Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A few More Reflections on Community

After the Immersion weekend in Austin, Kelly and I flew to Hawaii. We got here last night and pretty much crashed. Today we took it easy- a long walk, a great asana practice, a wonderful lunch of local produce, a bit of sightseeing and then a swim in the sea, followed by another great meal of fresh local produce. Its now after dinner and I am settling down to do a little work at the computer and I have been wanting to write a blog entry for a while now.

I have been thinking a bit about the thread of comments that came out of my last post on community. I know for me that  community has not always been an easy part of this experiment. I have had wonderful, enriching and profoundly rewarding experiences in community. I have had frustrating, maddening, disappointing and painful experiences as well. I have been excluded, misunderstood, misrepresented, and    taken for granted. I have been included, welcomed, seen, valued and appreciated as well. It's been a full spectrum experience for sure.

One of the hardest transitions for me was leaving Arizona after having a studio for many years and being at the helm of a very close-knit yoga community  and  being actively involved in the life of my teacher's ashram and deeply involved in that sangha.  When Kelly and I moved to Austin I had to adjust to a completely different ethos all together and it was brutal at times. And not just for me. Some of the most difficult teaching experiences of my entire career came in the months and years following  that transition and perhaps some of my greatest mistakes as well. Of course, all of that is a different story for a different day, my point is that while I value community a lot and take great refuge in it, community is a complex thing and it's blessings have not always come easily nor in the ways that I have expected.

I wonder sometimes about how, when as a yoga method, we express and claim high ideals like community we might actually be contributing to some people feeling like they are missing out on something or a feeling of lack regarding community in a way that might otherwise go unnoticed had nothing been said about community at all. Like, now people think they are supposed to have this thing called "community" and if they don't have what they feel like that must mean, they feel disappointed, frustrated and so on. Perhaps, by having community stated as such a high ideal, we exaggerate an expectation for community that is hard to live up to.

And honestly, no one gets through high school without some kind of samskara to deal with about fitting in and belonging even if it is just a strong stance on "none of the BS matters to me" and community can trigger those patterns, reactions and feelings in a heartbeat.  I can not tell you how many letters I get in a year from people who feel slightly (or not-so-slightly) on the outside of the "in crowd" of Anusara yoga  whether it is in our larger national venues or in their local studios. It seems that community can quickly become code for "clique" and intimacy and familiarity can easily feel exclusive to others. And for a lot of reasons.

And while I am thinking out loud here about the downside of our high ideals, I might as well also confess that  I also sometimes wish that we didn't claim, as Anusara teachers to "inspire, uplift and make everyone feel better about themselves" (it is not the exact quote but the teacher manual says something to that effect) because it is impossible to do. I have had more than one student over the years throw that line in my face when they didn't like something I said or did. Truly, while it's a wonderful ideal, it's an impossible standard to live up to. Not every situation we encounter in a yoga class is going to feel empowering and elevating. Sometimes, remorse is required for growth. Sometimes frustration is the fuel we need for moving forward and sometimes, as teachers, we simply can not spare our students from what is difficult.

So, not every class is going to be inspiring and uplifting and not every community is going to be warm and welcoming.  (wow- and not every blog entry is going to have good news!)

So, what is my point?

The point is that I think it is important to acknowledge some of the challenges inherent in such a high vision and to get real about the fact that, try as we might, this stuff is not easy and we are not going to get it right all the time.  Pretending difficulty doesn't exist is no way to go through life nor will it aid us in creatively working with our challenges as an opportunities for expansion.  I also think perspective is huge because what may seem like a roadblock today is tomorrow's breakthrough.

I definitely think that having these high aims is worthwhile, I just think we have to be very refined with high aims to not tip into a  expectation-based consciousness that robs us of our joy and base-level acceptance of the way things are and the gifts that come from our current circumstances. I am reminded of some 12-step teaching about how "serenity is inversely proportional to expectations."

I know for me, as I adjusted to my new yoga community after moving, a lot of what I battled were expectations that I brought over from my previous circumstance. It took a long time for me to see the situation as it was without wishing it was different. I began to realize that my community had shifted and instead of seeing where it wasn't, I began (more often) to see where it was. I learned to recognize where the friendships that fed me were and how to focus less on the ones that were draining. I found that I had rich community resources but they weren't where I thought they "should be" and so I was failing to be nourished by them. I think this kind of awareness work is even more difficult if we are living in the hazy, undefined place of "I should somehow have this elusive community that everyone is talking about is so great but I don't think I have that thing they are talking about."

For me, community is not really a big, sprawling thing. Seriously, having a few good friends I can be myself with is major. Life changing. Deeply important. Vital.

And while I do operate in a fairly big sphere of interaction due to my job, and my life is increasingly full of amazing people around the world who practice yoga, the truth is community may not mean that for everyone. I think to say "community is important" is fair but I think each one of us needs to explore what community  means for us individually and what we would like it to be and then get clear with ourselves if we are doing what we can to cultivate it, like being vulnerable, available and taking risks. And if we are,  and we still don't have what we long for, it may be that seeds we have planted  have not had time to germinate and sprout yet and some patience and faith is required.

Again, I do not think any of this is easy but I do think it is worthwhile. And I know experiences vary and so many people experience deep, meaningful community connections where they practice yoga.  For me, its a multi-faceted diamond and the process of finding ones way in and through community and its challenges and triumphs is kind of like a treasure hunt of sorts. Some days, you strike out. Other days, you strike gold.


