The popularity of yoga has boomed over the last 10 years. Yoga has entered the mainstream mindset and become a part of the health and wellness culture in many developed countries. The proliferation of studios, different styles of yoga and high quality instruction is fantastic for the yoga community, (as far as problems go, the dilemma of choice is a good one to have!) however, the ascendance of asana has also caught the attention of the market. In addition to the mainstay yoga mat, the yoga industry has been churning out specialized yoga clothing, a variety of props, tools and yoga equipment, not to mention hot towels, grippy socks, bead malas, mat sprays and a variety of lifestyle and beauty products all under the bendy banner. Again, this in itself is fantastic for the yoga community. What isn’t so fantastic is the deluge of yoga products that are manufactured with low cost, environmentally harmful materials. The precepts of yoga explicitly promote an eco-conscious and conscientious approach to matters of physical matter, and as yogis we should be especially aware of this in regard to our practice. Developing a deeper understanding of these ideas is fundamental to deepening our practice and maintaining alignment between yogic philosophy and our actions.
The practice of Asana, or physical yoga practice is just one of the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs, like the branches of a tree, are manifestations and differentiations of the root, but are all connected and issue forth from that common center. Therefore, when questions regarding the environmental impact of asana arise, we can find that there are answers within the precepts of the eight limbs as well as the foundational texts from which our practice is derived.
The principle of ahimsa, essentially non-harming, is a precept of the first limb of yoga; Yama or “the self restraints.” Obviously, if we know something is harmful, we should restrain ourselves from taking that action. This idea intersects with educating ourselves, to take the time and effort to learn what impacts our decisions have and to better inform our decision making process. After establishing our philosophical base, we will examine the specifics regarding manufacturing materials and processes to this end.
The following few passages are quite clear that we have a responsibility to be environmentally aware and act with discipline.
“Ishavasyam idam sarvam” (Yajurveda-40/1) — translated, "This entire universe is to be looked upon as spirit."
This passage suggests that matter and spirit are one and the same. Neither one is more important than the other, nor can one BE separated or different from the other. Were we to accept this idea and treat everything around us as holy (spirit), with the veneration that people generally reserve for deities, we would be in constant contact and connection with the divine. Further supporting this point, the word “Yoga” itself, means union.
“Tain tyakten bhunjitha” — translated, “Take what you need for your sustenance without a sense of entitlement or ownership.”
This passage makes the distinction between acknowledging that we have needs, and those needs are to be met, and the idea that everything is simply ours for the taking. Without “entitlement or ownership” suggests we should be grateful for what we do have while knowing that it is not truly ours. We are not owed everything we desire, nor do we ever truly own something. It is ours to use for a time and then it is relinquished.
“Madhu vātāḥ ṛitāyate madhu kṣaranti sindhavaḥ mādvih naḥ santuṣadhi. madhu naktamutusāsu madhumatpārthiva rajah madhu kṣorastu suryah mādhirgābo bhavantu naḥ’’ (Rigveda,1/90/6,7,8) — translated, “Environment provides bliss to people leading their life perfectly. Rivers bless us with sacred water and provide us health, night, morning, vegetation."
There are many more examples we could explore, but in an effort to keep this entry relatively succinct, let’s explore specifics and practical ways of applying yogic philosophy to our daily practice.
Your choices and purchasing habits have a direct impact on how the market responds. There are a variety of consumer decisions that one can make to best adhere to ahimsa and mitigate our environmental impact. We can avoid the manufacturing materials and processes that are not in alignment with this principle, and support the businesses and products that are using more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Yoga mats are the most common piece of equipment that people purchase before practicing yoga. A yoga mat provides support, a non slip surface as well as some padding, which can help protect knees, elbows, ankles and wrists from pressure during your practice. It is best to invest in a high quality, durable yoga mat that will last you for many years.
Synthetic materials make up the vast majority of yoga mats available on the market. Most commonly, yoga mats are made with a material called polyvinyl chloride, which is abbreviated to PVC. About 48.35% of global sales are PVC mats. To convert that into numbers: that’s about 17 million yoga mats a year are made from PVC. The PVC manufacturing process is an energy intensive one and produces a number of harmful byproducts including organochlorines and dioxins. As PVC is also quite difficult to recycle, PVC is not on our recommended yoga mat materials list.
