Shiva Rea and the Evolution of Vinyasa Flow Practice

Photo: Donavan Wilson
Don­a­van Wil­son inter­viewed Shiva Rea

Born in Cal­i­for­nia, Shiva Rea devel­oped a love of life and pas­sion for yoga at an early age, by draw­ing on the inspi­ra­tion of the rhythms of the Pacific Ocean. The pas­sion for move­ment is Shiva Rea’s approach in Prana Flow Yoga and Yoga Trance Dance prac­tices. Rea sat and dis­cussed mul­ti­ple pas­sions and the evo­lu­tion of the vinyasa flow prac­tice with my friend and guest con­trib­u­tor Don­a­van Wil­son when she swung through the East Coast recently. Shiva Rea will be com­ing to DC next Sun­day (11/​14) at Flow Yoga Cen­ter for three ses­sions. Rea’s pre­vi­ous visit to DC elicited a blog post­ing by Jes­sica Lazar.

Can you tell me about where you started your practice?

I was raised in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia and moved to Mem­phis, Ten­nessee. The blues is in me since my time at birth.

Photo: yoga class in Warrior I pose
Virab­hadrasana I at the Mas­ter Class at Thrive Yoga

You have south­ern roots?

I do, on my grandfather’s side. I came across a book on Asia and then a book on Zen Bud­dhism. I found a book by the Himalayan Insti­tute on yoga asana when I was 14 years old. I would take this book into the liv­ing room and prac­tice when no one was there. I remem­ber my first asana, Vasisthasana, and a shift in con­scious­ness in that very first asana. This feel­ing blew me away.

You are known for say­ing, “you don’t do yoga, you are yoga.” Can you explain this distinction?

There is this eter­nal flow and rhythm in nature and all liv­ing crea­tures. This expe­ri­ence takes place in the prac­tice of yoga. We have to really decon­struct the West­ern con­structs that place in this expe­ri­ence. This expe­ri­ence is quite nat­ural to all beings, which includes ani­mals such as cats, dogs, and tigers. My (aca­d­e­mic) back­ground is in anthro­pol­ogy (from UCLA), specif­i­cally in world cul­ture as a move­ment anthro­pol­o­gist. I have spent time in both East and West Africa, two and half years. This had a pro­found effect on me regard­ing the under­stand­ing of being conscious.

What is this under­ly­ing expe­ri­ence that is shared by all beings?

This doing, for the being that is already is. We have to decon­struct the con­structs we put on yoga, we actu­ally under­stand that yoga is infused with this doing lan­guage. As yoga teach­ers we say to a class “Every­body take an inhale.” You can­not take an inhale. Where do you get this? We are not the boss of our breath .

Photo: a yogin arches his back, another supports him
Grad­u­ally loos­en­ing the spine

So yoga is a nat­ural movement?

All beings have their yoga. This insight comes from a pro­found con­tem­pla­tion by Abhi­nav­agupta. [He was] a pro­lific 12th-​​century scholar. He has this great axiom about yoga which is “tun­ing our­selves into our essen­tial vibra­tion.” We are learn­ing how to tune our­selves into our inher­ent being.

This is why we go a yoga class. We feel out of tune. We start to feel in tune after the prac­tice. I think only human beings dis­tort our­selves to be some­thing that we already are, our essen­tial selves. For instance, a tiger essen­tially knows its nature; where as human beings have this incred­i­ble capac­ity to for­get who we are and then have to search for ourselves.

This con­fu­sion means we do not lis­ten to our­selves. If we are hun­gry, we some­how sup­press our appetite because we do not want gain weight. We drink some caf­feinated bev­er­age because we are tired. We have this capac­ity to go against our char­ac­ter. In the West, we have a pill to sup­port us in going against are feel­ings. Do you have trou­ble sleep­ing? We have a pill for insom­nia. Are you con­sti­pated? We have a pill for that.

We have this unique capac­ity as human beings to dis­tort our­selves. So that is why we do yoga. We just do not func­tion very well. We are like tigers. We are like birds. We enjoy life in our nat­ural state, in our nat­ural flow. It’s like play­ing the vio­lin. We play for the plea­sure of that expres­sion. We are not always prac­tic­ing yoga to cor­rect our prob­lems and issues. Some­times it feels good to breathe and open our­selves to a new experience.

Yoga has so many appli­ca­tions in the world and so many ther­a­peu­tic appli­ca­tions. I do a work­shop about the sci­ence of our heart, which is extra­or­di­nary. Even as we are talk­ing now, our heart­beats are lit­er­ary beat­ing in sync. This is the sci­ence of con­nec­tiv­ity and yoga can sup­port this and our rela­tion­ships with each other.

