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Can Yoga Lead the Way to Sustainable Tourism?

As I walk through the streets of Zurich, Switzerland, on a sunny Saturday in early June – about a month after the Swiss Covid-19 lockdown ended – I overhear two women sitting in a café talking about the summer vacation plans they had to cancel (Well, I guess we can go to the nearby mountains, could be fun if it’s just for one year!), and a young couple strolling in front of me, loudly telling each other how they couldn’t wait to get to the beach. Travelling has become an indispensable part of our modern lives, and it is not going away anytime soon; Covid-crisis or not. 

Between 1950 and 2018, the number of global international tourist arrivals has increased 56-fold, from 25 million to 1.4 billion. According to a 2018 article published in Nature Climate Change, tourism’s global carbon footprint accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with transport, shopping and food being the main contributors. The United Nations World Travel Organization projects in a recent report that only the transport-related CO2 emissions attributable to tourism will grow 25% by 2030. Against this background, the UNWTO states that it is “committed to accelerate progress towards low carbon tourism development and the contribution of the sector to international climate goals”. How? Well, that is yet to be determined. Awareness and optimization are the path forward, according to the UNWTO; yet, as of now it seems as if we had not even crossed the starting line of such path. 

In order for global emissions to be brought under control, we are going to rely increasingly on travelers whose world view revolves around sustainability. Maybe the global travel ban that was forced upon all of us by Covid-19 opened an opportunity to reflect about why and how we travel, and to make more mindful decisions about our travel activities. To determine what sustainable and mindful travel could look like, it is worthwhile examining the practices of traveling yogis, a small but growing fraction of global tourists whose lifestyle (including travel) choices have been innately sustainable as part of their belief system for a long time. 

In recent years, yoga has become the new trendy fitness hype that claims to not only make you stronger physically, but also healthier mentally and spiritually enlightened. There are so many offerings of yoga classes all over the world (and since Covid-19 even online) that it is possible to quickly throw in a 45-minute power yoga session in between business meetings, that should be a workout substitute, balance out emotions, and calm the mind all at the same time. It is no wonder that in this context, there is less space to learn about the original teachings of yoga. 

The Yamas, constituting the first of an eight-fold path to a purposeful and meaningful life, are the moral and ethical guidelines of yoga. They are often translated and interpreted as: (1) non-violence or “do no harm” (also known as ahimsa), (2) truthfulness, (3) non-stealing, (4) self-control or a voluntary restraint of power, and (5) non-possessiveness. In comparison, the most pointed definition of sustainability I have come across is “living in symbiosis with our ecosystems so that we minimize our negative impact, instead building positive relationships that replenish the environments (including social ones) around us.” 

Thinking about what it actually means to live by the Yamas, the overlap with sustainable living according to the above definition is remarkable: (1) Sustainable systems seek to minimize negative impacts on others and the environment, and hence minimize harm. (2) Achieving sustainability goals requires understanding how the systems we live in function, interact and depend upon each other, and being truthful about our own contributions to the systems’ functioning or failure. (3) Taking something from the environment requires giving something back; lacking restoration, what we actually do is stealing from the environment and other creatures living in it. (4) Sustainable systems require that we not take more (and exercise the power to take more) than we need, thus practicing self-control. (5) Living sustainably requires re-assessing the way we ascribe meaning to things (possessions) and consume them. (see footnote at bottom)

Hence, sustainable living is deeply ingrained in the yoga teachings, and yoga practitioners who take their practice and philosophy seriously will be challenged to think critically about the carbon footprint and other unintended negative consequences of international travel. 

I was curious and interviewed over 25 yoga retreat leaders, yoga teacher training leaders, retreat participants, and yoga retreat centers (from the Americas and Europe), asking them how they think about this seeming friction. It turns out that the answer is quite nuanced. The yoga teachers and retreat leaders are in pivotal positions because they are the ones who choose the destinations and places to visit, and they get to shape the type of education that they convey to their participants. Most retreat leaders stated that their students often do not specifically ask for a “sustainable retreat”. They just want to immerse themselves into their yoga practice in an energetically rich location and serene surroundings away from their everyday life. However, over 90% of the yoga retreat leaders interviewed named environmental sustainability as a mandatory criterion when choosing the destinations and retreat centers they visit, and 80% specifically look for centers / hotels that offer organic, vegetarian, local food (which also leads back to environmental sustainability).

Importantly, most retreat leaders explained that while their participants might not go into the retreat with a focus on sustainability, this experience very often initiated a shift in their mindset, and they started changing their life choices and embarking on their own sustainability journey after a retreat. This was attributed partly to the educational piece about social and environmental sustainability that is ingrained in the yoga teachings, but mostly to its combination with the fact that the participants could experience and see first-hand at the retreat center what it means to have implemented sustainable practices, and how they themselves can take action.

