Middle English joie, from Old French, from Latin gaudia, pl. of gaudium, joy, from gaudre, to rejoice…
Erich Schiffmann told us that it took him 12 years to write his book, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. It took us only 10 hours to move into joy in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Erich’s book was one of the first yoga books I bought when I started my yoga journey and I had not looked at it for quite some time. His Moving Into Stillness workshop was this past weekend (his11th in Yellow Springs), so I pulled it off the closet shelf to remember to take it with me for his autograph. I wasn’t looking forward to a 6 hour ride to Ohio by myself so I thought reading some of it again would re-energize me for the trip — I ended up reading some excerpts to my class last week and I was right…I was rarin’ to go to Ohio and finally practice with Erich.
I must say that after all these years of yoga-ing, I have never attended such a joy-filled yoga weekend, and that’s saying a lot. My long time readers know with whom and where I study yoga but this weekend was very different. I’ve been to many trainings that are heavy on technique and philosophy but there hasn’t been a lot of pure unadulterated joy.
I recalled the trainings and sits I’ve done with Buddhist teachers and I can’t say there has been very much joy involved in those teachings either. While I am grateful for the buddhadharma in my life and it has liberated me more than I can explain, there is so much emphasis on suffering. Yes, I get it: life is suffering, pain is optional. In Buddhist meditation retreats, there is usually a lot of crying in the small discussion groups that one is always a part of — those tears are those of fear and grief and pain. I’ve never heard the word “joy” uttered in those situations and I almost feel guilty for embodying joy. But as for this weekend, it has been a very long time since I cried soul tears of joy in a yoga class — unless it’s my own solo practice at home.
Erich’s Freedom Style Yoga is described as “an intuitive approach to life and yoga that can be summarized as, ‘Do not decide in advance about what to do or not do. Instead, listen inwardly for guidance and trust into what you find yourself Knowing.’ This is not an inherently strenuous practice, but it is advanced. It requires that you be brave enough to follow your deepest impulses about what feels right and what doesn’t.”
Erich’s classes consisted of: him talking, meditation, a guided asana practice, a free form (“freedom style”) asana practice set to cool music (everyone from Alicia Keys to Pattabhi Jois chanting OM SHANTI), then savasana or more meditation, your choice. Choice!…instead of rules and “shoulds” and enough technicalities to choke a sacred cow.
Erich studied with both Iyengar and Desikachar and said that over time he morphed into his “freedom style” yoga. I loved that because the same has happened with me over the years for my own personal practice. I told Erich that I think I channeled him without ever having practiced with him or watching a video. Erich said that at first he did not know how to teach Freedom Style in classes, that when he asked people to do their own thing they were stuck and didn’t know how to do something that felt so natural to him. That was my first blown away moment during the weekend because as I later told Erich, the same thing happened to me. Once in a workshop I invited people (who were not beginners) to do their own yoga and everyone stood there and stared at me.
Erich does not throw out alignment rules but he believes that where your yoga training should culminate is where you flower into YOUR OWN YOGA. All the techniques and rules of yoga should lead you to YOUR YOGA. He compared learning yoga to learning music. Just like a beginning musician learns the rules of music and the notes and then creates their own song, so should we learn the notes of yoga to create our own practice. Make your yoga as simple as possible but that is easier said than done.
I laughed when Erich said that “advanced poses are overrated” and that we should be happy where we are in yoga, wherever we are at a certain point in time. He believes that yoga is about “being in your own space” and that we “need to get as strong as we need to be to be able to SIT.” Because yoga is not some type of “exotic P.E.” — yoga is and always was a spiritual discipline and some of the greatest yogis had little asana practice. For Erich, Yoga is an “inquiry into truth and the nature of life.”
Don’t decide in advance what you THINK you’re supposed to do. Listen inwardly for what to do and then dare to do what your most inner impulses tell you to do in yoga. Your practice should open you up to a willingness to trust yourself and to the realization that the Totality — the “Big Mind” as opposed to our “Small Mind” — is us. This is similar to what Mark Whitwell (another student of Desikachar — any wonder why I naturally connect with certain teachers?) speaks about, Yoga as the connection to the Nurturing Source, the Infinite. In yoga we learn to settle into ourselves in order to let go of our conditioning and to become the REAL YOU. We should dare to give expression to what is bubbling up inside us and again, this involves letting go of our biases and conditioning.
Erich emphasized again and again how we should think less and listen more. I recalled how I was chastised here for telling people to “shut up and do your practice.” That’s just another way of saying “Silent mind it”, as Erich calls it. Pause, ask God, Jesus, Buddha, or whomever your favorite Awakened One is for guidance, and then listen. Our deepest impulses, our intuition, our gut feelings…all of those are our connection with the Big Mind, the Totality, the Nurturing Source, the Infinite. Meditating is like clearing the mist or cleaning a foggy mirror, but we need to be clear that we indeed want a clearer perspective. Because if we have an unclear perspective it will be harder to interpret things as they come into our consciousness and we will respond to life inappropriately.
I loved it when Erich told us to just take moments each day to be still, to sit, to silent mind it. You don’t have to sit in lotus to think less and listen more. Stop the chatter, stop the analyzing. Just stop and engage in the old-fashioned advice of taking a minute to smell the roses. I thought about all the people I see who are walking in nature and playing with their smart phones. STOP! I was struck at the age range of the students — I would say most were 40+, even 50+, and I thought that the students who need to hear this yoga wisdom were the 20 and 30 somethings starting out in yoga.
Erich’s guided asana practice was not what some would call “advanced” with fancy pretzel poses. The emphasis was on working the spine and hips and I think the only standing pose we did was triangle. The difference was that the poses were repeated with various changes, going deeper each time. Just the way I like it, wringing it out.
It was in the free style practice where I blossomed. Erich played three or four songs and it was our own practice. Some sat, some took savasana, and I have no idea what those closest to me were doing, my intuition guided my movements. It was the perfect combination of movement and music that caused the soul tears of joy to flow. It has been a very long time that someone else’s class affected me like that: I was free to be me. When I sat after the practice my body literally vibrated from crown chakra to my feet, each day I felt like one huge glowing ball of prana. Interestingly enough, I developed a bad headache and nausea the first day which I attributed to experiencing a tremendous detox. I needed that practice.
Erich left us with the four sentences that he repeats daily. He said that when we wake up, before we get out of bed we should say these to ourselves in order to facilitate the connection with Big Mind:
- “Today I will make no decisions by myself” (this recognizes our limitations.)
- “I will make no decisions today because it is no longer intelligent to do so.”
- “I will make decisions in silent counsel with the Infinite.”
- “I will do what You have me do.” In other words: THY WILL BE DONE…because THY will is OUR will when we listen deeply.
Erich’s teaching resonated with me in a profoundly potent way because it was a validation of my own core yoga values. I have to say that the only other teaching I have felt that way about is Mark Whitwell’s: “The ancient wisdom of yoga teaches that Life is already given to you, you are completely loved, you are here now. It teaches that we are not separate, cannot be separate from nature, which sustains us in a vast interdependence with everything. The universe comes perfectly, and is awesome in its integration and infinite existence. This union is our natural state, this union is Yoga.”
I have studied with excellent technical teachers and those who can recite yoga philosophy chapter and verse, but there are few who touch the heart and the core of your Consciousness, the precious few who leave you weeping those soul tears of joy.