Voices of Practice: Teaching Yoga, Sustainability, and Justice
Karen Gaul, The Evergreen State College
This essay describes experiments in a practice-based model of teaching at The Evergreen State College. Integrating yogic texts such as the Yoga Sutra with community efforts in sustainable living means an embodied set of skills for students responding to today's world.
Sustainable Paths for Social Change
I do feel that to truly teach sustainability, the education should be practice-based. It's one thing to have us sit in class while you lecture us about sustainability, but it is much more effective to have us actually practice being sustainable.
These words from an Evergreen student reflect the effectiveness of a practice-based approach to teaching sustainability and justice. Many educators search for the most effective methods for engaging our students in ways that will enable them to make real differences in the world. The practice-based approach that I have been developing with colleagues at Evergreen enables students to not only get motivated to work for change, but to develop awareness practices, skills in self-observation, and meditation techniques that can help them manage the emotional load that comes from learning about some of the difficult realities in today's world.
I have often heard students say—with varying levels of seriousness—that they wish they hadn't learned what they did in our programs. "Ignorance is bliss," they joke. "I can never go back to shopping (flying, driving, eating) again without thinking about all of the connections and consequences of my actions!" They learn to think in connected ways about the many interconnected systems upon which we all rely.
And all of these natural and social systems on the planet are in a period of great change. Shifting temperatures, weather patterns, and storm events signify global climatic shifts. Radically swooping economies leave many of us reeling, worried and stressed. All life support systems are on the decline, and that can feel terrifying. Hunger, malnutrition and starvation affect people across every continent. More and more people in our own communities are out of their homes and at the food bank.
As an educator, I began to see that students need tools for not only learning about, but making emotional sense of these troubling conditions. I also felt that students needed some guidelines for living in this world--some sort of foundation that would enable us to weigh choices and inform our decision-making. As a practitioner of yoga for some thirty years, and a certified yoga instructor, I felt a profound sense that Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (c. 100-500 CE) offered the best set of guidelines that I could think of for sustainable and just living. One does not have to be a yoga teacher to read and reflect on the Yoga Sutra and its guidelines for sustainable and just living. A practice-based approach can be developed in many different ways from those described here.
At the Evergreen State College, many of our faculty, staff and students are dedicated to working toward positive change. Team-taught, intensive interdisciplinary programs, lasting from one to three quarters become journeys for learning via multiple modes of inquiry to engage effectively in the world. Multi-quarter programs enable us to unfold a long arc of inquiry, develop skills, build a learning community, and offer students the chance to help shape what happens in the learning experience. This educational model has enabled me to integrate a practice-based approach to sustainability through the study and practice of yoga. In my recent programs, I have developed the idea of practice (abyasa) as an important approach to not only yoga and meditation, but to making sustainable and just choices in our every day lives. This work was advanced in particularly rich ways through a year-long program called Sustainability from the Inside Out, taught with my colleague Cynthia Kennedy (who is also a certified yoga instructor) in 2010-11.
The word "yoga" comes from the root "yug" which means to connect or yoke, as in a harness. Other definitions emphasize the discipline involved in union through concentration. Yoga has proliferated widely in American culture. American children are being exposed to yoga in their PE classes in school, their after school care, at summer camps, and at home. Estimates suggest that perhaps 15-20 million Americans practice some form of yoga. And, while yoga is learned and taught in a wide variety of ways, each encounter with yoga today--each downward dog, or tree pose, whether in an army barracks, YMCA, or after school program--is itself a cross-cultural expression. Teachings shaped by movements in India, Europe, The United States, and elsewhere merged to become the yoga we know today. Each pose contains a seed of connection to broader, older traditions.
A growing number of people are choosing to follow those seeds a bit further back, exploring their sources. And to deepen into an understanding of yoga that is not simply about physical fitness and flexibility, but is a deeper inquiry into its systematic examination and training of the workings of the mind, relating to others, and being in service to the world. The Bhagavad-Gita was an early text that suggested that the purpose of anyone's path in life was to be in service of others. Of the many texts studied by Gandhi, the Gita was a favorite, and it guided his work in the world every day.
We draw from both the practice principles in the Yoga Sutra as well as the service message in the Bhagavad-Gita in our programs at Evergreen. In particular, the yamas (internal disciplines) and niyamas (external disciplines) from the Yoga Sutra offer critical guidelines for just and sustainable living. This is part of a deepening into the textual teachings linked to yoga that many practitioners are pursuing.