EVA foam is a lightweight synthetic material used in lightweight and casual yoga mats. It releases many volatile organic compounds and is a non biodegradable material. Again, mats made from EVA are not on our list of recommended materials.
Polyurethane is another common yoga mat material. Among the chemicals used in its manufacture, several compounds have been linked to skin irritation, asthma, and other respiratory issues. One of the compounds added to Polyurethane mats is a flame retardant that has been found to be both bioaccumulative and toxic. There is also a linkage with this material to endocrine disruption.
While these are a few of the synthetic materials, a wide variety of other chemical and plastic based materials are used in yoga mats. If you are considering purchasing a synthetic mat, find out what materials are used in the mat, what health risks are present and whether there is a way to recycle or reuse the material at the end of its lifecycle.
There are a number of natural materials that are finding their way into commercial yoga mat manufacture. These eco yoga mats offer comparable comfort, performance and durability to their synthetic counterparts, but generally come with a heftier price tag. Mats made from natural rubber are a great choice for an environmentally friendlier mat. As they are made from a natural material, they will biodegrade, meaning that eventually, the mat will return its constituent parts back into the bio cycle. If you are considering a natural rubber mat, do enquire with the manufacturer where they source their rubber from. Unfortunately, commercial rubber crops have been planted at the expense of natural habitat in several countries that produce rubber as a commodity. Another natural material starting to find its way into yoga mats is cork. Cork is a very comfortable practice surface that is also a biodegradable and can be grown and harvested sustainably. We have compiled a list of some of our favorite yoga mats that offer the best performance, durability and comfort while maintaining a low environmental impact. Read our best yoga mats review here.
The single most important choice you can make when choosing clothing for practice is to use what you have. While the fashionista in us may value wearing a different practice outfit each day, wearing and washing a few articles of clothing is ultimately a better choice for the environment. By limiting the number of practice garments, you will find you are much more conscientious about washing and caring for your clothing as well as having more to spend on fewer, higher quality items. Why is this important?
- More than 97% of the fibers used in clothing are non-recycled virgin material which costs an enormous amount of water, land, resources and energy to produce.
- Total greenhouse gas emissions for textile production is 1.2 billion tonnes annually, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
When it is possible, refurbish your clothing. It might be more convenient to purchase new items, but simply replacing the elastic band on that pair of shorts or mending the strap of your top are the most eco friendly choices. Find a tailor who can help you revitalize those older garments or take the plunge and do it yourself! (Youtube is an amazing learning resource for the DIY’ers) If your wardrobe needs updating because you have changed sizes, look for a local clothing swap. It’s a fantastic opportunity to find a comfy fit and to get to know other eco-minded folks in your neck of the woods.
Plastic based, synthetic materials are ubiquitous with yoga clothing. While the fossil fuel derived base material is less than ideal for the eco conscious consumer, the synthetic materials are generally quite durable and, with proper care, should last you a long time. If you do decide to purchase an item made of synthetic fiber, look for recycled nylon or polyester. These textiles are made from plastics already in the biosphere and keep plastics out of our landfills and oceans. If buying virgin synthetic items, make the commitment to properly care for the garment to maximize its lifecycle and ensure that the material is responsibly disposed of, or further recycled at the end of its use. The equivalent of more than 3 trillion plastic bottles is needed to produce plastic-based clothes like Nylon and Polyester every year.
While the lion’s share of yoga clothing is made from synthetic, plastic based materials, there are natural fiber clothing options. The advantages of natural fibers are that they are biodegradable and aren’t a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry. However, natural fibers require land and water use, and for conventionally grown crops, the application of pesticides and other chemicals. Look for organically grown plant based clothing when possible. In addition to the mainstays cotton and linen (flax), hemp fiber is particularly appealing as the land and water use requirements for hemp are about 50% less than cotton fiber. Other options are fibers made from the byproducts of other commercial crops. For example, banana “sylk” is derived from the fibrous stems of the banana plant. An additional consideration is the color or dye of your garments. While exciting, vibrant and exotic colors generally use synthetic chemical dyes.
LIVING IN THE WORLD, BUT NOT OF IT
The principles that guide us will affect every decision we make and every action we take. While we can do our best to minimize our ecological footprint, there is no getting around the fact that we have an impact on the world around us. By making conscious decisions where we can and acknowledging the fact that we vote every time we spend a dollar, we can encourage environmentally positive business.