Yoga Journal, May 2003
THE IDEA OF SANGHA, from the Sanskrit word meaning “collection”
or “community,” is firmly rooted in Buddhism, where along with
the Buddha and the dharma, sangha is considered one of the three refuges
from suffering. The concept of community is less established in classical
yoga philosophy. Though ashrams, where students live together under the
guidance of a guru, are certainly yoga communities, walking the yogic path
is often a solitary pursuit, especially in our times, when students routinely
squeeze in a yoga class after a long day at the office before rushing home
for what remains of the evening. Though yoga classes can be fertile soil
for community, it takes effort and intention to create and sustain a sangha.
We asked yoga teachers David Nelson and Sarah Powers to share what steps
they've taken in their own yoga studios to foster the support and shared
vision of community.
After receiving certification from Ganga White and Tracey Rich of the White
Lotus Foundation in 1988, David Nelson opened Castro Yoga as a service to
his San Francisco neighborhood, which had no yoga studio. Currently a student
of Advanced Senior Iyengar Instructor Manouso Manos, Nelson has also studied
Bikram and Ashtanga Yoga.
Sarah Powers offers classes at the Deer Run Zendo in Corte Madera, California,
where she teaches a blend of yoga styles and Buddhist meditation techniques.
A yoga teacher for 15 years, Powers presents workshops internationally.
Featured in the 2001 Yoga Journal calendar,
Powers recently released a video, Yin Vinyasa Yoga (available from www.SarahPowers.com).
Yoga Journal: What does the word “sangha”
mean to you?
Sarah Powers: I learned about sangha when I entered
the dharma community of Buddhism. I’m sure sangha existed in yoga
too, but in the 12 years I had spent practicing asana, it wasn’t emphasized.
I did have a vague idea that sangha referred to the kinship of people practicing
yoga, but actually the term refers to those who make the practice the focus
of their life. It’s a monastic community. In a modern context sangha
broadly represents that huge umbrella under which people who delve into
the mystery of being can find refuge and obtain a sense of belonging.
David Nelson: Because of its monastic connotations,
I wouldn’t use the word sangha. I use the word community instead.
What characterizes the yoga community beyond what we do on the sticky mat
is lifestyle: It’s what we eat, read, consume, and don’t consume,
and generally how we treat one another. It’s the way yoga practice
permeates our lives. When this attitude finds expression among a group of
people, you have a modern sangha—a community centered on yoga.
YJ: What does being part of a yoga community require?
SP: It requires becoming available to your spiritual
family outside of the formal practice. It requires taking time at the beginning
or end of a class to get to know one another or to share a moment of friendliness
when we meet at the market, not to rush and treat each other like businessmen
who believe time is money. It requires connecting on a regular basis until
you feel like you’ve become part of a larger whole.
DN: I grew up in a small town in Iowa, where I
learned that even though each one of us has a private life, there’s
also a fabric woven by the community. When the need arrives, people show
up. Death, illness, birth, and joyful events occur in life, and the community
shows up to either lend support or enjoy the party. Each one knows it’s
his or her responsibility to be there. I see this small-town quality of
community care at the core of a modern sangha.
YJ: How successful have you been at creating community?
SP: Since the yoga teachers I knew in San Francisco
only saw one another at conferences, I decided to start a group that met
more regularly about four years ago. A few female yoga teachers I knew started
to participate in what I called a “Yoga Woman’s Circle.”
Now we meet once a month to unravel our heartaches, hopes, and insights.
This group of six to 10 women has become the core of my sangha. There’s
community among my yoga students too. We gather monthly for a potluck. But
unlike the typical party, we sit in a circle and individually introduce
ourselves. This way if you need an architect or a lawyer, perhaps you can
find the right person in yoga class. It’s another way of building
relationships beyond the studio.
DN: My partner and I established Castro Yoga with
the intention of providing a community service. It wasn’t a business
so much as a gathering place. Everything we do is geared toward building
community. At the beginning of class, I ask students to introduce themselves
to someone new. It’s simple but effective. Within minutes the class
becomes more sociable and friendships develop. At times we do partner poses;
I’m not a big fan of these as a yoga teacher, but working together
helps people get to know one another. When students meet on the street,
they remember each other and identify themselves as part of the local yoga
community. We often have potlucks and three-day intensives, and we use the
Internet to stay in touch. The community created by a yoga studio can be
very strong. I met my wife through yoga, and most of my friends.
YJ: Does community necessitate a shared philosophical
frame, or can it simply evolve among a group of asana practitioners?
SP: It can start wherever you enter the path.
Asana seems a likely doorway for the larger community because people from
all different backgrounds feel safe doing asana—it doesn’t ask
them to question their underlying beliefs. But even so, when people enter
the path of yoga, they begin to change. Sometimes this makes them feel lonely
because no one else they know is watching their breath and becoming more
mindful. Sharing their discoveries with family and friends can be alienating.
And that’s where sangha comes in. I always suggest that new students
begin making friends in yoga class to support one another through the changes
that inevitably take place.