American yoga practitioners are sometimes characterized as superficial and body-based, and steeped in a culture of consumption of yoga paraphernalia. While there may be some truth to this—at around $6 billion, expenditures in yoga accessories have doubled in the last few years, while numbers of practitioners have leveled off—accessorizing is not the only thing going on with yogic practice in this country. More and more American yoga practitioners are integrating service elements into their practice, teaching in prisons, in at-risk youth programs, to the elderly, cancer patients and in many other areas. I refer to these as "applied yoga."
Yoga in the US is an important phenomenon that signifies far more than a fitness movement. People in this country and around the world take up the yoga path because they are searching for something—balance, health, connection, meaning, peace—and they are finding these and more through yoga practice. For many of us, yoga practice becomes an important component in our overall commitment to sustainable living.
While yoga may have its many interpretations, so too does sustainability. "Sustainability" means thousands of different things to millions of people. In teaching a program, I typically encourage students to experiment with developing their own definition of sustainability over the course of our study. This process can be fed by examining the definitions and parameters of The Natural Step http://www.thenaturalstep.org/, or the Earth Charter http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_a/img/02_earthcharter.pdf. The Natural Step model, for example, offers concrete principles, based on scientific study, about how natural systems work. Supporting natural systems rather than working against them is a more concrete model for thinking about sustainability. In the Natural Step model, four basic principles should inform our choices. Overharvesting materials from the earth's crush, creating vast amounts of synthetic substances not found in the natural world, destruction of green surfaces of the planet, and inequitable treatment of populations are all critical points to consider before taking any action, no matter how large or small. If we ask ourselves whether we are supporting or violating these four principles in any decision we make—whether on a corporate, neighborhood or individual scale—then the choices would be sustainable.
We revisit students' process of grappling with sustainability definitions, indicators and criteria through writing and discussion, but I do not encourage a final arrival point. These are and should be emerging, shifting tools and concepts, applied in particular circumstances with relevant criteria. Instead of a single, hard and fast (and therefore continually debated) definition of sustainability, I encourage students to consider particular realms of application.
We use Gandhi's Autobiography: My Experiments with Truth, first published in the late 1920s, as a less likely source of inspiration for crafting our own understandings of sustainability. Gandhi's experimental approach, in which he voraciously read, conversed, reflected and tried things through bodily practices (particularly in terms of meditation, scriptural readings, and dietary practices), is a model we employ in our learning communities. In so many respects, Gandhi could be seen as the great master of sustainable and just living. He gave his life over to the service of justice for others. He cultivated intentional communities formed around principles of simple living and service. He was dedicated to simple, home-grown vegan food. He walked great distances every day rather than driving or taking other forms of motorized transportation. Photographs of Gandhi's room in the Sabarmati Ashram show his spinning wheel, a sitting pad, one or two other objects and nothing more. Gandhi famously owned seven objects at the time of his death, an instructive model for those of us interrogating consumption, and the accumulation of material possessions. Perhaps most centrally, Gandhi saw basic justice as the central lynch pin for all of his work. He was concerned about what was fair for all people, especially those marginalized by discrimination based on class, race and caste.
In today's popular use of the term, sustainability is commonly understood as a set of environmental concerns. As an anthropologist I approach sustainability through the angle of culture and community. We may have all of the clean energy and green technology in the world, but unless people are making choices to engage in sustainable and just practices, and addressing reform through state and federal policies, change is slow to happen. We could say that what faces the human species at this point in time is the need for a cultural shift, the likes of which we have never seen before. And we need it fast. Yet, behavior and habits, policies and practices, are slow to change. How do we help turn the ship?
As an educator, I have seen that students can shut down in the face of the not-so-sustainable realities of today's world. Declining life support systems, rapidly changing climate, increasing "natural" and not-so-natural disasters can overwhelm their ability to engage. Across the board, an array of emotions can accompany their/our experiences in opening up to information that is potentially heartbreaking and enraging. Without adequate skills or careful containers in which to process their experiences, students can feel overwhelmed, depressed, helpless and disempowered. They can also take up coping responses of denial and business-as-usual.
I realized that I needed to teach tools for observing and processing information about the world along with the information itself. The more I deepened into my own practice and study of yoga, the more I felt there was a critical tie between the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and sustainable living in today's world.
