Yoga Ecology: Transforming the Inner and Outer Environments

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

You do not have to worry about Nature because Nature is an intelligent force which takes care of itself. If man does not protect Nature but destroys it, Nature will punish him.

—Swami Satyananda Saraswati

There is so much talk today about environmental protection and pollution, but how about the care and protection of our own inner physical, emotional, mental, psychic and spiritual environment? Maybe it is that which should be our concern now. How can we prevent the inevitable punishment which Nature is on the verge of bestowing upon us for our constant misuse and abuse of her? As Swami Satyananda says, Nature can take care of herself, but how can we protect (and accept) our own nature, our own inner environment? How can we protect our own inner world from the chaos which is happening within as well as around us? How can we save ourselves from the inner environmental dangers of disturbed emotions, unruly passions and negative, aggressive thinking as well as saving our external environment? For even if we were presented today with the most perfect of natural environments imaginable in which to live, due to the state of our inner environment we would not be able to enjoy or appreciate it.

Inner pollution

First we have to understand that the world is a projection of our own minds, that the external environment is only a reflection of the environment within our own selves, and that Nature is all out of balance because our minds, emotions and nature are out of synch. We have lost control of the mind due to lack of right thinking and right acting in relation to ourselves, to the environment and to others. Maybe it is time we started taking responsibility for this inner environment of ours rather than seeking outside for environmental solutions, because society and the world cannot be changed unless we first change and upgrade the quality of our own thinking patterns, emotional responses and consciousness. The mental and emotional pollution within us is a greater hazard than any external pollution, and it has to be cleaned up first. To bring about this change, to restore our own inner balance and to harmonize the inner and outer worlds is the work of yogic science.

Cleaning up the mess with yoga

Only yoga can successfully re-educate the twenty-first century mind and reveal the deeper qualities of peace, love, tolerance, acceptance and understanding which have become buried deep underneath the debris of selfishness and desire. Yoga means a complete life, both inner and outer. It means a life of opening up to oneself, to others, to the environment and to the cosmos. It brings the unruly mind and emotions back under our control and restores peace, poise and tranquillity to our inner world, thus deepening our understanding of, and relationship to, not only ourselves but also to Nature and the world around us. Yoga elevates our consciousness, re-unites us with our own lost selves and also with our estranged surroundings. Through yoga we can rediscover our centre of balance, and then our whole angle of vision will change. With this new vision, this transformed consciousness, we can set about solving the pollution problems of both the internal and external worlds.

When we practise yoga our body, mind and emotions become more refined and subtle. Our whole way of acting and thinking changes and begins to undergo a transformation. We then begin to feel the environment as a part of our own selves, and therefore worthy of love and respect; if something is wrong outside we will very quickly feel it within ourselves due to the heightened awareness which yoga provides. Conversely, if the environment is sick and depleted, we will become sick and depleted also. Yoga helps us develop an inner wholeness and integrity which is then projected outwards to the other parts of the whole of which we are only a minute fraction.

Through yoga we realize that it is our duty and responsibility to look after the two gifts we have been given, namely, the environmental complex upon which we depend for our survival, and the body-mind complex in which we live. How do we look after this body-mind complex? How does the yogic catalyst work? What is this transforming process? Let us start at the gross level by considering the role which is played by the food we eat.

Yogic diet and the power of food

A balanced mind, a yogic mind, is a sattwic or pure mind which thinks and acts positively, creatively and compassionately, and to attain this a sattwic diet is absolutely necessary. Food has a tremendous influence on our mind. It forms the mind as well as the body. The mind is made from the subtlest portion of food. If the food we eat is impure then our mind and thinking will be impure also. Thought is supplied to us by food; if the food is pure our thoughts will also be pure. When we bring yoga into our lives we bring in precious relaxation, and when we eat with a relaxed body and mind, with gratitude for what Nature has provided for us, the food is able to nourish our more subtle bodies or koshas. And if we chant a few mantras before eating, we energize, not only ourselves and the food, but the environment also.

