Sangha or Sadhana: Yoga, Community, and Brain Health
Is it better to practice yoga with a group or solo? Yoga invites us to do both. Sadhana refers to your regular, (daily if possible,) practice of withdrawing the senses, breathing techniqes, meditation, and asanas or postures. When you attend class, you do all or many of these same activities with a group. Although we often picture the devotee of yoga alone in a cave, there are actually very few examples in the ancient literature of long periods of time spent in isolation. Most stories demonstrate the power of couples, families, communities, and groups joining together to accomplish breathtaking feats of courage against impossible odds. Perhaps it is our Western bias towards and emphasis on individualism that has magnified the picture of Shiva, the deity of yoga, retreating for long periods of kaivalya, a deep state of meditation that blocks out prakriti, the material world, and allows for an experience of purusa, union with pure insight and awareness. So, yes, please practice your sadhana and enjoy your moments of samadhi, the bliss of pure consciousness that will reward your consistent dedication.
But even Shiva had a family, a beloved wife and children, and, in the polyamorous world of the Vedic deities, multiple lovers as well. (Check out the fantastic Swedish dramedy, “Bonus Family” for a modern version.) The ancient yogins lived in groups for the most part and yearned for an even older world, kissed by the gods, where people lived in beautiful cities, rich towns, and well stocked villages that supplied the bigger population centers with livestock, fruit, grains, vegetables, and dairy products. People everywhere understood the part each individual played to serve the greater good. These humans who lived so many thousands of years ago remind us that we practice meditation, not to seek the bliss of enlightenment, but to make ourselves more accessible to the truth that we are all one. Whether we realize it or not, the small self is a drop in the ocean of universal self.
Any time yogins come together, that is sangha. Anyone who has experienced the heart warming and soul nourishing upliftment that comes from sharing any activity with kindred spirits does not need science to tell them how good it feels. And when a group comes together with a common goal, we can see clearly that the power of a group is much greater than the power of the most charismatic, even if well intentioned, leader. These are all aspects of sangha that you may feel, or have felt, in a yoga class even if you didn’t know anyone else in that class. Recent science shows several reasons why dedication to regular individual practice combined with regular attendance of a yoga class can be so transformational. Mindful movement in a group setting is especially good for building a sense of connection and community as well as promoting brain health.
THINKING WITH YOUR BODY:
Yoga asks you to direct nonjudgmental attention to each part of your body which improves your ability to perceive interoceptive sensations, a source of information summarizing many types of input. Micro movements such as hugging in your ankles or lifting up through the pelvic floor help you stay alert and engaged. While a vigorous posture practice will be even more beneficial, the sustained movement over an hour of class will still inhibit the activity of the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s taskmaster and critic. When the prefrontal cortex quiets down, more creative and original ideas are allowed to emerge.
All of the traditional yoga posture are acting out an abstract concept with a whole body movement. This also helped the yogins to remember their stories and the meanings behind them. Think of all the animal postures as well as those representing the sun, moon, earth, and sky. Others are more mathematical and many are named after specific heroes and wise leaders. The warrior poses teach strength without aggression. Sometimes I am skeptical about “new” postures being invented. Are they really adding to our body of yogic knowledge or are they making yoga less accessible and less inclusive?
Science shows that including the hands in the conversation makes your own expression more fluent and helps others remember what you are saying. How interesting that the hands are such an important part of the yoga practice. They show up as either the foundation or the finishing touch of every posture. And in meditation and breathing practices, hands can embody and cultivate the qualities we seek and are called mudras. Scientists believe that hand gestures “hold” some of our mental contents and thus lighten (or perhaps enlighten,) our cognitive load. While you can, and should, include all of these activities in your solitary sadhana practice, practicing them in class with others will promote even deeper embodiment of these yogic concepts.
THINKING WITH OTHERS:
While our culture values innovation and originality, yoga seeks to preserve a tradition that has transcended time and culture, race, class, gender, and religion. Perhaps de emphasizing the ego allows us to recognize that the most efficient and effective approach to solving a problem is to emulate what someone else has done. One of the biggest problems today is mental illness and I don’t just mean severe conditions like schizophrenia. Trauma, depression, and anxiety are all increasing at unprecedented rates. Yoga provides a timeless answer. When you attend a yoga class, you are surrendering to this truth. Someone learned these techniques from someone else who learned them from someone else ad infinitum. Question a teacher who claims to have some new take or twist on yoga.