I started to develop a practice-based approach to yoga in my teaching at Evergreen--which included meditation, breathing (pranayama), physical asanas, as well as the study of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra--to give student a set of skills, housed in their very bodies, from which they could draw at any time. This was what Gandhi was explicitly doing with his "Experiments with Truth," the subtitle of his Autobiography.
The practice-based model offers skills for responding to the information we take in. Students can notice their emotions, and practice skills in observation of what happens in their bodies in response to these strong emotions. They can bring an awareness-based approach to reading, or to watching a disturbing film. It becomes less devastating to take in this information when students learn not to identify completely with their emotions, and to develop a witness perspective. Students also learn to consider their responses collectively in the learning community. This practice-based approach, which integrates the study and practice of yoga with the study and practice of sustainability is one approach among many other pedagogical experiments with contemplative practices in higher education.
"Sustainability from the Inside Out" is a program Cynthia Kennedy and I developed for first year students. This year-long journey included basic college-readiness skills such as writing, critical reading, communication and documentation of the learning process. We used Gardner's Multiple Intelligences to help students better understand and articulate their own learning. Students worked with peers to develop skills, share information, offer support, and learn to live and work in community. Along with these basic skills, students were introduced to basic sustainability concepts via themes such as food, transportation and consumption. Additionally, we introduced a practice-based model that included a twice weekly yoga session, and study of the eight limbs of yoga, articulated in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad-Gita. The first two limbs in this system are the yamas and niyamas, and these have direct implications for sustainable practices today.
Ancient Guidelines for Sustainability and Justice
Patanjali's system includes eight limbs. We take time to reflect on each of these, spending sometimes a day or a week reflecting on and fully focusing on each discipline. Our students spend time over many weeks revisiting these elements of the practice:
Yamas: restraints, or external disciplines
Asteya (not stealing)
Bramacarya (impeccable behavior, particularly sexual behavior)
Niyamas: internal disciplines
Tapas (fervor, discipline)
Svadhyaya (self study)
Ishvara-pranidhana (dedication to the ideal of pure awareness)
We spend time considering each of these principles—through discussion, reflection and practice—exploring the implications for sustainability and justice. Ahimsa, or non-harm, for example, is considered in every choice throughout the day: how can we cause the least harm through food and transportation choices for example, or the many ways we interact with others, ourselves and the world? How does the use of this laptop affect the lives of those who assembled it, or those who will disassemble it?
Asteya, or nonstealing, can refer not only to stealing material objects, but ways we use resources of all kinds; or even ways we relate to ideas, emotions and energy. Non-acquistiveness (aparigraha), is a wonderful way to examine the deeply ingrained habits of consumption that we all embody. Such habits, which become quite subconscious and mindless, are linked to samsara or the "latent impressions" that Patanjali says we carry around once an event or thought has occurred. Neuroscience of today says that synapses that "fire together wire together." Apiarigraha gives us the tools to examine this habitual behavior.
Nonaquisitiveness, or restraint, along with santosha, or contentment, provides clear invitations to learn to sit with what we have, to find a sense of "enoughness" and to observe those impulses to have more. These teachings run counter to what is deeply socialized in all of us: drive, acquisition, improvement, always reaching for the next thing. Models of "progress" and "development" get applied as much to the individual person and family as to national economies. Deeply examining these impulses, as they arise in the body and the mind, is the first step toward intervention.
Additionally, we frame our teaching in terms of an exploration of different theories of consciousness, and different ideas of the self. Patanjali has a unique theory of consciousness. In his yoga system, citta is consciousness. Citta consists of the activities of our mind such as thinking, memory, rumination, dreams, and so on. These are natural movements of the mind, which is part of the physical body, part of the material world (prakriti). Purusa, on the other hand, is often translated as awareness. This is something entirely different. Purusa is a sense of integrated awareness beyond the body, beyond time, and beyond the material world. This sort of awareness is the state to which we aspire in our practice, and which we may attain through samadhi, or integration. [check various translations on this]
Whereas we tend to think of ourselves having a mind and a body that are different from one another (and based on a dualistic model), in Patanjali's system the mind and body are of the same materiality. Purusa is beyond this material realm. Awareness can help us to manage the workings of the mind, and overcome the mistaken notion that our thoughts somehow define us or reflect who we are. The opening line of the yoga sutra states this very clearly:
Now, the teachings of yoga. Yoga is to still the patternings of consciousness. Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature. Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness.
