How the science of Yoga can help us achieve our collective vision for a better future.
“What on earth does yoga have to do with sustainable development?!” you may ask.
What if I told you that Yoga is far more than the physical postures that it’s known for in the West? Yoga means Union. Union with what? Our Higher Self, our soul, or for those of you who believe in God (no matter how you designate this force – Infinite Spirit, the Consciousness behind creation…), union with God.
Paramhansa Yogananda – a great Indian Master who introduced yoga in the West in the early 20th century and is famous for his Autobiography of a Yogi – spread the message that the soul has 8 qualities: peace, calm, power, wisdom, joy, love, light and sound. Our true nature, according to the teachings of Yoga, are these eight qualities, and suffering comes from the fact that our soul forgets this! It identifies itself with our limited bodies and material and social circumstances – that is the ego.
The practices of Yoga (meditation, yoga postures, and more…) are meant to help us reconnect with our true nature, to be one with the peace, love, joy, wisdom and power that lie within us. In this state of union, we overcome our sense of separation from other people and other parts of creation – in particular nature - and feel indescribable bliss (so the accomplished yogis testify!). Yoga is not a religion but a set of practices which can be applied to any creed. Yogis speak of the “Science of Yoga” as the same practices repeated over centuries and even millennia, continue to generate the same results: greater inner peace and joy.
Sure. But what has that got to do with sustainable development?
A few years ago, I was having a conversation with David Nabarro, who was then Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on Sustainable Development and Climate Change. He had recently started this position so I asked him if he enjoyed it and why. He answered it was fascinating because the 17 Sustainable Development Goals – the SDGs – are profoundly transformative. They cut across technical sectors and present a united vision for all nations. He then added. “You know, Charlotte, there is an unwritten 18th SDG – and it’s about love and joy”.
A big “ A-Ha!” resounded in my mind.
Indeed, what is the ultimate purpose of sustainable development? Isn’t it that people everywhere can be truly and sustainably happy (which entails our home, Earth, should be happy too). And how else will we have the energy to achieve these ambitious goals if we do not act with the energy of love and joy?
That got me thinking… If Yoga is meant to reconnect us with genuine love and joy, can it not help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, our collective vision for a better future for all? What if the personal transformation that Yoga - and other spiritual paths - invites us to engage in were fundamental to drive the institutional and global changes needed to foster lasting peace and well-being for all peoples and for our planet?
I turned to the teachings of Patanjali, whose “Yoga Sutras” (written before the 4th century) describe the eight-step path to enlightenment. The two first steps are a set of moral and ethical directives: yamas (behaviours that control negative instincts or tendencies) and niyamas (behaviours that encourage positive tendencies).
The yamas are:
· Ahimsa (non-violence)
· Satya (not lying)
· Asteya (not stealing)
· Brahmacharya (non-attachment to sensual pleasures)
· Aparigraha (non-attachment or non-avidity)
The niyamas are :
· Sausa (purity)
· Santosa (contentment)
· Tapasya (austerity)
· Swadhyaya (introspection, study of the self)
· Isvarapranidhana (Devotion to the “Supreme Lord”of “Infinite Spirit”)
If each individual, each institution and each nation strive to apply these, would the world not be a better place? I invite you to read the little thesis I had written for my certification as an instructor of Ananda Yoga. You can download it from my blog page, below. In this paper, I present in more details how applying these principles at the global, institutional and individual level can support the sustainable development agenda outlined in the SDGs. (And if the words “non-attachment to sensual pleasures” and “austerity” turn you off, don’t worry. Moderation is key to the approach – even Yogananda treated his disciples to chocolate ice cream once in a while!).