The Social Side of Yoga Classes

This fall, one of my students, “Sophie,” noticed me silently marking my attendance sheet. “Would you take roll aloud?” she asked. “I want to learn people’s names.” After a momentary pause, I agreed.

Later, I decided that standard roll call isn’t ideal for learning names: Unless students are sitting in a circle, it’s hard to see who’s responding. The exchange is too quick and too passive.

Suddenly I recalled a practice—I’ll call it the “name game” for short—done in a Zen meditation course. Reb Anderson, the teacher, had each person, one by one, say their name—after which everyone else would repeat it in chorus.

Me: “Luci.”

Everyone else: “Luci.”

Throughout the course, each class would start with the name game. Never before had I witnessed such a practice—and never since. The name game felt contrived at first, but natural enough over time. Despite my innate reticence and aversion to anything too “touch-feely,” there was something rather nice about these acknowledgments, human to human.

Hmm, why not try the name game in Sophie’s class? The following week, I started us off and we circled the room, each student saying their name and hearing it echoed back.

COMMUNITY CENTRES

Sophie later emailed me with thanks. “I really appreciate your putting some thought into this. It is my conviction that a community centre should create community. I hear about loneliness and what it does to people. Some of us live alone, and some don’t talk to anyone else in a day. Just to hear your name and to feel that you’re part of a community is important.”

She mentioned that in the Netherlands, where she grew up, a Dutch supermarket chain designated 200 of its checkout registers as “kletskassa” or “chat checkout.” Here, customers aren’t rushed and cashiers make time for a friendly chat—in contrast to anonymous, contactless self-checkout.

Several weeks later, I bumped into Sophie on the sidewalk. Conversing further about community—in Holland, in Vancouver, in general—she said, “I once organized a holiday party at the centre. It was potluck. I went to Starbucks and got two big jugs of coffee. We all contributed out of our own pockets.” She asked the centre to set up an ongoing gathering spot, perhaps a coffee table. Otherwise, people immediately disperse after class. “It’s a community centre, she said, “and it can do more.”

Sophie urged me to do the name game again. “We’re seniors and might have trouble remembering!” She encouraged me to try it in my other classes, too. “You can make a difference,” she said.

FORCED SOCIALIZING

When Sophie first asked me to do roll call, I had my reservations. She might want to socialize with classmates. But would everyone welcome sharing their names? Would I be forcing people to go public—with their names, with themselves?

The social aspect of yoga classes can pose a dilemma. As a student, I sometimes enjoy socializing with classmates but, other times, I find it distracting, even stressful.

Two decades ago, when I was a newish yoga student, I was dealing with difficult times, personally and professionally. After work, I needed to escape the walls of my apartment. Yoga was solace, so I took a bunch of evening yoga classes unfamiliar to me.

I liked that I knew no one in the room, neither teacher nor students. I wasn’t there to make friends. I wanted the common thread between us purely to be yoga. Being forced into the limelight—to answer questions, to tell my story, or even to say my name—would have been unwelcome.

GOING INWARD VERSUS OUTWARD

Is yoga practice about detaching from others, quieting the mind, going inward? Or is it about connecting with others, observing the world, going outward?

Several years into my yoga practice, I joined my main teacher on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. Our group of six joined other groups at a retreat center in Alajuela. Most days revolved around classes and communal meals, but some days were designated for optional tours—rainforests, waterfalls, volcanic hot springs. The retreat was part yoga, part travel, part social. All worthy elements, but I realized that I prefer exploring them separately.

Then and now, yoga is an inward practice for me. The only type of retreat that I’d consider doing, I decided after Costa Rica, would be a silent one. (I broke this resolution a couple of times. I’m still intrigued by the prospect of a silent retreat.)

CHITCHAT DURING CLASS

As a teacher, I like to see camaraderie develop among students. I’m happy to see them chat before class, meet for lunch after class, and become friends. But I limit unnecessary chitchat during class. It’s distracting to others, including me, when random talking and laughter erupts.

First, it detracts from the subject at hand, yoga. If a couple or a group of friends share inside jokes or stick together throughout class, their experience is more about bonding than about yoga. Second, the class vibe might become cliquey. Newcomers might feel left out.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to mix yoga and chitchat. I recall Iyengar yoga teacher Gabriella Giubilaro once telling a workshop group in Vancouver that we’re so quiet. In Florence, where she’s based, students are constantly talking, she said. In the midst of a demo or a pose, someone might say, “I just found a great recipe for eggplant!” I loved that story; it made me smile to imagine the convivial banter in dramatic Italian.

