The Art and Heart of Asana

According to Erich Schiffmann, a much beloved Yoga master, Yoga is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are. In this interview he talks about the practice of asana as the practice of meditation or inner listening. And, as he explains, it’s an inner listening that should extend from one’s asana and meditation practice into the entire day and one’s life. It’s a matter of listening inwardly for guidance all the time, and then trusting enough to do as you are prompted to do.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Where does asana fit in the whole system of Yoga?

Erich Schiffmann (ES): I think what’s commonly overlooked is the reason for the practice. We’re doing Yoga, and the asana thing is a subset of Yoga. The whole point of any Yoga practice is the experience of Yoga, which is, in quick summation: conscious union with the Infinite. Yoga means “to yoke or join,” from the Sanskrit root.

The way I talk about it is: small mind joining big mind or universal consciousness. The more you do that, the more you realize big mind is your mind. You’ve been joined all along—it’s not a new unity, it’s conscious union—which may be a new experience for the person experiencing it. It’s the realization of what’s already going on. All the Yoga practices are geared to having the conscious experience of your unity with infinity. Then, rather than life seeming like the enemy and being all about survival of the fittest, you start sensing the unity and your part in it—going with the flow and your experience in life starts to flow.

People come into asana class for different reasons. I’m okay with any reason. Whatever got them there is okay, so that they can have the experience of Yoga. Asana practice is a really good way of cleaning out your field, erasing the conditioning, erasing the experience of pain and discomfort. When all that is lessened, it’s not like nothing’s left—what’s left is a clearer experience of truth that has been there all along, which luckily feels lovely. That’s because the energy is love, the feeling tone of the infinite is love and you have a real experience of that. At the end of class, students feel relaxed; they feel good because they are beginning to have a clearer hit on the truth of existence.

IYM: What is the heart of asana?

ES: Asana practice is good for you physically, but it also gets your head in a clear space so you can have a clear experience of truth. Asana is a form of meditation, like moving meditation. In my first book, Moving into Stillness, the first paragraph starts with this idea: Imagine the spinning top. Stillness is like a perfectly centered top that’s spinning so fast and is so perfectly centered that it appears motionless. Most of us are off center, with a chaotic spin and lots of drama—at least we know we are alive. Sometimes, our image of stillness is like the top tipping over. That’s not very appealing. We think, “Well, I can do that when I’m dead.” No, the way I use stillness is like a higher energy state than we are used to; it’s more blissful, energetic and life affirming. When you meditate and do the poses you learn to slide into this higher energy, into a perfectly centered state. It will have a calm look, but your own experience will feel more alive, with less drama and more life.

Using the poses and meditation gets people to slide into stillness. And that stillness is what I mean by peace. Peace is  a higher energy state, therefore a more desirable state. Once you taste it, you’ll be drawn to it because it feels right. You get people into a room, especially in a deep relaxation and they start feeling it and they get hooked by it. So my whole thing is about the art of living—using your mind to get online. Yoga is a full time job, all day long—not really a full time job—but the art of living. That’s why I like Integral Yoga so much. In Yogaville, you are living it, living it together and proving it works. I like your whole philosophy: many paths, one truth. It’s so inclusive.

IYM: What else should we know about asana?

ES: If it hurts, it’s wrong. It’s amazing how many times I have to say that. In the heat of the moment, students think, “Well Erich didn’t really mean that in this instance.” But yeah, if it hurts it’s wrong and I keep saying it so people don’t hurt themselves. If you do, it’s not end of the world: Things will heal. It would be good if there was instantaneous healing but, until you can do that, it’s probably better to not hurt yourself. Another important point is that you have options and choices. There’s not one way of doing triangle pose, not one best sequence. The skill is to get sensitive enough to what is feeling right in the moment so you can customize your options and choices. That’s the art of asana.

I like to recommend that you be as relaxed as you can be, as you do what you’ve got to do—in asana practice and outside asana practice. I make this a fundamental tenet in asana practice. If you are doing a really hard pose, if you sort of put the thought: “I’m going to be as relaxed as I can be doing this,” layers of unnecessary doing get released. You will still be able to do everything but it will appear more effortless. It’s like when you are watching Olympic gymnasts and they look so effortless—then you know they are good. I like the idea of sliding into stillness, into the feeling of peace and making that a big emphasis. When you do, you accelerate a feeling of calm energy with an inspired perspective. Once someone starts feeling that, it has an attractive pull.

IYM: Do you have a name for your approach or style?

ES: I’m teaching what I’m calling “freedom style.” I studied with a lot of different teachers and I kept trying to commit to one style. Instead, I took what I thought was the best from each and put it together and then someone suggested I call it freedom style. What I like to do is to teach people how to “get online.” That’s my favorite analogy to use because everyone gets it. People can be wherever they are in the world, and when they go online, they are connected.

The idea is to be wherever you are with online knowing. I think that’s a great idea. The mind you are getting online with is your mind. In the asana practice you’re learning to get more intuitive in an easy context and you start trusting what feels right. If something doesn’t feel right, rather than going to a teacher and that teacher telling you exactly what to do, I’m trying to encourage people to trust their inner sense. If they learn in an easy context, it’ll spill over into their lives so that, all day long, they will do what feels most right to them.

IYM: What is your core approach to training Yoga teachers?

ES: I emphasize three strands. The first is meditation. When I say meditation, I don’t mean just learning to sit quietly. I use the term to mean listening inwardly, using your mind to get online. You listen inwardly, meditating all day long to the best of your ability. I emphasize learning to have a silent mind, so the wisdom of the infinite can start coming through you. No matter what you are doing—whether practicing asanas or driving your kids to school.

The second  thing I stress is how to practice in a creative manner. Having a set practice can be helpful to students, particularly in the beginning. But, what I do now is go in and mentally get online and listen to what to do. When I go into the Yoga room to do my hatha, rather than having my routine too planned out, I’m listening. So, that’s what I try to transmit to the teachers I train: I’m trying to teach them how to meditate or listen inwardly in the context of doing Yoga asana. Essentially you learn to meditate while you practice.

The third component of my approach is to train teachers to give a good, safe and fun class that teaches their students how to practice in a creative manner by teaching them how to meditate. It comes full circle. A lot of people sign up for teacher training and think it’s going to be an asana only course. It turns out to be a lifestyle, art of living course. By lifestyle I mean that no matter what you are doing, you are basing what you do on inner listening. Whatever you are doing, try to base the inner decision-making on inner listening. The Yoga practices are so good in helping you do that. Learning to meditate and to do asana practice sensitizes you so you start trusting what’s feeling right. It’s confusing at first to listen. But, when you get into silent mind, knowing flows in. That’s the big punch line or the reason that everyone talks about getting your mind quiet—because at that point wisdom starts appearing, new knowing starts flowing. You find yourself knowing things you didn’t know.

IYM: Do you have concerns about how Yoga is being taught today?

ES: Yoga largely has become like a phys. ed class. Yoga teachers have to be conscious. They have got to keep refreshing and revitalizing the meaning of Yoga, keep pushing it beyond asana to the art of living.

About Erich Schiffmann:

Erich Schiffmann has gained international recognition for his unique approach to Yoga. Erich taught Yoga at the Krishnamurti School in England for five years, has studied in India and now lives in Santa Monica, California, where he teaches local classes, workshops, teacher trainings and retreats. He is the author of Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness and his classes are available on DVDs and CDs. For more information, please visit his website.

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