Helping students to disconnect from a full identification with their thoughts and feelings is an important skill—as important as other critical thinking, reading and writing skills for college students.
The yogic element of our academic programs aims at a number of different levels, and modes of inquiry. Intellectually as well as experientially, students were asked to consider the "science of mind" that the yogic system is. This enables each of them to experience a yogic inquiry in the laboratory of her or his own mind and body. Increasingly longer meditation practice enables students to develop skills in quieting the body and mind.
Pranayama or breath practice enables new relationships to breath and energy flow through the body. Psychologically, students explore ways that emotions are housed in the body, and through movement and breath can be transformed. Physically, they feel great. They notice the nuanced effects from all of these approaches to learning in their hearts, bodies and minds.
Service opportunities give them a chance to apply their yoga "off the mat," and to take their sustainability practices "from the inside out." At the end of each quarter, we asked students a series of questions about their practice. Student responses to a practice-based approach to learning sustainability and justice through yoga ranged across quite a number of areas, and I have clustered some of their comments below in a handful of themes. The ethnographer in me knows that students' own words can convey the richness of their experiences far better than I could ever capture them. The following are really just a small sampling of the many responses we received from students.
One of the most immediate and obvious "results" of a yoga practice is a very different feeling in the body, and an increased range of movement. Many of our students have grown up in front of computers, and with relatively little physical exercise. I jokingly labeled the relatively tight baseline pose of many of our students, computerasana. Students said,
"I was not expecting to become so flexible, the changes in my body over the quarter were remarkable."
"I grew in my physical ability in yoga; there are some poses I never thought I could do."
"I can touch my toes!! This is a feat that I thought my body was incapable of doing, and it showed me that big change starts with small movements."
For many students, the new strength and range of movement is incredibly liberating, and boosts their self-esteem and confidence. One student even wrote about being able to do a downward dog on the wall, balancing her weight on her hands—something she never thought she could do—in her self-evalutation at the end of the program. In other words, that was a significant learning benchmark for her.
Another common effect from yoga is in the calming of people's mental states. Students actually have fairly high stress levels in their lives. The stress can be a combination of many things: pressure to do well academically; the financial burden of going to college, which sometimes means holding down a couple of part-time jobs; being on their own for the first time and all of the decision-making that goes along with that; missing their families; building new relationships, and many other factors. This complicated mix gets even more compounded when they try out various substances, sleep schedules and diets.
"At first I thought yoga would just make me feel good physically, but unexpectedly I have noticed how it has allowed me to relax more throughout the day not only in terms of my body but also my mind."
"...[T]he biggest unexpected benefit of yoga is how much happier I feel on days when I am able to wake up and practice. It really gives me energy and a mood boost for the rest of the day."
"I have used calming breaths a lot now, and it really helps me relax. I have found myself getting less stressed than I used to get."
Students learn to notice emotions and to not fully identify with them. They learn to quiet the mind—or at least observe the jumble of thoughts from an observer's view—even when quieting the mind is not fully possible. They learn to observe sensations of upset, fear, anxiety and boredom, and notice that these are mental activities beyond which a calm awareness is possible. They learn to sit with discomfort, a skill that all of us can apply in any aspect of our lives. Additionally, students begin to find that they are hungry for a path—whether this is called a "spiritual" path or not—that can help them find their way to greater clarity in their relationship to their mental states, to others, and the world around them.
"I have found myself taking many cleansing breaths in times of chaos. That is the most useful thing I have learned in this class because it brings me so much peace"
"Yoga was a form of exercise. That is what I thought. I quickly learned that yoga is a lifestyle that leaves you more aware of your surroundings, and a tool used to help guide you through a path out of suffering."
In a seminar discussion on Gandhi's Autobiography, one of my students noted that Gandhi was a firm believer in walking. Gandhi was certain that walking fairly long distances daily helped keep him in good health. The student connected this to her own experience of practicing yoga. "I did not get as sick last quarter, and I think it was from the yoga practice. Did anyone else notice this?" Others readily agreed. I admitted that I did a double take on some of my end-of-the quarter full class attendances for the previous quarter; absences from illness had been way down. A few students offered that yoga helped give them a much better handle on stress; others, a better ability to focus on their work. One student quietly observed that he thought the student interactions with one another in seminar were more easygoing and kind because of the experience of doing yoga together. Many nodded and chimed in, "Yeah, even if we aren't talking to each other or interacting, there's something really nice about practicing together." Some several minutes into this spontaneous testimonial for yoga, I said, "So...about Gandhi..." and we steered back to the text. But I was struck by the students' experiences with yoga, and their readiness to voice them. This was early January, after a holiday break, and students were expressing their gratitude for getting back on the mats together. Perhaps most touching was the ability to notice that practicing together, in community, changes that community.
