As I picked up the first in the pile of 10-foot wood planks that were to become my yoga deck, my “studio without walls” on the shore of the Caribbean Sea, I had an environmental awakening. “Careful,” said my friend, the owner of the property where we were buildingthe deck, who had also designed the deck and paid for it. “The wood is treated with arsenic.”
I felt sick. After days of heartache, denial, and research into building materials, I finally learned it wasn’t arsenic—one of the deadliest poisons, which, if it doesn’t kill you, can cause cancer. (Three years ago the Environmental Protection Agency banned arsenic-treated wood for most uses, especially children’s outdoor play areas.) My wood was indeed pressure-treated, but with copper azole—still toxic, but not carcinogenic. If it wasn’t treated, my friend explained, termites would destroy it within a year.
With this new knowledge, I scrambled to look for options to protect my students, who would be practicing on the new deck. Because the wood needs to dry for six months first, we couldn’t add a coating as protection. A yogi who is part of the Green Yoga Studios pilot program came to my aid: She suggested laying canvas drop cloths on the deck before class—a practical option that is also lovely.
Learning to Be Ecofriendly
Ecofriendly deck options, such as boards made of recycled plastic, aren’t available here in Puerto Rico yet. We built the deck the way people have built for decades. But we’re not alone: People everywhere often fail to consider what toxins in the wood, or toxic cleaning products, or toxic yoga props mean to the people coming in contact with them. We don’t think about how poisonous products will affect the surrounding plants when toxins leach into the ground and water. “In our efforts to build things that will last, our struggle to create some form of permanence, we lose our sense of the sacredness of life,” writes Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart. We try to resist impermanence by making things that will endure forever. “Somehow, in the process of trying to deny that things are always changing, we lose our sense of the sacredness of life. We tend to forget that we are part of the natural scheme of things,” Chodron writes.
Trying to refocus on their role in the grander scheme, a group of yoga teachers is taking ahimsa (nonharming) to a new level: They are banding together to raise awareness of environmental issues not just in the way they live, but in their business practices as well. “Green living and yoga go together,” says David Lurey, codirector of the Green Yoga Studios program and founding board member of the Green Yoga Association. “Yoga as union with all of consciousness boils down to being connected with the tangible forms of consciousness that keep us living,” meaning the earth, air, ocean, and plant life.
Lurey became an environmentalist after watching his beloved Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina’s Black Mountains being destroyed by acid rain, an offshoot of the toxic practices of local paper mills. Last year he renovated his own studio using ecofriendly materials, such as bamboo flooring and radiant heat. After this experience, he created Green Yoga Studio’s pilot program
Different Paths to Ahimsa
Through monthly conference calls and an email communication network, the 20 teachers in the first phase of the program share their experiences with reducing paper usage, eliminating toxins from the studio, conserving energy, using greener energy sources, and recycling. “It helps you feel you are not just a lone voice in the wilderness,” says Margaret Townsend, owner of River’s Edge Center, a green yoga and movement center in Alexandria, Virginia.
Townsend is renovating her studio and learning that there are local roadblocks and extra costs associated with making greener choices, but she is committed to running a green business. Not everyone is taking steps as drastic as renovating. Studios can lessen their carbon footprint in other simple ways, such as by using nontoxic paints and cleaning products. One studio in Ohio told the group about its recipe for an ecofriendly cleaning solution made of lemon juice, vinegar, and essential oils.
Some teachers are phasing out the use of the ubiquitous polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based yoga mats in favor of less toxic alternatives. At Kula Yoga Project in New York, older mats are recycled for use under rugs or are donated to Bent on Learning, a program that offers yoga and meditation classes in public schools. Lurey recommends donating old mats to homeless shelters, so they can provide extra padding for sleeping areas.
Other ways to recycle include encouraging students to carry refillable water bottles; using washable plates and glasses for events rather than disposable ones; and offering hand towels, which can be washed and reused, rather than paper towels.
Another tactic is to carry local products whenever possible. Townsend uses soy candles and mat spray made locally by one of her students. When buying props, choose greener versions, such as bamboo instead of foam blocks, and organic cotton straps instead of polyester or conventional cotton. Sell only these ecofriendly props and organic or fair-trade items if you offer a store. Encourage students to go vegetarian or vegan—by not supporting factory farming, they can help reduce the environmental toxins associated with it. Build a bike rack and give students discounts if they ride their bikes to class. And educate your students about what you’re doing and why.
Still worried about my deck, I asked Lurey for advice. “Think of what can you do to offset it, both in your consciousness and in the world,” Lurey told me. “Pick a day of the week and don’t drive. Or start with Home Depot: Talk to the local distributor [about available products], and get your students to sign a petition.” If we let them know there’s a demand for ecofriendly products, they might start carrying them—and the next time we build a deck, we’ll be able to use recycled or reclaimed materials.