February 6, 2022

Conscious Travel: Why we Need to Rethink Flying.


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Why do you travel? To escape from your everyday life? To discover new environments, people, and cultures?

It is probably a combination of both that makes most of us sign up for a retreat of some sort to the next exotic and pristine corner of the world.

When one of my beloved yoga schools recently called for an in-depth experience of yoga’s motherland India, I couldn’t help but feel this deep disconnect within. As intriguing and enriching as it sounded, I felt that I couldn’t just push aside my awareness of the negative impact that trips like this have any longer.

I have been observing changes in how I feel about traveling and the choices I used to make so lightheartedly in the past. As I am even professionally engaged in the issues of sustainable development and climate change, you could say I am quite knowledgeable of all sides of the issue—what to do and what not to do if wanting to avoid unnecessary contribution to global warming and all the consequences it has for most living beings around the planet.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be discussing scientific nuances here; I am writing this in the hope to broaden perspective, to raise awareness around how even as well-intended travels as such for a yoga retreat are a serious part of the problem. And with bringing this up here (and I am in no way thinking of this as my original idea, but I hope that I can create some space for our community here), space to allow ourselves to hold each other accountable, take responsibility, and change course.

Maybe you already feel like stopping here. I know it is uncomfortable, and I feel you. But I would like to invite you to stay with me, with an open and compassionate heart, for this is what makes us human and what we vow to thrive for in all the consciousness-expanding practices we engage in as practitioners of yoga.

Climate change is no news, and by now, almost everyone on this planet has learned enough about it so that we could expect our compassion for those already suffering tremendously would outweigh our desire for the next superb retreat for which we fly thousands of miles across the world.

Ironically, we mostly do so to reconnect to ourselves or to connect with like-minded folks. How is it that in search of connection we obviously choose to disconnect from the suffering we are contributing to with our choices?

In line with prevailing inequalities, large parts of the people and natural habitats most affected are in developing countries, where, again, many are already struggling to maintain their livelihoods due to various extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and so on.

As a community that promotes retreats in exotic places for a global audience that can afford to join, we are an extremely relevant contributor to the overall problem, and we have a real responsibility to do better.

So what does it mean to us that we identify as students of yoga? Shouldn’t the yogic principles, such as the Niyamas, be fundamental to how we show up in this world? The Niyamas, being what could be called the yogi’s guide for how to engage with and how to behave in the outside world, contain the principle of ahimsa: non-harm or nonviolence.

We take donation-based classes to support human-trafficking survivors in India, and there is clearly nothing wrong with that. But we also fly to India for a 10-day retreat with which we contribute to worsening living conditions for people.

You might think, “How about the money we spend there?” Well, there is not much benefit in having money when the next flooding wipes your house or loved ones away or the next drought havocs everything you were trying to grow. In countries like India, climate change comes with predicted temperature highs of much beyond where people can live, which simply means that people will die from the heat itself.

There is no money you could spend on your trip for the scarf you are going to buy that would protect people from anything like this. Circling back to human trafficking, this business thrives because of people’s desperation on the one side and continuous destabilization of societies on the other side.

I am writing this on a plane. I fly—not nearly as much as I used to—but I still do. For one, because I don’t live in my country of origin, so I visit my family, and because my love for travel and time spent working abroad has blessed me with friends scattered all around the planet. So, I go see them to be part of important milestones in their life: their weddings, births of children, funerals, and not least, to spend some of our precious life together.

But much has changed in how I feel about traveling these days and consequently so has the way and frequency at which I travel. If not aiming to cross a major ocean, traveling options are often plentiful. Exploring places we can reach by train, bundling up groups of friends, or saving up vacation days so we come into a mindset of making the most of our time, whenever we do choose to fly.

The point being that we make conscious choices around the way we travel. It can no longer be our default to hop on an all-inclusive, 14-day trip to Thailand, Mexico, or wherever all of us are going.

And I can imagine you are thinking to yourself, “But how about all those who fly for business all the time?” or, “People aren’t going to stop flying for vacation.” Well, that is not the point. The question here is, whether our identification with the yogic philosophy almost demands that we obey the principle of non-harm and lead by example among our friends, relatives, and acquaintances.

It isn’t about making the right choice all the time, but about having and creating awareness of the consequences of our actions and how our amazing yoga retreat might undermine the livelihoods of the very communities we are coming to meet.

Let’s use our voices. Let’s talk about our thoughts around this and create awareness. Don’t be afraid to talk about it—just because you know you aren’t doing it perfect in any way.

If we practice courage in owning our choices and communicate our awareness, we encourage others to do so too. I firmly believe that we need to start having an open dialogue around this in the yoga community so that we can hold each other accountable and slowly change the narrative of our retreats.

Well-known religious leaders across the world have recently called upon their communities to fight against any action that poses a threat to the environment and people in this world. I urge all of us to shift our focus as a global yoga community and design offerings that are in line with the values we preach and the prayers we speak.


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