Julie Taylor said...

This post just confirms on another level what a gem you are! Thanks for this balanced and honest appraisal of 'community'. I feel that any high ideal can set a bar to which expectations and perceptions can cling. The ideal becomes something frozen in time, an unchanging solid concept that in its essence as an aspiration is more fluid and includes great diversity. I have experienced deep and profound connections in 'community' on one hand and deeply divided, exclusive arrogance on the other. To think that any community will somehow shelter us from the difficult, the things that trigger us, and the things that we would rather not anyone else know about ourselves, is the problem. My observations and experiences have shown me that our neuroses are greatly magnified in such communities, and feelings of not having the ‘right’ experience are common. If our practices are going to shift us to our core, this takes time, it is a gradual integration into all aspects of our lives; in fact it extends well beyond those with whom we practice, it has to otherwise we remain self-referential and in a way separating ourselves from 'others' who aren’t doing what we do. To be able to hold all experiences, to accept them as they are, be they expanded or contracted is the challenge, otherwise we are all just striving to ignore a significant part of experience that could be a gold mine if we were able to be with it in compassionate ways. If truly ‘nothing exists that is not Siva’ then there are no preferences – it goes way beyond all that.

kim said...

Thanks Christina, I so love your authenticity...

Anonymous said...

Often I've heard people complain about lack of community. As someone who has been present for the formation of a couple of different communities, I've learned that what you get out of it is what you put in. Sometimes the getting back isn't immediate, sometimes you have to invest over and over again in something that doesn't seem to go anywhere. But if having a community is important to you, you keep trying.

Kathy said...

thanks once again for being your clear eyed, not afraid to say it self. I have also experienced 'both sides' - feeling very excluded and feeling totally embraced. both have made me a better teacher because I can be really sensitive to what students might be going through.

Ally said...

Thank you for your authentic reflections and sharing whole-heartedly who you are. As one who works on the business side of the yoga industry, community is the buzz word and what so many studios strive to create. As you have observed, there is typically an "inner community" and then those students who are more on the periphery. As the "inner community" gets more focused and closely knit, the outlying students can feel less connected and separate from the "in crowd". How do studio owners and teachers create space for everyone walking through the doors? Hugging the midline may mean drawing more people from the periphery rather than just embracing our favorite students and closest friends.

Christina Sell said...

Wow- such amazing reflections-

Julie- I love the image you share of expectations becoming frozen and in some way crystalizing what is essentially best in its fluid state.

Emma- that has been my experience too. We get out of community many times what we put in and its gets tricky sometimes because sometimes we can be unaware of our sabotage mechanisms that push away the very things we want most. I know in those times I felt most disregarded, I was doing some of my own variations on that theme as well. Many times, when I didn't feel adequate respect was coming my way, I was negligent in offering it. Its tough to turn in and really look at that stuff.

Ally- I love the idea that to build community the drawing in needs to bring in the periphery. I watch that same dynamic a lot in various communities where the "in group" excludes rather than includes. I am not sure it is even conscious. We can easily get focused on the immediacy of the people we already know and love and be so warm and cozy in that sphere that we become blind to people peering in from the outside. Happens quite off the radar, I think. I think we have to be radical about including others and vigilant about not basking in belonging to the degree we fail to see who may not be privy to such a feeling in the moment. It takes a lot of getting over ourselves!

kwajnman said...

Thoughts are brewing and settling… Do you remember Vonnegut’s short story about Granfalloons ?
That is, it is a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless. The most common granfalloons are associations and societies based on a shared but ultimately fabricated premise.
I am afraid that this is exactly what I think ‘kula’ represents at my studio. What I came to realize when I read your blog was that all the talk about kula makes me expect something which isn’t there, and actually doesn’t have to be there, but because it is mentioned in every single yogaclass I take part in, I somehow feel it is missing. Hmmm..
I think I was happier doing yoga before Anusara was introduced at my studio, not only don’t I get all the alignment cues, but all the heart opening and the kula talk doesn’t sit so well with me and seems not so genuine.
Why can't we just do some yoga?

Christina Sell said...

I think that makes perfect sense and it is important for yoga teachers to know that students are feeling that way.

I generally make sure I talk very little about community in my classes until a community is really there... Community is not a guarantee in yoga classes and studios and so I do not articulate it much until I have a real sense that a group bond is present and the students feel it, then I name it and talk about it.

I think a lot of times what happens is teachers come home from big workshops where they hooked into the strong, global community network and come home talking with starry eyes about "the kula" and when it is not the student's direct experience it feels false and even can increase feelings of isolation and difference.

Having said that, what is wild is that in the same room one person will feel "a part of" and another person will feel "apart from" and what feels inclusive and resonant to some will feel odd, foreign and exclusive to others.

Same with alignment- for every person who loves the nuanced cues about how to work within the pose, others find them obtuse and hard to penetrate. It sounds like a frustrating place to be to feel like what Anusara yoga has brought to you hasn't been positive. I know its not for everyone and I also know that, for instance, I am not the teacher for everyone. Some people love Anusara yoga but not how I teach it and vice versa. So there are a lot of variables, I suppose. But I totally get that your experience is difficult.

Like I so often say, none of this is easy and yet the pathway through it is worthwhile.

As a teacher and someone who trains teachers, I find your comments are very thought-provoking and serve as very good reminders of how multifaceted the path of teaching and facilitating community is. It gives me a lot to brew upon as well!