Guest author, Brook McCarthy, is a part-time yoga teacher in Sydney, Australia. Brook also runs a marketing consultancy that helps businesses in the health and wellbeing sector improve their communications online.
Cultivating community can be as simple as a friendly yoga class, a shared meal or an inspiring workshop. This can sow seeds towards creating a soul-centered kinship of yogis who take their community “off the mat” and beyond the studio walls.
Community Begins with the Teacher
For almost a year, I attended a yoga studio in the heart of Sydney, Australia. It was a busy school, packed with workers from nearby buildings, and had a “buzz” of the town outside. I attended several classes a week and was often taught by a particular teacher who, time and again, asked for my name. The first dozen times, I didn’t mind.
Another evening after class, I heard a teacher invite several students to the pub for a drink after class. I wasn’t offended by a yoga teacher having a drink with his students (Who knows? They may even have been drinking soda water.), it was the inclusive/exclusive inference that left me feeling on the outside.
My present yoga teacher cultivates community in each and every class he teaches. Not only does he have a gift for remembering names and the physical limitations of each student, he gently uses our names to verbally adjust students, which also works to introduce us to each other.
Creating Community — One Class at a Time
Each class is made up of a collection of individuals who bring with them the emotions and preoccupations of their particular day. I’ve witnessed yoga teachers change students’ differing energies, uniting the class towards common goals such as mindfulness.
Rather than create challenges for the more experienced yogis in the room, try to teach each class as if all your students are beginners — make your instructions accessible, your tone welcoming, and your spirit encouraging. A sense of fun and joyfulness is a powerful teaching tool and helps students lighten up and smile at their neighbors. Ask students to introduce themselves to the people next to them in small classes. And lead students in a Namaste to each other at the end of class.
Humor is most effective at helping students get out of their heads and onto their mats. Crack a joke and see people relax — most effective after a core strength session. One of my favorite teachers has a gift for cracking jokes at opportune moments. Although these jokes can be a bit off-colour at times, they are accompanied by a charming, open smile; my teacher easily disarms new students of their concerns that all yoga teachers are serious and holier-than-thou.
Taking the Classroom Outside
Encouraging students to linger longer can start with a cup of tea, extend to a meal, and end up with people volunteering in their community — it’s all in the spirit of inclusion.
One successful Sydney studio does this with grace as the yoga teacher boils a kettle in the reception room and offers students who linger after class a cup of tea. A meal at a local restaurant after a yoga workshop or the completion of a course also encourages students to relax and get to know one another outside of class. Depending on your locale and the students’ means, either bundle the meal into the price of the workshop or let everyone know it’s “Dutch treat.” Some studios sponsor annual or seasonal group meals, and ask students who want to participate to contribute something, such as a favorite home-cooked dish, to share with their teachers and fellow yogis.
For students who are frequent visitors to your yoga studio, offering a volunteer program can help build a sense of community, and not only among the volunteers. One yoga city studio I have attended has a “karma yoga” program offering free yoga classes in exchange for cleaning duties. I began volunteering at another studio giving adjustments and corrections during Saturday classes. I was already an experienced yoga student at that time and much appreciative of the personal instructions given to me by the yoga teacher. The studio also benefited from having an extra set of eyes and hands during busy classes.
Widening Your Community
Groups tend to be judged by their actions before people listen to their words. Perhaps the single most powerful thing yogis can do to encourage new people to experience the benefits of yoga is to become more involved in community services. This also allows students to experience karma yoga, the yoga of action.
Samadhi Yoga in Sydney has a formal “Yoga in the Community” program, and offers 16 heavily-discounted classes per week to anyone who wishes to attend. This organization also runs programs in conjunction with drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, at-risk child care services, clinics for patients with AID and juvenile justice units. While this type of commitment may be some years off for a fledgling studio, a “clean the park” picnic day, a free weekly class after school to local teenagers, or a visit to an aged care home is more easily manageable.
Each yoga studio has the potential to become a hub of activity for the community beyond its walls. When we gather together with the hope of reaching self-realization, we are working toward recognizing the universality of all beings, and achieving peace and freedom not only for ourselves, but also our worldwide community. Taking our yoga practice “off the mat” and into the world.
— Brook McCarthy, YogaReach, Sydney, Australia