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Walking the Talk
Ayurveda:
A Fresh Perspective on Sustainability

Sustainability in business is treated as if our wellbeing isn’t linked to the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the world we create. In ayurveda’s holistic worldview, there’s no such thing as ‘it doesn’t concern me’ when it comes to sustainability.

First, a confession: Before I learned anything about ayurveda, I had already decided it was silly. While I acknowledge the presumption in dismissing thousand-year-old traditions out of hand, a quick Google turns up DIY ayurveda quizzes to “find your dosha” that read like a BuzzFeed quiz crossed with a horoscope, with more interest in my digestive tract than I was prepared for. To this outsider, despite working for Yogi Tea — a company driven by ayurvedic principles — I was ready to dismiss it.

After some patient instruction by one of our in-house experts, what I found instead was an illuminating way of looking at the world that was perfectly analogous to my work as a sustainability practitioner. While I am certainly not an expert, and fully admit that aspects of ayurveda stretch credulity, it’s still worth investigating for the intriguingly different way in which it sees the world. In fact, I believe we need ayurvedic insights to advance sustainability today.

There’s a whole universe to ayurveda, but the basics are something like this: Ayurveda is a holistic wellbeing practice that deploys diet, exercise (notably, yoga), routine and medicinal plants to treat illness and keep people healthy. It holds that there are five main elements – ether/space, air, fire, water and earth – that combine to form three doshas called vata, pitta and kapha. Vata is all about movement, pitta concerns heat and metabolism, and kapha embodies structure and solidity. Doshas combine to characterize “Dosha Prakriti,” or basic constitution. Those online quizzes are assessing which combination of doshas form a person’s constitution.

Ayurveda uses the dosha idea to articulate the following: The more aligned basic constitution is with current state, the better one feels. In ayurveda’s terminology, the idea is to bring prakriti (basic constitution) into balance with vikriti (current condition). It’s a sensible idea with profound resonances.

The challenge is that vikriti is constantly changing. It varies depending on the time of day, the time of year, what one eats, emotional states — plus, any number of other considerations. We know this, intuitively, to be true: Tension in the news, for example, translates to stress in the body; unhealthy environmental conditions create personal health challenges. The work of ayurveda is to find balance during perpetual change.

By articulating the interaction between prakriti and vikriti, ayurveda makes sustainability tangible by showing that personal wellbeing is always connected to the world around us. The sensitivity of current condition means that whatever happens to the world changes individual experience. Impact anywhere, in short, matters everywhere. One need not witness the environmental damage wrought by industrial corn farming, for example, to still be impacted by it: Cheap industrial corn ensures cheap high fructose corn syrup, which begets cheap and irresistible junk food, which creates troubling news coverage about health crises and compromises the health of friends or family. Anxiety increases with stories about desertification or suicide rates of farmers or diminishing fertile topsoil. Even if you don’t live in the corn belt, what happens there will find its way to you sooner or later.

Ayurveda’s holistic worldview, linking the individual with the world, shows that there’s no such thing as “it doesn’t concern me” when it comes to sustainability. The corporate sustainability discourse treats sustainability as if it were an optional choice whose implementation ought to hinge on corporate strategy. Endless articles try to prove what the ROI might be, whether sustainability resonates with target demographics, or what value might be created if sustainable changes get made. In effect, sustainability is discussed as if it didn’t matter — directly, urgently and powerfully — to us. Sustainability in business is treated as if health – everyone’s health, physical and mental – isn’t linked to the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the world we create. As if businesses and humans operate in entirely separate spheres, as if healthy balance sheets can somehow compensate for the failing health of the living beings who create them. How else could we contextualize decisions made for business reasons that will inevitably compromise the very health of the people making them? Taking an ayurvedic perspective reminds us that we are in the world and the world is in us. Treating either with respect matters for both, and there is no way to disentangle one from the other.

Where does this leave us? At Yogi, our ayurvedic sustainability practice informs our mission statement: to make the world better off because we’re in it. Not to have a neutral impact on the world — which in our present state of imbalance, would be destructive — but to heal, fostering balance in a damaged world. We work with our competitors, supporting collaborative interventions from Guatemala to Nepal — understanding that our sustainability success means nothing in isolation. Realizing that a damaged biosphere requires more than conservation to find balance, we push for regenerative-agricultural practices — trying to find equilibrium between our work and the world that enables it. Our ayurvedic tea blends are designed to create balance for our community, but they can only do that if the teas themselves are bringing balance to the world we all share.

The conclusion is inescapable: Sustainability only happens in collective balance. Compostable packaging doesn’t count for much with no composting programs to send it to. Collecting recyclables doesn’t matter if there are too few recycling programs that reuse the collected material. Individual success will not compensate for overall failure. Sustainability, like ayurveda, takes balance between inputs and outputs, resources and consumption, means and materials. Sustainability efforts do not, and will not, succeed in isolation from their broader context. We are truly in this together.

Through the ayurvedic lens, sustainability becomes a state of balance between dynamic forces in which we are inextricably entangled. Just as ayurveda finds balance between doshas, sustainability finds equilibrium between giving and taking. We, as humans in the 21st century, have inherited a particular prakriti; yet our vikriti remains dangerously out of balance. This imbalance — which creates pervasive dread and anxiety, sickness and devastation of all kinds — constitutes a kind of collective illness that requires balance to alleviate. It will take all of us, understanding our fate as a shared fate and our work as a collective effort, to align our current condition with what the natural world makes possible.

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