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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

Creating a more sustainable lifestyle and helping family and the community do the same is at the core of permaculture's second ethic—care for others. "The idea that every action and feature of a perma-culture system has more than one function mirrors the concept in yoga that we are all interconnected," says Russell Comstock, co-founder of Metta Earth Institute in Lincoln, Vermont. For 15 years, Comstock and his wife, Gillian, founding member of the Green Yoga Association, have infused their yoga classes with permaculture's principles of sustainability, looking to inspire people to bring the awareness cultivated through yoga into their relationship with the environment.

At their institute, the Comstocks have devoted an acre to an organic garden that demonstrates the beauty and bounty of permaculture principles. "We share the food we grow in the classes and courses we offer here in Vermont," Comstock says. Doing so teaches people who visit the garden and yoga studio that we are what we eat. "There's a natural expansion of identity in the practitioner when that relationship begins to blossom," he says.

Seeds for Change

Back in Los Angeles, Chaitanya put the ethic of "care for others" into action by sharing each week's harvest at a community potluck with fellow gardeners. The group takes the time not only to reconnect with nature but also to learn from each other about ways to live more sustainably, sharing composting tips, water-management strategies, and an interest in how their garden is faring as a whole. "My experience is that when you follow permaculture principles, you produce huge yields of produce in a very small area, and this can be shared," she says. "Last summer, I was able to bring vegetables, fruits, and salad greens to the yoga center for students to take home. Working with the three ethics helps to build a strong community of caring people, and from this place, we can be the change we want to see in the world that Gandhi spoke of."

By Natural Design

Permaculture's third ethic is fair sharing, which simply means using and distributing natural resources wisely. In a natural system, all resources are accounted for. Crops don't hoard nutrients or waste them. In a plant's life cycle, each shoot takes what it needs to grow, flower, and fruit. When the plant dies back, it's not treated as garbage to be hauled away but rather as worm food and a source of nutrients for the soil that will soon grow something else in its place. Fair sharing aims to apply a similar concept to human life: asking that you take only what you need to create something of beauty and value and to give back all that you can.

For Benjamin Fahrer, a Sivananda Yoga teacher and the farm supervisor at Esalen, a retreat center in Big Sur, California, fair sharing begins by limiting the amount of stuff you consume—food, clothing, household goods, and even gardening materials—while repurposing whatever you already have on hand. "Setting limits on consumption allows for an abundance," says Fahrer, who gives away extra plant starts in the spring to fellow gardeners. "You can then return that surplus back to the earth and to people."

Another example of fair sharing applies to the farming itself: You can cut off the stalks of a finished bean crop, for instance, and leave the roots to gradually rot in the soil, where they will enrich the land for future planting—and then skip the fertilizer. "Permaculture is regenerative," Fahrer says. "You put energy into the garden and get more energy out of it."

It's easy to see the similarity between fair sharing and the yogic philosophy of aparigraha (nongrasping). There are many ways to interpret aparigraha, but for Chaitanya it's a call to simplify life and reduce desire. "Avoid accumulating unnecessary stuff and recycle what you don't use," she says. "Delight in looking creatively at what is already there and how you can work with it."

At Esalen's gardens, Fahrer and students in his design course formed benches of cob (a homemade mixture of clay, sand, straw, water, and soil found on the property) rather than purchasing lumber and other supplies. Using an old tire for a "pot" in which to plant an herb garden is another practical example of the concept. Larger-scale permaculture gardeners collect and direct rainwater where they need it, rather than turning on the hose; they study plant compatibility and interplant so that crops can thrive with a minimum of weeding, fertilizing, and other labor-and resource-intensive care.

This means that these gardens can provide large bounties while requiring far fewer man hours and resources than traditional farms. Sure, the gardeners plant, nurture, and tend, but the gardens are largely self-sustaining—even sustainable. Really, the gardener's main job is to observe the land in action, Larson says.

For example, if you notice there's an increase in the garden's bug population, you can assume your new guests are making themselves at home because your plants are dying back. If it's not time in the crop's natural cycle to die back, there's probably something wrong with the soil, so you'd look to manage the bug problem by addressing the health of the soil. This kind of problem solving shows land observation at its most practical, but that observation can also nurture a feeling of greater connection to the whole planet.

"Even the awareness of the butterfly that comes when certain flowers are in bloom helps me feel more connected with the unfolding nature of life and growth," Larson says. "Combining yoga and permaculture spreads your awareness exponentially, and that's a gift of beauty in the midst of changing times."

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