Traditionally, most yoga retreats originating from Europe have been oriented towards India, Bali and Thailand as travel destinations, whereas, according to the European retreat leaders I interviewed, more European retreat centers have emerged in the last couple of years and there is an increasing demand for local retreats that can be reached not only by air, but also by other means of transportation such as train or cars shared between several retreat participants. From a US perspective, while Bali has also been a popular destination, retreats in Latin America are much more common due to the proximity relative to Asian countries. Costa Rica is nowadays one of the first and most established retreat destinations, with other countries such as Mexico and Brazil rapidly catching up. 

A country that has gained a lot of popularity in recent years is Peru. Since the 1990’s, the number of tourists visiting Peru has increased from below 0.5 million to 4.4 million in 2019. According to data published by the World Travel & Tourism Council, the contribution of tourism to Peru’s 2019 GDP was 9.3%, and 7.5% of all Peruvian jobs were in the travel and tourism industry. Especially in Cusco, the closest city to the World Heritage site Machu Picchu, tourism is critical for the economy and has helped alleviating poverty significantly. 

Cusco and Peru’s Sacred Valley having become a hub for sustainable yoga retreat centers, I focused part of my research on their sustainability practices. One example is Willka T’ika, founded in 1995 as one of the pioneers in the region with a mission towards sustainability, community and Quechua heritage protection. In addition to using solar panels for energy generation, its buildings are constructed from local adobe material which is energy efficient to reduce the need for heating and cooling. 80% of the ingredients used to prepare the vegetarian meals are organically grown in its own gardens (whereas the rest is sourced from local farmers), and all employees are Quechua from the neighboring community, most of whom have been with the retreat center for two decades. They also teach sustainable farming and irrigation practices to local communities, which has proven to be particularly important during the pandemic, since it increased food security and resilience among the local population. Currently, Willka T’ika is implementing a “zero emissions” program which provides an opportunity for guests to offset all carbon emissions from running the retreat center and transportation within Peru.

There are many examples around the globe that show how tourism can greatly benefit nature and wildlife (a sample is described in a blog post by Sustainable Travel International). This does of course still not deal with the carbon footprint from fuel-based travel, particularly air travel. But as one yoga teacher put it: Everything is a sacrifice. You always have to give something up to get something. What we need to do is start thinking more thoroughly about what kind of travel is worth leaving such a large carbon footprint and what’s not.” 

Covid-19 may have been a trigger for many to reconsider which flights and what travel activity is worth exposing oneself to the risk of infection. If we also started weighing our personal desire to consume against the effects thereof on the planet (do we really need to fly from London to New York for a weekend shopping trip, considering that the amount of CO2 generated per passenger exceeds the annual carbon footprint of an average person in 56 countries?), chose the places where we stay when travelling more wisely, and returned home not with a suitcase full of new consumer goods, but rather with new ideas and inspiration about leading a more responsible, purposeful and meaningful life as described by the Yamas, this could go a long way. 

 

 

Marie-Cristine is currently pursuing an MBA and MS in Environment & Resources at Stanford Graduate School of Business / School of Earth and Environment. Originally a lawyer from Switzerland, she embarked on a journey of continued education and personal growth, striving to work towards sustainable development goals. She loves being active, especially outdoors, colorful food (such as fruits, veggies and ice cream) has found yoga practice as a way to balance herself.

 

 

Footnote:

https://amaramillerblog.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/taking-yoga-off-the-mat-sustainability-and-the-yogic-path/ 

https://www.sustainablelafayette.org/post/the-correlation-between-yoga-and-environmental-sustainability

https://www.yogitimes.com/article/how-yoga-take-care-environment-go-green

 

Sustainable Yoga Travel – It’s Our Responsibility

“Surfing Macroeconomic Theory: Waves attract surfers. Surfing attracts energy. Energy attracts people. People attract capital. Investment attracts development. And so it goes. A quick survey from outer space would likely show an inordinate number of major coastal cities expanding outwards in concentric waves from a quality surf break.” — Steve Barilotti, Author

While yoga and surf travel have become leading niche markets in the global tourism industry, rarely do we stop to ponder the impact our destination lifestyles have on the coastal communities and natural environments where we travel to indulge our soulful meanderings.

Have you ever noticed that many of your favorite international yoga epicenters are also world-class surf spots? And similarly, do you find it strange – or even admittedly comforting – that many of these places, as they grow and develop to cater to surf and yoga tourists, end up looking and feeling the same in terms of accommodations, food and available amenities? Interestingly, yoga tourism tends to follow in the wake of surf tourism, after the initial exploratory phase when infrastructure and amenities begin to take root and surf destinations turn into towns built around surf and yoga experiences for tourists. After all, both surfers and yogis are often chasing the same sort of environment for a pristine nature immersion away from the crowds. In that search, however, we end up contributing to the complete transformation of both cultural and natural landscapes in the places we love to travel for surf and yoga.

