The community that springs from a yoga class is a beautiful and mysterious thing. Yoga, after all, is a quiet practice. The work that we do is quite individual – done on our own within the bounds of our mat. Our awareness or concentration is fixed squarely on ourselves – the movements of our body, the sound of our breath and the focus of our mind. During each class, we confront our own “stuff” – wandering thoughts, limiting fears, complacent hearts and striving egos.
Yet somehow, sharing our practice with others – whether weekly or daily – creates deep and meaningful bonds that can seem incongruous to the five or ten minutes of chatting that happens before or after class. That said, these relationships are very real and often become valuable and highly trusted supports for us as we navigate our lives. These connections cross barriers of age, profession and gender in ways it can be hard for other friendships to do.
These yoga-based communities can serve as guiding lights to students entering new stages of life such as parenthood, marriage, or divorce. They can be profoundly supportive to grieving students. They erupt into ebullient celebrations of a member’s success as often as they become immediate and intimate sources of loving compassion when a member is suffering a setback or failure. No state of mind or feeling is out of bounds. Whether these emotions are openly shared or simply perceived by the rest of the community does not matter. Confusion, pride, frustration and joy are equally welcomed into the folds of these relationships.
We use a Sanskrit word to describe these communities – sangha. That this word also refers to communities of Buddhist monks or nuns does not surprise me. The deep, meaningful nature of the relationships that develop in yoga classes has a spiritual feel to it. These friendships are connections at a very different level than we’re accustomed to in our daily lives. The fact that we’ve spent our time on our mat practicing being kind, loving, gentle and accepting of ourselves creates a loving environment where we are naturally kind, loving, gentle and accepting of everyone in the room. As we practice yoga, we are changing on all levels – body, mind and spirit. The relationships forged when we’re so open and so vulnerable seem to spontaneously deepen.
This is, I believe, the way we were created to live – constantly aware that we are a part of something greater than ourselves. We are beings who thrive on connection and who wither in isolation. When we’re feeling strong and vital, we can share that energy with the world around us. When we are feeling small, sad, alone or low, the simple of act of reaching out – going to church, volunteering at an animal shelter, calling a friend, going to a class – can be transformational. Re-joining the world around us, even in a tiny way, helps to remind us that we are an integral part of this great big, complicated, messy creation.
It’s not just the depressed or withdrawn who have a hard time connecting. Our culture celebrates the individual. We get stuck in our own head. We get wrapped up in our own successes and our own struggles. Even with regards to our spiritual lives, it is remarkably easy for us to become consumed with our own salvation or our own relationship with God. English scholar Owen Barfield describes this state of mind as the “desert of nonparticipation.” Living as an autonomous individual finding his or her own way through the wilderness of the world can be a hard habit to recognize – let alone to break.
Just as yoga allows us to practice better posture, more efficient movements, refreshing and nurturing breathing patterns and focused states of mind, it allows us to practice being in community. As with all the skills that we practice on our mats, this one translates beautifully into “real life.” Better yet, our “practice” communities (our sanghas) are as real and as powerful as the bodily and mental strength we create through yoga.
As we see and receive the gifts from these beautiful connections, we begin to trust ourselves to reach out in this same way to the people who fill our days. We are hopeful and optimistic that it is possible to connect despite surface differences. We find it easier to be gentle rather than judging. We approach the world around us with a sense of generosity and acceptance. It begins to feel more natural and less frightening to be open and a little vulnerable.
In short, yoga, which comes from the Sanskrit word “yuj,” meaning to unite or to connect, becomes much more than a practice. It becomes a way of living a life deeply connected to the world around us.