Students began to make more and more choices toward health. Their practices combined with what they were learning about food sources, labor conditions and treatment of animals led many to adjust their diets, reducing or eliminating meat for example. They noticed effects of eating poorly, lack of sleep, or of drinking alcohol in their bodies, and became more attentive to how those things felt in the body. Some of them gave up smoking, which is no small feat.
They carried their practices into their every day lives and built skills that enabled them to take better care of themselves throughout the day.
"I have greatly cut back on meat consumption."
"Practicing living in the moment has given me a better outlook on life and has let me deal with difficult situations easier than I would have before."
"In moments of high tension I can [take a] moment to pause and to breathe before deciding on what action is best to take. I can gracefully leave a situation without having to walk out...feeling like I made a complete fool out of myself."
Academic Work and Research
"I've never been more engaged and learned so much in so little time"
Students also employ their practices when they relate to their academic work. Many noted that they could relax, read and focus for much longer periods of time. This is no small feat in these times of constant texting, cell phone use, video gaming, and divided attention. In addition, the kinds of projects they chose to research and work on ranged over a number of sustainability and justice issues. Over the course of a number of such programs, my students have worked on projects such as: food sourcing, ahimsa and animal cruelty in meat production; a waste audit for the college; ayurveda and yoga as systems of health for men; yoga as a therapy for eating disorders, anxiety, and depression; yoga as a health plan for pregnant women, as well as aging women; yoga to help with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and with ADD/ADHD; and the possibilities for yoga in elementary and high school education, among others.
"Thanks to the practices of yoga, meditation and sustainability, [I] have built a contentment with basic academic things such as research and writing. I enjoy it all now, thanks to these practices!"
"[I have developed]... an ability to take more of what I have been doing on the mat, as far as centeredness in my physicality, out into the world...especially the world of research and homework."
Additionally, the embodied practice means that study of the yoga sutra and other yoga texts are understood through at an experiential rather than just an intellectual level. "Because we were practicing yoga, I could better understand the articles and books about yoga..."
"The service opportunities we have done with these classes influenced my learning because I was able to relate back the things we learned in class with real-world situations. Giving up my time for service really gave me the time to reflect on sustainable practice ideas and how it is a real issue in the world today. ...[P]rior to this class I have done service projects but never reflected on it as I have in this class."
As part of our integration of sustainability and justice, we require students to develop a service-learning component. In some programs we do this collectively as a group, and in some we had students set up their own internship contracts within the umbrella of the program. Students volunteered at the local food bank, Garden Raised Bounty (GRuB) and other farms and gardens, tutored special needs adults, or at-risk youth; worked with the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, worked with animals in shelters and horse barns, and more.
"Doing hands-on activities like community services, yoga, and creative posters, I was able to remember how much I loved the environment, and this made me want to protect it that much more, and figure out more ways I could help."
These service opportunities expose students to a spectrum of agencies and organizations that they may want to pursue in the future. Many students have continued on with service work partners after they no longer are required to do so for class.
Applied Sustainability: Building Community
Learning about sustainability and justice conceptually, without an embodied engagement, means the information can easily enter and exit a student's thought without sticking. In the past, I have had students engage in sustainability practices without the deeper yogic exploration. Students have conveyed to me that they easily drop the practices--or were afraid they wouldn't persist—after the college program is over. This is why I have sought a deeper, practice-based engagement with our habits of body/mind. Through embodied actions in terms of diet, transportation, consumption, service and so on, students are making change not just intellectually but in their very cells.
"My greatest success was actually taking what I learned in the classroom and applying it to my everyday life."
"I've acquired the ability to think about the choices I make in life with more care. This has helped to resolve and prevent conflict. Additionally I think twice before consuming a product or food. This has helped me to waste less time, money and energy."
"My sustainability practices made me notice how, for global sustainability to become a reality, society has to change; there is no new gadget that can counteract the world's massive consumption."
"Simply by learning about the issues facing our planet and society it forced me into a more conscious and sustainable way of thinking because I didn't and don't want to give anything to many of the systems we've learned about."
"I am much more cognizant of what is going on around me..."