Being in class with a solid teacher encourages close observation and intense listening. Children in other cultures commonly learn by watching and imitating their elders. Research has found that American children are not good at this! These are capacities that must be deliberately developed. We are highly social creatures and therefore more motivated by learning and practicing new skills in a group with others. And this group experience in turn can inspire you to practice on your own. So we see that there is a reciprocal energy between consistent personal sadhana and group experience.
And perhaps the most intriguing and persuasive reason to engage in sangha by attending class is that something magic happens when humans move in sync. Engaging in coordinated physical movement with others will lead you to like them more, opening up your heart as they open theirs. While science concludes that moving in sync leads group members to identify more closely with one another, yogins might say that practicing the postures together allows us to access and balance the individual prana within each body but also to feel the universal prana to which we are all connected. This will often manifest in class as an experience the yogins call Shakti, the feminine energy of yoga and counterpart to the masculine energy of yoga, Shiva. These results of liking and identifying with others leads to cooperation rather than competition. Seek out yoga classes that encourage this sense of cooperation rather than competition, the idea of passing on something tried and true, not always inventing something fancy and new. That is not to say we won’t innovate, adapt, and evolve. Yoga is all about evolution but without forgetting the eternal truth, ancient wisdom, and hard earned knowledge that got us here.
THINKING WITH YOUR ENVIRONS:
The scientific research regarding the effect of our environment on our brain health supports both sadhana and sangha. When we can’t get a grip on our thoughts and feelings from the inside, exposure to the outside world can restore your sense of balance and focus. This might be taking a walk outside in nature, the exercise most favored by yogins besides the asanas themselves. But think of how you feel when you walk into space that is dedicated to the practice of yoga. It is spacious and every aspect of that space is in service to yoga, from the mats and other props, to the lighting and sounds. It is a peaceful space dedicated to focusing on slowing down, breathing, and turning inwards. Environmental stimuli has been reduced. Sensory reduction generates a state of “stimuli hunger” in which weakly activated inner knowledge, elusive memories, and creative ideas can come to the surface. This relates back to calming down the pre frontal cortex when thinking with your body. How incredibly brilliant were our yogic ancestors!
“Shielding yourself from the gaze of others reduces cognitive load and fosters experimentation.” The privacy of sadhana can support this but in class you are also often cued to close your eyes, soften you gaze, or look inwards. People often worry that other students will be watching them in class but this is rarely the case. As indicated above, students are observing the teacher, often with great intensity, while at the same time focusing on their own practice in their efforts to emulate their guide. We might also think of “shielding yourself from the gaze of others” as referring to the gaze of those who are not seeking compassion and peace, the gaze of those who have not learned to tame the ego and cooperate rather than compete. So, as a class we come together to create a sangha where all together we are shielded and let go of our cognitive load and experiment together.
Thinking with your environs also cross references with some concepts from thinking with your body. This makes sense from the yogic view since we know that our bodies are part of nature, part of our environment, not separate from it. Breathing, practicing the poses, and meditation allow us to wonder at and be moved by the majesty of nature, this divinely inspired paradise in which we find ourselves: the other animals, the mountains, oceans, rivers, trees, the sun, the sky with all its colors, the moon and stars in a night sky. Again, walking through a forest or swimming in a lake are favorite yogic activities but the practices also encourage us to become mountains and stars, breathe like the ocean, maintain the internal fire, and move like snakes, dogs, cats, cows, and camels. This dissolves old patterns of trauma, depression, and anxiety and opens us up to the possibility of wholeness and peace. “Attempting to capture a concept in visual terms deepens understanding and reinforces memory,” the understanding and memory of who you really are and why you are here. The human brain evolved to manipulate physical objects and that primary object is your own body. Whether practicing alone or with others, yoga invites you to look at your body, the container that is animated by your life force, from a different perspective and empower and engage with its elements fully, not for the sake of your ego but for the sake of humanity.
Regina Trailweaver, 3/29/22
Much of this piece is based on the writings of Annie M. Paul in The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. Quotations marks indicate direct quotes from her writing. Any of the writing in this piece about yoga is directly from my study and understanding of the yoga tradition. I have not attempted to trace that back to any original author.