Yamas & Niyamas as powerful intrinsic motivators for adopting a Sustainable & eco-conscious Lifestyle Yoga for Sustainability

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Human values and attitudes lie at the heart of achieving sustainable development. Yes, technological advancements and sound policies are important at a national and global level and lifestyle changes and switches are important when we look at adopting a sustainable lifestyle at a personal level. These action plans at all levels are widely discussed, and are no doubt, important. At a deeper level, however, it becomes important to understand the intrinsic motivations of people and reflect on the kind of value systems that would lead to pro-environmental behaviours leading to the adoption of low carbon lifestyles. People are at the heart of all systems and the successful implementation of any policy, however well planned, only depends on the integrity of the people involved in its implementation. People should want to take decisions not just for short term rewards or because they are monitored, but because it aligns with their values and they believe it is the right thing to do. In the face of unprecedented global challenges, such as climate change, jarring socio-economic inequalities, loss of biodiversity, the almost endless list in which most are caused by anthropogenic factors, intervention strategies must also be designed such that pro-environmental behaviours are intrinsically motivated for sustained results. Research shows that individuals endorsing traditional worldviews may be more likely to make personal lifestyle changes and let go of or moderate their wants for a common larger good, and adopt environment-friendly lifestyles. [1] 

In this article, we will specifically look at the Yamas (Social guidelines) and Niyamas (Personal disciplines) from the Ashtanga Yoga of Maharishi Patanjali and understand how they are powerful intrinsic motivators to guide and encourage people at a deeper level for making lasting and sustainable lifestyle changes. The Yoga Sutras are precise, to the point and not too philosophical or descriptive. Maharishi Patanjali was a scientist of the mind, and understood human behaviour and psychology. He lays the foundation and structure of Yoga as a holistic science, accurately detailing all aspects of human experience, aspirations, consequences and laying out guidelines and methods to gain mastery over oneself and the various dimensions of life. 

Adopting Patanjali Maharishi’s Yamas and Niyamas in everyday life can act as compelling green nudges. According to the 2016 Yoga in America Study, 51% of yoga practitioners were trying to adopt a green lifestyle when compared to 30% non yoga practitioners in America. [2]. Asanas and physical postures are one aspect of Yoga for health, but the tools that the Yogic system provides for all aspects of life have, when embraced in its entirety, can help us transition towards a lifestyle that is conscious, fulfilling and sustainable. 

YAMAS – Restraints

1. Ahimsa: Non-violence or non-harm 

Ahimsa, or non-violence results from compassion towards all beings – sentient and insentient. Himsa or harm to other beings can generally happen at three levels – through our actions, words, and even thoughts or at the level of intention. But our lives today are so interconnected that even a simple purchase we make at the supermarket often comes at a huge environmental cost and could inflict harm on beings in other parts of the world. 

A more direct example would be meat consumption. Every year, a staggering 72 billion land animals are raised and slaughtered for human consumption. That is almost 10 times the number of humans on earth. The inhumane living conditions of animals in factory farms and cruel killing methods are worse than the slaughter itself. Yoga extends well beyond what is practiced on the mat, its aim being to realize the interconnectedness of the practitioner with all of life and nature. Many practitioners of Yoga almost find it natural to give up meat and adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. A study in the US showed that the prevalence of vegetarianism is more than 6 times higher in yoga practitioners than in the general population. [3] 

Though we may not directly engage in causing violence, some questions for reflection and introspection would be: Does our lifestyle cause harm to other living beings? Does our seemingly harmless consumption choices cause violence elsewhere in another part of the world? Understanding where the products we consume are sourced from, and how they are produced can help us make better informed choices. We not only need to move towards conscious and responsible consumption of resources, but also compassionate consumption and responsible disposal. 

2. Satya: Truthfulness (Honesty and Integrity)

The quality of being truthful and having integrity strengthens other values as well. Our Itihasas and Puranas are replete with civilizational heroes and role models who stood for satya and were ready to give up their life in protecting their principles. It sometimes takes only one honest officer to transform an entire village or city and one leader with integrity to transform an entire nation. Corruption, lack of accountability and using public wealth for personal greed are clear breaches of this principle, and is often the reason why excellent policies fail on the ground during implementation. 

