Sangha, Supported practice and embracing help

Sangha– Association, coming together. A community of practitioners growing together spiritually whilst learning the path of Yoga.

I started my journey of Yoga at a studio where the practice was focused a lot on the use of props and adjustments in pairs and small groups. Those techniques, as I been taught, should be used to support and deepen the practice. It allowed me to reach a high level of physical intelligence and learn each pose through many different variations. This is a knowledge which I am now really passionate about sharing with my students in various workshops that I lead.

Even though I am a great believer of using props and adjustments in practice, I rarely apply those techniques in regular group classes as the time frame is short and the pace is expected to be quite quick. Also, unfortunately, the way we practice Yoga in the west and specifically in Melbourne, the sport’s capital, is not really welcoming supported practice.

Even when I do offer the use of props or modifications, I see that most students choose to avoid them. I believe that our western minds still fail to identify the Yoga studio as a non-competitive space. We want to succeed in the most challenging pose and we want to be better than other practitioners. We still fall into seeing Yoga as a type of exercise or a sport. We also don’t want to use props because we believe that we can do better without them: that we don’t need help or support.

As people we have this illusion of independence and individualism, which is probably crucial to survive our competitive western world. I believe that there is nothing wrong with that. Maybe being competitive makes us more productive and motivated, however, our Yoga practice has nothing to do with our ability to function independently, it rather here to teach us something else.
The Yoga studio, traditionally, was not meant to be a space for competitive individuals. It was meant to contain Sangha: people that come together and form a community of practitioners.
Patanjali in his ancient guide to the practitioner, The Yoga Sutras, encourages friendliness, Maitri. According to Patanjali, to succeed in our practice we must acquire genuine interest and compassion towards the beings around us. The practitioner is not meant to be lonely and abstinent, he must be of service for the well-being of society as a whole.
Our practice is meant to encourage the identification of the self as a part of something larger. Yoga unites the self with all which is around it. It helps the practitioner to detach himself from the illusion of individuality and see the truth, which is that he is connected to all other beings.
One of my favourite Yogi fables is the comparison between the human subject and a drop in an endless sea:
 The man is like a drop of water in    an endless sea. He is floating through life thinking that there is some kind of force, a leader, a wave that driving him through his path. He thinks there is a destination designed specifically for him, as he is a one unique drop. But the unknown truth, the secret of life is simple: there is no wave, as the wave is all made of drops. The drop is the sea and the sea is the drop.

In my workshops I have the space to offer my students more of the Yoga I was initially trained in. I teach my students to use props and modifications, I also let them engage with each other: working on postures in pairs and small groups, adjusting each other and observing each other’s practice. In that way they have time to ask questions and even though they get to practice less postures, they deepen their understanding of each pose and the broader principles of the practice.
One of the main misconceptions I aim to break is that ‘we can do better on our own’ or that ‘practicing without props or assistance is a more advanced level of practice’. Our blocks and bolsters are not there to assist the beginners and the injured. They are not there to make our practice any easier either! The props, when used with the right intention, are there to teach us something about the pose and thus to advance our practice. I know from my own experience that sometimes working with a prop makes the pose much harder, as it forces our mind to attend to details; similarly, accepting or offering an adjustment allows us to learn the pose better.
In one occasion I guided a student to adjust another in child’s pose. The student that was summoned to adjust, looked a bit puzzled at first and asked, ‘so is this a pose for both of us?’ Yes it is! We learn so much from observing another practitioner and helping him in his practice. Just because we are not getting a stretch does not mean we don’t practice and improve. We need to learn from our practice, and not just do it. It is an opportunity to understand our body and mind better. We also must accept the fact, that the practice is not only about ourselves and our own improvement, it also about being part of the group and maybe help someone else grow.
Using props and practicing together teaches us to embrace help and support others. It encourages kindness towards our own body and our fellow Yogis. When we sit on a block we support our body in the journey of learning how to sit up tall, this support remains beneficial even if we can do the posture without a block. Even when we can hold our back straight easily, we may choose to sit on a block to experience a sensation of a longer spine. This kind of an experiment might give us some understanding about length in the body or take us deeper into a variation of the pose, such as a sited twist. Similarly, when we seek advice and accept support from other people, we are most likely to make better decisions.

