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The Story of How the SYL Community Evolved

By Scott Johnson

It’s the beginning of 2012, nearly 3 years since we opened our yoga space, and I’m sitting quietly at Stillpoint Yoga London. There are flowers in front of me, surrounding the picture of a woman looking softly, directly, through the frame. She has kind eyes. Candles burn and the delicate fragrance of incense fills the air. The silence is palpable, cut only by the soft sounds of tears being shed by others behind me. Our dear friend, colleague and teacher Ozge Karabiyik had died the night before. We have come together to make some sense of it. Together. I look into those kind eyes and gently close my own. In the darkness I turn toward my own version of grief as I understand it, in that moment. I wrestle with the knowledge that I will never physically see Ozge again. She is now a memory.

I grapple with the confusion that ensues, turning the inner turmoil over and over until I can’t really stand it anymore. I try to go quiet and I do. In the silence, a voice appears. It’s hers. “It’ll all be okay,” she says in that joyful infectious way she always did.

It captures me. Her voice seems so clear. It’s not what I thought I would hear, I think.

I’m supposed to break. To feel like the world is caving in.

I smile.

It’s not what I’d thought I’d do. But the clarity of that voice belies my emotional state. It moves me to action. I take a punt on what I’m supposed to do in this situation and turn around.

Sitting with vulnerability

I spend time with each one of the people there. They are all students of ours from Stillpoint and have come to sit with their own version of grief. I speak softly with them. Listening. I sit, hearing every one of their words as closely as I can, then I offer my perspective of holding on to whatever Ozge represented to them. If we hold that close, she still lives on in our lives.

The action I take that morning becomes the framework in which I move Stillpoint forward. What can we learn from experiences we have that can shape our lives? Can a practice really help us to change the way we see the world? Can I wake up to this life right now, with all its intricacies? We continue. As a response to Ozge passing, Stillpoint became about how we ourselves could feel more alive and listen deeper to the people who came to us. Yes, we teach traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga in a way that really helps, in a way that twas taught to us and to our own teachers. But is there more we could do?

The big retreat

We share yoga at SYL in a busy city in which people can lead busy and stressful lives. There can be so much distraction that personal sensation, embodiment and focus can become dissociated. We can identify ourselves as the work we do, the roles we have in life, as the emotions we feel, and we can see our place in things based on the circumstances of this world. These perceptions at times are needed for us to be able to navigate life. But, they can overtake our lives so much that we become defined by them. What if we could identify as something other than these patterns? Something else. Something not yet known. Moving into this new awareness can take courage. Courage because we are moving into the unknown.

The late Michael Stone used to share this Zen poem in his workshop (as he did when he came to teach at SYL):

The small retreat is to go and practice in the woods, the rivers, the fields. The big retreat is to go and practice in the city.

What if practice never stopped?

SYL became about how people can actually meet their lives and see how they can wake up to their lives through a dedicated ongoing yoga practice. It’s our view that practice never really stops. Like the Ashtanga yoga practice, in life there is always another breath to fall into. Another breath to notice. We see this as the practice. But, creating a bridge between practice ending and life outside of practice starting, allows for there to be a division created between ‘my yoga practice’ and life. We began to ask the question, ”What if practice never stopped? What would that look like, feel like?”

This is all eight limb stuff, right? Ultimately, though, Stillpoint became about truly meeting people with kindness. About listening to them. About not taking over their lives with dogmatic ideas about what’s right or wrong but allowing them to wake up to their own inner voice, all within the framework of developing a disciplined physical yoga practice based on breath awareness. This has become our default position. This has become the Stillpoint practice. The Stillpoint way. Listening. So that we ourselves can remember to listen.

Practice. Community. Life.

For me, and in my experience, practice and community have been integral in developing a life that has meaning. In the aftermath of Ozge’s passing, all of us in the SYL community continued coming together in practice and friendship to hold each other. We found solace in reminding each other of her life by coming together in practice. We need something that helps us navigate the world in a way that keeps us embodied and to notice the vulnerabilities of our lives. Contemplative practices such as yoga and mindfulness allow us to feel, sense and relate to the word and all its relationships. From moment to moment.

Michael Stone also said:

“All of this stuff – meditation, therapy, pharmaceuticals – is bullshit without friendship. You can’t heal all by yourself. In no culture did anybody heal by him or herself; you can’t do it alone.”

Community and friendship helped me to see my own strengths, nourish them and ultimately hold myself beyond it. They helped me to navigate SYL beyond the tragedy of loss. The loss of Ozge. There was support and connection in shared practice so that away from this space I was able to hold a continued sense of practice myself. This helped me so much. To be able to look after myself and feel that strength beyond our community was so rich. It meant so much. It’s why nurturing a community spirit became a deep part of my work and the SYL identity. It’s obvious, but in this life, we can never be apart from others.

Yes, we live this life as an individual, but we do so in a world of relationship. We never truly know what is going to happen. We only know that we have ourselves, the people we bump into through our lives and those experiences to reflect on. Doing so with the utmost awareness is, I feel, one of the main reasons we continue practising through the years.

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