Ashtanga Blog

Yoga communities vs the real world

Thoughts on the value of community, living an authentic life and how not to fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing.

A Gathering of Yoga Students in Mysore, India

As I am getting ready for my 7th trip to Mysore, I have been reflecting on all the things that make me return, year after year.

The main reason I am going is to study with my teacher, and honour the roots of yoga at its birthplace. Connect over and over again with the history and tradition behind this ancient practice that changed my life for the better.

But there is also another reason and that is the community, our “sangha”.

The feeling of belonging is one of the innate needs of human beings.

We all need to feel understood, connected, heard. We all need to feel that we are speaking the same language and that our peers get us and have our back. This is why humans all through history created communities, bigger or smaller groups that shared something in common.

As someone whose life revolves all around yoga, it’s always with immense gratitude that I reunite with my friends and the Ashtanga community in Mysore. People from all over the world, of different ages, nationalities, backgrounds gather there every year to dedicate time to their practice and celebrate their love for it.

The fact that I don’t need to explain myself and justify my life choices when I’m there is liberating. My life now is very different from the life I used to have 10 years ago. Different not just on the surface but also in its core. In many ways I am not the same person anymore, my priorities and values have changed completely and so has my day to day life.

In Mysore no one thinks you’re weird because you don’t drink alcohol and go to bed at 8pm. No one will think you’re a pariah because you are leaving friends and family behind to spend Christmas and New Years in India among other yogis. In Mysore it is absolutely normal not to party on New Years Eve because there’s class the day after.

As much as I love my life as it is now, there are times I wish I was a little bit more “normal”. A part of me misses my old life because it was more in phase with how society works. I’m happier now, but I was more accepted and had a richer social life then.

Often enough I wonder if it’s possible to stay true to ourselves without becoming a misfit. Do we always have to choose between authenticity and social acceptance or can we have both?

In Mysore life works very differently than back home. You could call it a bubble and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. In no other place have I met so many like minded people, many of which became my friends. I only see them once per year but every time I’m back it’s as if we hadn’t parted at all. We all speak the same language and have the same flame in our heart. It is beautiful and in a way an immense privilege. Many of us have changed our lives completely to be able to dedicate them to the study and teaching of yoga. Every time I’m there I hear so many inspiring stories, people overcoming huge obstacles thanks to the Ashtanga practice, beating disease, addiction and the most cruel of demons.

For many people there, doing this practice is a matter of life and death. It’s humbling and it makes me love the practice and life itself even more.

Sometimes I wonder if this way of life could be possible back home, if it would still be that special. And as much as the more sentimental part of me would be tempted to say yes, I know very well that life cannot and should not be like this all the time.

Living in a bubble of our choosing can be comforting and inspiring but this is not how the real world works. If we would live like this all the time we would miss out on so many things that life has to offer, apart from yoga. We would miss out on many different outlooks on life. As much as I love this practice, I don’t want to live isolated from the rest of society constantly. What I definitely don’t want is become a victim of spiritual bypassing, the illusion of moral superiority that often comes with following a spiritual practice.

It can be very tempting to try and hide within a bubble. Over the last decade I’ve met many people who were using their spiritual practice to shield themselves from the world. They were in such an urge to find something to believe in that they ended up being isolated from everyone who did not have the same beliefs.

Our spiritual practices, our beliefs, as much as we cherish them, are more beneficial to our life if we don’t let them define who we are.

The goal of a spiritual practice should be to expand our mind and achieve greater realms of consciousness. By clinging on to our identity, even our spiritual one, we prevent growth from happening.

Yoga is meant to bring about union, not division.

We practice it and sometimes even dedicate our lives to it to open our minds and soften our hearts, to be able to see and hear also those who choose not to live the same way. As much as it is heartwarming to feel understood, it is equally enriching to try and understand others. This is what yoga is about.

As my trip is approaching, my heart is filled with joy and excitement because for the next two months I will be living exactly on my terms, doing what I love the most and connecting with people who get me.

But I keep reminding myself how lucky I am to have by my sides people who, even though don’t practice yoga and might not fully understand all the reasons why I’m so drawn to it, love and accept me regardless.

Let’s use this practice not to reinforce identity but to move beyond it, to embrace people different from us because at the end of the day what we all yearn for is to be heard, seen and understood.