Marina del Rey’s Swami Omkarananda takes on yoga bling, plastic bottles and the drought
By Alexandra Babiarz
In a society that emphasizes self-obsession and profit margins, an ancient Hindu practice has evolved into a big business. Yoga Inc. is a multi-billion dollar global industry, with more than 20 million devotees downward dogging in pursuit of a yoga-buff body, and its Mecca is Los Angeles. But amid the L.A. glitz and urban sprawl, the tendrils of a green movement are blossoming from the non-PVC, recycled-material yoga mats of practitioners like Swami Omkarananda.
Omkarananda, 67, came to yoga after working as a medical doctor in her native Australia and a psychiatrist in England. She credits yoga with helping to heal her back. A trailblazer at the intersection of yoga and environmentalism, Omkarananda, 67, is director of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center in Marina del Rey, where she has lived for nearly a decade.
“If we are careless and hurtful in our actions, we are violating the basic principles of yoga,” Omkarananda said. “This extends to the environment.”
But, she says, a lot of people don’t pay attention to this. Harnessing the potential of traditional yogic teachings to create social change, Omkarananda is trying to make reconnecting with the Earth a part of her students’ yoga practice. And people are starting to pay attention to the studio’s green initiatives.
“Many yoga centers have become pretty attuned to environmental issues, but the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center is undoubtedly the most advanced in this regard,” said Christopher Key Chapple, professor of Indic and comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University.
That’s because Omkarananda’s approach to the practice flies in the face of the premium lifestyle industry surrounding yoga, with its designer yoga wear, mats and towels, luxury retreats and $100-a-day juice cleanses.
“Consumerism is the problem, and that’s what a lot of yoga has become. It’s body movements for consumers,” Omkarananda said. “It doesn’t touch that place of care and concern for bigger issues.”
When teaching the yamas and niyamas — which she refers to as “yoga’s Ten Commandments” — Omkarananda focuses on the environmental context.
The first yama is “ahimsa”: “Thou shall not harm.”
“I’ll go around, pointing out the plastic water bottles I see in the room,” Omkarananda said. “I’ll say to students, ‘That plastic bottle — is it harmful? What happens when you throw it away?’”
When newcomers to her studio feel guilty, Omkarananda reassures them that it’s OK.
“I say to them, ‘Try to act in a way so that your actions are a part of the solution, rather than part of the problem,” she said. It can be as easy as not bringing plastic water bottles to yoga class — or better yet, not buying them altogether. “I mean, is that such a hard thing?”
Two years ago, Omkarananda rolled up the sleeves of her orange robe to address another ecological crisis with her do-it-yourself sensibility: the lawn in front of her home.
Los Angeles’ thirsty landscape of clipped evergreen shrubbery and green lawns defies the area’s dry climate. In the U.S., lawns use more equipment, labor, fuel and agricultural toxins than industrial farming, and they consume around 270 billion gallons of water per week, according to reports. As Omkarananda would ask: “The lawn — is it harmful?” In California, where a record-shattering drought has left hundreds of thousands of acres of land used to grow crops in jeopardy, the answer is undoubtedly yes.
Working with a crew of volunteers, Omkarananda ripped out her manicured lawn and planted a vegetable garden.
“Passersby would stop to say, ‘I love what you’re doing in your garden. I’d love to do that, too,’” Omkarananda said. When she asked them why they didn’t, they would tell her that they didn’t know where to start.
“That’s what Good Karma Gardens grew out of,” Omkarananda said. “From the yoga side, I wanted to introduce the idea of selfless service, a yogic practice. If you help other people, that’s good karma.”
Today, Omkarananda brings environmental activists, community leaders and yogis together to help people in West Los Angeles turn their yard into a garden, part of a burgeoning urban agricultural movement across the U.S.
“In Los Angeles, we can grow food all year long,” said Anneke Campbell, an environmental activist and founding member of nonprofit Transition Mar Vista/Venice. The local organization, which partners with the Good Karma Gardens initiative, meets around Omkarananda’s kitchen table with chai, planning projects as chickens cluck right outside the front door.
“Food is incredibly basic to all human beings, and it’s a very pleasurable activity — growing, cooking and eating it,” Campbell said. “It’s an organic way to organize.”
There’s also the spiritual connection of having your skin connect with the Earth, says Jeremy Maler, an engineer and volunteer with Good Karma Gardens.
“We can turn the city into a productive farm as far as the eye can see,” Maler said. Turning yards into gardens also turns neighborhoods into communities, he points out.
Campbell agrees: “Knowing that your eggplant came from your neighbor who planted it with love and is now sharing it with you creates an immediate sense of connectedness, which is what a big city like Los Angeles is lacking.”
Developing this sense of community, she said, is what we’ll need to face problems that otherwise become overwhelming, like climate change.
“Some people say urban gardening is about self-sufficiency. It’s not. It’s about interdependence,” Campbell said.
Omkarananda envisions planting entire blocks of vegetable gardens in her neighborhood: “Imagine if the fences came down and neighbors grew their own food in their front yards, sharing their abundance,” she said. “We wouldn’t need lawnmowers anymore. We wouldn’t need gardeners. If these were young families with kids, they would play together. We wouldn’t need nannies …
“But it’s very counterculture,” she acknowledged.
Still, the seedlings of change are slowly sprouting throughout Marina del Rey under Omkarananda’s green thumb. Among those inspired by Omkarananda is her neighbor, fellow gardener Helena Bjerring, who de-lawned her front yard after moving in.
“If I have an excess of zucchini, and she has an excess of tomatoes, we help each other,” Bjerring said. “Though she always seems to have more produce than I do.”
For Omkarananda, environmentalism is a moral imperative. “Environmental issues require a spiritual response. We have to change our way of thinking,” she said.
“This is greater than organized religion. It is our survival.”