Is It Easier to Practice Yoga in a Group?

group yoga class
Photo by themassagemuse

Do you have a home yoga practice? Research has linked home yoga practice to a slew of positive factors, including healthier diet and exercise behaviors and improved mental health. Yet while many of us aspire to home practice as ideal, the role of sangha, or spiritual community, is also critical, although its praises are less frequently sung. Research and millennia of anecdotal evidence suggests we are hard-wired to benefit from the support of our teachers and communities.

Yoga and meditation in India and other countries were always transmitted through gurus or spiritual guides. In the case of Buddhism and some yogic sects, community was an integral component. Despite the many who retreated to solitude to seek liberation, millions more dwelled in tribes, monasteries, ashrams and spiritual collectives devoted to the study of a common lineage or a specific teacher or guru. This is far from exclusive to these traditions; most forms of organized religion similarly share rituals of gathering together, a practice often lost in the modern day.

The drive for social connection may, some suggest, be built into our essential nature. At a recent conference, scientist Jim Coan described his and colleagues’ Social Baseline Theory, which posits that we are evolutionarily hard-wired to accept the physical and instrumental support of others. In one study, Coan observed the brains of married women in an fMRI machine while administering mild electric shocks either alone or holding hands with stranger or their spouse. While the brains of those who were alone lit up like Christmas lights, exerting far more effort to manage their distress, the hand-holding women’s brains lit up much less substantially and they reported less distress, suggesting that the mere presence of others soothes and calms us.

If it is true that our brains and bodies are hard-wired for community and relationship, and that we perceive considerably more difficulty when this is not available, is it any wonder that those of us in western society, conditioned to go it alone, are often so miserable? Or, in the present context, that we often struggle to find the discipline for our home yoga practices?

In my own experience, home practice is sweetly satisfying. It can also become stale and rigid without continued inspiration from teachers or attendance at classes or retreats. Hitting the mat can sometimes become another box to check off, with my mind racing through the day’s events as I lose the anchors of body and breath. At other times, the strength or motivation to practice may desert me, due to life’s emotional upheavals. It is then that I am most likely to attend class or seek community, where I find the support, inspiration and belonging I have longed for in my home practice. When I return to my home yoga mat, it is that much sweeter for having been touched by sangha and a skillful teacher’s reminder to inhabit my body and breath with compassionate presence.

In my years of living at Kripalu Center, steeped in modern yoga culture, I often judged myself for lacking the motivation to practice on my own. In the years since, I have come to acknowledge the tremendous power of practicing yoga in community. To this day, I attribute the community there, as much as the practices, as integral in healing so many. To follow on Coan’s theory, as well as the millennia of social traditions in which we follow, practicing with others in a safe and contained space soothes and nurtures us while helping us to realize we don’t have to do it all alone. Drawing on the support of others and our communities also better enables us to care for and support ourselves, in turn inspiring, enriching and enlivening our home practices. And, in a beautiful feedback loop, this process likewise fertilizes our own relationships and communities.

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