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.


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