Yoga and the Sustainable Development Goals

By Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji

The Indian sage Patanjali gave us the eight limbs of yoga, or what are called “ashtanga” yoga. They include, of course, all of that which we currently identify as yoga: the physical postures or asanas, the breath exercises or pranayama, meditation or dhyana.

However, the foundation of the eight limbs of yoga, the first two limbs on the eight-limbed tree are called the yamas and the niyamas. They are the do’s and don’ts of a yogic life. With five of each, they are considered the universal Ten Commandments of a righteous life, of any race or religion.

The yamas, limb number one, the very roots of the tree of yoga, include the following: ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), apigraha (non-hoarding) and brahmacharya (sexual restraint/integrity in our sensual relations). The yamas are inextricable, crucial aspects of any true yoga practice. Without them, our asanas become acrobatics or aerobics, not “yoga” in its fullest meaning.

If we went no further, if we never practiced an asana, pranayama, or meditation, we still, through the first fundamental limb on the tree of yoga, could achieve every single one of the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

I have had the great privilege of being part of several campaigns undertaken by different offices of the United Nations. I currently serve as Vice-Chair of the United Nations Advisory Council on Religion as well as on the steering committee of the International Partnership for Religion & Sustainable Development (PaRD) and the Moral Imperative to End Extreme Poverty, an initiative by the World Bank and United Nations. I have also been blessed to have the opportunity to take an active part in the Plan of Action to End Atrocity Crimes by the UN Office of Genocide Prevention and Responsibility to Protect, and I have been honored to speak at programs organized by UNFPA on the rights of women.

Additionally, of course, I am privileged to serve as Secretary-General of our Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, which working with UNICEF and other organizations, is dedicated to harnessing the power and influence of faith and faith leaders to bring about a revolution toward water, sanitation and hygiene in India.

In all of these cases, the yamas of Patanjali provide us with universal tenets that directly address and right the wrongs.

Non-violence does not simply imply that we must refrain from injuring or killing others with guns, missiles or poison. Violence is present in the words we speak – both to others and ourselves. Violence is especially present in the words we speak that incite others. In the United States and other “free” countries, we are granted a nearly inviolable right to freedom of speech, a right which we safeguard, hold dearly and wish that people in every country had access to such a right.

Yet, just as my right to flail my own arms around in space (certainly a right to which I am entitled) ends where my flailing arms bop you on the nose, for surely your right not to be bopped on the nose supersedes my right to flail my arms, similarly my right to speak whatever I want ends where your right not to be injured or killed by my speech begins.

Obviously rape is violent. However, we cannot claim to be adherents of ahimsa simply by distancing ourselves from rapists. If we do not do everything in our power to prevent rape, we are also culpable. If we do not, fully, to the very extent of our influence and impact, do everything we can to ensure that every woman has autonomy over her own body, our practice of ahimsa is incomplete.

Similarly, today, our commitment to non-violence must also include ensuring that none of our actions (either of commission or omission) contributes to the suffering and death of our brothers and sisters due to lack of clean water, toxic soil and polluted air, not to mention dearth of food due to the way that water and grain are cycled through animal agriculture.

I may not break into someone’s home and steal their possessions or hoard all the apples from our collective apple orchard. However, if through my action and inaction, through my choices in stores and restaurants, our sisters and brothers across the planet are having their land, their water, their food, their safety, their health, their freedom and their dignity stolen then I am stealing from them, in defiance of the tenet of asteya. If my choices of what to eat, what to wear and how to live are not those which embrace vegetarianism, fair-trade and organic agriculture then I am also hoarding – hoarding the water, grain, land and resources of the planet, against the yama of apigraha.

The practice of brahmacharya impels us to exercise restraint and integrity in our sexual relations. This includes, I believe, an implicit injunction to protect the sexual integrity of others. So, no, I must not rape. But I also must not be someone whose silence permits rape and sexual misconduct to continue.