"Contemplative practice has taught me about who I am in the world...Abiding in the yamas has become very important to me."
Like Gandhi's living and learning communities, the community that students build based on this rigorous practice-based inquiry is an experiment that they can replicate after the program is over. The learning community model is one of the most moving aspects for me in teaching at Evergreen. We spend intensive amounts of time with our students. Students learn not only from lectures, books and films, but from the process of working in groups, listening to one another, and working through inevitable differences and conflict. Much less tangible forms of learning and growth take place in the areas of communication, compromise, and placing group priorities over individual ones. Not only that, but cooking together, learning together, building friendships, trusting one another in partner yoga, and celebrating together, helps forge some strong bonds. Sometimes I think of these community dynamics as the secret, hidden layer of learning at Evergreen. And maybe the most important.
"I'm glad I was in a learning community that also believed in the power to bear witness to unpleasantries in order to take personal responsibility for one's own choices and make informed decisions in the future."
"I've really just opened...and let myself do whatever it is, in the moment, we are doing. That has been one of the biggest things I have taken away this quarter."
Meeting the Needs of our Time
Parker Palmer has suggested that faculty and students need to learn to explore our own inner landscapes in order to work effectively in the world. I think a practice based approach to yoga and sustainability helps us to address these educational needs.
The Evergreen students' strong positive responses to this practice-based learning echo the findings of a recent study by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. The four year study on Spirituality in Higher Ed showed that the majority of college students are exploring big questions about good and evil, and the meaning and purpose of life, whether they call it a spiritual, religious or moral path or not.
The UCLA study showed that first year students have a high expectation for "the role their institutions will play in their emotional and spiritual development. They (3/4) place great value on their college enhancing their self-understanding, helping them develop personal values, and encouraging their expression of spirituality." And yet, "despite these central concerns of meaning and purpose in their lives...the majority of the students in the study said their professors never provided opportunities to discuss these issues." 
Students are interested in contributing in a positive way to make the world a better place. They also want balanced and purposeful lives that are rich with connection and meaning. Our students have indicated that sustainability is also a big concern for them in their education:
"I was hoping to learn what I could do ...to make the world a better place."
"I brought an interest in improving myself and my community...and a desire to make a sustainable world."
"I hoped to gain more balance, purpose and control in my life. Sustaining myself is about locating that place of contentment and maintaining it."
"I was ...hoping to learn about how to cultivate a more healthy and sustainable life. I was really hoping to study practical ways that we can make our day to day lives more sustainable."
As educators, this means meeting students' passion and concern with pedagogical approaches that make sense, and offer practical tools.
Personally and professionally, I have moved beyond the struggle to define sustainability in operational ways. I now think about sustainability in fresh, new ways. In a practice-based model, sustainability can capture everything about the sustained hum of awareness and attention we want to bring to life. In a practice-based approach, we sustain our breath and our attention. We sustain awareness in meditation, and we sustain a meditation practice. We recognize that all of our practices mean sustaining effort to discern citta/purusa. We bring sustained attention to each and every decision throughout the day. Recognizing competing priorities and inherent contradictions in our lives, we make the best choices possible in each moment. We practice forgiveness--of self and others. We sustain a practice of reading; the practice of study. We sustain inquiry. We practice parenting. We sustain the practice of work (or karma yoga), both paid and unpaid, as outlined in the Bhagavad Gita. We offer the sustained practice of commitment to our community. We sustain hope and trust in the face of what seem like overwhelming odds.
We sustain choices toward healthy living in relation to diet, exercise, rest, and pace. We sustain love of the world and every living thing in it. We practice optimism. We practice calm. We practice peace.
In the course of teaching and learning about sustainability and justice, and taking an honest assessment of the condition of our world, we can sometimes lose hope, joy, and a deep engagement with the natural world. Fear can consume all of our awareness. Even relating to fear is a part of the practice.
I feel greatly heartened by the work of so many in integrating contemplative practice in higher education. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society helped fund the City University of New York Contemplative Network. At University of Michigan Ann Arbor, one can earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz and Contemplative Studies, celebrating links between meditation and improvisation. Brown University's Contemplative Studies Initiative helps students develop both "third person" and "first person" inquiry. The Evergreen State College has a newly formed Consciousness Studies interdisicplinary curriculum planning unit.