I was always a bit of a loner: I like to study alone, I tend to choose to travel alone and I have been living alone happily for the past two years. When I first arrived in Australia I was completely alone; I had no friends or family on this side of the world. I had, however, a carefully made plan. I was determined first to find a place to live, get enough work to survive and then when I am more relaxed and settled, start making friends. I was determined to do it on my own; asking for help didn’t even crossed my mind.
I saw pictures of Melbourne on the internet, it was all tall buildings and main streets, so I imagined it will look like my home town. I read that my University is in Burwood, which is somewhere in the east of Melbourne, so I assumed it will all look the same. I imagined that I will just get a flat at one of those buildings somewhere close to the University, walk to a close by supermarket to get some food, then try and find a gym to teach in and start making some money; only after all that I would have time to get out there to meet people. I was definitely not expecting suburbia…
Everything turned out to be flat and far away. It all felt so remote and empty. I remember walking for hours and passing only ten private houses or so, no shops or gyms yet and it didn’t look like there were any buildings in the horizon… I was terrified. After about a week of fruitless attempts to figure out where I am, where to live or where to work, I found myself crying at a coffee shop; the first one that at least had table service. I couldn’t even imagine paying for more than a coffee, I had no idea what to do or where to go next.
I planned this journey for months but only when I finally was confronted with it, I realised the importance of the support of a Sangha. No path was meant to be taken alone. I understood then that I must ask for help and advice. Not because I can’t do it on my own but because this is the right way to do things. I searched the internet and found a guy from my country that was apparently living in Melbourne. I called him crying from what I thought was the middle of nowhere and he invited me to come to the city for a beer. Instead of walking alone, I made a friend that still supports me on my path.
I wasn’t accepted to teach in any gyms or studios until few months later, I had to adjust to the local ways first. The first class that I taught in Melbourne was a by donation, community class in a lovely space at the city. I haven’t made any money but it charged me with the energy to keep going. Supporting others on their path of Yoga, even when I was myself completely lost, provided me with knowledge, confidence and joy. Two years from now, I changed my timetable endless times as all teachers do but I never gave up this class.
Embracing help doesn’t make us weaker and supporting others is not a waste of time. It just keeps us in tune with our role as a part of something bigger, as a drop within the sea and not outside of it.
Source used: Iyengar, B.K.S, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1993, HarperCollinsPublishers.


Sankalpa, Proactivity And Letting Life Happen

Sankalpa– Determined decision, intention or wish. Traditionally one must repeat the Sankalpa three times in one’s mind at the beginning and the end of the practice. The decision should come to mind naturally, this is our internal simple wish.
Starting the year we tend to set ourselves goals, take decisions and make plans. Our practice supports this process, it also can assist us in pursuing those goals and actually fulfil our decisions and plans.

Even though I tend to preach to my students that the process is much more meaningful and fulfilling than the actual result, we also all want to achieve our personal goals and advance our practice on both physical and mental levels. Letting go does not mean to be passive when pursuing our intentions, it is just another component that supports the hard path towards any kind of success; this path must be a proactive one.

I tend to see new students surprised when they discover that Yoga practice is actually a hard work. People say things such as, ‘I heard Yoga is very relaxing’. Relaxation or stress-relief might be chosen as our final goal in practice, but there is a long journey to reach there. A journey which is not necessarily relaxing; it is a physical and a mental workout.

During practice our mind should be always alert and we must maintain full awareness of the movements of our body and our mind. It might shock a few dedicated practitioners but I don’t believe in practicing Yoga postures with closed eyes (except perhaps Tadasana Samastiti and Shavasana – final relaxation). Closed eyes encourage a relaxed and sleepy state of mind and distract us from focusing on the details of the pose we are holding. Even Shavasana is intended to be an alert pose. As I mentioned in previous texts Shavasana is a conscious relaxation. We want to find the centre between stillness and complete letting go or falling asleep.

To make a bit of order in all of this, we might look at our practice as any other process of goal setting, progress or change in our life. Say we start from some kind of a less desirable state that we are interested in altering. We then make a conscious decision to change, we work hard and pass through obstacles on our way and then eventually we achieve some kind of improvement or a more desirable state. At the last stage in this process we want to be at peace with our final achievement. We should let go of any attachment to it and accept the place we have reached. This kind of acceptance will only come after hard, focused, proactive work.