DN: A traditional sangha certainly requires a
philosophical basis, but a sense of community can start with asana. You
just have to provide venues outside of class for yogis to meet. Through
parties and weekend intensives, we provide a setting for relationships to
develop. Intensives work especially well because when students delve deeply
into themselves, the relationships they establish in this state of mind
tend to run deeper.
YJ: Yoga is a path to self-realization. How does
being part of a community help us through this process?
SP: Community can be a mirror. When we practice
in isolation, we get feelings of grandeur, explosions of insight and spiritual
expansion—but then these don’t hold up off the mat. Insight
becomes wisdom only when it is rooted in the stream of your being, and that
comes across in the way you relate. Without interaction, you really don’t
know who you are. It’s especially important to have this reflection
when you get confused and delusional. I think the yoga community could certainly
benefit from this. We could become a stronger group of people if we build
a sangha that helps those who stray get back on the path?rather than damning
them behind their backs. The Buddhist community does this, and it works.
DN: Many problems can take us away from yoga.
Few of us can go it alone for very long. A community of practitioners exerts
positive peer pressure that helps us keep going. For example, students attending
a retreat have the opportunity to experience what it’s like to develop
relationships centered on personal growth. These relationships become the
benchmark for other relationships in their personal lives. The community
becomes an extension of practice and integral to it.
YJ: So much of what we learn in yoga is the fruit
of turning inward and tuning into our deepest self. Doesn’t community
ask us to turn outward? Is there a balance to strike between the two?
SP: That’s the flip side, and it could be
the subject of a whole separate dialogue. I’ve had to learn to strike
a balance to remain healthy. I have my own practice space, and when I’m
there, no one knocks on the door or enters uninvited. Delimiting your privacy
and finding time to cultivate the inner ear is as important as cultivating
community. I am always watching to make sure that I don’t stray into
too much social life or too much silence. It’s a pendulum that swings
both ways, so you have to monitor it constantly.
DN: Our home is a block form the yoga school,
and we open our doors to students as a part of the program. We try to demonstrate
by example a lifestyle commensurate with yoga practice. This makes it very
difficult to balance community with privacy. But the success of my teaching
depends on how deeply I’ve delved into myself. I’ve had to learn
to put my practice and family relationships first. Introspection is at the
core of yoga. Without personal boundaries, there’s no way to draw
from that core and hence nothing to share with the community.
YJ: Aren’t problems of the ego—such
as pride, competition, and envy—more likely to crop up in a community,
when people are in relationships with one another?
SP: Ego problems come from being unenlightened.
They’re there whether you’re alone or with people. It’s
just easier to ignore the ego by yourself. In a community of practitioners,
the conflicts may be more obvious, but you can also learn to model your
actions after those who are farther on the path. Their example helps guide
you. Then again, competition is indeed a special problem for yogis because
the asana practice is outward. Buddhists can’t compare the relative
depth of each one’s meditation in the same way yogis can compare asanas.
That’s where the teacher steps in to tone down the level of classroom
competition. Unwittingly we share both our confusion and clarity, and that’s
the benefit and difficulty of a sangha. It makes the practice a gift to
those around us, as well as to ourselves.
DN: I don’t see the ego or competition as
a major obstacle to creating community, but rather our busy, ever changing
lives?especially in cities like San Francisco, where people come and go
in droves. For 20 years HIV has been decimating our population. We’ve
now lost legions to the dot-com meltdown. Any community requires continuity—for
people to mature and grow through years of living together—and that’s
the real challenge.
YJ: So how do you maintain and strengthen the
personal bonds with your sangha?
DN: We’ve made some progress by staying
in touch through the Internet. I write a weekly newsletter. We have parties.
We provide intensive yoga retreats on holidays, which gives us time to deepen
ties. We focus yoga offerings on specific populations, with prenatal and
postnatal classes and programs for those suffering with HIV. Perhaps even
more than asana and pranayama, students benefit from building relationships
with like-minded people living through similar experiences. It provides
a reason to stick together.
SP: One of the ironies of our community is that
when people redefine themselves and try to center their lives on yoga, they
often start to struggle financially. This creates more stress and less time
for community building. That’s why I started the circle of women yoga
teachers; we make it a point to gather, in spite of our busy lives.
YJ: What steps can you suggest for a lonely
yogi who would like to develop sangha?
SP: I tell my students to write sangha time
into their calendars. Schedule time to gather with people who have the
same interests, to share ideas, recommend books, eat together, and bare
the joys and difficulties of life. Make this a priority and an important
part of your practice. Find a yoga center, like David’s Castro Yoga,
where you feel included. Read the bulletin board and participate in some
events. It’s usually in these gatherings outside of class that friendships
develop. Buddhists see sangha as vital to the spiritual life. I would
like this idea to grow in the yoga community. I’d like to see less
cattiness about the differences among various schools and greater interest
in joining hands as a force to help transform society for the better.
DN: Building community requires perseverance
and discipline, like asana. Take the initiative to start a group and see
who shows up. Reach out to people in your class; you’ll find they
are developing similar insights and have similar needs. As you change,
some old friendships fall away, but new and better ones form. When you
teach with the purpose of supporting the local community, you’ll
eventually succeed in building sangha?a community built upon yoga practice?and
a better place to live.