3. Asteya: Non-stealing

Asteya, though literally translated as non-stealing, also refers to the quality of non wanting to possess what does not belong to one. Patanjali Maharishi beautifully describes the result of Asteya as:

Asteya pratishtayam sarva ratna upasthanam – (PYS 2.37)

Meaning: When one establishes non-stealing, all precious jewels in the world become his. 

The abandonment of desires to possess what does not belong to one, itself creates abundance within. 

When does using Nature’s resources become stealing? Nature is a self-sustaining, complex and highly intelligent system, but the rate at which we are plundering, mining and using up Earth’s resources is way faster than her ability to replenish them. According to the UN Environment’s Global Resources Outlook 2019, “Resource extraction has more than tripled since 1970, including a fivefold increase in the use of non-metallic minerals and a 45 per cent increase in fossil fuel use” [4] – all this to fuel economic growth and the ever increasing need for consumer goods. Is everyone in the world enjoying the fruits of this kind of economic growth? Sadly, not. America, which constitutes less that 5% of the global population, consumes one thirds of the world’s resources, and creates 30% of the global waste. [5] With millions of people still living in dire poverty with lack of access to basic resources, high consumption lifestyle by developed nations amounts to stealing. 

4. Brahmacharya: (Self-control and consciously directed use of energy)

Brahmacharya refers to a sense of restraint and not mindlessly giving into desires. It means, to hold back our compulsive desires and make conscious decisions, guided by a larger purpose or deeper values. A sense of distance and restraint helps us put our intellect before rushing in to indulge our desires. Taking the time and giving oneself the mental space to process the consequences our actions have on ourselves and the planet before indulging and directly feeding the senses can definitely lead to more well thought out and compassionate actions. 

5. Aparigraha: Non-hoarding

Indian society has always held the principle of Aparigraha or non-possessiveness in very high regard. It is the opposite of ‘parigraha’, which means ‘to hoard’ or ‘to amass’. Aparigraha provides a pragmatic approach to responsible consumption by making one understand what actually is ‘needed’ according to one’s context. But it can’t be that easy right? Advertisements feed our desire to acquire and make us feel the ‘need’ for more things, blurring the lines between needs and wants. The availability of too many products at very cheap prices has also led to this “stuffocation”.  There is enough evidence today to show us that the excessive greed and unsustainable consumption is the cause for all major environmental issues the planet is faced with. A simple activity would be to open the wardrobe and look at each of the clothes we have purchased and we own and how many of them we use. It would also be a good idea to go back in time and reflect why we got each dress. Was it the fashion trend? Did we just need a dress? How many times have we worn it? Or are we just hoarding clothes every season driven by advertisements and discount offers? 

NIYAMAS – Personal disciplines

1. Saucha: Cleanliness and purity

The yogic definition of saucha goes well beyond just maintaining cleanliness ‘outside’ and extends to keeping one’s body free from dirt, keeping one’s surroundings clean and having uplifting thoughts and ideas in the mind. To keep a space clean would require constant work and mindfulness. Even simple decluttering our room or living spaces brings back the focus on core essentials and helps us maintain them well, instead of creating a longing for newer ones. 

2. Santosha: Contentment

Santosha is what we all seek, but often in the wrong places. The santosha refers to a calm contentment, and not the excited happiness that is derived by satisfying cravings. 

santosad anuttamah sukha-labhah – (PYS 2.42)

Meaning: From contentment, the very best in happiness is obtained

Consumerism has the modern society measuring happiness and even our life’s worth by the things we own. Has it always been this way or has it been systematically engineered to be  this way? Seeking happiness in material objects has never been the way of life in India and has been scorned in our literature. Happiness and contentment have been looked at as deeper states achieved through establishing a sense of interconnectedness with all life.  Simple living, judicious use of resources and environmental stewardship were celebrated values. So, how was consumerism engineered to be a measure of happiness? Economist Victor Lebow in The Journal of Retailing in 1955 is quoted as saying: “
Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate”.  Impulsive buying, being brand savvy, and the idea of shop-till-you-drop reflect a society that places consumption and consumerism at a very high pedestal. The ownership of material possessions as a  measure of the quality of life has been systematically engineered through advertisements, discounts and so on, to keep the materials economy flowing . 

