For a teacher, it's gratifying to see students grow in their yoga practice; they sit taller, hold poses longer, release more deeply in Savasana (Corpse Pose). It's equally satisfying to see them start to connect with others and move their yoga friendships outside of class.
Sometimes these relationships are spontaneous and inevitable, as when a group of like-minded people come together. Other times, they need a nudge from a teacher at the center of the activity. Either way, you can create an atmosphere that is conducive to building a yoga community, which will benefit both you and your students.
What Is a Yoga Community?
In its most basic definition, a community is a group of people interacting in the same location—for example, people taking a yoga class together. But a yoga community quickly becomes much more than that.
"When people start yoga, they don't really know what they're getting into," says Rama Berch, founder of the Master Yoga Foundation and the founding president of Yoga Alliance. "But it has such a powerful effect on their minds, bodies, and hearts that they want to link up with other people who are having similar experiences, so they begin to chat before class or go out for tea afterward. People choose to cultivate relationships in a yoga community in a different way than they choose their other relationships."
Creating Community and Helping It Grow
A teacher can have a special role in these developing relationships. Depending on the studio and your teaching style, you can encourage your students to get to know each other before class.
"I think it helps to know your students—to recognize them and know their names," says Ashley Peterson, a vinyasa instructor in Orange Park, Florida. She suggests leading the conversation that occurs before class from your mat, at the front of the room. This way everyone in the class can participate and even new people will feel included.
By getting to know students a bit better, you can develop classes that address their needs and interests. As yoga becomes a part of their everyday routine, they will look forward to practicing with a group of like-minded (or -bodied) individuals.
Sally Knight, a co-owner of Yoga One Studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, says, "I try to create programs to extend yoga to more and more different groups: people with eating disorders, athletes, men, teens." Knight also offers community classes once a week, free classes available to anyone and taught by a teacher trainee, as a way to introduce yoga to the larger population. As students find classes that resonate with them, they become more engaged with their fellow yogis and begin to build relationships.
Moving Outside of the Classroom
Once you have created an atmosphere that encourages personal engagement, you can suggest opportunities for students to take these new friendships out of the studio. There are many possibilities for extracurricular activities. Consider organizing service projects in the community, such as cleaning up a neighborhood or beach, holding class in nonstudio settings such as a park or outdoor festival, participating in a fun run or other charity event, or collecting donations (clothes, toys, food) for a worthy cause. Even getting help with housekeeping chores around the studio (repainting, tending window boxes, making curtains) can create a sense of belonging.
"Get them to work together, using their bodies and time—not money—on something that benefits someone other than themselves," Berch says. "This is karma yoga. When they get together to benefit someone in the community, they bond together."
A Community of Teachers
As students advance in their dedication to yoga, you, as their teacher, will need to stay one step ahead. Continued training, workshops, and retreats increase your teaching skills and will also help you meet other instructors. Deepening your own practice and having a group of colleagues to share insights with is one of the added benefits of a teaching community.
"Practice at the studio where you work," Knight says. "If you want to be there, the students will too." Not only will this give you insight into the students' perceptions of the studio but it can also help eliminate any competitiveness if you demonstrate your willingness to learn from your fellow teachers.
As students see their instructors learning from each other and enjoying each other's company, it will give them a positive sense of unity and encourage their ongoing participation with the group.
"Community is when people begin to care about one another, and when they begin to share things that are important to one another. Yoga is one of those things," says Berch. "Your yoga community celebrates your breakthroughs and your growth, so ultimately the whole thing becomes based on a higher purpose, a deeper meaning, and a more profound goal in life—and that is consciousness."
Here are some ways to help a yoga community grow:
- Encourage interaction. Allow conversation for a few minutes at the beginning of class, or create a space where students can talk (a lobby or waiting area) if a previous class is finishing. People will naturally start to talk, based simply on their familiarity from class.
- Suggest an outside activity. Create an opportunity for your classes to interact in a nonyogic setting. Begin with a social event or a shared meal, and then identify something more committed, such as donating time or labor to a good cause. Students will bring the memories back to the classroom and it will extend their relationships beyond their yoga practice.
- Cultivate a teaching community. Keep your teaching fresh by studying and interacting with your colleagues. This deepens your personal practice and also gives you new ideas and inspiration for your lesson plans.
- Show that you care. Your students look up to you and appreciate your attention and involvement. This doesn't mean you have to become best friends (you shouldn't), but they will be more dedicated to their own practice if they see you participating in the community they've helped create.
Brenda K. Plakans lives and teaches yoga in Beloit, Wisconsin. She also participates in the online yoga community with her blog Grounding Thru the Sit Bones.