The Importance of Sangha: An Interview with Tim Feldmann

by: Monica Arellano

When I started practicing at Miami Life Center, it was my first encounter with a community that would help me through a practice I had blindly immersed myself in. Looking back, maybe it was because of that support from the teachers and students, that I could see a way of moving from the old ways to this new way of living. But I’ve never known this practice without the pillar of Sangha, so its difficult to grasp why being a part of a one is so important.

On a bigger scale, there’s so much about this practice that I don’t see. So much I don’t understand and maybe in part because I don’t have long term experience as a foundation.

I often turn to one of my teachers, Tim Feldmann. Partly because I feel he sees so much that I don’t, and I intuitively have faith in that. I find comfort in asking questions, as a way to voice my doubts and find comfort when I’m met with openness. For me it’s a small sign that I’m moving in the right direction.

I trust that Tim, and those who are walking the path before me have a better idea of why Sangha is an important, and maybe necessary element to a daily practice.

So I sat down with my teacher. To understand where this idea of having a sangha came from. From what need born out of this yogic journey? Here’s what he had to say.

Monica: What is Sangha and what role does it play in our attempt to live out this yogic path?
Tim: Sangha, the sanskrit word for community, a supportive environment, a healing space. Well, let me quote my good friend Tarik Thami quoting our dear philosophy teacher from Mysore/India, professor Rao. Rao talks about the 4 pillars of the spiritual path. To ensure success on an endeavor which goes beyond fame and fortune; to transcend the material, comfortable world and decide for whatever crazy reason to set onto a spiritual path, then you will need 4 principles as your friend. And one of these is a supportive community, or as you say, ‘Sangha’. To set yourself up for long term success, not just ‘hey look at me, I can do this asana too!’, you need a community to practice within because a perspective rises there which is not easily found when walking this jungle of life alone. So, community is one pillar. And you need to put forth an honest effort, because that is the central piece in this matrix – our personal devotion and effort. You also need a teacher who has walked the path and knows the ins and outs because without it you can so easily get lost on the way. And finally you need time to do its job, to let things settle, to make the grape juice into wholesome wine. These are the classic 4 pillars leading to a successful spiritual path – an earnest practice, support of sangha, a selfless teacher and the effect of time.

