2020: Exploring sangha – the meaning of community

The roots of yoga class.

Yoga was originally a solitary pursuit. For centuries, it was taught under the guidance of a guru to a small number of students, no more than three or four at a time. Guidance was direct and often harsh; the physical practice, demanding and often extreme.

Then, in 1936, in the city of Pune in southwestern India, BKS Iyengar taught the first class to a group of women. And from then on, through hard work, dedication, and a selfless devotion to his craft, he evolved his teaching method to reach a broader audience. Iyengar was the first teacher to advocate the benefit of yoga for everyone—not just the privileged or gifted—and he made many poses more accessible through the use of props and pedagogy. He also taught that the practice of yoga was transformative, not only of body, but of mind and soul. And so the Yoga class was born.

From class to Community.

In traditions like Buddhism and Yoga, we use the Sanskrit word “sangha” to denote our understanding of Community. In a lovely book called Good Citizens, Tich Nhat Hanh describes how practitioners create sangha on the basis of spiritual practice:

“…thanks to the collective practice, we can regain our solidity. Even if we’re distracted, our sangha can help us remember to come back to the present moment, to touch what is positive, to touch our own peace, to see how to undo what is difficult”.

He points out that practicing in community is easier than practicing alone, and that people practicing together generate a community that is more than the sum of its parts. And, since the sangha exists wherever the practice exists, it opens a path to global connectedness and harmony. In this way, Tich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, practice nourishes you, the community, and the world. Does that make sense?

sangha in sadhana: Community in practice.

The Iyengar Yoga class has some distinctive features that make it feasible for a practitioner with a basic level of poses and a responsible sense of self-care to participate in any Iyengar class around the world, our global sangha. We can enter the practice room, and feel at home. In fact, you may have experienced this already. Why is that?

~ There is a familiar structure and rhythm to all classes, beginning with the invocation, and ending in relaxation, with the savasana pose.

~ The teachers are here to teach everyone. Not just their “favorite” students, or the “good” or “known” students, but all students. Who needs a support? Who should do something more achievable? Who should be pushed a little harder?

~ The students are here to learn. Each pose is an opportunity for self-discovery, each instruction a vehicle for introspection. Watching a teacher demonstrate, or (better yet) watching a pose blossom as a teacher and a student work together, creates the seamless experience of personal insight and shared understanding that we call sangha.

IYS: Our year of sangha.

And so you, as an individual student, are part of this community at our local studio, and one with the wider community of practitioners around the globe. It is in this spirit that Iyengar Yoga Sarasota dedicates this year 2020 to sangha, community. We will offer opportunities in class to get to know your fellow practitioners; events in the greater Sarasota community; and features in the newsletter that I hope will bring us all closer together. In this way our year of sangha can be a springboard to take what we have gained off the mat; beyond our studio walls; and into our wider communities, our limitless sangha.

Ethics, Kindness and the Health Benefits of Social Connections

Today’s post starts with some interesting scientific findings. The links are here and I encourage you to read the source materials. 

“Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.” (https://www.pnas.org/content/109/11/4086)

“… a higher degree of social integration was associated with lower risk of physiological dysregulation in a dose–response manner in both early and later life. Conversely, lack of social connections was associated with vastly elevated risk in specific life stages…Physiological impacts of structural and functional dimensions of social relationships emerge uniquely in adolescence and midlife and persist into old age”

As humans gain more “power” (over the environment, worklife, and social relationships), there is a tendency is to see these powers as good excuses to behave badly  – to strangers as well as family and familiars; to animals and the environment. And these exertions of power have an isolating, destructive effect. The impulse to behave badly is self-destructive (literally, we age faster and die sooner); and other-destructive (we hurt, injure or kill that which is interdependent with our personal and social well-being). 

So much of health and well-being throughout the health span depends on how meaningfully and consistently we connect with others. Humans are socio-biologically and neuro-biologically built for sharing – events, experiences and meaning. 

In spiritual terms, the ability to behave ethically (with kindness, respect, empathy, compassion) starts with building an ethical relationship with yourself. 

The Dali Lama once said, “my religion is kindness”. A kind word or act towards a friend, relation or stranger can change your biochemistry (sympathetic to parasympathetic) and your psychological experience – not to mention the quality of the experience for the person receiving the kindness.  

On the mat.

Perhaps you struggle to be kind to yourself? “Here’s what’s wrong with me… “(then the list – hamstrings, flabby arms, poor balance, too old, too tight, too… whatever).

Do you see your fellow students as isolated islands, watching you, perhaps critiquing your pose?

Try beginning your practice with sitting or lying quietly. In class or in your own practice, chant aum three times, take three minutes with eyes closed to focus on your breath, observe your thoughts, and become present. 

Off the mat.

Perhaps you carry that inner voice of self-chastising with you, and (frequently, infrequently) it grabs you by the heart and brings you down, and then you may feel obliged to share your misery with your friends and family  – misery surely loves company. 

The antidote –

I was so moved by a recent listening of an interview with Sylvia Boorstein, psychologist and spiritual teacher. With her audience she offered the following guided meditation. I thought we might practice it this week, and perhaps you could try this at home (this is the original source https://onbeing.org/blog/sylvia-boorstein-a-lovingkindness-meditation/):

Close your eyes. It’s perfectly all right to have your eyes open, but it maybe easier with eyes closed.

You don’t have to sit in a special way. But if you want to, close your eyes. And just take two deep breaths, in and out.

Take a long breath in, and out. And in again, and out.

The metta practice of lovingkindness practice always begins with a blessing for yourself. So think for yourself:

May I feel safe. May I feel content. May I feel strong. May I live with ease.

Bring into your mind, someone that you love tremendously —  a parent, a partner, a child, a sibling —  someone you love enormously. That thinking of them brings delight into your mind. You probably have more than one. Pick one just for this moment. Imagine them right in front of you. Imagine that they can feel you wishing for them so you make this wish in your mind for your person:

May you feel safe. May you feel content. May you feel strong. May you live with ease.

Think about another person that you love a lot. Imagine them and wish for them:

May you feel safe. May you feel content. May you feel strong. May you live with ease.

Let your body stay relaxed and easy. You can smile, it makes your whole body more relaxed. 

Think of someone that you rarely think about but that you’d recognize if you met, like your hairdresser, or the person that bags your groceries:

May you feel safe. May you feel content. May you feel strong. May you live with ease.

Think about familiar strangers, unfamiliar strangers, near and far. All around us here and stretching out all around the whole world, all around this whole globe. All people just like us, with lives, who want, just as we do, to live in safety and contentment, to be able to feel strong, to have lives of ease. Who share with us the same wishes and hopes and dreams that we have as human beings. Wish for all those people, all beings near and far:

May you feel safe. May you feel content. May you feel strong. May you live with ease.

And before you open your eyes, observe the quality of your experience – observe your body, your breathing, your facial expression. 

And when you open your eyes now and look around, perhaps you experience your world differently. 

From Sylvia: “One of my fantasies… is that the whole world will wish themselves something like that and we’ll have a different world.”

See you on the mat.