Similarly, we all arrive to our mat with some kind of a back story. Perhaps we are seeking to distress or make a change in our life. Maybe it is only a change towards higher physical ability such as improving our flexibility, strength or fitness level. When we start our practice we take Sankalpa – set an intention, a determined decision that we want to work with in our practice. This is a decision that comes naturally to our mind; it will always be something that we already carried with us from the world beyond our mat. Taking Sankalpa, however, is only the first step. We then must work really hard and practice with an alert, aware mind. We must practice with devotion, we must trust our teacher and yes, sometimes we must practice letting go or acceptance. We must focus on the process − it is not time to relax! We must be aware of all the little details of our body. When we are focusing on the little details, we are establishing a more delicate, sensitive relationship with our body -ꟷ the tool of our practice -ꟷ and thus we learn to use and control it in a better way. We finish our practice with some sense of achievement. As more we practice as more sensitive we become to the changes in our body and thus we notice more and more progress in it. This improvements might not be as visible externally but when we become better observers we need less advancement in order to be satisfied. A sensitive mind is more susceptible to happiness. We find more beauty and joy in things that first seemed insignificant and thus we start finding it easier to surrender and accept our practice and our life as it is. The result becomes more satisfying even if it doesn’t change.

More specific example can be observed in one of the most mentally difficult postures in our practice:   Pashimotanasana – sited forward fold. We sit down and begin the pose with some kind of preconception about our ability to do it, then we set ourselves a goal. I guide my students to aspire to move their heart forward, towards their toes. This is ironically an unreachable goal that allows us to explore this act of moving forward with devotion to the process and not the result. I guide my students to put maximum effort, look forward at the direction where they are going and recruit the whole of their bodies in order to move their chests forward. Then I tell them to reach as far as they can and release the head down. At this point there is no more movement forward, it is time to let go and accept where we are. If we want to move forward we need to lift the head again and reach for our goals. Serenity is part of our process, it supports the process, specifically at the stage of reaching our final result, but it is not what gets us there.

Yoga is not some kind of a magical path where we surrender and suddenly reach enlightment. It is a hard work and a journey full of challenges. But when our practice matures we can see the joy and the fulfilment that is contained in this beautiful process of growth. When we arrive in this state we don’t need the result anymore. And then, where ever we arrive as our final destination, we more easily find our acceptance and fulfilment. This place of maturity, however, will never come to us the easy way.

Another way to explain those processes is through the theory of the three Gunas. Humans, nature and all that exists within and beyond those notions is traditionally believed to consist of three Gunas, essences or energies. Those are: Tamas, Rajas and Satva. Everything contains a portion of those energies and every object or subject will incline at different times to one of those broad directions. In short: Tamas is heavy, grounding energy; Rajas is active, dynamic, moving; and Satva is calm, clear or harmonious. Usually as practitioners we will aspire to change into a state of Satva, harmony. Perhaps attempting to overcome some kind of heavy experience, for example: loss. Some practitioners will walk an opposite path: arriving to the mat with a very light, fluid mind they will seek Tamas, grounding and focus. In both occasions, as one of my teachers used to say, the path from Tamas to Satva or the other way around can only be through Rajas, action. There is no change without action. There is no progress by only letting go, we must make a decision to change and then be proactive and not just let life happen.

If I look back at my life I find so many of those processes of self-discovery. I had many failures and successes. Looking back I can see where a wrong approach to the process derived an unsatisfying result. At other times, I was mature enough to accept the result and find the joy in it, and thus I arrived. One example is my journey to Australia.

I grew up in a family of Russian migrants in Israel. Moving countries at a young age and going through the usual hardships of fitting-in in a foreign culture, I always felt displaced. I never considered Israel to be my home and always aspired to come back to Russia, where I was born. Every time I travelled back to my home country, however, I felt that the locals saw me more as a tourist rather than as one of them. This process of fitting-in or rather coming back home always seemed to me unsatisfying, it always turned out to be a failure. It seems to me now that I wasn’t focused enough at the time, on either direction. Years later I took a determined decision to move away. I moved alone to Australia where I had no family, connections or heritage. I worked hard to settle down, to make friends, money and grow my own business; I started completely from scratch. It was a very hard process that required me to be entirely devoted, it left no time for serenity. I had to be proactive and not just let life happen. I don’t feel like I reached my final destination yet, however, I do feel I have arrived. I am much happier and more satisfied then I ever was. Even though I have much less, I am in a much more harmonious, Satvic place in my life.

The way from Tamas to Satva is only through Rajas. The path from struggle to acceptance must be proactive. One must act to reach acceptance and joy. Must work and not only relax. Fulfilment lies more in the devotional journey than in its final destination. It is a misconception that all Yogis are so happy because they are so relaxed and know how to let go. No, our practice is a hard journey of spiritual awakening; a journey that it takes time to find the joy in. A process that must start from a determined decision to change and take responsibility over our life.

It is not too late to start this wonderful journey and there is no better excuse than the start of a new year!