3. Tapas: Austerity

As the saying goes, Old habits do die hard. The momentum that we have already generated, along a certain direction say, by following unsustainable lifestyle practices are not easy to break free from. Tapasya or concentrated effort in the new eco-conscious direction we wish to proceed is needed to build new habits and create a new normal. Studies show that it takes anywhere between 18 days to 254 days to develop a new habit [6] and it varies from person to person. The Yogic system encourages people to put in intense effort for a period of time and generate new momentum in the direction they wish to pursue. 

Some simple practical steps could be – avoiding packaged or processed foods for a mandala (a period of 48 days), or giving up meat for 7 days and observing one’s health, or going plastic-free for a month. While to practice it ‘forever’ might seem overwhelming, taking extreme eco-conscious steps for a limited period of time pushes one to take the first step and learn, reflect and redesign strategies according to their context. 

4. Swadhyaya: Self-study and reflection of inspiring stories from literature

Holding on to principles might seem like an uphill battle due to questions and doubts that arise in one’s mind. One may feel alone, dejected and demotivated in the journey and even start questioning why one should hold on to one’s principles in the first place. Many people who try moving towards a greener lifestyle also feel overwhelmed and start wondering what difference their seemingly small actions make, when they look at people’s apathy towards the environment and heaps of garbage and plastic despite their individual efforts. Sustaining the enthusiasm requires constant doses of inspiration, which history can provide. Many modern ecological movements trace their inspiration to similar historical movements. The forest conservation  Chipko movement, which began in the 1970s where women hugged trees in forests to save them, was inspired from the 1730 AD true story of the brave lady Amrita Devi of the Bishnoi community who refused to let the king’s men cut the trees by hugging them. Her and 300 other women’s heads were severed by the King’s men and they gave up their lives protecting the trees. The founding philosophy of the Bishnois community of Rajasthan was based on ecological conservation, wildlife protection and living in harmony and close connection with nature. Studying the lives of great women and men who stayed firm on their values, who fought was what is right and who put themselves before others gives us a renewed sense of enthusiasm and cheerful hope. The Indian tradition has laid great emphasis on reading the lives of great men through a strong storytelling tradition. Itihasas and Puranas, are rich stories with complex characters and multiple layers, describing various practical aspects of life and its struggles. Taking just a few minutes each week to read, reflect and resonate with various aspects of such stories from history will strengthen our resolve and brighten up the path. 

5. Ishvara Pranidhana: Letting go and surrendering to a higher intelligence

We have a very Anthropocentric view of life, which blurs our vision from seeing how life and nature operate. Despite our best efforts, the world may not (and will not)change overnight. There is a multitude of other forces at play that are invisible from our eyes. A sense of letting go and surrender to this higher intelligence gives us a sense of freedom and helps us stay cheerful. As is said in the Bhagavad Gita, we will have to let go of the results after putting in our best efforts, and the efforts never end. 



[1] Hedlund-de Witt, Annick. “Rethinking sustainable development: Considering how different worldviews envision “development” and “quality of life”.” Sustainability 6.11 (2014): 8310-8328. 


[3] Cramer, Holger, et al. “Differences between vegetarian and omnivorous yoga practitioners—Results of a nationally representative survey of US adult yoga practitioners.” Complementary therapies in medicine 40 (2018): 48-52.

[4] Global Resources Outlook – 2019 https://www.resourcepanel.org/global-resources-outlook-2019 

[5] https://web.nmsu.edu/~araxtina/ict460/five/Stats5.html 

[6] http://repositorio.ispa.pt/bitstream/10400.12/3364/1/IJSP_998-1009.pdf