“I enjoyed practicing with you online,
but there’s something special about a live yoga class.”
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this sentiment since yoga studios re-opened. Which got me wondering … What is that thing that makes practicing together feel so magical?
Movement science has the answer.
Essentially, we’re wired to love the feeling of moving together. Whether we’re running for the Cure, marching for Human Rights or moving through Sun Salutations together for peace. When we move together, united around a cause, we tap into something called ‘we-agency’, the sense that we can make a difference in the world together - and it feels beautiful, hopeful and powerful.
Collective activity is at the core of human happiness. That’s not to say you can’t have a good giggle watching cat fashion shows at home alone on Youtube—but we find our bliss in moments of collective effervescence.
This charming term was coined by pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim way back in 1912. Collective effervescence describes the feeling of upliftment, energy, joy and self-transcendence that bubbles up inside us when we sync our movements with strangers on the dance floor or in a Vinyasa Flow class. Deep down, we all want to feel a sense of connection and belonging. Synchronized movement is an accessible and powerful way to capture that feeling.
Yoga philosophy defines suffering as feeling ‘separate’ or ‘disconnected’, In fact, the word ‘yoga’ itself means to ‘yoke together’ or ‘unite.’ The whole aim of yoga is to transcend suffering caused by the idea that we are separate from one another, and to achieve a state of union, a blissful feeling of connectedness with everyone and everything.
During the pandemic, opportunities to experience the sense of connection and meaning that comes from moving and playing together was noticeably absent from our lives. And we did, indeed, suffer. Practicing yoga on zoom was okay—but the collective effervescence we get from moving in a group was missing.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains in her book, “The Joy of Movement”“Our experience of collective effervescence is rooted in our need to cooperate to survive. The neurochemistry that makes moving in unison euphoric also bonds strangers and builds trust…Collective actions remind us what we are part of, and moving in community reminds us where we belong.” (68)
As a dancer/friend of mine always used to say ‘Friends that sweat together stick together.’
Research also shows that regularly experiencing movement together enhances wellbeing above and beyond other types of social connection.
Here I am pictured with friends made at a movement training in Toronto. Over the last 15 years, I've made a lot of wonderful friends through yoga and movement.
Synchronization is another key to experiencing collective joy. When you experience the calm synchronized movement of a flowing yoga sequence where everyone in the room moves and breathes together, a social bond and a kind of group identity are formed. There is both a physical sense of connection, and a sense that the boundary of who you are dissolves. “The feeling of boundaries dissolving is one of the most powerful aspects of collective joy.” says Dr. McGonigal.
Human beings also synchronize with each other on a physiological level. Research suggests that when we feel connected to one another through group activities like singing, clapping and dancing our heartbeats, breathing and brain activity all sync up too - like we're one giant organism. That’s how eager our bodies and brains are to transcend the small self and feel part of something bigger. It’s like when you watch a hypnotic starling murmuration or a school of fish move together, changing direction as though they share a single intuitive mind.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER
Part of a yoga teacher’s job is to prepare for a group class by making sure they arrive feeling calm, grounded and emotionally regulated. Why? Because emotions are contagious. Emotional co-regulation is part of a process called neuroception. Neuroception is the subconscious process of scanning our environment for signs of safety and risk. We notice (consciously or unconsciously) whether facial expressions, tones of voice and body language indicate that someone is safe to be around. When we pick up on cues of safety from our environment, we can relax—mentally and physically.
When you experience a beautiful, blissful yoga practice, part of that magical feeling is due to the teacher’s presence. If the teacher has a warm, calming presence they create an environment that allows students to feel safe enough to let go.
If your yoga teacher arrives upset, angry and emotionally dysregulated, the chances are you’re not going to get blissed out that day. If they had a fight with a spouse before class, you might pick up on subtle (or not so subtle) cues that they’re upset. You might hear tension in their voice or sense something off in their demeanor. More obviously, they might react to a ringing cell phone with rage or snap at a student for talking during class. Students need to feel they are in a calm, safe space in order to un-clench and enjoy their yoga experience. The responsibility for creating that peaceful environment falls on the teacher.
The good news is that it’s not just negative emotions that are contagious. Calm is contagious too.
Hopefully, every yoga teacher understands that their emotional state is linked to everyone else’s in the room. And hopefully they prepare for class by making sure they arrive calm, grounded and stable. So they can ‘hold space’ - using their nervous system to help regulate the nervous systems of others.