That said, I don’t run my own classes that way. I want students to socialize before and after class, not during.

SOCIAL CONNECTION AND HEALTH

All that said, I myself have made friends through yoga classes. Week by week, in class, you get a sense of your classmates—and sometimes real friendship results. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of social connection.

It’s common knowledge now that people who live in “Blue Zones”—Barbagia, Sardinia; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, California (Seventh Day Adventists); and Okinawa, Japan—live healthier, longer lives due to nine key factors. Among the factors is social connection, which involves not only domestic partners and close family, but also informal community ties. Having shopkeepers who greet you, baristas who know your order, and classmates whom you see each week. These interactions might seem superficial, but they affect us, shape our identities, lift our spirits—and apparently keep us healthy.

Maybe it simply boils down to before, during, after class. “During” should be all about yoga. “Before” and “after” can be, optionally, about socializing.

I appreciate Sophie’s roll call request, which led me down this rabbit hole. As for the name game, I don’t foresee trying it again, although I haven’t ruled it out. But, like yoga poses, it would make sense only if done repeatedly or at least regularly.

What’s your take on the social side of yoga classes?

Images: Bears on Broadway, public art established 2005 near Manitoba Legislature, Winnipeg, June 2015, Luci Yamamoto.

14 comments

  1. I like the inward journey of yoga classes. There’s a feeling I have when the class is over. I want to have it for a while, enjoy it, but chitchat dissipates it. Before class seems to be a good time to say hi and do a quick check-in w others 🙂

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  2. Luci, long time. This post really made me think about the things we do regularly and how we can choose to be isolated or social. I can’t speak about yoga classes, but I miss the fun of basketball games, not just the playing but the trash-talking and laughing with each other. Does yoga have to be inner-directed? Perhaps this is why I have never really warmed to it? Hope you’re well, I miss you. DAK

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    1. Yoga classes are generally very sociable. That’s why there’s a dichotomy (to me) about the classes (outward) and the practice itself (inward). But some pursuits are more overtly sociable: basketball, language classes, etc. My dad loves golf, not only for the game, but for the people aspect, from hours on the course. Most pursuits have an inward aspect (say, when actually shooting/hitting the ball) and an outward aspect (with fellow participants). But I guess some are more inward. XO, Looseleaf

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  3. I’m munching on caramel-cheddar popcorn at the moment… two flavors that should not go together but somehow do, and it’s addictive. And I suppose I feel the same about yoga classes. Most of us are there for the inward body, mind, and spirit journey. But, in doing so, we find like-minded friends who, after weeks, months, and years of sharing this intimate space and time become our friends, our family, and our people. So I vote for both… inward and outward. Sweet and salty.

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  4. My name is Jim, and I’m a recovering zazen meditator who (along with my fellow bears) finds “Sophie’s Choice” an unwelcome interference.

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    1. Jim, I get it. But, through yoga classes, haven’t we engaged in a years-long conversation that, for me, anyway, has been meaningful? To each his (her/their) own, perhaps. Thanks for reading my blog.

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  5. Really interesting unpacking of the social side of yoga, Luci. I’m with you – not during, before and after if it happens organically. It’s a private interior time for me. I don’t go to yoga to make friends although through my decades at Yoga Space did in fact form one authentic friendship and several acquaintances.

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  6. I’ve cut and pasted Keith’s comment here. So exact…

    “. . . Most of us are there for the inward body, mind, and spirit journey. But, in doing so, we find like-minded friends who, after weeks, months, and years of sharing this intimate space and time become our friends, our family, and our people.”

    I’ve made a couple of good friends from the quiet space of yoga classes. A shared whisper, a partnering, revealing a fear, tea after class. Thanks Luci as always.

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  7. After a year and a half of doing yoga by zoom in my home I long for the social aspect of practicing in a community… While I may find the name game intrusive I am not sure it is out of place in a yoga class. Practicing together is a community experience whether we view our yoga practice as internal and quiet or a quiet group experience; there is socialization, even in silence.

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    1. Thanks, Leighann, for reminding me that we are inherently connected, that my reality is based on my living among others “in society.”

      The name game might seem incongruous to yoga (to some, including myself depending on mood), but I did learn it in a Zen meditation class, which is arguably more internal that a yoga asana class. And it was initiated by a senior teacher. In retrospect, the name game can foster familiarity and trust among classmates. Maybe that can be conducive to a calm, quiet mind.

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