A New Kind Of Sangha
Sharing yoga in the time of coronavirus and landing it in the culture we are practicing in.
By Scott Johnson
Spirituality must be practiced not just in solitude but also amongst people.
Open out to people around you and feel connected.
This is the true challenge of spiritual practice.’
On 1st January 2012 I had to send probably the most heartbreaking email I’ve ever had to write…
It was to the Stillpoint Yoga London community, our newsletter list of around five hundred people, to tell them how – just the day before – their teacher, colleague and friend Ozge Karabiyik had tragically passed away. I still get a visceral feeling, the weight of the responsibility of sending that message landing in my body, when I remember pressing send…
On Monday 16th March 2020 I sent the second most heartbreaking email I’ve ever had to send…
Again, it was to the Stillpoint Yoga London community – one thousand five hundred people by now – to let them know that we had to close Stillpoint for the foreseeable future, because of COVID-19. We couldn’t risk their safety, or the safety of their loved ones.
Stillpoint Yoga London has been my life for the past twelve years. It is one of the most meaningful things that I’ve ever had the privilege to undertake; from its inception in the spring of 2008 in Upper Moutere, New Zealand (where I met Ozge), and all the way through the shifts, grief, changes of venue, teachers, workshops and countless students. To now.
Now is: opening a laptop in my kitchen, and chanting Vande Gurunam into a screen.
This shouldn’t work.
Where we were
I’ve taught Mysore, or self-practice, style Ashtanga yoga for the last fifteen years. The method is so beautifully unique. It relies on a teacher to hold space, and to encourage practitioners to develop their own yoga practice, in their own time, sharing space with others. A room full of people, all practicing quietly on their own. Silent, names unknown but sharing recognition, energy, breath, inspiration and a palpable sense of internal observation and spirit. The spirit of working yoga out as individuals, together.
It has always taken a particular type of person to take this style of yoga on. To keep going. To keep coming back, again and again. Our space created the means for everyone who walked through our doors to see what happens if they were not led. To find agency in their own experience. A deep respect and love between teacher and practitioner develops in these rooms. That’s the nature of our teaching space; one where you can have an individual and personal relationship in a room full of others. A shared intimacy that can be fostered. It’s how I was taught by my teachers, and it’s how I’ve tried to share this practice on.
Then, COVID-19 happened. Lockdown. And that second email.
Where we are now
On Monday 11th May 2020, my heart broke a little more. After watching Boris Johnson’s address regarding the softening of the UK’s lockdown, and then closely reading the government guidelines the next day, I realised that we’re in this for the long haul. The environment of a Mysore yoga studio is one of closeness and relationship. And we can’t be close at the moment, or anytime soon. So, for now, opening a laptop in my kitchen and chanting Vande Gurunam into a screen continues.
The thing is…
It seems to be working.
When I first opened that laptop I was feeling vulnerable. I was self conscious about how I was delivering. It was all new to me. But, as I continued, I began to realise that I wasn’t just an isolated figure speaking into a screen. I was still holding space. It’s just that instead of holding space in our room in London Bridge, I was holding space in people’s kitchens, hallways, bedrooms, and living rooms. In their homes. Their homes became Stillpoint, where people are nurturing their own personal still-points. Over the weeks, I’ve found strength in sharing words of compassion and self care, realising that what the world needs right now is connection. Deep, meaningful connection.
“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”
Coretta Scott King
At the moment, the world is on tenterhooks. None of us – in the West at least – have experienced anything like this before. It’s deeply tender, and what’s needed is the ability to be okay with that tenderness. To be at peace with it as best we can. To allow ourselves, if it feels safe, to sit with all the different layers of this time, in the present moment.
Practice at the moment has to be about taking care of yourself, keeping compassion at its heart. It made sense to me to continue to serve our Stillpoint Yoga London community in a deeply compassionate way. It’s what I’ve had to be to myself as I navigate all the changes and challenges this time has given me…
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In our virtual Ashtanga morning classes, I guide people through the Primary series, and, one a week, the beginning of Intermediate. But these classes are really just a container for practitioners to explore in ways that make sense to them. People can choose to do their own practice, just like they do in the Mysore room, whether that’s deciding to stop after the standing postures, or doing full Intermediate if that’s what is needed for them that day. What’s important is intention; the intention to care for yourself. We can’t give one-to-one attention, but we can provide space for personal inquiry with words and reassurance.
For me, encouraging that exploration is key. Our bodies have wisdom to share if we listen, and new stories that they can tell us if we’re willing to hear. In our Still Space, the weekday evening Mindfulness and Compassion sessions and Friday restorative class, we encourage listening with compassion. With gentleness at the heart of the practice. Creating the environment for a still space in our homes, encouraging stillness and gentleness to occur more often. Right at the heart of our lives…
After I sent that first, heartbreaking, email in 2012, it felt hard to continue. But I realised that stopping wasn’t an option.
Because it would go against all that Ozge and I had created. Our first ever tagline was ‘Awaken yourself, Awaken others’ and it meant creating a space for people to find themselves and then pass it on. Closing would mean we’d stopped passing it on.
I didn’t know how to step forward, but what I decided to do was to help people see that contentment and self realisation is not some far off goal. It happens right now. When we slow down. When we learn to listen. This is what stepping on to a yoga mat in a Mysore room holds for us.
When I sent that second email in March 2020, I had no idea where it would lead, or what would come next. But I put my trust in the same process that guided me in 2012. I made the decision to hold space with as much love, compassion and care as I could muster. To help people to listen.
The ripples of sending that first email still resonate deeply in the ways that I move now. It always, always will. Because for me, there are many many times when this practice isn’t about the yoga postures and perfect form. It’s about us. It’s about the way we relate. The way we meet. It’s about connection. It’s about people.
And at the moment, the people, this virtual connection?
It does work.
And it’s beautiful…
“Your online space is so invaluable! To bring a sense of community in, to breathe with others; and share this beautiful practise with those we know and those we don’t. To know we are not alone and to know this crisis, along with the beauty of practise binds us in ways that will keep us tied in love forever. Thank you for providing a safe space, a sense of routine/order and colour to start each day, as well as space at the end of it.”
Roshni Hosseinzadeh | Stillpoint Online Member