MAKING MOVEMENT MEANINGFUL
In my experience, students don’t remember your pose sequences. What they do remember are class themes that felt meaningful to them. “I loved that class you taught about feeling grounded. It helped me get through a wild week.” or “Can you teach another class about taking a pause? That was so powerful.
It’s a yoga teacher’s job to create a practice that has a goal, intention or purpose. When we move together for a specific purpose—for example, to tap into heart qualities like compassion, contentment or courage, something special happens. A " group moving in unison is seen by others as united in purpose, connected by shared values, and acting as one…Those in the group feel more powerful, too. When people move together, they view external threats as less fearsome and their opponents as less intimidating… it’s part of why social and political movements organize marches. The collective movement not only demonstrates the strength of its coalition to outsiders but also bolsters the morale of its members. Studies of real-world marches and demonstrations confirm that participating in these events generates feelings of we-agency…” Kelly McGonigal, 87
When we move together as one in the name of peace or freedom or whatever – whether it’s in a march or in a yoga flow, we tap into our collective strength. We feel a sense of shared identity and purpose. We transcend our individual selves and become part of something bigger, more beautiful and more powerful than any one of us on our own. It erases our feelings of separateness. We achieve a state of yoga, a remembering that we are intimately connected to one another. That is the magical thing about moving together.
Nature is one of the most consistent sources of wonder and gratitude in my life. Whenever I meet an ocean, a forest, a waterfall, wild animals, an open sky, a mountain, or the sun’s warmth. I feel incredibly small and incredibly connected to the world around me.
I’m also in my element when I practice yoga. When yoga and nature meet, the pairing feels so natural. And it is. The ancient mystic yogis meditated in caves and communed with the wild. Nature’s influence on yoga is clear when you think about the names of postures: locust, pigeon, half- moon, sun salutations, or cobra. As modern yogis, many of us practice in a pristine and boxy studio environment—but yoga is meant to return us to our ‘natural state’—a state of harmony with the totality of life, the universe and everything in it.
We’re part of the interconnected, interdependent whole that is the natural world.
As a species, we’ve co-evolved with nature.
We are nature.
We’ve been shaped, influenced and adapted to interact with the wild. Taking a relaxed walk in the park, a hike in the woods or a paddle on a lake allows us to come back into relationship with the natural world and our natural state. Nature nourishes our senses and our soul with a symphony of sensory stimulation that grounds us - in our evolutionary context and the present moment.
Both yoga and nature soothe our nervous systems. It’s why people head to the cottage, the beach and the yoga studio to restore and rejuvenate. Nature also boosts overall well-being by strengthening the immune system and reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. These are forms of dis-ease that might be symptomatic of Nature Deficit Disorder —a term coined by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. “Nature deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness."
As the pandemic dragged on in 2020/2021, many yogis took to practicing outdoors. This allowed us to experience the soothing effects of yoga in combination with the rejuvenating, mood-lifting effects of spending time in nature. Everywhere, people were falling in love with outdoor yoga—practicing in unconfined open spaces, in the warm glow of the sun, and feeling our connection to the earth while breathing in phytonocide-rich air (a gift from the surrounding trees).
Transitioning from the boxy confines of indoor yoga studios to beaches, parks, farmers’ fields, and floating paddleboard yoga classes deepened our sense of connection to the natural world. We were just trying to find ways to continue to gather and get our ‘om’ on - which we did. As a bonus, we got to experience how rooted in, dependent upon and intimately connected with the natural world we are. We got in touch with our natural state.
THE 5 ELEMENTS OF NATURE
According to Yoga and Ayurveda, five elements comprise everything in nature: earth, water, fire, air and space. The five elements, or Panchamahabhutas, as they’re called in Sanskrit, form the basic building blocks of the universe and everything in it. Including us.
Here are five great ways to invite nature into your practice and experience each element:
Everything that exists does so within the container of space. It connects everything and everyone. We can tap into our connection with all of life through sound. Pleasant natural sounds like flowing water and singing birds have positive psychological and physiological effects. They lower blood pressure, decrease pain and increase feelings of peace and tranquillity.
Take a moment at the start of your practice or your day to sit and listen to your surroundings. Opening your ears to the sounds of nature immediately grounds you, dialling down the noise in your head and tuning you into your environment and into the here and now.
HOW TO PRACTICE MINDFULNESS MEDITATION WITH NATURE SOUNDS
Here's a guided audio version of this meditation.
