Journeying Together – What is a Community of Practice?

Communities of Practice: a Brief Introduction by Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayners (2015) introduces a concept that has resonated with me since I first encountered it during my graduate studies nearly 20 years ago.  Anyone who has ever practiced yoga in community intuitively understands its power to foster and inspire self-awareness, transformation, and empowered action.  As modern yoga practitioners we know the energizing sensation of a community practice that balances the body, expands the mind, and brings the blissful realization of life’s unity.  This embodied consciousness is our collective purpose, a path of yoga which spiritual seekers have followed for centuries.  And while practicing yoga in community is a relatively recent phenomenon, the Wenger-Trayners’ Community of Practice (CoP) model, borrowed from research on social organizations, challenges us to reflect on how it might further enrich our beloved yoga journey.

The Wenger-Trayers suggest that the primary intention of CoPs is to help “groups of people who share a…passion for something they do, learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”  They identify three elements that are essential to any CoP.  First, CoPs are made up of groups of people coming together, a community, around a common practice.  Second, CoPs take up a shared practice which includes common goals, dialogue and activity—intentions, words and deeds.  Third, the focus of CoPs is the generation of a knowledge domain, new knowledge in all its forms— information, concepts, understandings, beliefs, identities, insights, skills, and wisdom.  So, what do we have to gain by adopting this teaching-practice model in yoga?

The simple answer to this question is: we unleash the power of this ancient spiritual practice to support practitioners’ needs for embodied connection, through community participation, ownership and innovation.  The CoP model is highly responsive to modern yoga practitioners because it reorients us toward dedication to the practice, rather than to the teacher. At least three features of this model foster this reorientation: it is decentralized, collaborative, and generativeDecentralized means authority and expertise are not concentrated in the teacher or the lineage, but determined by the unique experiences and needs of the community members.  In other words, this models is inherently student (and teacher-as-student) and practice-centered.  CoPs are designed to support the individual yoga path, practice flexibility and innovation, and the yogi’s search to find the teacher within—instead of the mindless allegiance to a single yoga lineage or a teacher’s pre-determined goals.  Because new understandings and practice innovations emerge from student need, knowledge and, therefore, power are distributed among members of the community.  This fact makes CoPs highly resistant to the corrupting influences of ego, lineage-brand attachment, conflict of interest, and self-promotion.  The teacher, as founder of a yoga CoP (i.e, class), is a model for self-inquiry practice and becomes a container—a reservoir that collects and holds knowledge established through community practice over time as new members join and leave the community.  Furthermore, the teacher releases control of and shares responsibility for learning, becoming a resource and guide for dedicated students on the path. Emphasis on the unique journey of each member naturally fosters a safe space for physical exploration, emotional healing, intellectual curiosity, and spiritual expansion.  And because everyone is viewed as an active participant, with unique challenges and talents, each member is encouraged to take ownership of their practice and growth.  In CoPs, individual spiritual seekers, students and teachers alike, come together to support each other on their self-directed paths of self-care, self-discovery and self-empowerment, while simultaneously transforming community knowledge and identity.

CoPs are also collaborative, in the sense that individual growth is dependent on and takes place as a result of participation in a practice community. Community is considered both the means and source of new practices. From this perspective, all knowledge is negotiated through community dialogue and practice, rather than through direct transmission of teacher experience or lineage expertise. Not only does every member take responsibility for their own body-mind-spirit growth, regardless of experience level, but also, the transformation of the community is every bit as important as the individual.  Both teacher and students share ownership over their own learning and the development of the entire CoP.   The primary role of the teacher in CoPs shifts from power-authority expert to community-support builder.  In this context, the teacher watches students mindfully for opportunities—teachable moments—during group practice to offer direction, advice, and encouragement on their unique yoga paths.  In addition to facilitating the practice of self-inquiry, CoP teachers also encourage student-to-student collaborative dialogue that benefits the entire community.

Finally, the CoP model is generative in the sense that it recognizes the fluid nature of knowledge and supports innovation both for individuals and communities, rather than the strict adherence to a fixed lineage or teaching authority. Individual practitioners grows their expertise as the group practices together over time.  And because practitioners, both students and teacher, share as they gain new wisdom, the community practice is not fixed.  It also grows and changes as fresh techniques and insights become part of the community ‘treasure chest.’   Thus, CoPs continually generate new understandings and practices—shaped over time by the diverse needs, voices, and self-inquiry paths of all practitioners—while spurring growth and innovation at every level of the community.  In VK Harber article on the pitfalls of the traditional guru-student yoga model (Yoga International, April, 2016) she poses a critical question for modern yoga practitioners: “how do we reconfigure..[our] relationship toward dedication to the practice, rather than the teacher?”  I believe that embracing the CoP model in yoga, as we have here at The Essence of Yoga Center for Self Inquiry, may be one strong move toward this teaching-practice ideal.

Post by Tanja Bisesi

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