Reviewed by Stephen Wollaston (Santoshan)
Within eco-spiritual literature there are few titles that satisfactorily relate Hindu Yogic teachings with contemporary green issues, or do little more than simply acknowledge a basic relationship between the two. Michael Stone’s Yoga for a World out of Balance beautifully highlights how the five yamas (traditionally translated as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, and greedlessness and non-grasping) are essentially interwoven with global and social responsibility and Earth-centred practices . The yamas themselves are invariably recommended within various Yogic traditions as an important first stage of an essential eightfold path that was outlined in the influential Patanjali Yoga Sutra.
The author of this new book is a cofounder of a Sangha in Toronto, consisting of both Yogic and Buddhist practitioners exploring relationships between practice and social and ecological action. The misguided concept often held in the west about Yoga being merely about physical exercises is clearly tackled by Michael. He also writes to those engaged in meditation and Hatha Yoga posture work to take their practices and teachings beyond their exercise mats and overcome any polarised split between personal practice, everyday life and their relationship with the natural world.
The book’s Foreword is written by the renowned Yoga master, B.K.S. Iyengar, who clearly agrees with Michael’s emphasis on the yamas. Interestingly, Iyengar points out how he prefers to interpret the word yama as ‘self-culture’, which he sees as a universal ethical principle, whereas Michael translates it as ‘external restraint’ (a more standard interpretation). There are points about the date of the Yoga Sutra – which Michael places as early as the 2nd century BCE – whether Pantanjali was actually trying to create a synthesis of different teachings and if it implied seeing life in a holistic, non-dualistic way, as Michael suggests. It is generally thought that Patanjali’s final stage of enlightenment is a stage of isolation or aloneness (see Georg Feuerstein’s The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali), though similar to Michael, the scholar Ian Whicher also put forward an excellent case for the Patanjali Sutra being about an integration of all parts. It is also interesting to see Michael translate the fourth yama (brahmacary) as, “wise use of energy, including sexual energy,” as it is often interpreted to simply mean ‘chastity’.
But the central message and importance of Michael’s superb book need not be side-tracked by these points. For if ancient wisdom is going to be of any worth for our current age it will need to be evaluated for its relevance to contemporary life and issues, and it is this which I feel Michael succinctly achieves. Patanjali himself was merely summarising what had gone before and popular at the time, which implies the teachings are much older than any dating of the Sutra. Other teachers who have implemented the eight-limbs have arrived at different understandings about enlightenment and have seen it, as Michael does, as more holistic and integral. For Michael, “Though the yamas may appear to be a path to Samadhi [a stage of enlightenment], they are also a creative expression of Samadhi.”
The sacredness of life has always been there within the Hindu Yogic traditions and the propagation of the yamas and their ethical implications certainly implies taking responsibility for our actions and engaging healthily with life. Michael points out how Yoga practice is not a disengagement with postmodern living, or about mastery over the body, language or mind but, “a returning that returns us to the wild ecology that is our true home.” For Michael, this implies a “reattunement to the complex interdependence of the air and earth and mind and heart so that we can return our animated ecological mind and reactivate this wisdom in contemporary times because these are our times, and without increased wisdom and attentiveness, they’ll pass us by.”
In all, this is an excellent book, which I hope will be the one of many more that revaluates the central wisdom of Yoga and its applications for contemporary ecological issues.