October 26, 2009

Today, I took—or rather gave—one of the three best yoga classes in my life, with Erich Schiffman.

I’ve heard about Erich Schiffman, a famous (or not so famous, as you’ll soon understand) yoga teacher based in Santa Monica, California, for years. And yet I’d never met him.

He doesn’t sell himself, he doesn’t market himself much.

He doesn’t answer to the description of a Famous, Fabulous Yoga Teacher (unless you count his long, flowing locks). I’m 6 foot 3, and he out-talls me by a good few inches. People call him Papa Bear. He’s not in the best of shape, though he can outyoga any of the thousands of young, stunning, hotshot yoga teacher wannabes filling teacher trainings nationally (though he wouldn’t care to try and outyoga anyone, of course).

He is, however, a star. I’ve known it for years. He’s old school. I saw him two days ago, when I first arrived in Ojai for Lulu Bandha’s Ojai Yoga Crib, an annual yoga gathering in, well, Ojai (there, I’ve now said Ojai three, no four times in one long sentence), standing outside a restaurant, and just the way he stood, and people acted around him…you can tell what he’s made of.

A big red raw heart, is what.

He’s studied, and taught, for decades. He speaks in a surfer drawl. He’s funny. Endlessly so. But he’s also powerful, and intimidating. The Buddhists call it “meek”—as in the tiger is meek because it is so strong, it doesn’t need to show off, it can crawl gently and silently through the jungle.

Anyways, I took my first class with him ever today, on the top of Meditation Mount, a spiritual retreat looking over the Ojai valley and its plentiful orange orchards, or groves.

And it was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken, and I’ll tell you why. Two words:

Free Form.

He spent the first half of the class talking about Free Form, giving us the ground, mentally, to understand what we were going into. Which is vital, considering that most yoga students, even those who like myself have practiced pretty consistently for seven years, have a desultory home practice, if any (my morning practice consists of 10 pushups, 10 situps and a few British military style calisthenics followed by, count ’em, one updog and one downdog).

So, finally, after 7.5 years of studying with the best yoga teachers in the world in Boulder and at Yoga Journal Conferences, I finally get how to do yoga by myself. For myself.

The class was videoed, hopefully by Lulu Bandha, and I”ll post the video here when I locate it. For now, I’ll leave you with this: once you’ve practiced and established healthy, relatively precise and safe alignment, forget the discipline of yoga classes, the do-this do-that commands of yoga teachers. As Erich commanded us, yoga should be fun. Listen to your body. Move how you want to move. Get in there. Follow your arms and pelvis and spine as your body tells you how it wants nay needs to move. Start with some basic motions and basic sequences and then bravely, meekly, mix it up.

In 10 minutes of Free Form I got in there with my back and neck and ass and shoulders and feel all better, in a way I haven’t felt for the last two weeks of traveling and laptopping, sleeping on couches and random beds and eating and not exercising much (other than a bit of urban biking).

From Erich’s web site, an excerpt:

People 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…

…go to Erich Schmiffman’s web site for the rest.

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