Yoga Puts the Unity in Community
WHAT MAKES A COMMUNITY?
When a group of people shows up at the same time with the same intention, week after week, community happens. When people come together in a common place with a common purpose, they often discover that they have a lot in common.
Yoga provides the place and the purpose, facilitating the formation of communities, both virtual and physical.
Yoga means ‘union’, so it’s no surprise that this practice is particularly suited to communion. When we open our hearts and work on accepting every part of ourselves, it only follows that we would extend the same courtesy to our fellow humans on the neighbouring mats.
One day you’re comparing your struggles with recalcitrant hip flexors, the next day you’re commiserating over challenges at work or home. When confidences are exchanged, bonds are formed.
Going through intense physical experiences together makes people feel close. In a group yoga class, we see each other stripped-down, sweating, trying hard things, and being vulnerable. We can’t help but be brought together by these circumstances.
THE POWER OF COMMUNITY
Once upon a time, extended families formed the backbone of community support systems, but families are more often dispersed now that it’s common for younger generations to leave home for education and employment opportunities.
Likewise, it was once unremarkable for people to work at the same place for their entire careers. Now, people frequently change jobs and work remotely, making it more difficult 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 relationships you get from daily, in-person contact with the same people over a long period of time.
Studies have shown that meaningful social interactions improve quality of live and even longevity. People live longer, happier lives when they feel connected to, and supported by, their immediate communities.
While we know that yoga improves our health by reducing stress and making stronger, more flexible bodies, we shouldn't overlook the importance of community 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
In the Buddhist tradition, a sangha is a group of like-minded individuals who gather to support one another’s spiritual practices. As the renowned monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love.”
How do you find a sangha? Yoga classes offer one really easy way. Anyone can join. All you have to do is show up regularly, ready to reach for your toes. When the same people to occupy the same space repeatedly over time familiarity builds to friendship.
Yoga can be one of those experiences, like travel or summer camp, in which strong relationships are formed quickly through the shared experience of something intense. The potential for bonding is high because everyone there is letting their guard down by doing something difficult. Even the teachers and more experienced students are there to shed layers and become their truest selves.
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 stretch ourselves outside our comfort zones together, we are joined together.
A lot of yogis are also finding their sanghas through online communities 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, however, 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 use out unity to fight the effects of division, which is a product of isolation. The more opportunities we have to recognize our common humanity, the greater value we place on equal rights and opportunities for all people, whether they live next door or on the other side of the world.
We’ve seen the results that division has on our planet: the disproportionate effects of war, pandemic, and environmental catastrophe. Isn’t it time we gave unity a chance? Community that starts on the mat soon makes its way into the world.