Monica: Why cant we just have a daily practice in our homes, without others being involved?
Tim: We can, but without a community, without sangha and someone to share our ups and downs with, practice can get quite lonely and confusing. when we have a place to go to for support, understanding and acceptance, a place where we can be vulnerable and weak without being judged, we grow more easily. When we participate in a community where we find awareness, harmony and love we willingly let go of our protective gear because we feel supported and understood. All this must be there in a sangha, the support must feel tangible. If you find yourself in a Shala where these golden nuggets are not there, find another shala (Tim laughs!)! We go to the sangha because we feel we need some help. We need help to cultivate something deeper in ourselves than the rest of society can give us, can allow us. We go to the sangha to cultivate these revitalizing, life giving seeds, then we go back to society to infuse it everywhere and to everyone. When we practice on our own it is hard to define whether we have actual progress or whether we dig ourselves deeper into the trenches of habits. you know they say, ‘progress mostly doesn’t feel like progress’ so we often need some honest sounding board to work up against to not lose direction. a teacher and a community, coupled with inquiry into the texts which describe the foundations behind our practice is a very powerful tool to ensure we head in a useful direction and not into somatic or intellectual masturbation without realizing it.
Monica: How has being part of a sangha personally helped you in your practice?
Tim: A sangha is a place where we are being asked to be accountable and honest with who we are. And at the same time, we can find the courage we need to be able to face ourselves. To not only be honest with ourselves but with the rest of society too. We find the support in others to go through that process. It’s the process of self-realization. We confront the good stuff and the bad stuff. We admit to equal part support and challenge. Yoga itself, the shala and its people, the Sangha is a place where we get a second chance, we come to forgive ourselves and the people we love. We get a second chance to pursue the subtle and poetic parts of ourselves that there isn’t always space for in our every day, in society in general. When everything works well I happily practice at home. when I find myself a little lazy or less motivated to move my body in and out of these asanas, when practice feels confrontational beyond comfortable, thats when I go to practice with my community at our shala in miami. I get help with my back drops (maybe more than I like hahahah), I get energy from my fellow practitioners and a reason to stay on my mat. that would be one reason of many. every year I go to India for the same reasons. to subject myself to the deep learning which goes beyond comfort or my preferred momentary state of being, like ‘oh I’d like to sleep a little longer’ or ‘I think I’ll do primary again today cos my body feels stiff’. when I go and place my body under the hands of Sharath or the wonderful teachers at Miami Life Center, when I submit myself like that I get the rare gift of loosing myself, of getting away from myself and all my petty issues and concerns. I am always so neurotically self conscious but there I get to just be whatever that moments brings and not whatever I can think up. I suppose you could say, Sangha, just as Yoga, helps me transcend myself. I literally get a moment of peace from myself. For me there is nothing I’d rather have in this world.
Monica: What makes you want to create and lead a sangha, like the one at Miami Life Center?
Tim: Well, of all the things just mentioned. you know it becomes a part of you and you want to just live in that place and space. Back in 2005 Kino, Greg Nardi and I had the opportunity to create a place where we could still our minds like that for a moment and tune into something deeper and somewhat more important to us. Doing it together and not alone at home, practicing in the space between our sofa and the sofa table, just made it so much more appealing. In retrospect it seems that we learned that by creating this space we had the opportunity to offer a second chance for someone else too, someone perhaps a little lost in this life. Maybe someone coming from a troublesome family situation, or someone going through a difficult life transition, like a divorce or the feeling of being unloved, the loss of someone dear to disease or something else burdensome within, which when it comes down to it, is really all of us. I suppose we found that we could help heal not only ourselves but many people around us too. To this day, going to work, I feel this as present as daylight. We meet around our scars as much as around our delights and successes. It is this very human landscape of consciously constructed useful activities towards mending what life broke within. I suppose it makes me feel I am part of something meaningful and that I am useful. and hey man, that makes my day!
Monica: How does a sangha help someone going through the inevitable difficulties in this life?
Tim: because of the sharing and the happiness that goes on in a sangha. It is possible to be vulnerable. It is possible to connect to all sides within ourselves, to connect with others, and therefore to connect to society and by doing so to begin to rebuild our connection to the world. There’s a joke that goes “Do you ever have the feeling that the world is a tuxedo and you’re a pair of brown shoes?” Now I dont know about you, but don’t we all feel like that sometimes? A sangha is a place that gives us the allowance to acknowledge that deeply ingrained pain and come to terms with it. So we go to the shala to practice and practice is defined as an action or activity that leads to positive transformation. We get to know ourselves and understand ourselves. We gradually rebuild a connection to ourselves and therefore a connection to everyone around us. And when that begins to take root, when we begin to experience and stand strong in our own personal bedrock, we inevitably create more ease, pleasure and usefulness with everyone we meet. We feel it. They feel it. We start to have more satisfying relationships. All that we take from our sangha back into society and it begins to heal society. We go further and begin to work on rebuilding what has been lost and what is missing in society. And it all starts with practice, with committing to that action or effort which sets the seed for inner growth and knowing. Now of course, all that can be practiced anywhere; but a sangha is focused on creating an environment congruent with the possibility for all this to happen. So we benefit when we take part. Or as the Buddhist say, “take refuge in your sangha”. It’s all about that.

Monica: So if I want to experience all that, how do I actively participate in a sangha?

Tim: Ha! That’s a good question! Which skills should I already embody to be part of a Sangha? First of all, you need no skills, you just come. The sangha is exactly there to help all us individuals to cultivate that spirited human type of living. Second, I suppose that if you want a really full and deeply nurturing experience when being with other people then it’s probably that good old thing about what you give is what you get. I’d say putting yourself into the community fully, opening yourself up to the people there, being of help and service to the people around you, all the people, then slowly we begin to feel that love burn back towards us. The heat, the warmth from that fire of the heart will reach back at us somehow. And there are many other benefits, there is an educational aspect which can be utilized more fully. say at MLC we have these informal talks which functions a bit like social gatherings too. you can come and listen to me or one of our teachers talk on a specific topic, you get to ask questions directly to your teacher while you have a cup of tea with the guy you practice next to every day but never spoke a word to. so you get to develop these types of relationships which, at best are without agenda but just a pure moment of meeting, of sharing or listening with a fellow human.

But what is a good way to part take in a Sangha, in your chosen community? well, show up and be available to whomever approaches you or whatever happens without judgement and instead just experience. listen more than talk. allow for the unexpected. cultivate a pro-active stance to being of help. practice for the person next to you. voice your concerns and interests to the people in charge. lend an ear when it is appropriate. But first and foremost just show up and if that is easy , then yes, take active part.

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