Conference Take Two

Apr 6, 2011 | Community, Yoga practices, Yoga teaching  | 1 comment

- conference take two

summer rose

It occurred to me that I could put my conference keynote address on this blog and that the section on community building techniques might be helpful for some yoga teachers.

Yoga Australia “Spirit of Union” Conference Keynote Address
About 25 years ago, I saw a movie that crystallised a deep longing I’d had for many years, perhaps all my life. Movies have the power to evoke strong feelings that for some people lie below the conscious level, something this particular film did for me.
You might remember it – Witness – and if you don’t remember the film, you might remember a relatively young Harrison Ford, playing a cop who has to hide out in an Amish community. He’s deemed an outsider but the community takes him in anyway and protects him.
One scene did me in. The Harrison Ford character participates with the Amish people in a barn raising. If you don’t know what a barn raising is, it’s an event where a community come together to help an individual or family build their barn, which was early settlers’ most important and costly building. I was so inspired watching all these folk working together in harmony that it moved me to tears. I saw the film four times within the next fortnight just for that one scene and cried each time.
Obviously something about seeing people working together selflessly and for the common good touched me deeply, you could say transformed me. Over the years creating community has dovetailed with my teaching and turned into a yoga practice like doing asanas or meditating.
I was introduced to you as a yoga teacher of over 30 yrs. Like most of you I’ve been on the ground teaching in classrooms, workshops and retreats. I also started training yoga teachers way before there were government accreditations, back in the early 90’s. I declared myself a writer with the publication of Teach Yourself Yoga in 1997. Since then I’ve written articles for Australian and overseas publications, and published an e-book in 2009. But, I see my most important yoga legacy the creation of communities.
I’d like us to look at the invaluable resource and support that yoga community is in our lives, both personally and professionally.
First I’ll present what I think are the benefits of yoga community and participating in it.
Then, I’ll talk about how yoga community can develop more or less organically.
And finally, I’ll outline some simple ideas for creating and expanding yoga community.
Benefits of yoga community
Yoga teachers are busy people. You may have family to look after, other work that you do besides yoga teaching, your yoga practices to maintain, as well as managing your yoga business.
Do you really want to have to look after a community as well? The benefits must have to be pretty good in the balance. Well, I think they are.
1. Mutual support and inspiration is a major benefit. Within the community is the place where we see other yoga practitioners living a healthy lifestyle that includes the eight limbs of yoga – including health diet, asanas, pranayama, and philosophy. At the times when we lose the discipline muscle, there are others who can encourage us.
In the yoga retreats I led outside of Sydney we would have a time when the students would introduce themselves to the group by telling who they were, what they did for a living and what their yoga experience was. You could see what a difference there was between the veteran practitioners and the relative newbies in terms of well being and centeredness, and the beginners could sense it was something to aspire to.
2. There’s a good deal of evidence that being part of a community is good for your health. Dr. Timothy McCall in his excellent and useful book, Yoga as Medicine, makes many references to the importance of being part of a group as a means to create health on all levels. For those of your students who come for one-to-one sessions, it is probably beneficial then to draw them into group classes, if possible. For aging students, being part of and participating in yoga community is a means of improving longevity.
3. Yoga community is the place where we can practice the emotional refinements that help us evolve as humans and get along better in our relationships. The spiritual practice of the 4 attitudes (bramha viharas) from Patanjali can only be done in relationships. These are friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity. They can’t be learned from a textbook or a DVD, but they can be practiced with our students and colleagues.
4. Karma yoga practice done in community is a force for accomplishing enormous good in our neighborhoods and on the planet. The projects we take on together will help the common good but also give us spiritual capital.
5. Communities are also the domains where you hone your teaching skills. It is in community we do the good work of yoga by serving the public and at the same time, grow our businesses and earn our right livelihood.
I would assert that our yoga communities can function as the spiritual nuclei of our neighbourhoods. They are the vehicles by which we spread the yoga message in ever-increasing circles, which aligns with one of the aims of Yoga Australia.
Naturally Occurring Community

For my part, back in 1985 when I was still under the spell of the film Witness, I was contemplating starting my own yoga school, Sydney Yoga Centre. It turned out to be a great opportunity to create my own community, even though I didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t really have to worry about how because there’s a certain organicity to growing yoga community.
I can talk about Sydney Yoga Centre in great detail because it was near and dear to my heart for 14 years. But each you of can relate to what happens in your own yoga centres, whether you are the directors of them, teachers in them or participants in classes.
As beginning teachers, we teach beginners yoga. Beginners often don’t really know what yoga is or what they are getting into. But we know yoga will gradually have its way with people. It has such a transformative effect on body, mind and spirit that people naturally want to link up and chat about and share about their experiences.
Those who attend classes as beginners because they have bad backs, too much stress, dodgy posture, or stiff bodies will reap benefits, and then they will tell their friends, parents, kids, and work mates about their experience. Soon those people are in attendance. The school is expanding but there is also a kind of matrix forming – deeper connections based on a remarkable shared interest.
Some people will get more involved and study courses that are on offer at the centre, attend workshops, intensives and retreats.
Women who become pregnant will attend prenatal courses and then postnatally mum and dad will be a tag team finding their way back to classes as soon as feasible to balance their body and minds again.
And, then there people like us who are so moved and inspired by what yoga has given us that we want to pay it forward. We decide we are going to be yoga teachers. Your yoga centre may be a centre for yoga teacher training, a hub from which trainee teachers ripple out into the larger community, into corporations, into sports centres, into schools.

