The Power of Community
My first foray into a public yoga class landed me in a sweaty puddle, crammed into a Bikram class with an ex-girlfriend, who ‘gently’ nudged me to join. I’ll never forget the unforgiving mirrors, commercial loop pile carpet in need of a deep clean and the feeling that I was completely out of place. COMPLETELY. No one said a word to each other as we marched in, I myself certainly felt like the outcast ‘new’ guy in Adidas workout pants and wavering eyes. Little did I know what would overtake my being as I laid my body to rest in savasana, salty beads running down my temples and stinging my eyes. It was a perfect moment, playing dead amidst a room full of strangers.
Flash forward about ten years to the bustling shala of Urban Flow, pungent Nag Champa incense wafting between the chattering 100+ souls sprawling around the joyous epicenter of yoga that Rusty Wells had cultivated in San Francisco. Opening those doors was like a portal into a dream, the second you’d crack the door you’d get washed over with the din of laughter, conversation, curiosity, excitement, nervousness, play and most importantly – connection. What was nourished inside those studio walls was for me, the essence of sangha, or spiritual community. I didn’t know that this community would soon bring me some of my dearest friends.
Having good company for this wild ride on the ‘yoga path’ is a supreme blessing. As many of us know, the path of waking up and asking the deeper questions about who we are and what we’re up to comes with a whole lot of, well… more questions. Opening up the portals to self inquisition and realization can be downright confounding. I certainly have felt that (and continue to) on my own path, and have witnessed it in all nooks and crannies of the yoga world. While living in the Brahmananda Ashram in San Francisco the conversation of waking up and self discovery bounced around inside those walls like frenetic, uncontrolled slinkies. And as disorienting as it was at times… we had each other, nestled around the communal table at night to digest philosophical concepts and good vegetarian prasad.
Community is vital, not only in the material world, but especially the spiritual. People to reflect back your own loopholes and blindspots, friends to catch your ego inflating more than deflating, someone to share an insight with and the comfort of another to commune with on this great journey home. And let’s face it, none of us really know the answers. So, together we get to speculate, hypothesize, theorize and enjoy the ride in the midst of other fellow humans stumbling along. And we meet so many unique characters on the journey, some who may light up spontaneous insight by sharing a teaching, some who remind you why you’ve chosen this different path and of course some to challenge you and push ALL your buttons. Whatever it is, when we come together in sangha, ideally we come together on a level playing field and everyone has something to give and receive, and we embody equally the teacher and the student.
Unfortunately you can read innumerable accounts of this balance being strewn, jeopardized and abused. It’s a disservice when spiritual communities give so much power to one person, whether they are referred to as guru, teacher or leader. It’s almost inevitable that the power and authority can be used to manipulate someone who may have disempowered themselves by transferring their own personal power to the hands of another. I’ve witnessed it first hand and heard so many accounts of it. It breaks my heart that those who most need healing and empowerment encounter the wicked deceit of overgrown power. There should be zero tolerance for this. Zero. This is why I believe it’s paramount that we all arrive as equals, no one having any more than another.
At this point, I’ve dipped in and out of so many unique communities through various yoga studios, teacher trainings, traveling to teach, retreats, housing situations and more. I’ve encountered many diverse reasons for people gathering in spiritual communities. Some folks are just looking for answers, or healing, or just a home. Some folks do it as more of a performative expression, perhaps a rejection of social standards and trial departure from the more material world. For some, it follows loss or trauma and creates a refuge. And then some people are just plain curious, willing to be vulnerable with other soulful seekers, to ask the hard questions, be comfortable in the unknowns and embrace what it means to be human, yet spiritual, and completely alone; but for a moment – gathered in community.
These days most of my closest friends are fellow students of yoga that I’ve met throughout my own journey and studies. Many of them from those early days at Urban Flow. After nearly 10 years together in study, practice and inquisition we have a bond, a deep knowing and allowing for each other. Whether it’s the allowing to stumble a bit and know that we’ll rise back up, or permission to simply be just as we are: perfectly adorable, messy, raw and learning humans that have found camaraderie in each other’s company. Whatever it is, I’m beyond grateful to have like-minded souls, and not so like-minded, to keep me accountable, present and reminded that we are all blessed, that we are all students.
How can you create sangha in your life? One of the easiest, and most obvious ways, is to simply say hi the next time you roll your mat out or set down your cushion next to someone. Then, if you’re willing, skip the surface conversation and ask questions like; “How long have you been practicing, and what has been your biggest learning so far?” Or, “What are ways you practice off the mat?” Perhaps you could share something you’ve unearthed on your journey. Just start an honest conversation and see where it leads.
And, because most often a public yoga class has limited time for dialog, make plans to attend other ‘spiritual’ gatherings like kirtans, dharma talks, pujas at local ashrams, workshops at your local studio or retreats. When the time isn’t limited to a 75 minute vinyasa class and not everyone is scurrying to be the first out of the door after savasana, conversation can flow more freely. Look for offerings in your local community. There are great resources online, or ask your teachers. I’m sure they’d love to help you connect with fellow students. You just never know where you’ll find your next best friend, partner, collaborator or someone special to relish in the wisdom of the teachings with.
I pray that you find those that uplift your deepest intentions and help hold you to the fire of truth.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti