[SPOILER ALERT – This post reveals the ending of Princess Mononoke]
I recently rewatched the 1997 Japanese animated masterpiece Princess Mononoke by Studio Ghibli. The film is as ominous a foretelling of the climate crisis as I’ve ever seen. It is also an exquisite illustration of a concept that Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls “interbeing,” which is unpacked beautifully in his book, The Art of Living.
Here’s a quote that grazes the surface of the idea:
“Breathing in, I see all my ancestors in me: my mineral ancestors, plant ancestors, mammal ancestors, and human ancestors. My ancestors are always present, alive in every cell of my body, and I play a part in their immortality.
-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living
In Princess Mononoke, the great animal gods—reminiscent of the megafauna of old—are slowly being killed off by human greed. The painful wounds inflicted upon them by the weapons of humankind transform them slowly into deranged, hateful demons. Ashitaka, the last Prince of a dying tribe, is cursed by one such demon. Fated to die the same death as the boar-demon that wounded him, he sets off on a quest westwards to discover the source of the iron bullet dug out from its carcass.
Ashitaka’s journey takes him to the edge of an ancient forest where a rogue settlement called Irontown, under the rule of a maverick female leader—Lady Eboshi—is in the process of destroying the forest to extract ore from beneath its roots. While Irontown is a safe haven for shunned lepers and women recruited from brothels in the city, the inhabitants are nevertheless the victims of industrialised life, spending four-day shifts pumping the giant forge’s bellows and being used as cannon fodder in the war against the forest.
Blinded by ambition, Lady Eboshi and Jiko-bō, a monk and mercenary, cannot see that the destruction of the Great Forest Spirit, a deer-like animal god by day and a giant “nightwalker” by night, will also destroy them.
There is no happy ending to this film. Lady Eboshi ultimately manages to decapitate the Forest Spirit. Its body bleeds ooze that spreads over the land and kills anything it touches. The forest and its little tree spirits (or kodama) begin to die. While devastating, I found it befitting, for it may be too late for us, too. We may have already beheaded the Great Forest Spirit.
Either way, one thing is certain—Prince Ashitaka’s refrain, “Why can’t humans live in harmony with the forest?”—can no longer go on being a wishful plea. It is now our urgent duty to restore harmony in the living world. The destruction we have already caused as a species may yet be our undoing, but through yoga, I have come to see that we have a spiritual obligation to return to wholeness with nature in the time we have left.
I was struck by this intense clarity of vision two years ago. My yoga teacher training programme had barely begun when South Africa was plunged into full lockdown at the beginning of 2020. Cape Town ground to a halt. The air quality of the city improved to the point where you could see mountain ranges previously hidden by smog as if they were on an HD TV screen. The peaceful silence that fell over the country even led to penguins wandering the streets of Simon’s Town.
Having spent much of 2019 crippled with anxiety about the climate crisis and wracked with climate grief, my lockdown experience was very profound. On the one hand, I was deep in the mindful practice of a yoga teacher training, which was helping to soothe a maladapted nervous system that had been stuck in fight-or-flight mode for years. On the other hand, I saw a glimmer of the kind of world we could live in if we stopped burning fossil fuels.
I believe there is a greater connection between yoga, the climate crisis, and nature as a whole than simply buying cork yoga props and plastic-free yoga apparel. The body is a vessel for connection. A full yoga practice can foster a better connection with the self. To truly turn inwards is to also turn outwards and experience our deep connection with others and the planet. Perhaps it’s best explained by Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing, which he explains at greater length here:
“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.
“’Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here—time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. ‘To be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of ‘non-paper elements.’ And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without ‘non-paper elements,’ like mind, logger, sunshine, and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
In my experience, the more present and connected I am to my body, the more present and connected I am to being alive, and not just alive as an abstract unit, but alive in this living world. Awake to its details. Attuned to its rhythms. Aware of my dependence on it and painfully aware of the peril it’s in. Climate change isn’t an abstract future menace. It’s happening now in the form of declining Arctic sea ice, glacial retreat, decreased snow cover, sea level rise, extreme weather events, ocean acidification… Human activity since the Industrial Revolution has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land through heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other gases. Earth’s daily CO2 levels hit 421.59 ppm on Feb 14, 2022. The last time atmospheric CO2 levels were this high was more than 3 million years ago, and sea levels were about 25 metres higher.
The more I practice yoga, the less business as usual is an option. I believe that the clarity I’ve gained on the mat must move beyond the mat and turn into action to be a true expression of yoga. There are easy ties to be made with the five Yamas—notably ahimsa (non-harming), asteya (non-stealing), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Making lifestyle adjustments is the easy part. We can control our personal choices intimately, and there are more online resources than ever before to help guide us through cutting down meat intake, reducing plastic waste, thrifting clothes, or upcycling trash… At this point, I feel the need to engage in something bigger than consumerist choices. How can I think differently about land ownership? Do I know enough about rivers? Is there an ecosystem restoration project nearby that I can get involved in? How can I build my own climate resilience and that of my community? When is the next climate strike?
As a white, urban, Westernised person working in a capitalist society, I am involved in harm, depletion, and consumerism—even if that’s the last thing I want to be doing. Most people on this planet are too.
The framework we’re living in makes it extremely hard to opt out of fossil fuel dependency. The yoga industry and the system that spawned it doesn’t want you to opt out. It wants you to buy matching pastel spandex outfits that will release microplastics into the water system every time you pop them into the washing machine. It encourages you to start a collection of mats that will never biodegrade so you can swap out mandala prints based on your mood. It convinces you that you need an even better essential oil diffuser while your old one ends up in a landfill. There is no yoga in that. There is no subversion of a system that entangles us all in harm, depletion, and consumerism. Instead, the yoga industry wants us to get lost in the idea that “this product expresses me.”
I think true yoga is radical.
Radical is hard, and for some, very scary and unfamiliar. We’ve been groomed to seek out convenience and aspire to plenty, and any threat to those things can feel like loss. But to only see loss is to miss the point.
Yoga is calling on us to deeply reimagine how to be as a species. How to inter-be with all things. It’s about so much more than just opting out, losing out, having to give up, or not being allowed to… What would happen if we stopped instrumentalising each other in the name of productivity? What if we had closer relationships with our neighbours? What would become possible if we overhauled our understanding of wealth? What if we worked less? Valued low-carbon jobs like teaching and nursing more? What magic and wonder have we been missing out on? What could heal within us and between us if we were to heal the land?