The yogi always prefers a sattwic vegetarian diet because it increases vitality, vigour and good health, and results in a healthy body and calm mind. Such sattwic foods are barley, wheat, cereals, milk, honey, almonds, butter, cheese, tomatoes, dates, fruits, honey and sugar candy – all the natural and wholesome products of a pure environment. Nature is without the tension, worry, hang-ups and ambition of which we are all full; she just exists in her own joyful acceptance of life. It is therefore beautiful and reassuring to know that her products, which vibrate with the joyful energy of being, can vibrate within us also to give us the joy of well-being and a more sattwic mind.

Meat is not prohibited by yoga, but it is highly rajasic, causes many diseases like TB, cancer, kidney disease, etc., excites the mind and emotions, and makes them restless and unsteady by setting up discordant, rajasic vibrations in the physical body. The yogic process is meant to eliminate the gross animalistic tendencies from the mind and personality, and a non-vegetarian diet is a great hindrance to this, whereas a simple sattwic diet helps to refine our body-mind complex and, consequently, our nature. All the great saints and yogis lived on a yogic diet. Swami Sivananda says, “A vegetarian diet can produce supreme powers of both body and mind and is highly conducive to divine contemplation and the practice of yoga.” Of course, he was not including the pesticides and artificial processes for increasing yield and growth which are employed today.

Learning from the animals

A very important environmental point is that a non-vegetarian diet involves the cruel taking of innocent life, which the peaceful and sympathetic yogic mind cannot accept. Instead of killing and mistreating animals we can learn from them by living nearer to, and observing how they interact with, the environment. Animals are closer to Nature and the divine than we are. There is a very beautiful quote in the Bible concerning animals which illustrates this and shows the insight ancient cultures had into the environment and also into themselves: “Ask the beasts to teach you; the birds of the air to tell you and the fish of the sea to guide you. For which among them does not know that behind everything is the hand of God?” (Job 12, 7–9).

Animals follow Nature's laws and rhythms with perfect acceptance, eating the right amount of the right food at the right time, rising and sleeping with the sun, mating only at the fixed times, and taking from the environment only that which is necessary for their daily need. The yogic-minded person does the same. To quote Swami Satyananda, “Animals do not have to practise japa, kirtan, asana, pranayama, nauli, basti and other yogas, but you violate the laws of Nature, and in order to compensate for that you practise yoga.” And most people start yoga with the practice of asana.


Yoga is an alchemical process which refines all that is bestial or animalistic in us, and transmutes the base metal of our vasana or cravings into the pure sattwic gold of divinity. But before we become divine we first have to become truly human, and this we can do with the help of yoga. Of course, the yogic process is slow, but it is sure, and we have to start at a point which is simple, easily available, and open to all. This point is asana or yogic postures. Yogasanas, which are designed to bring our inner environment back into alignment, are taken from the natural external environment, from the animals. They were devised by the rishis and yogis who lived peacefully amongst the animals in the jungle and who were able therefore to observe and monitor their movements at first hand.

The rishis understood the effects of a particular position on the mind and body, and how the hormonal secretions could be stimulated and controlled by it. They saw how animals live in harmony with their environment and with their own bodies, and that through the practice of yogasanas the human animal can do the same. As a result of their observations they were able to devise certain postures which influence the various glands and hormones in the human body, with a view to bringing about a balance in the body-mind complex and speeding up the evolutionary process.

Animal samskaras

Whether we like to accept it or not, we are closely related to the animals whose postures we are imitating today, postures like mayurasana (the peacock), bhujangasana (the cobra), shashankasana (the hare), kukkutasana (the cockerel) and simhasana (the lion), to mention only a few. We have already evolved through 8.4 million species of living beings but have forgotten our link with the animal kingdom from which we have evolved. There are as many asanas as there are living creatures in the universe and we have all these past incarnations buried deep within our subconscious mind. This jungle of animal samskaras has to be transcended before we can truly call ourselves human beings.

Swami Satyananda says in Bhakti Yoga Sagar, Volume Four, “This is not your first entry into life…You were a bacteria living in vegetables, an insect living in faeces and cow dung, then you became a bird, then a reptile, then a rodent, then a dog and then a donkey.” The body still carries vestiges of samskaras from the instinctive lives it has led before. Lord Buddha remembered all his animal incarnations, and when the different energies or pranas begin to awaken in the body, it adopts different animal postures spontaneously, even if it has not performed yogasanas previously. The great siddha yogi, Baba Muktananda, even began roaring like a lion when his kundalini shakti was awakening.

