I have been practicing yoga since 2012.
I tried it upon a friend’s suggestion and took to it immediately.
I’ve tried various styles and practiced with many teachers in many places over the years, and until before the pandemic had a 6-day-a-week practice. The regularity and discipline this required helped me in many aspects of my life – my health, my focus, my ability to stay calm under pressure, my environmentalism and social interactions – not to mention the great community of yogis I got to be a part of.
One of the most important things that could be gained from a yoga practice is being able to apply the lessons “on the mat” off of it, or in daily life. Lessons on being present, connecting with one’s breath, meeting difficulties deliberately, finding balance and equanimity, and many others.
These have come in handy for me over the years, what with the rigor and stresses that come with climate and environmental work, which can be taxing both because of the subject matter and the urgency of getting things done.
The pandemic presented a true test of whether I could use my practice to help me get through unprecedented challenges, while continuing my work as a professional law and policy analyst working on climate change in the Philippines and internationally.
When lockdowns were first announced in Manila, no one in my circles imagined it would last this long; more than a year later the city and surrounding areas still haven’t fully opened up. I shifted to a home yoga practice and initially thought it would be “easy” – my friends and I regularly updated each other and kept one another accountable. Zoom yoga classes soon became the norm, and it seemed like all would be fine until we were able to meet in person again.
Alas, after a few months, navigating a global pandemic took its toll.
Like many others, confronted with a totally unfamiliar reality, I went through a series of personal, professional, and existential crises.
It became more and more difficult to maintain my yoga practice and I got stuck in a vicious cycle: I couldn’t bring myself to practice because my mind wasn’t cooperating, though I knew yoga would help with my mental health, but I couldn’t get on my mat because I was too stressed, though I knew yoga would be an effective stress reliever… and so on. This was compounded by feelings of inadequacy, because I associated a “good” and regular practice with productivity.
I started developing a negative relationship with my practice and at some point stopped showing up on my mat altogether.
My relationship with my work – and my ability to do it – also suffered.
The fact that the pandemic was/is rooted in humans’ dysfunctional relationship with nature meant that more work had to be done to address these problems quickly.
At the same time, most were at a loss as to how to keep the pace of environmental work going if face-to-face meetings were no longer allowed and everything had to somehow quickly shift to a remote setup. 2020, which had been branded the Super Year for Nature, suddenly became one of seeming helplessness and the cause of delays that would exponentially hamper our ability to address climate and biodiversity impacts down the line.
All these factors affected my motivation and made me question the value of my work on high-level policy issues, which seemed particularly removed from the realities of a pandemic that was ravaging so many communities all over the world.
It took another couple of months before I was able to distance myself from this toxic mindset, both in my climate and environmental work and in my yoga practice.
Ultimately, the following lessons from my own yoga practice – applied off the mat – helped me get past the internal chaos and back to a calmer path.
Never give up and always let go.
Dedicated practice and non-attachment, absolute effort and total surrender, are broad translations of abhyasa and vairagya, two core pillars of yoga.
The balance between these two is reflected in asana (yoga postures), where we exert concentrated effort to bring ourselves into (the full expression of) the pose, and once there surrender to it and find a point of stillness.
This principle finds many applications in daily life, and can carry valuable lessons for restless environmental lawyers like myself.
Climate and environmental advocates have a reputation of being “grim and determined.” “Serious” warriors on behalf of Mother Earth must demonstrate outrage and never let up, if they really cared about saving the planet. Amid the initial confusion of how to keep doing our work amid pandemic-related restrictions, the fact that COVID was in large part a climate and environmental issue made delays in international meetings and realignment of national priorities away from these concerns particularly frustrating.
Burnout is real, and not uncommon in this area of practice.
Many seasoned environmentalists consider their jobs as more than a profession, but also a vocation and way of life. So how do we draw the line between doing as much as we can, and letting go?
“Letting go” doesn’t mean no longer being concerned or letting our resolve wane. It speaks more to the wisdom of knowing when something has passed beyond our immediate control and caring about, but not being attached to, the result.
It can be difficult to reconcile ourselves with these ideas when concrete, timebound outcomes are the standard measure for success in climate and environmental work. But sometimes our attachment manifests in looking for particular results that look a particular way, and when these don’t materialize – whether due to an unprecedented human and planetary crisis or otherwise – we conclude that we have failed.
In my case, not being able to do my work as usual and being surrounded with so much uncertainty drove my anxiety up like never before. It made me question everything I was doing and I beat myself up for not being “productive,” then chastised myself for focusing on myself instead of so many who were “really” suffering.
But as in my practice on the mat, I had to separate the value of my effort from what I was perceiving as the “good” or “bad” result.
The world was different, so my idea of “effort” also had to change. This now included keeping myself physically and mentally healthy, looking out for loved ones, adopting remote work arrangements, and keeping abreast of the local, national, and global situation.
Easier said than done, though, so the next reminder was also key to letting go of my self-imposed expectations.
