When yoga is pursued as a spiritual journey, it’s meant to be a solitary exploration with the individual seeking to unite with the Divine.
So what happens when you become a habitual practitioner and begin to unite in friendship with fellow classmates? Is there room on that 2×5 foot mat for you, the Divine and your friends? Maybe, or maybe not…
Practicing next to the “right” person can be incredible. Having someone by your side to celebrate that first arm balance, or monumentally holding that inversion with laughter and support is invigorating. When their enthusiastic energy amps up your endurance to push through a particularly tough class, it’s a positive prop.
But the downside to practicing next to a friend is that the focus can become negative and derail even the most devoted practitioners if competition is incited by an arousal of the ego.
To keep your practice on track and determine if cultivating a friendship in class is the right thing for you, here are some things to consider to avoid catching Overcrowded Mat Syndrome (O.M.S.):
Know Your Intention.
When some teachers start class they ask the students to bow their heads and set an individual intention. Do you know what your priority is in your practice? Are you there to work on yourself or expand your social circle? Your mat is a sacred space. How do you want to define your practice?
Navigating a Social Setting.
A friendly wave or a smile from a familiar face can be an invitation that leads to a conversation. If your priority is to remain introspective in class then don’t feel obligated to return the gesture. Instead, follow-up with that person after class. Set a social boundary precedent.
When we first meet someone we really click with and begin expressing this great love for the practice, and even for certain teachers, it can seem like a fail-safe indication that you’ve been given the divine green light to begin sharing all-things-yogi. But have patience. Practicing next to someone is consenting to create a habit together. It’s a partnership. Dig down beneath the superficial layers before committing. Who is this person really?
Defining Common Values.
Opposites may attract but they can also distract. If you’re practicing for spiritual reasons and your buddy is there for a workout, you have different values which is the definition of misaligned. To avoid conflict, always look for alignment, both physically and mentally.
Flexing Your Mental Muscle.
Are you one of those people who can drop into your own center and stay there? Or do you tend to get caught up in someone else’s energy easily and then, good or bad, it festers? We’re ready to defend ourselves from being kicked in the face by someone in close proximity, but how do you handle energy whiplash? If you tend to be sensitive to outside energies, you may be better off practicing solo until your mental muscle to stay centered is stronger.
It’s one thing to look around briefly at others in class when you’re unsure of a particular posture. It is quite another thing when your eye wanders to study the person next to you, wanting what they have and discounting your own abilities. How do you handle differences? If you have a loving, supportive outlook for your friend as well as yourself then you’re in a good place. Remember, no two practices will ever be the same. Their strong suits may be your weaknesses and vice versa. Those types of observations should not be an opportunity to inflict judgment on either you or the other person as being “better” or “worse” than one another.
If you’re already practicing next to someone, do you find your friend constantly asking, “Did you see me do this? Did you see me do that?” Or, do they notice everything you did or didn’t do? Don’t feel obligated to abide by the same social norms of friendship that exist outside of class. When more of your attention is spent noticing how your friend’s practice is going and less on your own, then you’re looking outward. As much as possible you should be staying inward and keeping your focus on your own mat. But back to before, if your yogi-values are the same this should not be an issue. If it is an issue, then it might be an indication that practicing yoga as a spiritual path is not their priority or yours.
Infected with O.M.S. Already.
If your friendship is already smeared all over your mat and mind and you want to reclaim your space, you can always return to practicing by yourself. Have a conversation with your friend. Maybe say something like, “I want to deconstruct my habits,” or “My practice is everywhere else but on my mat right now and I need a change.”
If a yoga friendship is entered into with the same mindfulness that is used in studying the postures, there is no reason why the two can’t peacefully co-exist and even flourish.
Jenn Kashiwa is a writer, yogi and pop-culture enthusiast who enjoys a hearty laugh and a wise life lesson. She’s currently taking herself apart on the blog www.evolvingyogi.com and can be followed on Twitter at: jennkash.
Editor: Juli Arnold