Photo: group of yogins practicing
Mov­ing into stillness

You were prac­tic­ing on your own since the age of 14. When did you start prac­tic­ing Ash­tanga and where? And who were your teachers?

It was an inter­est­ing time in yoga in Los Ange­les, Cal­i­for­nia. I started my prac­tice at Yoga­works and it is now a fran­chise. Maty Ezraty, Chuck Miller and Alan Fin­ger founded Yoga­works in Santa Mon­ica. I was a fresh­man in UCLA. I was one of the first stu­dents there. They had an Ash­tanga class and Maty started around 1986-​​1987. There were just two of us learn­ing the pri­mary series. Then I spent years abroad. When I returned, there were 30 par­tic­i­pants. It was a really won­der­fully time. I stud­ied with Chuck Miller most of the 10 years of my prac­tice (which was seven years study and three teach­ing). Pat­tabhi Jois came to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia for a month to teach the sec­ond series and there were a room full of people

So you prac­ticed with Pat­tabhi? What was Pat­tabhi like?

Yes, I inter­viewed Pat­tabhi for my Master’s the­sis, Hatha Yoga: The Prac­tice of Embod­i­ment. The project exam­ined 2,000 years of yoga. The inter­est­ing thing about Pat­tabhi is his pres­ence was so filled with love and joy. He gave us these adjust­ments that were noto­ri­ous and fierce. He would take you to your edge and have no prob­lem keep­ing you there; whether that is the edge of your flex­i­bil­ity or strength. How­ever, his under­ly­ing pres­ence was love and joy. Ash­tanga was an incred­i­ble prac­tice for me. I taught Ash­tanga both at UCLA and Yoga­works. At the time, vinyasa was not called vinyasa. There were Iyen­gar teach­ers who would come to Yogaworks.

Any­one we would recognize?

Every­body, I stud­ied with John Schu­macher, Lisa Wood­ford and I did my teacher train­ing with her. So many amaz­ing teach­ers that came through; it was really won­der­ful envi­ron­ment that Maty and even­tu­ally Chuck cul­ti­vated at Yoga­works. I am always grate­ful to be a stu­dent and teacher in that envi­ron­ment. Since they taught Ash­tanga, I was an instruc­tor in Ash­tanga. What was needed was a teacher that can offer a flow expe­ri­ence for peo­ple who did not prac­tice Ash­tanga. This was really the begin­ning of the vinyasa flow practice.

The flow prac­tice emerged on the West Coast, as a syn­the­sis of Ash­tanga and Iyen­gar. What I really learned from Iyen­gar Yoga is krama ( mean­ing grad­ual), which is also Ash­tanga. The prac­tice con­sists of stu­dents learn­ing a new series, pos­ture by pos­ture. If some­thing is going to evolve, it has to be informed by the pre­vi­ous move­ment. I mean move­ment in the broad­est sense (like the sequence in the asana itself). This is like a story hav­ing an arc. The vinyasa prac­tice must have a begin­ning and an end.

Photo: historic photo of yoga master in Scorpion poseIn an Iyen­gar class, there is a very intel­li­gent unfold­ing of an action in a pose. So you have this one type of action, and what asana pre­pares the body after the next asana into a “peak asana.”  The is how I teach yoga.

I am more into T.K.V Desikachar’s approach on how to do asanas as an expres­sion of prana. Krish­na­macharya said asanas are in ser­vice to pranayama and ways to bring pranayama into a life. This is an essen­tial con­cept in Krishnamacharya’s teach­ing. The flow of prana is increase and enhanced, when you moved your body in rhythm of the inhale and exhale.

Was vinyasa flow yoga a nat­ural evo­lu­tion or was it a depar­ture from Ashtanga?

I had to come up with a lot of adap­ta­tions of Krish­na­macharya and so many dif­fer­ent teach­ers; even though he never trav­eled to the West. His whole thing was adapt­ing the orig­i­nal prin­ci­ple of so you could serve people.

Editor’s com­ments:

prAna has pointed me towards a video with Shiva Rea. I know this is like giv­ing them free adver­tis­ing because she’s one of their “ambas­sadors“, but what the heck:

Shiva Rea from Prana Liv­ing on Vimeo.

4 thoughts on “Shiva Rea and the Evolution of Vinyasa Flow Practice

  1. Really great inter­view Dono­van! I really appre­ci­ate the insights you were able to elicit from Shiva Raye around the rela­tion­ship of pranayama to asana and its influ­ence in her ever evolv­ing style.

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