Sitting Down With: Shiva Rea
By Julie Deife
Having rocketed to the top tier of yoga teachers at an early age, Shiva Rea is nowhere near slowing down in her passion or curiosity of the science of yoga. Ever the humble and generous student, Shiva prepared a delicious Ayurvedic lunch at her home in Malibu while sharing the following thoughts about her life and yoga.
Julie: Who is Shiva Rea?
Shiva: I think my primary internal identity is as a mystic, as one who looks for the source in everything.
Julie: Who or what are your greatest
influences in yoga?
Shiva: Shakti herself. I was born on the ocean in Hermosa Beach and the first 5 years of my life absorbing the rhythms of the sea left a huge impression on me. My parents were not formally into yoga although my father, a surfer and artist, gave me the name Shiva because he loved Nataraj. So it gave me room to actually discover yoga on my own. I started as a teenager to do yoga using a book then studied with a Tantric based school called Ananda Marga when I was 16 and that was my first initiation into yoga.
Julie: You were in Africa as a teenager, right?
Shiva: I lived in Africa two different times. The first time I did volunteer work in Kenya and then in Zambia, in village development, living only with Kenyans, completely in the traditional way of life. We were way off the grid – no electricity, carrying our water. I was 17 1/2 - 19, just out of high school, which was a tremendous reality shift and led me to my next step.
Julie: Which was what?
Shiva: I found the World Arts and Culture program at UCLA and became a dance anthropology student and within that I spent my junior year in Ghana and my senior year in India. So I’ve lived outside of our culture here for extents of time and that changes ones perception of the world.
Julie: Which yoga teachers do you consider your teachers?
Shiva: First let me say, that mainly there are periods of influence. One period involved pilgrimage and study in India of both Buddhism and yoga, arts and dance.
One is a transformative 10 year immersion into Ashtanga yoga and learning the different series and studying with many teachers in the Krisnamacharya lineage. Another is studying Tantra and Ayurveda and the process of becoming a mother, which awakened a more inherent experience of honoring and cultivating the prana-shakti within.
I have studied orthodox systems and with teachers who are more oriented toward synthesis. There was a point where I had to let go of my Ashtanga practice in order to evolve – like a fruit that would have shriveled on the tree. It is not everyone’s path but sometimes that happens, and it happened for me.
Now to answer your question, the teachers who have given the strongest impression are really those who were rooted in a tradition and answered their inner call such as Angela Farmer, Mark Whitwell, Shandor Remete and John Friend. I admire their evolution of building upon that foundation and letting it also work with their evolutionary unfolding.
Julie: And so are you saying you are in a constant evolutionary state with your yoga?
Shiva: Absolutely, and this is part of what has happened in terms of this synthesis form that has the name of vinyasa, or sometimes it is called a flow practice. If you look at the studio brochures on the East and West coasts you would find that most of the classes are vinyasa-based and this has happened by people’s 21st century need to flow – to experience a transformational, open, dynamic and creative based- sadhana.
Julie: Could we say that you now literally ‘go with the flow’?
Shiva: Yes, but it comes from being connected to my own root essence. I know my essence in terms of how I experience the world as a Tantrika. I think we are born with a spiritual constitution which for myself is definitely oriented towards holistic integrated view, a shakti or energetic-oriented view and a unification of shiva and shakti. That is the base of my kind of ishtavedanta, my core relationship to the divine. And because Krishnamacharya studied Ayurveda so fully and Ayurveda was essential to how he taught vinyasa in terms of just yoga - I don’t actually know how to live yoga without the teachings of Ayurveda, the more I study it.
Julie: What changed?
Shiva: When I look back, I think that there were transformations happening without Ayurveda, but they were causing imbalances in the rest of my life because I didn’t have the tools to understand the two processes of purification and tonification; I was constantly purifying the tapas within the set discipline of Ashtanga. This is different from an open system, such as vinyasa, where it is allowed that the practice can change, slow down, become nourishing according to individual needs.
Julie: Talk more about vinyasa, please, because like it or not, you are identified with vinyasa.
Shiva: Our whole life is a vinyasa, something that has a beginning, middle and end. The cycle of our year around the sun is a vinyasa; the monthly cycle from new moon to full moon is a vinyasa. A cycle of a week and of a day is a vinyasa.
