Sangha is a Sanskrit term used by Buddhists, Jains, Yogis and other spiritual communities since ancient times to describe shared efforts toward a higher understanding and a more enlightened living. How this manifests for different individuals and within different communities is always unique.
I can only speak of my own understandings, and in my 25-year yoga practice, sangha has been ever-evolving in form and experience. Early on, what I called sangha was a group of friends who simply enjoyed each other’s company over coffee or a beer, and a chit-chat after a yoga asana class, which just happened to be at a time that fit each of our schedules. I have many fond memories of my early days, and of a more superficial and physically-focused practice. Many dear and lasting friendships formed. Even in these early days, we wondered about the feeling of subtle energy that we were beginning to touch, and wondered about the change in our perceptions, changes we could not even put into words yet. But we were sensing it, and we were sensing it together.
The next phase began when I met Paul Grilley and Yin Yoga. I wanted to understand my experiences more, and Paul’s passion for investigating the mystery of life and death and spirit started a fire in me. I became a devoted student, assistant, and friend of Paul and Suzee Grilley since before there was ever a Yin Yoga Teacher Training, and this relationship continued through most of their courses. These were my teachers, and this practice was my path. Studying under them and with them, I found so much that I didn’t even know I was looking for. Sitting with them and reading ancient and modern texts with them, and discussing our experiences together helped me make sense of some of the personal changes and understandings the practice was revealing.
The circle of assistants in the Yin Yoga TTs grew as the program grew. And beyond assistants, many of the students of the Yin Yoga trainings were returning repeatedly, staying in touch, and we were all becoming more and more important to each other. We were becoming like family, a chosen family with all the stuff of a blood family: love, laughs, debates, fights, reconciliations. As beautiful as these chosen-family ties were and still are, I grew to understand that this was not sangha, but it was close. Sangha was what transcended all of that, it was the support for each other’s studies and teachings.
Anat Geiger and Marcel Van De Vis (The Fat Yogis) represented this understanding of sangha at the very beginning of the global pandemic and lock downs. They began a monthly Bija Mantra practice and so many showed up with a specific goal… to continue raising our collective energy and consciousness through the dark and uncertain time.
And yet, darkness and uncertainty persisted: Arguably the brightest light in our Yin Yoga family, our dear Anat was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
A small group of us led by our mentors, and long-time heroes, the Grilleys, responded. We pulled in tight and began meeting once per week to study with Anat. Studying the Bhagavad Gita, Chakra Theory, sharing our experiences on the Yoga path, these were the things that brought us all into the rapture of life. And even when the cancer had ravaged Anat’s physical body to the point that she could not sit up for the entire session, she was captivated by the study. We all were. We studied and practiced and laughed and loved each other. Showing up for each other was beautiful and important. And it was there that I most clearly felt what I now understand as sangha: the gathering of a group for a specific study of a particular text, to practice a specific set of pranayamas, to engage in specific spiritual exercises, and share the results. The circumstance of Anat’s dying gave us an intensified purpose, and the beauty of that will be with me throughout my life and surely through my own dying when that comes. But it was not her dying process that was central to our sangha. It was the study. Anat rightly insisted that her dying not be the central purpose. We focused on our task, our inner experiments and the dialoguing of our experiences.
When the time drew near for Anat to leave this world, she chose to go home to Rio to be with blood family. I flew out to join her and her family there. I went as a representative of the little sangha we started with her, and helped organize a way for a new, enormous circle around the world, all who had a heart connection with her. We met daily online and chanted with her and when her voice failed, we chanted for her and she smiled and blew kisses. This was a new sangha. And with her permission, this time the sangha was centered on her dying process. And with the passing of her final exhale, this sangha passed as well.
I am grateful for every yoga community in which I have had the honor to participate and feel connection. And I am eager to gather and explore with the next sanghas that manifest within present and future communities. My eyes and heart are open and scanning for this.
“Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat, my shoulder is pressed against yours…”
This is from one of Anat’s favorite Kabir poems, which she loved to recite. Kabir’s words are meant to be the words of God to the seekers of God. They could also be the words of future sangha siblings.
If you’re looking for your community, they might be right there in the next seat. They might be some of the folks you already meditate, chant, pray, or stretch and breathe with. Talk with those interested in talking about spiritual practice, about life and death and the mysteries and wonders of the spirit. And more importantly, take in their stories, listen deeply to their words and listen to your heart at the same time. Maybe, you will find a group within that community who are interested in forming a sangha, who may be interested in diving deeper together for a period of time. When you find them, go for it as if it were a matter of life and death… and spirit. Then let it go, and be patient for the next gathering to arrive.