“There’s nothing we could know about ourselves or another that could solve the problem that other people actually exist and we are utterly depend on them.” ~ Adam Phillips
When I first began practicing yoga with others, I used to walk from my university residence to the studio in another part of town, my yoga mat bag slung over my shoulder. I would go to a class just about every day (the freedom of being a student!) and attempted to be discrete about the whole thing. “What are you carrying in the bag?” I would sometimes get asked. “An instrument?”, “A fishing rod?”, “A gun?”. “A yoga mat,” I’d say and quickly carry on away from the stranger with a perplexed look on their face.
Once I arrived at the studio, I would show my membership card at the desk, slip inside the room and sit there awkwardly until the class began. After the class, I would leave hoping to get out before anyone struck up a conversation. It wasn’t that I didn’t like other people, it’s just that I probably wasn’t comfortable with myself. My plan each time I went was to get in and get out, offering a friendly smile but nothing else. It was okay. I mean, even with this goal, there were many reasons to keep going back. But I wanted to keep my ‘yoga time’ to myself and essentially compartmentalize my practice so that it didn’t need anyone else.
Then my plan all went haywire because I made a friend. Sara was from Mexico, living in Montreal, and coming to class just as much as I was, so talking to each other was pretty much unavoidable. It wasn’t that I didn’t have friends but I didn’t have a friend that practiced yoga. She introduced me to ‘sipping’ tequila (who knew?), taught me how to make bread, and most importantly walked to and from class with me and spent hours talking about yoga, our practice, and eventually our teaching. It is only now that I realize if I hadn’t met her, I probably wouldn’t have continued. This can be said for all the other friends, students and teachers I have met along the way.
I have always had this bent in me, to draw back from the crowd and attempt to do things on my own. But again and again, I realize how ridiculous and impossible this is in all realms of my life. Yoga has been my longest relationship, love, and career path. We have been together for 18 years now. And when we stick with anything for a while, we begin to recognize how that practice and relationship can reflect back to us, our habits, our own mind, and how we engage with the rest of the world. Drawing back from the crowd is not the problem, but thinking that I can do this practice on my own is. For years, partly due to the circumstances in my life, I practiced at home by myself. This is a good skill to have but it needs to be accompanied with community.
A buzz about this same idea started to happen soon after the death of Michael Stone. If you don’t know him, get to know him a little better here and perhaps here and definitely here. In his teachings, he often spoke about the importance sangha - meaning 'community' or 'company'. The kind where you don’t just show up in the studio room, hoping no one speaks to you. It was more the supportive, evolving, and action-driven kind that he was encouraging. One, I would add, that isn't rigid, questions our blind spots and takes care of our weakest points.
In Western society, we are plagued by the idea that we should be independent individuals who should strive for a kind of self-made status. This is an era of celebrities, single parents, and entrepreneurs. These titles must become myths as these roles are all impossible to do alone. I do believe this is changing as we are recognizing how lonely and far apart we are, which is making it critical to take that much more of an effort to find connection to others. If we are part of a specific community, it should be permeable and the association should not define us completely. This was likely part of the hesitation years ago when I attempted to conceal my mat and keep my practice isolated to 1.5 hours of my day.
It all goes along with the notion of not keeping yoga on your mat. It shouldn’t stay there, in our private yoga rooms and studios, and I would insist that it can’t. You cannot practice alone, you cannot teach alone, you cannot parent alone, you cannot love alone. This ultimate path of knowing ourselves cannot happen in isolation from getting to know those around us. I have a hard time with the overused example that if we are in an airplane that is going down, first we must put on our own oxygen mask and then we help others. Sometimes this analogy works but rarely do airplanes actually crash and when they do, an oxygen mask will probably not be effective in saving your life. What is far more common is that people are tired, or lonely, or sad and we try desperately to find out own oxygen mask. What works far better is that when we find ourselves unable to breathe because of isolation, we seek the company of others and we ask something like “What’s your name?” or “What are you carrying in that weird bag?” And if you really want to save a life, it helps to answer.
Image source: unknown, 1930