Monday, March 25, 2013

In Class with the Infinite

At the beginning of March I attended a weekend workshop with Erich Schiffmann, Internationally renowned yoga teacher and “star” of the 1994 video  Yoga Mind & Body­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ with Allie McGraw.

At first glance, Erich Schiffmann does not look like a typical master yogi, with a chiseled body and intense gaze. Instead,, he looks like a big teddy bear, with long curly locks that frame his soft face. But listening to him speak for even just a few minutes, his wisdom and spiritual depth become clear. 

Although he teaches regular classes at his studio in Venice, CA,  his focus has become less about postures and more about living yoga through learning to tune in to Spirit’s wisdom and grace. When one becomes adept at doing this, asana practice becomes an expression of the Infinite Mind.

This practice, which Erich calls Freedom Style Yoga,  is very much akin to Kripalu’s practice of Meditation in Motion—listening to where prana wants to flow and following that.

The following is a distillation of the notes I took while attending the recent program at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires.  More of Erich’s teachings can be found at .

Yoga is more than something we do for an hour or so at the gym, a couple of days per week. Yoga is a lifestyle.  But the “yoga lifestyle” does not require one to wear Lululemon clothes, become vegetarian, and stand on your head every morning.  It is more about a commitment, day after day, to be aware of “Big Mind.”

The Sanskrit word yoga means to “yoke” or “join.” What we are doing when we practice yoga is joining, or yoking, small mind to Big Mind.  Erich likens this to plugging into the internet--we can use our minds, our intention and focus, to “get online.”   

Small mind, however, is so often full of static and distraction. The practice of meditation (which is one of the central practices of yoga) helps us to learn to think less and listen more, so the “download from Big Mind can come through. “

Erich says that the main reason to meditate is that it allows us to “slide into a feeling of peace.”  He teaches that there are three ways to practice meditation:

1)Sitting quietly. He suggests a few minutes every morning and evening.

2) Doing asana practice. Let your posture flow be a meditation-in-motion. Structured practice should eventually flower as intuitive practice. Once we know where to put our feet and how to align our hips and spine, etc, this focus on alignment can then blossom and become alive. We can move beyond “Simon Says” to an experience of channeling the poses, guided from an inner knowing.

3) The Rest of the Time (which is most of the time!). We can practice meditation while we are cooking, shopping, driving (eyes open, of course!), and in all of our daily activities. What this means is that, throughout the day, we practice thinking less and listening more, so we can “get online.” Erich emphasizes that if we are listening and aware, we are online all the time. We are connected if we are conscious.

With regard to pranayama (breathing) practice, Erich teaches a very simple, basic technique:  just  breathe in like you are inhaling the fragrance of a rose. He says that there is no need to do anything fancy. But be aware that it’s not just air you are breathing—it’s Life Force. He invites us to let that Life Force tell us what to do, rather than manipulating it.

The repetition of mantras is a practice that can help still the mind. You can use any traditional mantra that calls to you, or make one up that feels appropriate.

When mantra works, eventually it will dissolve. When any discipline works, ultimately the form dissolves, and the energy of the practice takes over. Erich calls this the “flowering” of one’s practice. This is true for asana, mantra, meditation, or any other discipline. We first focus on the mechanics of the practice, and then we let it flower. We hone our instrument and our skill set, and then we open ourselves up to become a channel for the spirit of the practice to come through.  In this way, we may find ourselves inventing new poses, just as the original yogis did.

When we first start a yoga practice, many of us prefer having a teacher guide us. We come to class and listen carefully to every move the instructor guides us to do, focusing on proper alignment and getting it “right.”

Erich emphasizes that such training is important.  Get good at it—isolate specific movements and become deeply attuned to what is happening in the body. Then, let it flower as intuitive practice. Our training should culminate in letting the energy dictate the flow.  So we begin with structure, which eventually dissolves and blossoms into a more organic, free-form movement with heightened sensitivity.