So we should not forget how closely related to the animal kingdom we are, and how the characteristics of the animals we have been in past lives persist, even in this human form. Neither should we forget that if we kill animals and destroy Nature, they will kill and destroy us sooner or later, in this life or the next. Perhaps we will end up as an animal in our next incarnation or fall even lower if we do not do something about the more dangerous animals, the passionate beasts which are lurking within our own emotio-mental ecosystem and distorting our thoughts and actions. We can start to pacify and control them by first controlling the various destructive hormones in the body with the help of asana.

Yamas and niyamas

The yogic process culminates in samadhi, when the yogi becomes united with the cosmic principle. Having attained samadhi the yogi realizes his responsibility and duty towards humanity and the whole world. However, samadhi, or even the preceding stages, cannot be achieved without first preparing the way for this sense of oneness with one's fellows by the practice of the moral codes and self-restraints in the form of the yamas and niyamas. Most yoga practitioners today concentrate on asana and pranayama, and a smaller percentage venture into the more advanced stages of pratyahara, dharana, and dhyana, but everyone chooses to forget about the all important yamas and niyamas, which constitute the first step in Patanjali's eight steps to yoga.

We are very diet conscious, health conscious and body conscious but not very restraint conscious. However, ahimsa, ishwara pranidhana, swadhyaya, aparigraha, and several other ecological dharmas like daan, are needed today more than ever before to redeem the world of violence, selfishness and degradation, and to preserve Planet Earth with care and compassion. Even if we are unable to do anything about improving our external environment, at least we can try to develop some restraint over the desire-demons which inhabit our inner ecosystem and gobble up our own inner resources.

Why did Patanjali give the yamas and niyamas first place in his system of yoga? Because he must have believed that they were a natural and necessary prerequisite to the other seven steps. Every stage makes way for the next higher stage. The eight limbs are interdependent and the yoga practitioner must progress systematically in order for his path and progress to be smooth. If he does not follow the order correctly, he is liable to meet with difficulties in the higher stages. As Swami Satyananda says in his commentary Four Chapters on Freedom, “In a life lacking restraint and discipline there is the possibility of an unconscious explosion, which might create mental derangement.” Besides, due to the fact that we have ignored the yamas and niyamas, our awareness is selfishly drawn within, focused on and limited to the experiences which are generated inside the body.

However, if we want to go beyond the normal patterns of mind which keep us so tightly bound we must incorporate the yamas and niyamas into our lives. As Swami Niranjan says, “If one follows the path of yama and niyama then, right from the start, the practices of yoga will have a universal dimension to them and not a selfish one.” The yamas and niyamas cannot be ignored because they form the whole basis of our lives. Without them, the foundation and therefore the entire structure of our life is weak – we crumble and break at the slightest thing. Therefore, we need to take care, not only of the life which is manifested before us, but also of the unmanifest life lying just beneath the surface.

It is moral conduct and a sense of restraint which endorses life and society and enables us to maintain individual, social and therefore global balance and integrity. Furthermore, the yamas and niyamas put us in touch with our natural qualities and help us to gain mastery over our inner environment. When we incorporate them into our lives, our minds start to broaden and open out into new vistas of experience, into a world of expanded awareness and understanding. In the ecological scheme of things it is the ethical side of yoga to which we have to pay the greatest attention now, because it is the yamas and niyamas which can actually re-educate the mad modern mind, heal our broken emotions and fractured awareness, and provide us with a strong, steady base from which to lead a healthy integrated life. Let us look at a few of the yamas and niyamas to see how this applies.