Kindness is a virtue, including to yourself.
This reminder does not come from yogic texts per se, but is a principle present in the practice and pursuit of yoga, that is, quieting the fluctuations of the mind.
For environmentalists, the idea of kindness is a little easier to understand and apply to things outside of ourselves. What is caring about the Earth and the beings that inhabit it but a manifestation of kindness towards our world and those with whom we share it?
Climate and environmental work entails huge amounts of empathy, understanding, patience, consideration, and a genuine desire to see the condition of nature and the lives of humans improve.
These things are needed even in relation to those we are fighting “against,” as we strive to find common solutions and creative ways to bridge differences.
Inward-facing kindness, as it were, is a little different.
As our own harshest critics, it’s often hard to treat ourselves gently. Articles, memes, tweets, etc. have abounded around the need to give ourselves a break during the pandemic.
Just because we were at home, didn’t necessarily mean we had more time to do more things. Not running around or having the traditional trappings of busy-ness didn’t mean we were being idle, or lazy. Mental health became an important and much-needed area of conversation, as people experienced new forms of stress and “inexplicable” lack of motivation.
The pandemic forced me to look closely at the things I really valued, and the process brought up more questions than answers. I went down a deep rabbit hole of self-doubt and had to work hard to convince myself that I deserved to let myself off the hook. To do this, I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t doing too well (and that was ok!) and couldn’t figure things out just by stewing over them.
If I could be kind to the world, I could be kind to myself. After all, a healthy and peaceful planet begins with healthy and peaceful individuals and communities.
I went back to my books on meditation and spirituality, including Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening, which contains short daily entries on getting back in touch with oneself. I spoke with a healer who acted as a non-judgmental sounding board. I made art and learned to play songs. I restarted my yoga practice and gave myself as much leeway as possible, telling myself that this wasn’t another thing to “succeed” in or to measure my worth with.
My yoga teachers reminded me that my practice was there to serve me and not the other way around.
Find comfort in discomfort.
I follow a number of yoga teachers and practitioners online and pick up many useful things all the time. I recently started following Ashtanga yoga teacher Taylor Hunt, and happened to come across a video where he talks about the biggest thing yoga has taught him, which is how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This really spoke to me because of something similar I had been grappling with over the past year: sitting with uncertainty.
With the urgency of the task at hand – that of trying to ensure that we leave a livable and thriving planet for our descendants – environmental and climate lawyers would have been among those feeling anxious and helpless, especially in the earlier part of the pandemic before things began to resemble some sort of normalcy.
The understanding that we had no time to lose, and that so much of what could be done to “save the planet” was in our hands, no doubt caused even more sleepless and restless nights (even with the postponement of international conferences that kept us more or less awake for weeks on end).
This was certainly true in my case.
As someone used to a certain degree of predictability in my life and work, 2020 really threw me in for a loop. I had already been undergoing personal and professional transitions when the pandemic hit, and at my lowest I felt like I was in a freefall while at the same time trapped in a really tight space.
All my plans, and those of everyone around me, had been upended. The loss of control and the inability to plan ahead troubled me just as much as the actual challenges of the pandemic.
How could I sit still when I didn’t know what was next?
I started exploring the reasons for my unease, and why the unknown made me so anxious.
With the help of the above reminders – and of course the privilege of being able to pay attention to my mental and emotional health – I slowly settled into the idea that uncertainty was a reality I had to confront rather than run away from. It wasn’t something for me to solve, but something I had to fully acknowledge and “sit” in. (“Sitting” in this sense also calls to mind sitting in meditation and transcending physical and psychological discomfort to meet our inner selves.)
I also realized that my climate and environmental work has always been full of uncertainty.
We work towards clear goals and try to rely on the soundest science, but at the end of the day we still hope that we are doing enough, and that those with the most important and crucial roles act with urgency and do their part.
Once these things clicked, I began to feel more peaceful and less anxious, and holding off on making mid- and long-term plans no longer invoked fear but a sense of non-attachment to the things I couldn’t control.
What’s more, thanks to people’s unending resourcefulness, creativity, and dedication, it wasn’t long before I was receiving multiple invitations to webinars and online workshops, and links to podcasts; and coming across a slew of articles and research into the pandemic, its causes and impacts, and what recovery could look like.
My climate and environmental consultancy, for one, became engaged in more projects during 2020 than the year before.
Action on climate change, biodiversity, and the environment shifted, but it didn’t stop.
I found inspiration in people and communities that continued to redefine the meaning of resilience, both in the context of the pandemic and of climate and environmental hazards.
As environmentalists, all we can really do is our best. And our best is ever-changing, even more so amidst multiple global crises which, for better or worse, we have decided to take on.
Some days will be tougher than others, but knowing when to let go, remembering to be kind to ourselves, and learning to sit with uncertainty, are a few ways to help us not only get through the pandemic, but to find meaning and opportunities to grow in unlikely places.