To use yoga and theatrical intervention to promote environmental awareness in Kerala, India
While living on the coastal city of Kochi in India, I felt somewhat obliged to take up yoga. Everyone I asked confidently suggested I go to a yogi called Abiram. Fondly described as ‘Abi’, I was told, “He has a very long, white beard and looks very wise, but he is so fit and slim after doing yoga for so many years that no one can tell how old he is.” Satisfied with the sound of authenticity, I went to Abi’s house early the next morning. Parked out the front of his lush front garden full of jackfruit trees was a rickshaw painted with the message ‘No Plastic!’ and diagrams of ill-fated fish consuming plastic waste. It turned out that along with being a yogi-about-town, Abi also leads the Indian contingent of marine conservation organisation Global Ocean, called Global Ocean India.
Raising awareness on the dangers of plastic pollution in a country that generates more than 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste a day is no easy task. While approximately 9,000 tonnes of the waste is collected and recycled, every day 6,000 tonnes of plastic still remains uncollected and littered throughout the country. Lack of awareness and education results in 300 tonnes of this plastic collecting on Indian shores and ultimately drifting into the sea. This situation has a number of consequences, none of them positive. Birds and fish can become entangled and die ingesting the plastic or the litter; swirled by currents, the litter can accumulate over time and form large floating ‘garbage patches’, larger than some countries. Most disconcerting is what you can’t see – a microscopic range of fragmented plastic debris that is too small to be ‘scooped out’ of the ocean – which creates a lasting and irreversible toxicity.
As the coordinator of Global Ocean India, Abi brings this issue to the forefront by educating young people living in coastal towns all over Kerala about the dangers of pollution. Using innovative methods from his skills in yoga and theatre, he works in delivering a year-round environmental education program to raise awareness of what the Indian government has termed a ‘waste time bomb’.
A coastal native born in Kochi, Abi grew up planting trees with his family; “we have the love of nature in our genes” he says. After a gruelling yoga session, Abi and I sat in his living room and spoke about his work over a chai.
How did you get involved with Global Ocean?
The director of Global Ocean, from London came to my yoga studio for a class in 2012 – she was working on some anti-plastic campaigns here, that included beach cleaning sessions and seminars. Before she left, I suggested to her that I could start an education project called Global Ocean India here in Kochi. I told her; “we’ll do this project slowly, without any media or publicity - we’ll talk to children in schools, raise awareness and eventually, we will see results”.
What do you teach the children?
In the program, we chose to visit government schools in the coastal belt – because they’re so close to the ocean. They’re all fishermen’s children, so we need them. In these schools, we teach children between six and 16 years old about the environment, using theatre and yoga. In the sessions every week we drum into them – “this earth, you have not inherited it from our ancestors; you borrow it from your children. You have to give back to the children in good shape. We have to be very alert – the whole world is out to exploit the earth, and we have to be ‘soldiers’ to protect it.”
The awareness then begins to take root. The children start to understand that our Mother Earth is dying, and they want to know what they can do?
What kind of activities do you do with them to raise awareness?
We do singing, we talk with them, but mainly we do ‘theatre yoga’ activities with the children. In theatre yoga, we do role plays where groups of children are given the role of trees and wildlife and other children the role of ‘wood cutters’ out to exploit nature for money. The children stand in different yoga positions to act out these different roles. We use the activities to explain why the trees are more valuable and important than money, that the trees give us oxygen, fruit and flowers, and that animals live in the trees.
Have you seen any impact from your work?
Yes, very much. The children have come up to me and asked for my autograph (laughs). They sing the songs I taught them, and they are also teaching their parents. When they go home, they tell their parents not to throw plastic away. Instead of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ we tell the children to ‘refuse, reduce, reuse’. And they are telling their parents that. Recycling isn’t cost effective. When you spend $4000 to recycle 1/10th of plastic, you get only $36 worth of plastic back.
I think the problem is, a lot of Indians think more about their inner selves. People look at their body as just a vehicle. They like to connect with the ‘inner light’. They care more about what is inside than what is outside. But the filth is accumulating in the cities. There is a lack of awareness.
Fifty years ago, we didn’t have any plastic in India. We used only biodegradable things such as banana leaves for eating, or clay pots for drinking tea. When plastic was first introduced to India, the government should have had a very clear awareness program. They went wrong there – there was no planning.
Do you do any work raising awareness with adults?
For the last 30 years, we’ve been doing ‘invisible theatre’ with the public. Our theatre team sets a time to meet with a group in a certain place. We split up and get on the same bus from different stops. While we’re on the bus, we all sit separately and say a few things to start our voice recognition to each other on this crowded bus – “What’s the time?” “Are we late?” “Sorry I hit your leg, sorry!”
By about the fifth stop, the bus is full with people going to work, going to study. Once the bus is full, we start a discussion and talk about the dam, or the forest. The four of us begin an ‘invisible debate’ – two of us on the government’s side, two on the environmental side. People are reading the newspaper, and then it begins – the people on the bus start to feed the debate. People start to join in, and we have a good discussion on the bus about this environmental issue. When the bus starts to empty, when we reach a main stop, we clap and ask them to think about what they really want – clean air to breathe and clean water to drink?
Keralan people are a very politically oriented people, and very interesting. Passionate debates can often spring up.
What message do you hope to spread through your work with yoga, and your work with Global Ocean?
Living in Kochi, I have had the chance to meet a lot of different people, of different cultures –genuine travellers, not just tourists. As a world citizen, I believe that this globe belongs to me, and I belong to this globe. That’s another idea I spread, humanity and the ‘one world’ concept through yoga. All beings share the same breath – and if you look at the world like that, there’s no competition, there’s nothing to hate.