Erich Schiffmann 2002
often ask me how I became interested in yoga and whether or not I was
flexible when I first started. I usually say that I was reading Krishnamurti
books in high school, and somewhere in one of them he said that if you
really wanted to get your head together, if you wanted to achieve enlightenment,
clarity, or peace of mind, otherwise known as Self-Realization, Awakening,
or God-Realization - that is, if you wanted to understand what he was
talking about - it helped if your body was healthy and sensitive as possible,
and he recommended yoga, meditation and a vegetarian diet. I thought.
"Well, if any of this actually helps, it's worth a try." And so I took
up the practice. But it wasn't exactly like that. And, no, I wasn't flexible
when I first started. I could not touch my toes, for example. But it came
fast. I progressed quickly. I remember being able to balance on my head
for a few seconds the first time I tried, but I was not able to cross
my legs into the Lotus position. I wasn't suddenly a zealous convert,
nor did I become particularly disciplined about any of this yet, but in
my mind I was beginning to think of myself as someone who was "into yoga."
I soon became acquainted with the words of Paramahansa Yogananda (Metaphysical Meditations & Autobiography of a Yogi) and joined the Self-Realization Fellowship. As I progressed I started reading all kinds of books about Eastern religion, yoga, spiritual biographies, and meditation. Krishnamurti's, Think On These Things, grabbed my attention and I read almost nothing but Krishnamurti for the next several years. All this time I was meditating, or at least trying to, reading, going for walks (that's what Krishnamurti did) and tinkering with the yoga poses, meanwhile thinking I would grow up and be a painter, an artist.
After high school I decided to go to Brockwood to study with Krishnamurti and then return to California and go to art school. I just knew I had to go. It was more like some primeval animal instinct or latent spiritual urge than anything else.
The time with Krishnamurti was wonderful. Krishnamurti was as enlightened a man as I had ever met. He was an excellent speaker, he was serious, he was handsome, he was sensitive, courteous, mystical, shy in person and powerful on stage. And besides being an accomplished hatha yogi (someone who practices physical yoga) - he practiced yoga three hours per day - he was also what's called a jnani, one who has attained Self-Realization through the so-called mental door. He affected me profoundly and permanently, and I value tremendously my time at Brockwood. Yoga classes were taught in the Krishnamacharya-Desikachar tradition. I attempted to establish my own daily practice but was not successful. Krishnamurti suggested I study with Desikachar in Madras, India.
My time with Desikachar was most informative. I learned that I must use my curiosity to learn from him. He would answer questions but not press information on me. My time in Madras was nearly fatal as I contracted hepatitis and nearly died. I returned to Brockwood when I was well enough to travel. I arrived just in time to gain the post of yoga instructor which I kept for the next five years of often frustrating, but informative, work with teenagers who were often not completely committed to their yoga practice.
Through my associations at Brookwood I met Dona Holleman (one of Iyengar's senior pupils) and her wonderful friend and mentor, Vanda Scaravelli (author of Awakening the Spine: The Stress-Free Yoga That Works With the Body to Restore Health, Vitality and Energy, a most excellent book on yoga). My practice improved dramatically during this period, partly because Dona was such an inspiration, and partly because my attempts at establishing a daily practice were finally kicking in. I also spent my weekends in London studying with one of Dona's students, Mary Stewart. I had very little money at this time, and she gave me free instruction and allowed me to assist her classes. I learned a tremendous amount about teaching this way. She even invited me to stay at her home. I ate with her family and slept in the guest room. She was very kind; I was almost too naive to appreciate just how generous she was.
During the summer of 1976, Iyengar was teaching in London, and because of my associations with Dona and Mary, I was able to attend his classes. Based on this experience I went to Poona, India to seriously study with Iyengar during the summer. I watched him practice every morning and then spent three hours in class. The afternoons were occupied by watching his hour of shoulder and headstand work followed by breathing class (pranayama) and an evening yoga class. I found his yoga style to be most spiritual in a practical, grounded sort of way. The point of all the hard physical work is to get into a deep meditative state.
Back in England I was fortunate to work with Joel Kramer who was making a pilgrimage to see Krishnamurti. I learned to "play my edge" with Joel. It was a whole new way of doing yoga for me. It felt like the real thing, authentic, like the way the ancients probably practiced, and I was hooked immediately.
I had finally "got how to do yoga." It finally became clear. It's internal. It's a way of listening inwardly and of being guided within. The basic technique is to go within and listen and then do as the within is prompting you to do. I had learned how to create a line of energy and suddenly all the intricacies that Iyengar had been talking about began happening by themselves. I would run energy down my arm, for example, and this skin would move this way, and that skin would move that way, and my little finger would move and my arm would rotate, just like Iyengar was saying.
Since that time I have fundamentally been my own teacher, this does not mean that I do not learn from others. It means I learn from others when I am guided to do so, and that at all times I am in touch with the teacher within. I have also been fortunate enough to have been invited to teach all over the world. For twenty years I have not needed to exert my will on my behalf, and yet, inwardly anyway, I have lived like a king. Everything comes to me.
Most importantly, however, I've learned to relax and trust the movement of life. Life has demonstrated its trustworthiness. I've learned to willingly go with the flow and thereby enjoy life more fully. Yoga is not merely touching your toes, or standing on your head, or folding yourself into a pretzel. It's about how you do what you do, and how you live your daily life on a moment-to-moment basis.
My guess is that if you also learn to meditate and do yoga and pause occasionally throughout the day to be still, to breath, to relax, and to feel the energy of life force within you and all around you - the life force that must be in you for you to even exist - that you, too, will feel the palpable joy of "union with the infinite" - yoga. The word yoga means yoke or union. And you will feel healed, renewed, strong in mind and body, and your life will take on new meaning and new fulfilling directions that you are not personally responsible for. It's worth the small effort required.
Remember, Yoga is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are. The practice of yoga is the practice of meditation - or inner listening - in the poses and meditations, as well as all day long. It's a matter of listening inwardly for guidance all the time, and then daring enough and trusting enough to do as you are prompted to do...