The earth element is associated with stability and groundedness. To connect with this energy, investigate stable standing poses. Begin with Mountain pose.
In the yoga tradition, fire is associated with transformation. Each of us has our own internal flame or ‘sun’, fittingly located at the solar plexus. Anatomically, the solar plexus is a complex of ganglia and radiating nerves associated with your sympathetic nervous system - the branch of the nervous system that’s activated when you exercise (getting hot and sweaty). The solar plexus also innervates much of your digestive tract - where food gets transformed into fuel for your body. Just as the sun provides energy for all life on earth, the solar plexus region provides you with the energy to do your life.
Activate the fire element with Sun Salutations. Take your practice outside. Bathe in the warm glow of the sun and salute, paying reverence to this miraculous source of life, warmth, energy and illumination.
All living things need water to survive. In our own bodies, water helps to regulate body temperature, lubricate joints, dissolve and carry nutrients to cells, flush out waste and more. An obvious way to get in touch with this element is to practice on or near the water. Sit and meditate on the repetitive, rhythmic sound of waves or try a paddleboard yoga class and let the waves gently rock you into a sedating savasana. Rocking is incredibly soothing for your nervous system. It’s why we rock babies and fall asleep in hammocks!
If you’re landlocked, you can re-create the soothing sound of ocean waves with a soft ujjayi breath— like you’re listening to a private ocean inside your head.
The air element is associated with your lungs, and breath awareness is an essential part of yoga practice. Where better than the outdoors to take deep, invigorating breaths of fresh air? As you inhale, be aware that the oxygen you’re taking in is a gift to you, courtesy of the trees. As you breathe out carbon dioxide, know the trees will inhale it and transform it into more oxygen. Sit and breathe together. Be conscious of your interdependence on one another as you quietly exchange the gift of life. Notice what feelings this brings up for you: gratitude, wonder, amazement, contentment?
Human health is linked to environmental health. If our food, air and water aren’t healthy, we can’t be healthy either. But the benefits we derive from caring for the natural world go beyond the physical - they are also mental, spiritual and emotional. When we love and care for nature, knowing that nature loves and supports us back, we forge a sacred bond with our surroundings. We are returned to our natural state - a feeling of interconnectedness and belonging in the natural world.
‘You are not your thoughts.’ The first time I heard this idea I was lying in Savasana. My yoga teacher was urging the class to observe our thoughts - drifting through our awareness like clouds drifting across an open sky…without judgment…without trying to control anything…just noticing. ‘You are not your thoughts’ she said. ‘There is a you that is separate from your thoughts; that can sit back and observe yourself thinking.’ Hearing this and feeling the truth of it in that moment made me feel so … relieved.
The truth is, on the average day, I have A LOT of terrible thoughts and urges … from wanting to slam on the brakes when someone is tailgating me on the highway to wanting to throat punch anyone that makes loud slurping & chewing sounds when they eat (see misophonia)
If I was my thoughts, I would be a horrible human being.
Thankfully, we live in a world where only the thoughts we actually act on have an impact on the world (Phew! Ammiright?). It’s also fortunate that we have the ability to step outside of our thoughts and choose which ones to act on. This ability is called Witness Consciousness or Sakshi, in Sanskrit. Developing Sakshi is a key part of a yogi’s spiritual development.
BECOMING A SAKSHIN
We often equate ourselves with our thoughts. This is part of a Western philosophical idea passed down to us from a man named Descartes who famously asserted ‘I think therefore I am’. However, the yoga tradition regards the true Self as a level of consciousness that exists outside of our thoughts. Sakshi (saa-kshe) is the true Self. The root words Sa means ‘with’ and aksha means ‘senses or eyes’. A Sakshin is a person that is able to get outside of their thoughts and look at them ‘with their own eyes’. They see their thoughts as transient; just passing through their awareness. Not as the source of their identity. Like many Sanskrit words, the root word ‘aksha’ has multiple meanings and when we dig into other definitions, we get a more nuanced understanding of this concept.
Aksha can also refer to the center of a wheel. When a wheel turns its spokes revolve around a central hub, which is still. The capacity to remain steady while events are turning around us is another way of think about the meaning of Sakshi – like being the still eye at the center of a storm.
Aksha also means ‘spiritual wisdom’. Wisdom begins with the recognition that you are not your thoughts. Your internal landscape of thoughts, feelings, urges and sensations is constantly shifting and changing. The true Self is a consistent, unchanging level of awareness that is conscious of these transient experiences moving through you.
