I am on my way home from Boise, Idaho and, as is often the case, I am taking a few moments to reflect in writing about my experience.
This was my third trip to Boise and I was struck by the community that has developed there over the years. The first time I taught in Boise many of the students told me that they didn’t feel part of a yoga community and how they felt like they were really missing something. The mood was so different during this visit because so many students came up to me and told me about their group practices and how bonded they were feeling with each other and how important their yoga community was to them. We had students and teachers from so many of the local studios and practitioners of all sizes, shapes and sizes and abilities, all of whom listened well, worked hard and laughed freely. Even compared to last year— which was great— it seemed like the conversation in Boise has moved away from worrying about right and wrong within the poses and from fixating on method-to-method differences, toward a more grounded, harmonious exploration of the postures and how to approach them intelligently regardless of lineage, background and even personal preference.
Clearly something good is happening there and it was great to be a part of it.
When I started yoga, there was very little talk about yoga community. Yoga was presented much more as a personal enlightenment path and classes were very internal and interiorly directed. While the teacher was interactive, giving lessons, explanations, adjustments and corrections, the in-class experience wasn’t so interactive or community-focused. There was no chatter before class and there was good-natured banter during class. It wasn’t cold, mind you. I knew my classmates and there was community, community considerations just didn’t live at the forefront of the experience as an expressed ideal or value.
The premise when I began was that yoga was primarily a personal practice endeavor that you would mostly do alone at home and class was to learn how to deepen your individual, solitary, at-home pursuit.
I do think that the industry of yoga has driven yoga classes in a direction where now most people practice yoga in class and that “yoga practice” has come to mean “yoga class” for many folks. I also think that Anusara yoga’s emphasis on community altered the conversation a bit also. At any rate, both the context and content of what a yoga class is for has shifted considerably over the years in which I have been participating as a student and a teacher. Plenty has been written about such industry trends and how these changes and others have been the demise of true yoga and so on. I am purposely going to steer a bit clear of too much additional commentary along those lines. Blessing or curse, our yoga world is what it is, we have what we have and for many people, yoga is a communal event and an interactive experience. In my observation, people often come to class as much for interpersonal connection as they do for introspective inquiry. When I interview students and teachers about what they love about yoga, community is at the top of the list for many people.
I find the evolution in perspective from singular pursuit to community experience so much more interesting and compelling than whether or not we have ruined yoga. As a teacher of something I learned as primarily an introspective art who has students seeking and valuing a communal experience, I get a chance to ponder topics such as learning outcomes, teaching methods, epistemology and communal ways of knowing and constantly update my understanding of the milieu in which I am teaching. I am finding that the more I lean into the inquiry of where I am located as a teacher and where my students are located in their learning process, the more able I am to use the practice, the class and the teaching intelligently.
I am aware that we are pretty disconnected as a culture these days and while we have technological ways and means to update everyone on our status, to share our good news, our good hair days, our awesome children’s achievements, our irresistibly cute pets, the tasty meals we are eating, the lovely yoga poses we can do or to occasionally/frequently blow off steam with a rant about a rude stranger, a bad meal, an insensitive yoga teacher or an awkward moment, many people feel lonelier and more isolated than ever.
What an amazing thing to have a gathering place like a yoga class in the midst of our connected and yet strangely disconnected lives. There we are together, in the flesh, with all of its up-close-and-personal inconveniences like body odor, sweat, uncomfortable temperatures, bad manners, eye rolling, blank faces and heavy ujayi breathing to offset the sometimes-intoxicating-often-seductive -LED-screen-enhanced-emoticon-laden-highlight-reels- of-the-social-media-brand-your-lifestyle-selective-windows-into-reality of modern times.
So we are clear and lest we think that this is an indictment in which I do not include myself— I love technology. I use it daily and sometimes, truth be told, I am used by it, as the edge of skillful engagement with technology is one of those edges, in my observation, of which I can fall off either side. Sometimes, I feel the addictive cycle of it all and other times I sit in awe of the ways that we can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, e-books, apps, webinars, videos, youtube and the like to connect, to provide sanctuary, solace, education and inspiration. Like with so many things in this wonderful manifested life, technology as good or bad depends on my relationship to it, not to the thing itself.
And I know without a doubt that community can be built online. I have been a part of online community-building experiments as a student and as a teacher. I received my master’s degree in a program that was a pioneer in online education back in 1997 and offered my first online course in 2006 when I created an online training for folks wanting help with the Anusara yoga certification process. So I have been exploring online learning communities for almost 20 years.
I think we need community now more than ever. And I am glad that yoga is part of helping us connect in person, in and through our bodies. I am also grateful that going to class requires both inner work and outer sacrifice, costing us not only money but time, inconveniences, headaches of traffic, costs for babysitters as well as the fact that we have to deal with other people’s lovely and sometimes challenging personalities. I recognize that the students who come to class have often moved mountains-sometimes interiorly and sometimes exteriorly to roll out a mat and be part of the class experience.
And as much as I think we need connection to each other in the midst of our increasingly technologically based society I also think we need connection to ourselves and the ability to be with ourselves alone, in silence, in stillness, away from the notifications, status updates and selfies that document our lives so publicly. I think we need the ability to contain our energy, to hold our questions, to sit with our discomfort, to be bored, to be anonymous, to be underwhelmed and even sobered by the repetitious nature of the practice without modern means of distraction or entertainment. I think that interior connection is as important a solution to our feelings of isolation and disconnection as in-person communal connection is. I think the ability to be in community with the cast of characters that lives inside of us is as important as the ability to be in community with the cast of characters that lives outside. Like so many things in yoga, when it comes to community, we find ourselves in a both/and conversation, not an either/or endeavor.
