The Heart of Community – Nonviolent Communication in Practice

Community is the space where most yoga practice, learning, and teaching takes place in the modern age. While one-on-one yoga therapeutic relationships are also growing as an approach, particularly in yoga therapy, the guru-student model of ancient yoga, and critiqued by VK Harber in her Yoga International article, Does the Guru-Student Model Work in Modern Yoga? (April 26, 2016), appears to be giving way to more contemporary, community-based perspectives.  One need only google ‘yoga community’ to quickly discover the countless options for yoga community that exist today across the globe—communities of practice with diverse self-inquiry intentions including, but not limited to, self-care, self-discovery, and self-empowerment for both individual and social justice. Participating in yoga communities as a student and teacher, as well as studying these communities as a yoga researcher, have led me to believe that community is the most common, and probably the most potent, context in which we learn and teach yoga in modern times.  Thus, having a better understanding of the nature of modern yoga community seems like a worthwhile goal for both students who are learning in community, and teachers who are working to build and teach within them.

If we embrace and apply a community-based model to yoga, such as Wenger-Trayner’s Community of Practice (CoP) which I outlined and advocated in my last blog post, then, the next question that arises is, how do we as yoga CoP members build and sustain them? And, while yoga practices and knowledge also help define and perpetuate these CoPs, the community aspect is probably the requisite feature for their emergence—the physical, psychological, and social space that is required to practice safe yoga and inspire greater self-knowledge and understanding. But how does this physical-psychological-social community-space become the protective, nourishing energetic container necessary to promote engagement in and experience of deep yogic self-inquiry?

As yoga practitioners, we intuitively sense when we have entered a yoga community that provides the energetic container for safety and growth.  But sensing and recognizing these communities is not the same as knowing how to establish and maintain them. As students and teachers, what specific techniques, skills, and understandings could we adopt and use to facilitate the emergence of these nourishing and enriching yoga communities?  As I recently reacquainted myself with the classic text, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg in preparation for The Essence of Yoga Center teacher training program, I was reminded of how the communication I use in my yoga classes has been shaped by his work on Nonviolent Communication (NVC)—an approach that fosters space for both ‘safe sharing’ between community members and ‘belief challenging’ for innovation and growth.

So what, specifically, does Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process offer in terms of the creation and maintenance of yoga CoPs?  First, the term nonviolent communication has always resonated with my yogic tendencies, reflecting the spirit of ahimsa, one of Patanjali’s first-limb yamas, or ethical rules for right living, laid out in the Yoga Sutras.  While nonviolence is the most obvious, yoga-relevant aspect of NVC, this approach embodies at least three additional features that may contribute to the formation of secure and nourishing community spaces, including: Honesty, Empathy and Self-Awareness. Honest NVC occurs when a speaker expresses their truth clearly and authentically from the heart.  The listener must also receive the speaker’s truth, by hearing the verbal message but listening through to the heart of the speaker and their intention.  This kind of ‘heart-connecting’ communication occurs when one shares their thoughts and feelings openly and accurately—in as precise and complete a manner as possible.  The idea of speaking truth, again, resonates with a yogic ethical principle, satya (truth), which asks the practitioner to be truthful in intention, word, and deed.  Honest communication sets clear boundaries for a safe and nurturing community container to form.  When we add trust to truth, confidentiality becomes an additional boundary-establishing element of the community space.

Empathetic NVC transpires when a listener receives a speaker’s truth with sensitivity to their feelings and needs.  For truly heart-connecting, empathetic communication to takes place, the speaker must also assume the challenging task of balancing both their own feelings, and the needs that give rise to them, as well as the feelings and needs of the listener.  Both listener and speaker share responsibility for expressing their feelings honestly and with compassion for the other.  Rosenberg suggests that empathy in communication emerges, “[w]hen we hear another person’s feelings and needs, [and] we recognize our common humanity.” One of the most valuable contributions of Rosenberg’s NVC work is the rich language he presents for describing emotions and feeling states.  His feeling vocabulary is both descriptive and extensive, but may seem somewhat unfamiliar to most of us due to the fact that our Western culture does not emphasize or encourage the skills of emotional identification, regulation, or (constructive) expression.  At times, we are in ‘cultural-denial’ of the very existence of our emotional inner world.  Learning to observe, recognize, label, accept and empathetically express feelings establishes a positive, nonjudgemental community space to conduct self-inquiry for healing self-care and personal transformation.

Finally, self-aware, reflexive NVC ensues when a speaker is fully-present and conscious of both their own emotions and needs as well as those of their listener.  As yogis, we cultivate this state of embodied mindfulness or ‘witness consciousness’ through regular asana, pranayama and meditation practice. The witness state, or direct observer sakshi (saa-kshe), refers to the capacity of awareness to detach itself from its identification with the shifting thoughts and feelings of an individual and rest in its own expansive and unifying nature. When we learn to stay consciously aware of thoughts and feelings that arise in our minds and hearts, which allows us to label, acknowledge, and embrace them in nonjudgmental and potentially healing ways, we can more easily extend this practice beyond ourselves and empower our communication with others. Thus, the first step in addressing how we as yoga practitioners can facilitate the emergence of nourishing and enriching community-heart spaces critical to the effective functioning of yoga CoPs, is to model and encourage the loving, heart-connecting practices of honest, empathetic, and mindful nonviolent-communication.

Post by Tanja Bisesi

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