It is the fullness of the eight-limbed path of yoga to which our world is turning as we celebrate International Day of Yoga on June 21. We are not celebrating aerobics. We are not celebrating calisthenics. We are not celebrating stretching exercises. We are celebrating Yoga, ultimate union, a union that — beginning with uniting the body and the breath and leading to a union of body, mind and spirit — takes us into a union between ourselves and the Divine. It is a union of our small, isolated, individual, limited, physical existence, with all of Creation.

In separation, the opposite of yoga, the world is made up of objects. We are each the “subject” of our own subjective reality. Everyone and everything else is an object — the animals whose flesh becomes our meal, whose skin becomes our car seat or belt, the impoverished sweatshop workers who produce our “rock bottom” priced clothes, the precious trees of the Amazon felled by the acre to make room for the grazing of hamburgers-to-be, the coffee and cotton pickers whose children have birth defects due to the toxicity of their pesticide-ridden working environment.

In a yogic life though, in a life committed to the awareness and experience of unity we realise that these are all us. Hence, we don’t need to put sticky notes on our computers to remind us to practice non-violence, to remind us not to steal or hoard, to remind us to live a pure life. The practice of “yoga” leads automatically to a life in which our choices are ones made in an awareness of unity and oneness.

This is what our world needs. As individuals, to overcome our depression, loneliness and numbness, we need to feel connected. As a society, in order to function well, we need to be connected and in harmony. As an international, global world family, we need to realize that we are inextricably connected, as Chief Seattle said so beautifully, to “the web of life.” Yoga, a true realisation of union, could save not only our health, but also our planet. It is, as I began, what could help us achieve every one of the SDGs even before 2030.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, PhD, was raised in an American family in Hollywood, California, and graduated from Stanford University. She was completing her PhD when she left America in 1996 to live at Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, India. She has been living there for 23 years, engaged in spiritual practice and service.

She was officially initiated into the order of Sanyas (monastic renunciation) in the year 2000 by His Holiness Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, one of the most revered spiritual leaders in India and the President of Parmarth Niketan.

At Parmarth Niketan, where she lives most of the year, she gives daily spiritual discourses and satsang, teaches meditation, provides counseling, and oversees myriad charitable and humanitarian projects and activities.

Sadhviji serves as:

  • Secretary-General of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, an international interfaith organization dedicated to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene
  • President of Divine Shakti Foundation, which runs free schools, vocational training programs, and empowerment programs
  • Director of the world-famous International Yoga Festival at Parmarth, which has been covered in Time magazine, CNN, the New York Times, and other prestigious publications

Sadhviji is a renowned speaker who gives keynote addresses at large forums on a wide variety of topics ranging from conscious business to science and spirituality to sustainable development to the keys of happiness and peace in life to all aspects of yoga. Her talks blend the knowledge and logic of the West with the insights, spirituality, and wisdom of the East, and she is regarded as a spiritual bridge between the two cultures. Her TEDx talk on her journey from “Hollywood to the Holy Woods” has been watched by over 160,000 people, and the documentary on her life has been watched online by nearly a quarter of a million people.

She has spoken at several United Nations events, including with the Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, and at many high-level international conferences and summits.

Sadhviji has received numerous national and international awards and recognition for her work with water, sanitation, and hygiene as well as women’s upliftment and empowerment, including from the Cabinet Minister of Water Resources, Government of India, and from the Ambassador of the United States to India.

Sadhviji also serves on:

  • United Nations Faith Advisory Council on Religion as Vice Chair
  • The Steering Committee for Partnership for Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD), an international body comprising the governments of 12 countries (including the U.S., the UK, and Germany), the United Nations, the World Bank, the African Union, and the world's renowned faith-based organizations
  • The Steering Committee for the World Bank-United Nations campaign with international faith based organizations of the "Moral Imperative to End Extreme Poverty"

Sadhviji has a PhD in Psychology and was the Managing Editor for the monumental project of the 11-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism. She also contributes regularly to HuffPost, Dainik Jagran, Speaking Tree/Times of India, Thrive Global, The Pioneer, and other publications.

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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 10: Personal and Global Transformation Through Yoga