Ahimsa is the absence of any negativity from within the entire personality. It is the very first yama and implies that we should cause no harm to any living being in thought, word or deed. Harming others involves unending enmity and hatred, and leads to the growth of fear within the personality. So, if we want a peaceful inner and outer environment we should refrain from negative thinking and injury towards other beings, whether human or animal, or even towards the vegetable and mineral kingdoms. Ahimsa includes not just negativity and injury to the beings outside us, but also non-acceptance of our own selves. If we can love and respect our own selves and begin to accept ourselves as we are, then we will be able to love and accept others from the same centre of affectionate understanding.

Negative, violent and aggressive thoughts and actions not only create bad karma and apposite reactions from our external environment, but produce chemicals within us which are harmful to both body and mind, and which cause physical and mental sickness and pain. Once we begin to understand the very practical karmic and natural laws which underlie our existence, we can begin to take positive steps towards the improvement of our lot and of our life. A lifestyle of non-injury not only prevents inner pollution but helps propel us along the path towards realization of the one Self which pervades all. When we realize that by harming others we in fact harm our own selves, we can begin to save ourselves from inner as well as outer destruction, and even accelerate the process by actually doing good to and for others, rather than just refraining from doing bad. The gift we give comes back to us, and the gift of being able to give love and understanding to others is the greatest gift of all.

Ishwara pranidhana

Ishwara pranidhana has been translated as 'surrender to the divine will by realizing the divine energy which flows within us.' It implies dedication to a supreme being or power which controls all things, including ourselves, and begins with the realization that we are not the masters of the Earth and the lords of Nature. We are, in fact, only one of the projections of Nature. Before we can gain mastery over Nature and the elements we first have to be complete masters and lords over our own mind, nature and emotions. The ecosystem preceded our existence and we must learn to adapt to and adopt its rhythms and cycles in order to re-attune ourselves to our own inner natural cycles and rhythms.

Without the restraint which comes from a belief in some higher guiding force, or God, it will not be possible for us to come back into balance, either externally or internally. Respect for other human beings, for the environment and for the animal and vegetable species is an expression of our unconditional submission to the higher power which created all things out of its affectionate and loving will, and this includes the body-mind complex with which we have been entrusted. To think that we are masters of the environment is as ridiculous as thinking that we are Brahman when we are bound head and foot by our own limitations and desires. Things come into true perspective when we realize that we are only a tiny speck on a planet which is only a tiny speck in one of countless universes.

When we begin to practise ishwara pranidhana and feel that we are like children held in the protective and loving hand of God, or lying in the lap of the Universal Mother, we can begin to let go, flow with the natural order of things, and put our trust in the care of the divine will which knows what we need better than we do ourselves. With this surrender we will no longer feel the need to struggle and strain to amass wealth we do not actually need, because we will have the faith that Ishwara will provide. Then, like the leaves of the tree in autumn, our old patterns of thinking and behaving, which depend on our insecurities, doubts and fears for their expression, will begin to fall away, allowing new positive shoots of hope and acceptance to emerge and bloom into beautiful flowers of love and compassion for our fellow travellers, and for the environment.


Swadhyaya is the process of self-study or self-analysis which leads us to a deeper understanding of our nature, personality and thinking patterns. By constantly being aware of and observing our thoughts, actions and reactions, we can begin to understand what it is that makes us act and react negatively or egotistically in any given situation, and then try to correct the old, unwanted conditionings which are blurring our vision. Through the practice of swadhyaya we can see where we are making mistakes in our life and rectify things by adjusting and adapting our behaviour and thinking to fit in with the environment around us. How to act in the right way at the right time, say the right thing and think the right thought without rocking the boat of life – this is the result of swadhyaya or self-observation. Once we master the practice of swadhyaya we will be able to glide smoothly and coolly through life like a soft breeze, without the usual collisions, and without causing any discordant or unnecessary ripples in the sea of samsara or worldly existence.

In order to be successful in the swadhyaya process we have to start by accepting our own mind and nature instead of hiding from them, and this is not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of courage to use the inner magnifying glass of naked honesty and confront all those inner beasties and goblins of fear, anger, jealousy, lust, greed and narrow-minded backbiting which we try so hard to camouflage, but which constantly gnaw away at the mind or pop out to overpower us when we are least prepared to face them. The negative hidden forces and conflicts which suck all our inner reserves, over-ride our positive qualities, and leave us totally drained of energy have to be confronted if we want to broaden the horizons of our world.

