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.

Comments are closed.