Yoga & Sangha

It’s a word that many in the yoga community have not heard, and yet that is what it means- a yoga community. The people in your classes, at your studio or health club, the friends on the mat next to yours, the teachers who offer the classes, the ones who share your outlook.  It’s a vital part of yoga practice, but many of us don’t feel connected.  Just as you would commit yourself to working with an āsana until it’s second nature, just as you would focus on a mantra until you have it repeating with your heart beat, you must cultivate a community to support your yoga.

  

Sat-sangha means “association with the virtuous or real” This can be interpreted as keeping company with people who connect you to the truth, the ultimate reality. 

 

When we speak of the environment, we often use the word to refer to the natural world, but in fact, your environment is simply what surrounds you. When you are in a negative environment, surrounded by angry, hurried people, it is very challenging not to feel as angry and as hurried as everyone else. So when you choose to spend time with other yogis, you are creating an environment that is positive in every way. The company you keep and the habits that they have, become your habits, either by your choice or without noticing. This is not a flaw in human nature, this is simply how human nature works. We become more like the people we surround ourselves with, every day.

 

One of the reasons that yoga classes are so popular is that practicing with a group enhances your practice. Making a commitment to spend the time with these people is a central part of the practice.  When we go to class, we are assured that we will have support. There will be an instructor, there will other students learning, and all will keep pace in the activity together. It seems to be intangible, but the atmosphere around any group of people has it’s own personality.

 

We live in a culture that celebrates individuality to such an extreme, it can be a challenge to feel comfortable as a part of a group. But the very reason that we live in a society, whether it is a city or a family, is because we need each other. We need to be there to listen and encourage all those who have chosen to walk the same path.

 

Any study of comparative religion will show that mysticism dissolves all differences. While Islam and Judaism see themselves as opposing forces, the sufis and kabbalists know themselves to be brothers. The more we reach towards divinity, the easier it becomes to leave our differences behind. There is so much more to yoga than the practice of āsana, and so much good to be gained from the friendship and support of others, the commitment to sangha is a high point on the path.

 

The Udana-Varga, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (a text of the Tibetan Tantric practice) states that

 

“People degenerate by relying on those inferior to themselves.

  By relying on equals, they stay the same.

  By relying on those superior, they attain excellence.

  Thus rely on those who are superior to yourself.”

 

When you come into a place that has a feeling of sangha, you know you are in sacred space, dealing with people whose ethics and motives you need never doubt.

 

You will meet many people on your path who are friendly, centered and supportive of the yogic attitude. There are also those who seem to be seekers, who have the language and the posture of yogis, but whose minds are firmly fixed on the worldly plane. They may have been practicing for years, but their focus is on getting ahead in this life, what the people around them can do for them, and the bottom line. Even teachers and gurus can be so distracted by matters of status and fame, they lose their yoga in the pursuit of notoriety as a yogi.

 

As you allow yourself to become more comfortable in creating a community, and more open in your own sense of bhakti, you may find that the yogis who most inspire you are not the ones at the studio, sitting on the next mat. Maybe there is a grocery clerk who serves her customers with a smile so genuine it inspires you every time you see her. Perhaps there is a librarian who is so unfailingly patient with people who ask him questions, he reminds you of your own ability to be patient. Maybe there is a neighbor, a relative, or a co-worker who just brings out the best in you. Without ever discussing philosophy or practicing prānāyāma, they are included in sangha. They are the people in your life who inspire you and propel you towards goodness. By standing together in the present moment and sharing breath, you are sharing yoga with others.

 

In yoga, we are seeking the connection to the eternal, by beginning with our individual path. Before the individual can unite with the universal, it must first unite with the group. By growing from one yogi to many yogis, the practice and the philosophy gather strength as they gather energy.

 

From an enlightened outlook, we are all members of the same community. Because we focus our selves so much on our individualism, we may miss out on the joys of partnership and community. To have friends who are working on the same high ideals that you are is one of the very best things that yoga has to offer. Spiritual growth is nurtured in spiritual community.

 

In Buddhism, people are taught to rely on the “three jewels”- The Buddha, the Dharma (translated as lawfulness, or virtue) and the Sangha. With these jewels to light your way, your path is always clear.

 

When we open ourselves to being on the path together, we have the gift of learning from other people’s mistakes, celebrating their successes, and moving forward together.

 

 

References:

  1. The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, Georg Feuerstein, Shambala
  2. The Great Treatise on the Path to Enlightenment, Tsong-ka-pa, Snow Lion

 

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