. In this Japanese study, people living in areas with higher forest coverage exhibited reduced cancer rates compared with those living in areas with lower forest coverage. In this Danish study, Danes living more than 1 km away from the nearest green space reported poorer health and health-related quality of life than respondents living closer. We could attribute these health benefits to the volatile compounds and essential oils released by the trees and leaves when we walk in the woods, but I personally think there’s more to spending time in nature that heals our soul than that!
A Purpose-Driven Company
When we decided to set up our company, our intent was to start a purpose-driven business that could address environmental issues and empower people with the best tools and solutions to co-create a healthier world together. We also understood that on the surface, the problem could be seen as being an environmental crisis. However, at a much deeper level, we also need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and society, and at personal lifestyle choices, governmental regulations and corporate practices that are ultimately contributing to these disastrous impacts. We can start with our personal disconnect from nature—and the unfortunate effect this is having on our ecosystem and our health.
The first step in our healing therefore may just lie in a remembrance of our true nature, which is intimately interconnected with Nature. To embrace Ahimsa means to recognize that we cannot go a single day without directly affecting the world around us, and that to commit violence to another person or to the planet—through thought, speech or action—will certainly have a deep and profound effect on us. We are at a critical juncture, where we can no longer turn our back on the environmental changes that are occurring, where every action counts towards the health and welfare of our people and planet. I never believe it’s ever too late, as there are also signs that we are having a positive impact simply by reducing the amount of plastic we use! When we embrace Ahimsa, we automatically embrace a life of peace and harmony. Along with that, we reap the benefits to our own health and wellbeing, and that of our friends, families and loved ones. We get to create a more beautiful world together, but it starts with us.
Some simple ways of cultivating Ahimsa in your day-to-day life include:
• Eating a plant-based diet full of fresh, healthy, whole foods that are organic and/or locally grown whenever possible.
• Walking or biking wherever possible, or taking transit—it’s healthier for you and better for the planet!
• Unplugging from technology and spending as much time in nature as possible.
• Choosing to support companies that conduct business in keeping with the triple bottom line (people, planet and profit) and which support a circular economy.
• Being a conscious consumer by only purchasing and consuming what you need, avoiding single use disposable items wherever possible, and bringing your reusable items with you. Practice gratitude for what you already have!
• When buying clothes, choose items that are well made (so they’ll last you for years and not just a single season), fair trade or locally produced, and from materials that are natural/organic and/or recycled, upcycled or repurposed (not from virgin materials).
• Being kind to yourself and others. Practice compassion, seek to let go of judging, complaining and blaming yourself and others—trust me, you’ll be much happier, more relaxed and energized as a result!
• Smiling! ☺ Smiling keeps you positive, and helps to make those around you happier too.
About Stefani Chan-Wright
Stefani is the co-founder of Ahimsa Eco Solutions, and the Director of Brand and Business Development. She is also a Yoga Teacher and has been teaching Yoga philosophy in teacher trainings in Canada and around the world for over twelve years. She grew up on the tropical island of Borneo playing in the jungles and by the ocean, and as a result of this connection to nature, is passionate about protecting the environment!