Over the last several years I have worked with a wide spectrum of students. Some are extreme athletes, some not athletic at all, and many are in between. Some students come to this work struggling with anxiety and self-esteem; struggling with eating disorders and depression. Some are rehabilitating from various surgeries from sports injuries, suffering from scoliosis, pregnant. Many have the stress of multiple jobs in order to make tuition. They are caring for siblings or parents with cancer; they are raising their own children. Many are on various medications to manage emotional and physical conditions. Some self-medicate or experiment with a variety of recreational and pharmaceutical drugs, and with alcohol. Most are products of an increasingly digitized world, where fragmentary focus and text-based social connections are the norm.
I firmly believe that the cross-section of students I see in these practice-based programs is not an exception. These are not the oddball or fringe edges of the student body. These are average slices of the student body. Some of the students cannot comfortably sit on a floor or cushion. Some cannot sit or lie still. In one class, I asked one student to consistently lie down for mediation because her fidgeting was so active, it had the potential to distract everyone else. She consistently showed up and worked with yoga asana and meditation. By the end of her summer course, she was significantly more quiet in her body; her mother said she was a different person. I've seen completely timid students find strength and confidence in their bodies. I witnessed a student lying rigid with anxiety in savasana, struggle to slowly find trust enough to simply close her eyes and relax.
Repeatedly, I watch a room full of fussing, twitching bodies slowly ease toward stillness over weeks of work. Because of the intensive teaching and learning model at Evergreen, this work is possible. Our approach to yoga has been to deeply integrate it into our academic inquiry.
This has been incredibly moving work for me. It is hard to quantify or evaluate. Stillness may seem an odd accomplishment. But to me, the ability to find stillness is as critical a skill for life as reading and writing. Quiet body is a first step to quiet mind. I see bodies open. I see shiny open hearts. Whole body smiles.
This intersection of the study and practice of yoga with the study and practice of sustainability has myriad outcomes; and clearly, extends far beyond what we typically understand as academic disciplines or interdisciplinarity. We are also integrating somatic practices with scholarly study. We are literally working from the inside out, and engaging students with service in a way that aspires toward to Gandhi's dedication of his life to service. We are providing skills in self observation, in mediation, and in practice itself. Coming back again and again to the work at hand, whether it is reading a course book, writing a draft, getting on the yoga mat, sitting in meditation, walking in awareness, eating mindfully, or even interacting with friends and technologies, all become part of the practice.
In the face of a rapidly changing climate and shifting ecosystems, many of us are seeking new ways to limit and reverse human impact on the planet. This sort of embodied learning is one way to develop modes of thought and relationships that are more responsive to our environment and responsible toward one another. In building tools to restructure our approach to life--from a myopic focus on the individual to connection to others, from gripping desires to contentment and restraint—we can use the tools offered in the Yoga Sutra for reshaping habits of the mind. In the process, we can eliminate many of the "needs" we think we have. Seriously applying the concept and action of practice can help students of yoga and sustainability find strength in ancient guidelines for right living.
 Programs in which I have developed yoga and sustainability practices include Sustainable Practice, taught with Mukti Khanna, spring 08; Yoga and Sustainability, taught solo in the summers of 09. 10 and 11; Life of Things, taught with Eric Stein AY 09-10; and Sustainability from the Inside Out, taught with Cynthia Kennedy AY 10-11.
 Yoga Journal http://www.yogajournal.com/advertise/press_releases/10
 Mark Singleton, 2010, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice
 The Bhagavad-Gita, Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, trans. Signet 2002
 An oft-cited definition from the 1987 World Commission Report on Environment and Development describes sustainable development as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" Brundland report (1987:43). But this may not be the most relevant definition for us today, and has by now been the subject of great debate.
 Gandhi, Mohandes K. Autobiography: My Experiements with Truth.
 See Stephanie Kaza's Mindfully Green, Shambala, 2008.
 Michael Stone,Yoga for a World Out of Balance , Shambala 2009
 Chip Hartranft, trans. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, Shambala 2003
 "Off the Mat" is the name of yoga teacher Sean Corne's yoga for service organization.
 David Levy et al, http://chronicle.com/article/No-Cellphone-No-Internet-So/127391/
 Parker Palmer, Yes! Magazine; http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/learn-as-you-go/know-yourself-change-your-world. See also The Heart of Higher Education by Parker Palmer and Arthur Zajonc. Jossey-Bass, 2011
 UCLA, Higher Education Research Institute, http://spirituality.ucla.edu/