Yoga’s Power to Build Community
The Meaning of Sangha
In the Buddhist tradition, a sangha is a group of like-minded individuals that gathers to support one another’s spiritual practices. Renowned monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love.”
If that sounds like something you could use in your life, look to yoga. The act of practising yoga together creates the ideal circumstances for a community to flourish. It’s one of the many reasons yoga’s benefits go way, way beyond the poses on the mat.
The Power of Community
The conditions of modern life leave many people feeling isolated and disconnected. Once upon a time, the extended family formed the backbone of a community support system, but families are often more dispersed now since it’s common to move for education and employment opportunities. In the contemporary workforce, people change jobs frequently and sometimes work remotely, rarely having the chance to form bonds with colleagues. While advances in digital connectivity allow us to stay in touch with more people from a greater distance, they often don’t foster the same kind of support you get from daily, in-person contact with the same people over time.
Studies have actually shown that meaningful social interactions improve quality (and even longevity) of life. Yes, people live longer, happier lives when they feel connected to and supported by their immediate communities. While we tend to talk a lot about how yoga improves health by reducing stress and making stronger, more flexible bodies, perhaps we’ve overlooked the importance of sangha in the equation. It’s one of the reasons, in addition to getting hands-on, expert instruction, that taking yoga classes is so beneficial.
Yoga Studio Sangha
How does a person find a community? Yoga classes offer one really easy way. Anyone can join. All you have to do is show up routinely at the same place prepared to reach for your toes. Pretty soon, you’re a regular. It’s like Cheers but without the barstools.
Yoga can be one of those experiences, like camping and travel, in which strong relationships are formed quickly through the shared experience of something intense. It can also work the long game by just allowing the same people to occupy the same space repeatedly over time. The potential for bonding is high because everyone there is letting their guard down by doing something that makes them feel at least a little bit vulnerable. Even the teachers and more experienced students are there to shed layers and be their truest selves.
Of course, yoga studios can do things to specifically cultivate a community, which is good for business as well as for the students. Having a common space where students can sit before or after class helps. (Cheers with the barstools!). Teachers can help their students feel less isolated by asking them to lean over and introduce themselves to the person on the mat next door. Knowing your neighbour and breaking down the walls we put up around the edges of our mats are the ways in which connections are made.
The sangha thrives when each individual decides to be an active participant. You can support your studio by attending their events and trainings, trying new classes, showing up even when you know there’s going to be a substitute teacher and being willing to try whatever wacky things come up in class, whether it’s chanting or a partnering exercise. When we sweat together, stretch ourselves outside our comfort zones together, and transform together, we are joined together.
A lot of yogis are also finding sanghas through online communities, such as on social media platforms like Instagram. These can be wonderful sources of inspiration and support for people who don’t have access to yoga classes or prefer to practice at home. Like any virtual interactions, they can also be fraught with miscommunications and occasional hurt feelings. We all know that it can be hard to read someone’s tone in an email or text (are they my kind of sarcastic or just a complete jerk?).
Opening yourself to connection online can also mean opening yourself to criticism and commentary that you don’t usually have to deal with in face-to-face interactions. To participate in a healthy online community, keep things respectful and positive even if differences of opinion arise. There’s always a way to say things courteously. Never take anonymity as an excuse to be rude and know when to walk away if an interaction becomes unproductive. This goes for the people with a handful of followers right on up to those with hundreds of thousands. We’re all humans, we’re all yogis. We often talk in yoga about leaving behind things that no longer serve us. If your virtual sangha sustains you, embrace it but if it begins to undermine you, look elsewhere for your community.
Be the Community You Want to See
So now that we have a sangha, what can we do together? We can lift each other up, banish isolation, build bridges, and co-create real change. We can be forces of positivity when things look bleak. We can come together to celebrate when things go well and to grieve when they don’t. We can affect the world. We can be powerful when we rise up together.
Image credit: @exhaleyogaretreats