As a sustainable tourism consultant, I’ve written extensively on the detrimental impacts of surfing tourism on coastal communities around the world, calling for locally defined standards for sustainable tourism and alternatives to development in surfing destinations. Now that yoga travel has become an international phenomenon to be reckoned with, it’s time we also interrogate the foundations of our travel-to-practice-and-teach-yoga lifestyle while exploring the potential for greater sustainability in the ways we approach our next yoga travel adventure.

First and foremost, let’s be realistic and not sugar-coat the environmental damage associated with the jet-set travel lifestyle common to many of us living a semi-nomadic yoga life. Fossil fuels and carbon emissions are the leading cause of climate change, and every time we hop on a long-distance flight to live our dreams in yoga paradise, we are contributing to the irreversible destruction of the planet. In addition, most of us are guilty of consuming more single-use plastics while traveling than when we’re at home. And, we’re less likely to prioritize sustainable producers if it means forfeiting convenience while we travel. Often, the result is a net increase in unsustainable consumption habits when travelling versus staying at home. While we practice mindfulness on the yoga mat, it’s also our responsibility to be mindful of our consumption habits when traveling, taking care to support Earth-minded service-providers and producers wherever humanly possible. Just because you’re not at home doesn’t mean you should let your sustainability priorities slide by the way-side.

Next, it’s important to be aware of how we carry our modern lifestyles and cultural attributes with us in the places we travel to practice and teach yoga, with powerful (and not always positive) effects on local people and the natural environment. Among the challenges that local communities face as more and more visitors flood to previously isolated locations are: loss of culture as locals seek to emulate the modern lifestyle and attain tourism-centered livelihoods, social inequality and marginalization resulting from upward pressure on prices forcing locals out of tourist zones, and rampant development responding to heightened tourist demand with little concern for nature. While we fulfill our yoga travel dreams, it’s important to be honest with ourselves in recognizing the impact we have on local places and people, no matter how positive our spiritual intentions may be.

Yes, surf and yoga tourism can help create jobs for local people and potentially contribute to deeper spiritual awareness as locals begin learning to surf and practicing yoga themselves. However, it’s most frequently the case that the majority of businesses in surf and yoga destinations are owned by foreigners and not by locals, which contributes to deep social inequalities and further marginalization of local people as the town grows and develops around tourism. This is why seeking out locally owned businesses and service providers is a vital first step in bringing greater sustainability to the way we travel – in yoga destinations and beyond.

What can we do?

There are a few ways to lessen your footprint while travelling, all of which relate to adopting an attitude geared toward minimizing excess consumption and respecting local ways of life and livelihood. This means prioritizing locally owned businesses and behaving as if you are a guest in someone else’s home wherever you go. Do your homework when booking accommodations and tours, as well as in choosing places to eat and shop, supporting locals as a means to improve their economic wellbeing and ensure that more money stays within the town’s economy. Eat local as much as possible, avoiding the imported goods you are familiar with at home. After all, there’s a reason you’ve left your comfort zone, and eating local is one of the easiest ways to contribute to greater sustainability while you travel.

Learn the local cultural standards and attune your actions accordingly, taking care to stay respectful in honoring cultural differences. Take an interest in the culture so local residents can feel that their way of life is beautiful and intrinsically valuable, not somehow backwards or less than in the ways it differs from the dominant modern lifestyle. This will also contribute to a more authentic travel experience if locals see that tourists are taking a real interest in their culture and not just looking for the same creature comforts curated to mimic modern amenities and help tourists feel at home.

And finally, hold your foreign service providers and fellow travelers accountable to sustainable practices, including waste water treatment, solid waste management, minimizing consumption and avoiding the use of single-use plastics. If you see foreign business owners cutting corners on essential sustainability practices and harming the natural environment in the process, say something. As a guest, you have an important role to play in helping hold business owners accountable to the environment, especially in places where regulation is lax, non-existent or unenforced.

Similarly, bring your own containers for to-go orders at restaurants, and ask the juice bar to fill up your water bottle instead of using a disposable plastic cup. Most importantly, avoid the temptation to lecture locals about sustainability – they are not to blame for the piles of trash left by visiting tourists. Instead, lead by example and encourage your travelling yogi comrades to do their part in leaving as little trace as possible in the places we love to practice and teach around the world.

When it comes to sustainable yoga travel, we are the change we have been waiting for.

 

 

Tara Ruttenberg is a writer, surfer, yogini and sustainability consultant in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica. Tara created Tarantula Surf (www.tarantulasurf.com / @tarantulasurf) as a space for authentic story sharing and engaging with new living paradigms.