Perhaps the concealed motives behind our actions are not even known to us. Maybe we would be horrified if they were! Perhaps the image we have of ourselves and the reality of what we actually are do not match. Swadhyaya is about righting this image, facing the truth and managing the underground environment by enabling us to first become aware of it. Unless we are in tune with our inner thought-world, with the drives and motivations of our 'real' underground personality, we cannot succeed in harmonizing the inner and outer environments, because our entire existence depends on the nature and quality of our thoughts. We do not have to be reminded of the old adage, “You are what you think”, or of the fact that the world in which we live is a reflection of our own minds.

The thought-world

Thought affects, not only our internal life but also the environment around us. Thought is a living, dynamic and powerful force just like gravitation. According to Swami Sivananda the thought-world is relatively more real than the physical one, being subtle matter. The thoughts of great sages of ancient times are still in the Akashic records and can be read even today by clairvoyant yogis. Swami Sivananda writes in his book Bliss Divine, “The strength of your body, the strength of your mind, your success in life and the pleasure you give to others by your company – all depend on the nature and quality of your thoughts.” So we should watch and study our thoughts and thinking patterns very carefully if we want to avoid the negative chain of action and reaction, conserve our mental energy resources and prevent added environmental pollution.

Most of our energy is wasted in useless, excessive and unproductive thinking. However, we can conserve this energy and charge the environment positively by trying to generate and sustain only those thoughts which are useful and helpful to others, and which have the power to uplift the heart and spirit. If we do not want to pollute both our inner and outer worlds, we should avoid all types of backbiting, negative thinking about others and thoughts of selfishness, jealousy, anger, etc. Instead, let us try to think constructively, positively and definitely about others, and send out helpful and loving thoughts into the environment, because, after all – we have to live in it!


People are driven today by the insane desire to accumulate possessions without realizing that, along with them, they are also accumulating inner tensions and unnecessary mental clutter. Aparigraha, or the desire to possess things (and people), leads to restlessness and dissatisfaction with what we have and is antithetical to the idea of simplicity of lifestyle advocated by yoga. It also leads to increased fear and anxiety in case we lose the possessions we have so painstakingly amassed. Besides, greed and the accumulation of wealth implies a certain amount of injury to and deprivation of others, as well as misuse of the environment, but more importantly, such selfishness, greed and misdirected use of wealth pollutes, constricts and hardens our hearts, distorts our perception of the world and leads to all kinds of serious diseases like hypertension, heart attacks and cardiac arrest. Our self-centred grasping prevents us from experiencing the universal interconnectedness. When we realize that we have no actual separate existence we can begin to develop humility and compassion.

Possessiveness, along with raga or attachment, and dwesha or repulsion, bind us to the external world and lead us to exploit the earth's resources in whatever way we want. However, we only become truly free from our clinging, confined and dependent state when we realize that the nature of our real self has nothing to do with any of the externals which are the cause of our bondage. The less we possess on the material plane the lighter, freer and happier we will be from within, where the real peace lies, and where the genuine wealth in the form of the higher possessions of love, understanding, acceptance, compassion and just plain good health are to be extracted through the yogic process.


Instead of hoarding for ourselves we can try letting go of this abnormal grabbing at illusions and start opening our hearts to share with others. Then we will see how the quality of our sleep and health improves. We will experience how the joy of giving opens up the doors of our hearts and frees our soul, enabling us to receive much more on a subtle level, not least of all, peace of mind. Of course, everyone realizes that a certain amount of wealth and material possessions are necessary for our daily subsistence, but positive thoughts, intelligent interaction, surrender to God's plan and giving to others are equally important for our survival.

Giving to others is known as daan and this Sanskrit word implies, not only that the earth's physical, material and spiritual resources need to be shared with all, but that we should use our wealth for the noble purpose of uplifting and sustaining others, and for the protection of the environment. After all, the wealth we have been given is not actually ours, as Swami Satyananda says, we are only a type of trustee for the good fortune God may have bestowed upon us. Besides, the gift we give will always return to us, and Mother Nature gives a very bountiful return. However, we have to take care of her and nourish her so that she can do the same for us. This we can do through the ancient science of yajna.