The cool thing about practicing alone is that no one cares what you wear, what you look like and you can decide the temperature of the room, the playlist or the silence, the sequence, the timings, the tempo and the tone. What to work out, rock out a flow. Need to restore, grab your bolster. Like to open your hips first? Do it!
So many issues that pervade the blogosphere about politically correct speech, trauma-sensitive language, affordability, inclusivity, body image, inappropriate this and disrespectful that all disappear when it is us with our mat in a small corner of our bedroom, living room, hallway or office. It’s a beautiful thing, really. To me home practice is not a “should” thing— like “you should practice at home to be a good yogi," it is simply my preference for asana practice. As philosophically open as I am to all kinds of styles of practice and their potential benefits, I am actually kind of picky as a yoga consumer. And so I pick mostly to practice with me. I like my style. And I think I am smart and funny.
But I digress.
So look, I know that personal practice doesn’t pay the rent on a gorgeous studio in a convenient location and I know that people staying at home doesn’t seem like it would help increase class attendance and so I know there is a business of yoga discussion we could have another day. (I have noticed, however, that my students who develop home practices do keep coming to classes, workshops and trainings because they actually start getting a lot better and they also get hungrier for more help and, wait for it— they love yoga community!)
And so we are clear, as much as I love to practice with me, myself and I, I also love to benefit from group practice with students and friends and from great instruction from teachers who can hold the space and see my mistakes and my unrealized potential. (And since I started this small tirade talking about community, I suppose I should get back to the topic.) To me, the camaraderie that develops over time when I regularly show up at the same time and the same place is amazing. I might not even know someone’s name but I see them week-in and week-out in class and I know that simply through the mountain-moving experiences of “getting to class” and “getting through class” I am bonded to a stranger in and through a shared endeavor. Nothing like it. Its deep, its profound, and I think it is more ordinary than many people think.
People often tell me that they long for community and they wish they had it. Their longing often makes me wonder if all the recent talk about yoga community on blogs like this has them thinking that they are missing out on this ever-elusive thing called yoga community. It is almost like they imagine an ideal land of yoga community where potlucks, kirtans, mala-making parties, yoga practices and stand-up paddle-boarding exist like the perfect blend of therapy-group, spiritual-revival, social club and professional organization with none of the complications that go along with people coming together in groups. I have yet to meet that community. And I visit plenty of communities.
I have yet to meet a community in which everyone feels accepted all the time. I have yet to meet a community where no one’s feelings get hurt. I have yet to meet a community that doesn’t struggle with power differentials, pecking orders and jealousy. I have yet to meet a community that retains all its members. Maybe these utopian communities exist somewhere and I just haven’t visited there yet. Maybe. But I doubt it. I think people often have a kind of community FOMO going out comparing the reality of what they have to an idealized image of what they think they should have based on what they imagine other people having. Something like that. I am not even saying it is conscious. Just a gut instinct I have.
Anyway, I have met communities where people are doing the hard work of owning up to the ways that inclusion and exclusion operate inside both the individual and collective psyches of those involved. I have met communities where people have learned to admit fault, apologize to one another, heal from mistakes, forgive trespasses and move on better with better informed and with greater degrees of intimacy. I have met communities that have matured over time. And the strongest communities I know are founded in the shared endeavor of practice on-that-mat, on-the-cushion, and/or in study groups as opposed to expecting their yoga community to function like a social club, therapy group or professional organization.
I know for me that yoga community started simply. Yoga community was a “where two or more are gathered” kind-of-thing not a large social endeavor. I asked a few of my students to practice with me. I didn’t charge for it—we just got together with a long list of poses, a timer, a copy of Light on Yoga and long Sunday afternoons stretching out before us. Rachel, Meg and I spent hours together on sticky mats figuring out arm balances and back bends and as the years went by we loaded into cars and onto planes to go study with our teachers.
And we did it over a long period of time. We still do it when we can although it's a bit harder 15 years later an 3 children between us (theirs not mine, obviously) than it was then. Anyway, over time, other people joined us and classes and practices grew and expanded. Meanwhile, as we were all learning the intricacies of urdhva dhanurasana and how to balance in handstand we bought businesses, changed jobs, got married, had fights, moved across the country, struggled to stay married, had children, got puppies and kittens, put old dogs down, lost loved ones, went to therapy, lost weight, gained weight, stopped drinking, started drinking, learned about Ayurveda and in just in more ways than I can list, became witnesses to each others’ unfolding lives.
Sure we had some fun parties and potlucks along the way but honestly, the profound simplicity of rolling out a mat with people throughout the up-and-downs of life, of learning to see one another and of learning to be seen by one another is at the heart of my experience of yoga community. True community rarely happens quickly and it need not be on a grand scale to be extremely valuable and rewarding. Yoga community to me is a lot more about being with 1 or 2 people I know well in a small room working on poses than it is about being with 300 strangers in a larger tent at a festival or a conference, as fun as that can be.
And that is what struck me about Boise. Many folks have made practice groups and committed to practicing together outside of class and have found the gold of both shared and personal practice over a long period of time. And in the last several years it seems that the “I am missing out on this idea of community” narrative has shifted to a “we all push each other to stay committed to our growth” storyline. The energetic shift was palpable and inspiring.
Anyway, my dream for all of us as yogi’s is that we have both. (See I don’t want much- just everything.) I wish for us the sanity and sanctuary that only personal practice gives over time and that we have the inspiration and refuge that shared practice delivers so spectacularly in yoga studios everywhere.
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