Everyone has the capacity to be a Sakshin – to observe what’s happening in our minds directly and yet remain detached.
WHY WITNESS CONSCIOUSNESS MATTERS TO YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE
You’ve gotta be able to get outside your thoughts and urges in order to evaluate which ones are worth acting on and which ones are worth letting go. This directly relates to your ability to make choices that enhance peace and well-being.
Obstacles, unexpected circumstances, and annoying people are 100% guaranteed to manifest themselves in your daily life (dammit!). When you inevitably bump up against one of these uncomfortable situations, it’s easy to get swept up into a reactive state. Trouble often starts when we simply react - without taking a pause.
A lot of the work we do in yoga relates to widening the gap between stimulus and response. So we can consciously choose our choices instead of being reflexively reactive. That’s how you successfully construct a path toward peace in your life and relationships.
HOW TO TAKE A PAUSE
In Kripalu Yoga, they use a technique called ‘BRFWA’ (pronounced burf-wuh) – a clunky acronym - and a useful technique for cultivating witness consciousness. BRFWA stands for:
BRFWA takes practice because it goes against our natural instincts when we feel threatened. For example, when someone cuts you off in traffic there’s a really strong instinct toward your fight/flight/freeze response. You can slip into reactive mode in a blink. That’s not always a bad thing. When you react to being cut off in traffic by swerving out of harm’s way your amygdala momentarily highjacks your brain so you can reflexively do what you have to for survival.
It’s a problem when your amygdala is frequently in the driver’s seat of your life. When your partner is late (again), or they cut their toenails in bed (and just leave them sitting there) or in any conflict situation, there’s the potential for your brain to get highjacked by stress chemistry. THAT cuts you off from your ability to choose your reactions and conduct yourself from a place of wisdom, freedom and compassion.
If you review your personal history of bad behaviour you’ll notice those actions were frequently the result of reflex rather than reflection.
BRFWA teaches you HOW to take a pause and observe powerful mental and emotional experiences moving through you - without reacting. Tuning into your experiences this way gives you the tools to diffuse potentially catastrophic reactions – like giving in to road rage and running other drivers off the road, drinking to numb negative thoughts/feelings and picking fights over toenail clippings on the bed … BRFWA practice trains us to navigate sticky situations with more grace and intelligence.
MORE PRACTICES TO HELP YOU TAP INTO WITNESS CONSCIOUSNESS
1) Breath Awareness
Practice being a passive observer of your breath. Can you just watch your breath come and go without anticipating or controlling anything? Give this 60-second awareness practice a try.
2) Yin Yoga
Yin yoga is quiet and still. Poses are held for long periods (like, 2 – 10 minutes). In those long periods of stillness, lots of things can come up – physical sensations, feelings of restlessness, boredom, annoyance, the urge to fidget... As you sit and observe the changing inner landscape of your thoughts and sensations, you learn how to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. You train yourself to widen the gap between stimulus and response. In the space between stimulus and response, you BRFWA. Yin yoga practice is a wonderful training ground for learning how to witness yourself.
This is one of my all-time favourite Yin poses. Pigeon at the wall. Set a timer for 2 - 4 minutes.. Once you've settled into a comfortable position, observe thoughts and sensations without moving until the time's up. Then do the other side.
This video by Headspace nicely illustrates how to detach from the thoughts and feelings moving through you and shift into witness consciousness.
One of the most useful aspects of Witness Consciousness is that it shifts the way you relate to your thoughts. It helps you recognize that indeed, you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are fleeting - like clouds that drift across the sky. Here one minute; gone the next.
Your brain is a random thought generator. It’s going to spin stories because that’s what brains do.
When your brain is operating in its default mode, you’re subject to a near-constant stream-of-consciousness narrative that interprets and makes up stories about your experiences. Mindfulness practice develops your ability to step outside of the mental chatter, allowing you to recognize the difference between what is objectively true (present moment awareness) and what is story telling and judgment (your thoughts about what is happening). When you can recognize the difference between thoughts about reality and reality itself, you can decide which thoughts are worth paying attention to and which to ignore.
You don’t have to believe or listen to every thought your mind conjures up.
When you cease to identify with your thoughts you can identify with Sakshi, a wiser part of your consciousness that allows you to choose actions that lead to peace and well-being.
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions