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Practice for the Planet

Inspired by a heap of trash, a yogi leads 
the way to a cleaner, greener world.

By Adi Carter

Each of us wants to live in a beautiful world. But often we unconsciously act in ways that undermine our desire to enjoy life on this wondrous planet. I woke up to this fact one day as I looked at pictures of children living—eating, sleeping, and playing—in a garbage dump in Cambodia. I thought, "How can we create so much trash that people live in it?" I knew that I had to do whatever I could to change that.

Living in New York City, I'd become so used to seeing trash on every corner that I'd almost stopped noticing it. But yoga teaches us to be better observers—to notice the effect of our breath on a pose or of a forward bend on a busy mind. This translates into the ability to notice things that we didn't think about before, like the effect of our mood on a friend or of our consumer habits on the planet. It seemed to me that I could harness this power of observation to notice how much trash I was creating—and to create less by being mindful of what I consumed.

Inspired by the actions of four fellow AcroYoga teachers, 
I challenged myself to collect my own trash. For three months, I would carry with me everything that I would normally throw away or recycle. (Food scraps and used toilet paper are considered "garbage" rather than trash. I collected my food scraps in the freezer and took them to a local farm for composting.)

My trash would travel with me everywhere I went. It would function as a visual aid to educate people about sustainability issues in a fundraiser for the Cambodian Children's Fund that I called the Mindfulness Challenge, with proceeds going to help Cambodian children living in extreme poverty in trash dumps.

The first few days were exhausting. I had to think ahead about everything I bought and ate to avoid making trash. Instead of buying takeout during the day, I cooked my meals the night before, packing them in reusable stainless steel containers, and I carried bamboo utensils and a refillable bottle everywhere. I read somewhere that the average American generates four pounds of trash a day. By being mindful of what I consumed, I created a fraction of that. In three months, I collected less than 10 pounds of trash—and half of that was junk mail. It fit in a large shoulder bag.

The trash tour was a brilliant learning experience. It's easy for trash to be "out of sight, out of mind" once we throw it away. But when we are faced with the aftermath of our consumption every day, we can't help but notice how our actions affect the planet. I noticed the effects on myself, too. Buying foods without packaging, like produce and bulk grains, meant that I was eating fresh foods, rich in prana (life force) and nutrients. By planning and cooking my own meals, I felt healthier and happier.

Now that my trash tour is over, I still make trash and I definitely consider myself a consumer. There were times on the tour when I gave in, purchasing a bag of potato chips or a chocolate bar, and it was tempting to slip the wrapper into a trash can. But I'd fold the wrapper and slide it into my bag. I just kept thinking, "Who gave us permission to make trash?" I encourage you to try being mindful of your trash for a week, or even a day, just so you can see what you're throwing away.

Carry that Weight

  • Avoid single-use paper products. Substitute hand towels for paper towels, hankies for tissues, cloth napkins for paper.
  • Carry your own stainless steel or glass water bottle. Carry your food in stainless steel containers and carry reusable utensils for meals on the go. (Visit To-Go Ware at to-goware.com.)
  • To get foods minus the packaging, shop at farmers' markets (for fresh produce) and stores with bulk bins (for staples like flour, cereal, beans, and grains). Bring your own plastic and canvas bags.
  • Call catalog companies and ask to be taken off their mailing lists. Pay your bills electronically instead of using paper.
  • Less is more when it comes to trash.

Adi Carter's Mindfulness Challenge raised more than $20,000 for the Cambodian Children's Fund (visit offthematintotheworld.org for more information) while educating about sustainability. She teaches yoga in Brooklyn.

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