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I went to yoga class for the first time in five years this week.

My shoulders still ache.

I'll be back next week. Class was surprisingly easy - which made me grateful for the solid yoga base my one and only previous yoga teacher, Mansi, gave me when I was studying abroad in India. Not only did she help me develop a yoga routine that fit my personal needs, but she also ensured that I left the class understanding the fundamentals of yoga - what it can do (and what it can't do) and why anyone would want to stretch and contort their body in the first place.

We learned the history of yoga, the spiritual side of it (in a very approachable - not new age - sort of way) and how the main purpose of this ancient tradition is not increased flexibility but an increased connection between body and spirit.

Thus class was easy, even though I ached after wards and noticed I lacked flexibility. It was easy because I felt successful in my goal of reconnecting with my body - remembering to breathe and notice every muscle, ache, and pinch, as the instructor helps me move in ways that I wouldn't think of on my own.

Without Mansi I believe my expectations would be much different.

Thus I was only mildly surprised when I saw that the Bangalore english newspaper, The Deccan Herald, recognized Mansi for her innovation and depth of understand about the world:

I am a voice for nature

She is an environment science graduate, a certified yoga instructor, holder of a masters degree in psychology and is currently pursuing research in environmental philosophy. Bharathi Prabhu meets the multi-faceted Meera Baindur.

Terms like Gaia theory and existentialism, roll off Meera Baindur's tongue as easily as Yoga, Sankhya etc. Meera is after all an Environment Science graduate, a certified yoga instructor and is currently pursuing research in environmental philosophy at the prestigious NIAS. So, what is she? An academician? An activist?

"It was during my sojourn in the Himalayas that I learnt not to box people into categories," smiles Meera who spent seven years in a remote village called Sankhri in Uttarkashi district, while still in her twenties.
"In fields such as Environment or gender studies, activism is as much a part of your work as academics. Yes, I'm an environmentalist and would like to think of myself as a voice for nature."

Meera had been interested in nature and life forms since childhood and a degree in environmental science seemed a logical step. Even during her student days, Meera was active in sundry environmental activities like tree census in Cubbon Park, Narmada Bachao marches and bio-control of parthenium. But after her graduation, she embarked on a spiritual journey. Living the life of a Sadhwi as part of a spiritual group, she learnt to eke out a self-sustaining life in the Himalayas. It was also a period of rigorous philosophical training. "I was awed by nature in all its rawness. Even though my stay of seven years was a relatively short period to study climate changes, I witnessed firsthand the effects of an environmental crisis. The snowfall began later and village elders told us about a lake which used to earlier freeze over for months and which no longer did. I also learnt about the complex relationship villagers have with nature, their mythological beliefs etc."

On her return, Meera pursued her masters in Psychology. "Nature has been used as prescription, people get a peak experience while communing with it, children can be ‘primed’ to view nature as friendly or as threatening. Human beings and nature are intricately connected but scientific study of this relationship has so far been based on a western perspective," says Meera who has now started digging into classical Indian texts to see how our ancestors conceptualised nature.

Meaningful research

Ask her whether these aren't purely academic questions and she says, "No, once we know the philosophical premises and presuppositions, our work in protecting the environment can be more goal directed. For instance, at a basic level, we can coin more meaningful slogans. We can even influence the way policies are formulated." Academic work is important, she asserts yet again. It was papers like Lynn White's ‘Historical roots of ecological crisis’ in Science that led to the development of the field of ‘Environmental Ethics’, which studies the moral relationship between human beings with the environment as a whole. Gaia (Greek goddess of Earth) theory in fact offers insights into climate change, energy, health etc and its central concept of a self-regulating system has practical applications even in fields like economics.

Meera, with two other students, took up a student stipend project on Hebbal lake last year. Titled ‘The lake as an urban public space’ and funded by Delhi based SARAI, one of the things the study documented was how the lake meant different things to different user groups, the fishermen, dhobis, etc. "Although I'm deeply concerned about the lake ecology, our study was an anthropological one. It commented on the impact of leasing out the lake to a private hotel chain and making it an entertainment centre. We showed that we would be excluding a whole group of people who were the original users of the lake. Several people who were already working to save the lake from commercialisation quoted the study in their campaigns.?

Yoga and nature

As for yoga's relationship to the environment is concerned, the credo ‘do no harm’ applies equally to both, says Meera. Yoga is also a way of keeping in touch with her inner self and inculcating environmentally responsible values in children attending her Earth yoga camps.

During the course of her doctoral work, Meera hopes to raise questions that are not normally raised by scientists, especially those trained to think through concepts of western philosophical traditions. "We Indians look at nature differently. For instance, villagers feel that it was wrong to build a dam across Ganga because when lord Shiva couldn't stop her flow, what could we, mere mortals, do? Our conservation efforts should probably take into account these deep-rooted beliefs for them to become successful."

In the light of criticism of western models of conservation (chief one being that the western model of nature excludes people), work such as that of Meera's assumes significance.

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