Sustainability From the Inside Out: A Learning Community Guided by Patanjali's Yoga Sutras

Cynthia Kennedy and Karen Gaul, The Evergreen State College


This year-long, interdisciplinary, learning community explored the challenges inherent in pursuing sustainable living in today's world and offered concrete tools to move toward a positive global future. Based on the idea that effective community action stems from careful self-reflection, the program focused on a simultaneous journey inward as well as outward.

Course Size:
Two faculty and 48 students

Institution Type:
Four-year undergraduate liberal arts college

Course Context:

This was a three-quarter program for first-year students and did not serve as a prerequisite for other courses. Students undertook a major research project which culminated in a 20-page paper, engaged in substantial amounts of service work, and developed personal practices which helped them commit to sustainable practices and intentional living.


Writing skills: short seminar response papers, longer essays, one major research paper with multiple drafts, self and faculty evaluations, weekly "awareness" sheets documenting personal practice
Analytic reading skills: seminar papers, weekly seminar discussions
Critical thinking skills: essays, seminar papers, seminar discussions, journal
Collaboration skills: group projects including service work, meal and retreat planning, weekly study & writing peer groups

In addition, we held regular individual conferences with each student a minimum of three times each quarter.


Teaching Materials:

  • Prospectus and research project (Microsoft Word 41kB Mar2 12) Three-quarter long assignment. Fall quarter, students developed a research question and conducted research. Winter quarter they wrote a 20-page research paper and spring quarter they created an applied project to tie it all together.
  • Work and Practice Record sheet (Microsoft Word 41kB Mar2 12) A record sheet that students filled out each week to become aware of their work practices as well as their practices in sustainability.
  • Stuff assignment (Microsoft Word 24kB Mar2 12) A research assignment designed to help students visualize what happens around the world in order to create a product (and to use the library).
  • Sustainable solutions Assignment #1 (Microsoft Word 30kB Mar2 12) Students research specific examples of sustainable solutions in the areas of energy, transportation, food, water, design, education, or any solution to a particular problem. They articulate why the solution is sustainable, how it meets the needs of people or other species, what materials and skills are used in the solution, as well as some unsustainable aspects of the solution
  • Unplug (Microsoft Word 24kB Mar2 12) Students unplug from technology for a week-end
  • Seva: Service Description (Microsoft Word 24kB Mar2 12) Description of the service learning component of winter quarter
  • Seva: Service Assignment #3 (Microsoft Word 26kB Mar2 12) Students reflect on their service learning, and make explicit links to program materials and activities.
  • Yama assignment (Microsoft Word 46kB Mar2 12) A ten-week experiment examining how placing our attention on one the five yamas (non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, right use of sexual energy and non-greediness) might or might not have some effect on our lives. We focused on one yama every two weeks.
  • Jigsaw (Microsoft Word 41kB Mar2 12) Each student is dependent on three or four others in a peer learning group for success in learning the assigned material in a text. Each student is accountable for teaching one section of the text to the others and for learning the rest of the text from the others.

References and Notes:

Anderson, E.N. (1996). Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief and the Environment. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0195090109

Durning, Alan and Ryan, John C. (1997). Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (New Report, No 4). Northwest Environment. ISBN: 13 9781886093041

Gandhi, Mahatma. (1993). Gandhi An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Beacon Press. ISBN: 13 780143330097

Gardner, Howard. (2006). Multiple intelligences. Basic Books. ISBN: 13 9780465047680

Glenndinning, Chellis. (1994). My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization. Shambhala. ISBN: 978-1897408056

Hartranft, Chip. (2003). The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali. Shambhala. ISBN: 13 9781590300237

Kerouac, Jack. (2006). The Dharma Bums. Penguin Classics. ISBN: 978-0143039600

Loy, David R. (2008). Money Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution. Wisdom Publications. ISBN: 978-0861715589

McKibben, Bill. (2008). Deep Economy. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN: 978-0805087222

McKibben, Bill. (2011). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN: 978-0312541194

Moore, Kathleen Dean and Nelson, Michael P., eds. (2011). Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril Trinity University Press. ISBN: 978-1595340856

Muller, Wayne. (2000). Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives. Bantam. ISBN: 978-0553380118

Pollan, Michael. (2007). The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin. ISBN: 978-0143038580

Quinn, Daniel. (1995). Ishmael.Bantam/Turner Book. ISBN: 978-0553375404

Robin, Vicki, Dominguez Joe, and Tilford, Monique. (1992). Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. Penguin (Non-Classics). ISBN: 978-0143115762

Schor, Juliet B. and Taylor, Betsy (eds.). (2003). Sustainable Planet. Beacon Press. ISBN: 978-0807004555

Shell, Ellen Ruppel. (2009). Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Penguin Press HC. ISBN: 978-1594202155

Small, Gary and Vorgan, Gigi. (2009). iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. Collins Living. ISBN: 978-0061340345

Stone, Michael. (2009). Yoga for a World Out of Balance. Shambhala. ISBN: 978-1590307052

Strasser Susan. (2000). Waste and Want. Henry Holt and Co. ISBN: 978-0805065121

Swami Prabhavananda and Isherwood, Christopher. (2002). Bhagavad-Gita. Signet Classics. ISBN: 978-0451528445

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall. (2007). The Old Way. (Picador). ISBN: 978-0312427283

Thubten, Anam. (2009). No Self No Problem. Snow Lion Publications. ISBN: 978-1559393263

Yes! Magazine.

Zambito, Salvatore. (1992). The Unadorned Thread of Yoga. Yoga-Sutra Institute Press. ISBN: 978-0978767600