Is Yoga Bad for the Environment?


More and more, yogis are standing up as passionate advocates of a green lifestyle. For example, I have seen studios and practitioners insist on using reusable containers and water bottles, avoiding and even eliminating plastics altogether. But plastic is not the only thing that undermines the sustainability of our suffering planet. I am definitely not a saint when it comes to environmentalism, but I’m trying to become more informed and more proactive, and as a result I’m more aware of some of the harmful environmental impacts of the yoga industry.

Here are my suggestions for greening some of the worst offenders:

Hot Yoga 

Sorry, hot yoga devotees, but particularly in the more northerly climes, there’s often an environmental impact from the increased use of fossil fuel, hydroelectric, or nuclear power in heating studios. And in addition, there are all the extra showers and laundry machines needed to deal with sweaty bodies and clothes.

When I taught and practiced hot yoga there were days when I needed four showers and four outfit changes. How, then, can hot yoga become more green? Perhaps studios could reconsider the optimal temperature for practice rooms—it might be lowered below what was the original ideal. Or maybe studios can group their hot classes on certain days in order to retain heat in the studio so that it takes less energy to reach the target temperature.

And finally, studio owners and yogis alike might consider using renewable sources for heating and for the energy required to run washing machines—and use cold water and an energy efficient cycle. For example, Moksha/Modo Yoga uses renewable energy sources whenever possible, and purchases carbon offsets when using non-renewable energy is unavoidable. They also use low-flow, energy-efficient showers and taps—good examples of their overall commitment to living green.

Yoga Travel

Many yogis adore attending yoga retreats in beautiful locales, and may have to travel if they want to train with a specific teacher. Well-known yoga teachers are often on the road more often than not as they lead trainings, honor speaking engagements, and headline retreats or conferences. Trouble is, all that travel leaves behind a serious carbon footprint. Planes, trains, and automobiles contribute to climate change, pollution, and a variety of other environmental ills. But yoga travel isn’t ending anytime soon. So what’s a green-minded yogi to do?

Careful planning can help you find a retreat or training that either requires little travel or can be combined with other travel (say a vacation—also helpful for budgeting!). And many renowned yoga teachers are now offering classes, trainings, and conferences with other yoga leaders online, which is a much more environmentally friendly option than traveling for hours.

When travel is either required or just part of the appeal, consider mass transit and carpooling when possible. Training and retreat organizers often encourage and help facilitate carpooling and transit-sharing. Perhaps you can travel by train instead of plane.

Finally, you might consider purchasing carbon offsets to minimize the impact of your travel, or work with the organizers to contribute to a carbon-offset fund that would be of particular interest to them. Every little bit helps, and the more we hold ourselves accountable to each other by doing our part, the more change we co-create.

Yoga Fabrics

Synthetic fibers—such as those from polyester, Lycra, nylon, and spandex—have been found in alarming amounts in water systems. Aquatic critters eat this “microwaste” and it is passed on to humans through our consumption of fish and seafood. The fibers are also flushed out with washing machine water, so if you have to wear synthetics, consider options for collecting the particles in order to reduce the number that are freed and whooshed down the drain. Filters on washing machines are likely the most effective, albeit more expensive than mesh bags and other particle-collecting devices. We’re still waiting on the hard data to learn the effectiveness of some of these solutions, but the less expensive ones (for example, the Cora Ball) are certainly worth a try.

Or, consider natural fabrics such as cotton (organic, if possible), hemp, or linen. One hundred percent cotton harem-style yoga pants are airy and comfortable (and certain varieties are inexpensive as well)—but if you’re ordering them online, consider where they are coming from and the footprint involved in getting them to your front door.

And check out bamboo: It is a sustainable resource as it regrows very quickly. However, the manufacturing processes of some producers of bamboo clothing involve unnatural products and chemicals, so do your due diligence. Lyocell and tencel are other materials that have promise—but again, do your research to make sure the yoga pants you crave are indeed environmentally friendly. And again, whenever possible, buy from a local producer to avoid the carbon impact of overseas shipping, or consider wholesale or group orders in order to get the most bang from your shipping impact.

Yoga Materialism

Yoga is certainly not immune to trends. At a recent yoga conference I attended, I was chatting with a friend at the edges of the marketplace. As we struggled to hear each other over the din, she remarked, “That’s quite an intense crowd over at the Spiritual Gangster booth.” It was true. Hordes of yogis were frantically grasping at sloganed T-shirts and other apparel.

One look at Instagram, and there’s no denying that yoga merchandise brings in big bucks, and that there’s a lot of money to be made from the styles that are trending (whether for a week or a season, before they become old news). That disposable approach isn’t good for our wallets or the environment. Sure, it’s only natural to want to have some up-to-date yoga gear, but the high cost of quickly disposing of yesterday’s trends should be strongly considered for the sake of our planet. Can we round out our wardrobe with some solid, functional, and durable pieces and allow the trendy items to become the exception, rather than the rule? Can we give kudos for compassion and intelligence, and not for how great someone’s clothes look?

As yogis, if we can find contentment from within, rather than from a rack of the latest clothing, surely it will benefit our inner peace. But it will also benefit the environment—thanks to less waste, less carbon from shipping, and less overall frenzy.

Food and Beverages

That amazing juice bar at the yoga studio makes healthy and delicious smoothies…but how many customers bring reusable cups? I’ve seen more plastic cups and single-use coffee cups in the garbage of yoga studios than I’d care to acknowledge. I know there’s already a lot of stuff to remember to bring to practice (and sometimes it’s a miracle when you manage to show up with your mat). But carrying a reusable beverage container—even a mason jar for drinks—along with a glass container for any foodstuffs you might want to buy after a great class is easy once it becomes a habit.

Mat, yoga clothes, reusable container(s)—check, check, check. That way your healthy refuelling after yoga can be good for your body and the planet. You might also include your own cloth napkin so you don’t need paper ones. And bring your own reusable straw, or ask the studio/juice bar to provide reusable or paper straws in place of plastic ones. Studios can even buy water in glass bottles and encourage yogis to reuse them or supply mason jars for juices or water. There are a variety of ways to avoid a studio garbage bin that looks like the one behind a fast-food restaurant.

We talk a lot in yoga about compassion and intention. Let’s direct that focus to the environment—making sure that our practice and our yoga habits are light on the earth.

About the Teacher

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Janice Quirt
Janice Quirt first discovered yoga as a child in the 70s, watching her mother flip through a yoga book... Read more