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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.”
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.”
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
“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.”
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.”