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The Good Earth

With nature as a model for their gardens—and their lives—yogis practicing permaculture bring a vision of sustainability and interconnection into daily living.

By Lauren Ladoceour with reporting by Stacie Stukin

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The first thing that Vidya Chaitanya does after entering the garden is take a seat. Here in quiet observation, she gazes at the colorful zinnias. Eventually these flowers will adorn an altar at the nearby Los Angeles Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center she directs, but for now the blooms live alongside a Black Mission fig tree, artichoke plants, salad greens, and pole beans. The crops aren't in neat rows. Instead, the plants seem to thrive wildly in unruly-looking beds winding through the community plot. On one side, a lemon tree provides shade and filters rain showers for a cluster of herbs growing below. Across the way, marigolds act as a natural insect repellent for the vegetables. The whole garden seems to work in harmony.

That's exactly the point, says Chaitanya, who, along with a growing number of yogis, adheres to the principles of permaculture. A broad practice, permaculture looks to nature as a model for creating a more sustainable culture. It assumes that by observing natural patterns, making conscious decisions, and managing resources well, you can live harmoniously and productively, with less work and less waste. The place where these principles are most often illustrated is in the garden.

Not surprisingly, permaculture is catching on in the yoga community, with "yoga and permaculture" workshops and retreats being offered across the nation, from Vermont to Hawaii. "I was drawn to permaculture because of its life-affirming ethics," says Rebecca Russell, a Sivananda Yoga teacher who recently completed an 18-month residency at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center—an intentional community in Northern California that has been at the forefront of the permaculture movement for decades. "Both yoga and permaculture ask you to be observant, develop greater awareness of your effect on the world around you, and take mindful actions in caring for the mind, body, and environment."

Growing Awareness

The word "permaculture" is shorthand for "permanent agriculture," a method of farming and living with the land in a sustainable, or permanent, relationship. The term was first used in the 1970s by an Australian named Bill Mollison. Later, Mollison and ecologist David Holmgren developed three core ethics to inform the practice: care for the earth, care for people, and fair sharing. Over time, permaculture has come to represent a philosophy to live by—an ideal for green living—but it's usually thought of as a design principle for gardening, landscaping, architecture, and community planning.

Permaculture thus offers a holistic, positive, and active approach to tackling today's environmental woes, which makes it appealing to many yogis. "Permaculture...is a system for designing which can be adapted to any culture or place, but it asks you to see yourself as one with the universe, and to measure its wonder for your mutual benefit," writes Graham Bell, a Scottish permaculturalist, in The Permaculture Way, one of his several books on the subject. "You and the rest of creation have the same interest at heart—survival7mdash;so you should look after each other."

Permaculture uses organic growing principles like returning soil to a healthy balance using compost, and it encourages the interplanting of perennial edible plants (instead of monocropping) in such a way that they all support each other, Chaitanya says. Other principles include letting nature take its course in the garden, which means no weeding, fertilizing, or using chemical pest control. There's also a focus on employing natural resources, such as letting chickens or pigs prepare a garden for planting rather than using energy-guzzling tractors. "Nature can teach us a lot about sustainability, which is good for the earth and for people," says Chaitanya.

In the garden Chaitanya puts permaculture's ethics into mindful action, making the everyday work of growing food and flowers a kind of spiritual practice. "Environmental issues require a spiritual response," she says. "As a yogi, all three of the core values are important to me, and I try to express them in my work and teaching. I take the time here to go slow, observe the natural cycles. I just don't see the gloom and despair of our environmental crisis. Instead, I remember that the Bhagavad Gita says nonaction is not an option."

Making Connections

For Shiva D'Addario, an interest in permaculture started with yoga. Years of practice gave D'Addario the gift of a more pervasive awareness, he says, focused first in the body, then on his community and the surrounding land, and finally expanding to the whole planet. Today, he manages Hale Akua Garden Farm, an organic farm in Maui that houses a yoga and permaculture retreat center. "I've cultivated an awareness that knows this body is sustained by Mother Earth," says D'Addario. "My outlook is to be a guardian of the earth." This kind of heartfelt stewardship of the planet is what permaculture is all about. It's also one of the three ethics (care for the earth) that draw yogis to the practice.

"If we understand that we are all interconnected and a part of nature, or prakriti, then we have to be aware of the result of our actions and take into account the health of the earth," Chaitanya says.In the Sivananda Yoga tradition, for example, care for the earth has inspired a nationwide permaculture practice in the gardens of the Sivananda ashrams, centers, and community projects, like the one Chaitanya runs. "Swami Vishnu-devananda, founder of Sivananda centers, introduced some of permaculture's ecological principles at the Yoga Camp in Val Morin, Canada, in the '70s and '80s," Chaitanya says. "Here in the U.S., we've only been incorporating these practices for the past two years, but it's been a part of our tradition in India as a way to connect with the natural world."

Having a deep connection with the earth is something more and more of the yoga community is coming to appreciate. "In the garden, you recognize that every plant, bug, bird, bit of sun, and wind affects the big picture," says Kelly Larson, a hatha yoga teacher who leads permaculture and yoga workshops around the country. In her eyes, the smallest of actions can have a big impact on the garden—and the environment. "Even the noise from the neighbor's yard affects the animals that show up to fertilize, prune, and participate in the ecosystem of your garden," she notes, emphasizing the interconnection of all beings. "Permaculture is a practice of love and humble appreciation for an intelligent force of life."

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