Yoga: deep ecology or power builder?

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Stuart Sarbacker

What happens “on the mat” should transform the way we live—in other words, the practice of yoga is naturally green.

So say members of one subset of the estimated 15 million yoga adherents in the United States today. The “green yoga” movement has developed over the past two decades, said Stuart Sarbacker, as certain leaders in the global yoga community pushed for formal commitment to ecological principles as an aspect of contem-porary practice. Engagement can take a variety of forms, from personal choices such as diet and consumer behavior, to active involvement in politics and organizations.

A Center Research Fellow and assistant professor of philosophy in OSU’s School of History, Philosophy and Religion, Sarbacker practices yoga in addition to his scholarly work on the historical context for the development of modern yoga. His OSU course, “The Theory and Practice of Modern Yoga,” includes an active session following the lecture. He is the author of the 2005 book Sama/dhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga.

Not all yoga adherents follow the same physical and philosophical paths. Sarbacker’s Center research  project, “The Ecology of Contemporary Yoga: Philosophy, Economics, Politics,” focuses on “green yoga” with the aim of clarifying the role of ecological thought and activism within con-temporary yoga traditions. He will examine the relationships (or their absence) between the ecological concerns characteristic of contemporary traditions of yoga and those of their historical precursors within Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

“The proposed project is intended to bring greater sophistication to our understanding of the role of ecological thought and activism within contemporary yoga traditions,” said Sarbacker.The first part of the study will address the question of whether the philosophical principles of yoga—historical and contemporary—might be said to represent a type of ‘deep ecology,’ one that roots the practice of yoga in social concerns and considerations.

“This section will address the notion that there exists a ‘yoga morality’ and that yoga is fundamentally a philosophy of nonviolence and simplicity, concep-tions that are at the foundation of contemporary green yoga,” said Sarbacker. There is a tension within traditions of yoga “between an eco-logical discourse that situates yoga within a moral framework of nonviolence and a virtuoso discourse that sees yoga as principally a means to an individual’s power over the world and community.”

The second section will examine economic assumptions, especially respecting connection between origins of yoga traditions and the economic conditions relevant to yoga practice at the time.

“Of particular interest here is the thesis that the development of yoga traditions was tied in with social and economic disruptions in early Indian civilization, and that yoga can be seen as a response to particular social and ecological conditions. . . Along these lines, contemporary forms of yoga are seen by some of its key proponents as an attempt to recover the ‘self’ that is alienated from its own body and the world due to the structure of modern post-industrial life and society.”

Sarbacker maintains that although there are clear differences between the cultural worlds of ancient Indian yoga and contemporary yoga, both can be viewed, at least in part, as a response to the disruption of life due to rapid social and ecological change in the wake of urbanization and globalization.

The third part of the project will look at ways in which political activism has been included in, or excluded from, the discourse of yoga in its various forms, and the emergence of ecological discourse as a key philosophical thread in contemporary yoga. It will include discussion of the role of prominent modern yoga figures in Indian nation-alism, and a look at the work of some important contemporary yoga practitioners who have called for activism, especially in regard to ecological issues.

Sarbacker writes that “political engagement has been a consistent theme in Indian traditions of asceticism and yoga, often manifested through the intimate relationships between rulers, politicians, and religious specialists, and that green yoga can be viewed as a variation on this theme.”

Sanskrit is Sarbacker’s primary research language, though he also works in Pali, Tibetan, and Hindi. His research includes extensive fieldwork in India on Hindu and Buddhist traditions, as well as the study of yoga traditions in the United States.