Yajna – transforming the inner and outer environments

In ancient vedic times, people felt an intrinsic bond with and love for Nature because they were in tune with their own selves, with both their inner and outer environments, and because they followed a completely sattwic and yogic lifestyle. Everything in Nature was seen by them as a mystery and therefore sacred. People attributed sacredness to individual trees, lakes or mountain peaks, while rivers were worshipped as mothers, and thus the environment was protected from overexploitation. Everything had its place in the scheme of things, and there was not the rajasic and tamasic desire to dominate the rest of creation, or to feel superior to others that there is today. Furthermore, Nature and the elements were considered to be instruments for inner purification and transformation, for returning back to the source from which we have all come, and yajnas or fire sacrifices were performed regularly for the purpose of replenishing the environment.

So conscious were the ancient civilizations like the Aryans of Nature's divinity that their interaction with the environment (both outer and inner) was ethically and morally perfect. The yamas and niyamas were part of their very breath and being; they did not have to practise any yoga for inner peace, balance, harmony and physical/mental health – these were an intrinsic part of their nature, personality and society. If they had to cut down a tree, for example, or kill an animal, they first chanted mantras to transfer the pain to some inanimate object like water or soil. Cutting a tree for the sacrificial post was a ritual. A blade of grass was placed on the spot where the axe fell, and this blade was invoked with mantras to protect the tree and take upon itself the tree's pain. The axe was commanded not to inflict injury, while the tree was praised as a life-giver. They even prayed to the tree not to hurt the sky and ground as it fell. The mantras they chanted continually purified and rejuvenated the environment.

From man-beast to God-man

For the Aryan, the elements were gods, and the yajnas or fire sacrifices which they performed were intended to bridge the gulf between the outer and inner worlds, (between the human and the divine), to maintain the harmony and purity of the environment, and to transform the mortal into the immortal, which is also the ultimate purpose of yoga. Through yajna the environment channels divinity to us. Each yajna is related to a specific cosmic energy; the macrocosmic prana shakti is called down into the microcosmic mandala of the yajna. Yajnas are, in fact, a type of exoteric yoga. They are the exoteric aspect of a process which is taking place internally, while inviting the invisible forces to shower their benedictions upon those present.

The root yaj means 'to offer'. All auspicious, pure and sattwic things are offered into the fire in the form of samagri: ghee (clarified butter), chawal (rice), chandan (sandal), til (black sesame), capor (camphor), etc. Five main trees supply the wood for the different yajnas; aam (mango), bargad (banyan), peepal, gular (fig) and chandan (sandal). By means of all these, the elements are charged with nutrients, the ethereal beings or devas are fed, germs are killed, the air is purified and the atmosphere balanced. In turn, we receive the blessings of peace, prosperity and well-being. We could say that yajnas symbolize the sacrifice or offering up of the lower instinctive nature, initiating a positive shift in the thinking process, angle of vision and emotional environment. Even when the actual yajna is over and the exoteric process has ended, the esoteric process goes on refining and re-defining us, penetrating the different layers of our being and linking us with the spiritual realm.

The task of the intermediary between the mundane and spiritual realms was assigned to Agni, the god of fire, fire being the instrument through which the yajna is accomplished. Fire, whether the fire of yogic tapas (purification though heat) or the actual fire flame, burns things and transforms them into subtle forms of energy. It is fire which enables the offerings to be transformed into the subtle essence which can then nourish and restore the environment. Moreover, by breathing in and absorbing the smoke through the pores of the skin and the orifices of the body, our inner environment is purified and the subtle bodies or koshas fed.

The fire ceremony is actually a process of transmuting gross matter (the body as well as the offering) into subtle energy so that is can be elevated to higher realms of reality. In a more profound sense this alchemical process from mundane to subtle signifies the transmutation and refinement of the lower instinctive or animalistic self. In other words, it is rather an act of sublimating or channelling the lower instincts of worldly attachments (raga and dwesha) towards the divine, which is identical with the yogic process – a process which changes the man-beast into the God-man.