Community Building Tips
I’ve described the way my school, Sydney Yoga Centre grew, and eventually prospered but along the way I learned some useful things, and I’d like to share them with you.
1)   Classroom
Get to know your students. If you have big classes, learn to recognise your students. Use a student form for medical and personal information. Keep attendance lists that allow room for comments next to the students’ names. Use the arrival time of the students as a time to welcome and check in with them.
Introduce a yoga topic into the beginning of the class, lead a discussion, and encourage participation. The more you know your students, more you can meet their needs by providing tailored poses within a class, suggest one-to-one sessions or home practice, develop specialty workshops.
Have a place for students to wait comfortably before a class starts. They will naturally start to chat and connect which leads to bonding.
2)   Socialize
Celebrate anniversaries of the school, Guru Purnima, Christmas, farewells.
Hold events where the students can bring partners: films, dinners, satsang, and dances.
Encourage students to go out for coffee or a meal after class, or provide a cup of green tea at the studio.
3)   Offer your students workshops, intensives and retreats. This will push you to increase your organizational and teaching skills. It will give your students an opportunity to share each other’s company over longer periods of time, to have meals together and get to know each other personally. They will deepen their practice and renew their enthusiasm if it’s flagging and increase their well being.
4)  Fund Raising
A worthy and fun event is Yoga Aid.
As a teacher you can organize your own community project or collection for a charity. When I turned 60 I shaved my head and was sponsored by students and friends in raising $5,000 for Medecins Sans Frontiers. Some of those people became continuing supporters of MSF. This is karma yoga, activity that benefits others not just oneself.
Yoga off the mat.
5)   Led Practices
A great way to deepen one’s yoga experience and foster community is by attending regular led practices. These sessions bring students and teachers together to practice in an informal way, with one person taking the group through a yoga practice that he or she has planned.
In the Saturday morning practices at Simply Yoga in Crows Nest where I was director for many years, our group met for 10 years. Probably the most important enticement was the yogis’ breakfast in a local café after the practice. In a non-hurried atmosphere, we have got to know each other more deeply, lent support when needed, and celebrated anniversaries and little victories that occurred at work or recreation through the week.
6)   Internet equals global community.
Community has jumped its boundaries.
The Future of community is here in the form of Websites/Forums/Blogs
Facebook and Twitter help with marketing.
7)   Collegial
Yoga teachers are the role models of yoga community. So, attend conferences and retreats with your peers. The advantage of a collegial body is that you are sharing your insights and dreams with people who will reflect your passion for yoga. It’s a sad fact that in the world of yoga there is a dearth of connections between teachers of different styles of yoga. Teachers have more in common with each other than they have differences, and by getting to know each other better, a deeper and more extensive fabric of yoga community can be woven.
Practice with other yoga teachers, either at your own centre or visit other teachers. From early days of the Sydney Yoga Centre right through to its successor, Simply Yoga, once weekly teachers practice was a sacred ritual. We learned so much from each other and had support for the times when we were insecure in our teaching or needed support in our personal lives. Going out for coffee and breakfast post-practice was an added enticement.
Growing the relationships we yoga teachers have with each other strengthens community and it is also one of the benefits we experience. This weekend at Yoga Australia’s inaugural conference, we had a profound opportunity to come together “In the Spirit of Union”. We evolved our practices, met people who might have only been names to us before, had discussions with like-minded people, and, in a sense created our own temporary community. The feeling of friendliness has been palpable.
I’ve talked to you about how community develops naturally when it is aligned with our intentions to have it happen.
And, I’ve given you some techniques that I’ve found helpful to create and expand yoga community.
For my part, I am committed to humans evolving through yoga practices into peaceful, loving, respectful and fully realized beings. I believe that can best be done through participation in community.
Something magical happens when we meet and get to know people who may differ from us in their practices or beliefs. There’s an opportunity to learn from each other, dive in and form friendships, and come to understand how we are really interrelated.
Perhaps you would allow me to quote myself from an Australian Yoga Life article:
In whatever way we choose to cultivate and participate in yoga community, it behooves us to always be mindful of what yoga stands for, that is, union. Ultimately we are all one. Building community helps us to let go of the idea of separation and lets us feel we are part of a larger whole. Fostering community acknowledges that we come from one divine source and are intrinsically inter-dependent.
In these days of global financial insecurity, planetary climate concerns, and terrible environmental disasters, we can be like those Amish barn raisers harnessing the power of community. Instead of the building taking weeks, it’s done in a day, with camaraderie, good will and spirit.

1 Comment

  1. I remember that scene in Witness! There is indeed very inspirational to watch the town construct a building in a day that would have taken one family several weeks or months to do. The power of many.
    One important point for the benefits of community is to remember that we are all part of one whole, we are not islands. A spiritual practice that cultivates introversion can lead to social isolation and it’s always beneficial to have friends and fellow yogis to buoy us towards a greater sense of togetherness, love and companionship.


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