“Advanced” yoga means learning to trust yourself.  “Knowing flows in…then trust yourself to do what you need. Dare to do as you are guided to do.” Through meditation, we get better at paying attention to this guidance.

When we practice on our own and begin to allow ourselves to be guided from within, it’s a good idea to bring a pen and paper to our practice space. Erich also suggests a tape recorder, or even a video camera, to capture the cool patterns and original sequences that will be channeled through us. “You’re in class with the Infinite. Take notes!”

With all that said, Erich says that asana practice is “highly overrated. Being more bendy doesn’t make you enlightened.”  The essence of yoga is about life—about learning to be “tuned in.”

One of the ways we can practice tuning in and developing this intuitive power is to pay attention to how we make decisions, however small.  Erich says, “Whenever you have a choice or decision to make, slow down and tune in. Don’t make up your mind right away. First, pause, ‘get online’ and ask for guidance.

Whenever you find yourself having to make a decision about something, it means that you are not clear. If you were totally clear, then there would be no decision process—you would just intuitively know and act accordingly. But when you are faced with a choice, then there is a momentary lack of clarity.”

So, tuning into guidance is the practice of listening and waiting until we are completely clear. At that point, it is no longer a choice. It’s a clear direction—“the choiceless choice.” But Erich stresses that “we don’t make up our own mind—we ‘get online’ and ‘google’ the answer.”  Googling is Erich’s quirky and endearing way of describing prayer, or downloading God’s guidance with regard to each situation.

Getting online and googling is something we must begin to practice with the relatively easy decisions in our day-to-day life. Do I put on the blue or red shirt? Eggs or cereal? Bowling or a movie? Pause, ask the question, and then follow the choice that “glows.” Think less, listen more. Use your thinking to listen more.

When you get “online,” you begin to connect with the Awakened Ones who are already online (It’s kind of like a chat room with the great sages—Jesus, the Buddha, and all the great saints and boddhisattvas.  Our spiritual practice is about staying online and connected with these great beings and asking for help.

Three things to practice every day:

   Relax. Practice relaxing all day long. Become aware of the current tension level in your being, and then use the power of your exhale to allow it to diminish. Awareness and breath is a powerful way to release tension.

  Practice Love More. Begin with things that are easy  and natural for you to love, and love them more than you normally would. Pet the cat with more conscious affection. Savor your food. You will start getting wowed by the “asanas of life” more. Then, when you are not being loving, you will notice the contrast more easily.

“Love” is the willingness to recognize that which is real and true. Therefore, “I love you.” means “I am willing to recognize that which is True about you (your Divine Nature).” Be willing!

 Trust Your Insights. Learn to trust your deepest impulses about what to do. This becomes easier to do when you are relaxed. Don’t worry about explaining your choices to others.

Erich also spoke about the meaning of the word “God.” The dictionary definition of “God” is “Supreme Being.” Now, if we think of this Supreme Being as a noun, that creates an anthropomorphized image of God, and implies duality and separateness. I am here, a lowly human, and God is up there in the sky and has dominion over me.

But if we think of Supreme Being as a verb, then wow!—it becomes a way of being in the world that is accessible to and inclusive of everyone.  We can cultivate Supreme Being as a way of moving through our lives, cultivating exquisite presence and an open heart.

Each of us is a finite expression of the Infinite. The great Totality is temporarily showing up as you. You only exist because the Totality exists as you. 

When you feel the loving goodness inside yourself as yourself - as who or what you really are, you will acquire new self-appreciation. You will realize there is no basis for being self-critical or self-condemnatory, or for harboring guilt for some known or unknown transgression in the past, and that you have done this until now simply because you have accepted as true certain erroneous ideas about yourself. It's obvious to you now that when you wipe the slate clean and take a look at yourself for yourself, when you experience yourself as you actually are, you encounter a very different you from the "you" you thought you were. It now makes sense to disbelieve what was never true and embrace the new self-appraisal. You are You; God's specific Self-Expression.    ~from Moving Into Stillness, by Erich Schiffmann.


Poetry, readings & words of wisdom from modern and ancient sources