Julie: How does that translate to the vinyasa that students experience in a class?
Shiva: Vinyasa is a way for people to experience the wholeness of a yoga practice in which there is a seamless thread that unites the actions, intentions and rhythm of a class in a state of flow. Sometimes I call my class a ritual dunk in the river where we dive in and experience the current of breath as thread through an intelligent pathway of asanas, pranayama, bandha and bhavana. Every class is different in response to the needs of the class and vinyasa gives you tools of smaller sequences to respond to each class fresh. There is a direction to the flow but like a river it is allowed to find its course.
Vinyasa isn’t so much a bunch of poses strung together as the intelligence that connects one moment, one breath, one action to the next.
Julie: It sometimes feels like that, though, and it seems to vary from teacher to teacher.
Shiva: Think of jazz, which I use a lot as a metaphor for vinyasa. There is a base of technique that is open to improvisation; that’s its risk and that’s its strength.
Julie: If yoga were entering the U.S. today, instead of 100 years ago, do you think it would take root differently now than it did then?
Shiva: No. People arrive in class showing symptoms that I think wouldn’t have been any different 100 years ago. I wrote my masters thesis on hatha yoga, looking at over 2000 years of the history of embodiment in the west. 100 years ago was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in full form and yet still the Victorian era; those eras affected how people experienced the body.
Julie: Such as?
Shiva: The body as the source of sin or as something to be transcended, or, the body as a machine rather than our sacred ground of being. The effects of disembodiment are continuing and actually accelerating in terms of the number of psychosomatic diseases occurring.
Julie: In a hatha yoga class, how might you notice disembodiment?
Shiva: For one, constantly thinking through ones practice or the inability to let go in savasana. Another one is not feeling the sensations that arise in the body or being unable to experience whole body awareness.
Julie: So what do we do?
Shiva: We have to start with hatha yoga because of our history of disembodiment. No matter which tradition you get into in yoga, whether it’s bhakti yoga or raja yoga or karma yoga, you have to be present and connected.
Julie: Could you say then, that we did start with hatha yoga?
Shiva: I can say that I think everyone who has come to yoga has experienced a transformation of disembodiment. When you first come you don’t even know how to feel with your tailbone, what your sacrum is or even how to breathe. What has happened is a very positive effect of hatha yoga as a bridge so that people are beginning to experience the root aspects of yoga in an organic way.
Julie: Would you elaborate on that, please?
Shiva: Pranayama [yogic breathing] happens naturally in hatha yoga just through suryanamaskar [sun salutation]. Even if we take suryanamaskar as just a vinyasa that exists in all yoga traditions, eventually you get to that state of namaskar where you feel what all our ancestors have always felt. Everybody in the world has practiced suryanamaskar at some point. They have stopped, felt the rays of the sun, paused and had that inner feeling of namaskar. This happens naturally in hatha yoga.
Julie: Yet, society has changed.
Shiva: Each generation experiences accelerations of technology and we have to adjust. We are adjusting to the effects of email and cell phones. We are also adjusting to the toxicity levels in the environment and changes in the quality of food. We have to pat ourselves on the back that we are handling changes on a somatic level and are instinctually trying to care for our life force as the base from which realization occurs. If the life force is disorganized there is no realization possible.
Julie: You are a successful business woman. You have your line of Shiva Shakti clothing, media products, your Yogadventures company to run. This is not easy. Business and yoga may not, in the end, work together. What are some things you do to keep business and yoga in harmony?
Shiva: I’d say there are two key things. But first let me say that there is no part of me that sees what I am doing as a business. Bear in mind I have no problem with the word ‘business’, and I don’t mean this altruistically.
That said, I think with all businesses that become successful, you feel a continuum that a person has started or is doing something because of their love of it or their belief in it. For me the business becomes the means, but it’s not how I view what I am doing. That is not the soil.
Julie: And the second part of it?
Shiva: It must reflect my integrity. I have to feel that I would do something regardless of thereward. It’s part of what I would like to offer into the world. I always offer scholarships and work exchange, for example. If I stay with this intention, I find that there is a good continuum and people can feel it.
Julie: And obviously respond to it!
Shiva: Yes, but I’ve never invited myself anywhere to teach. There are people who say, “Oh, you have an agent,” and I say to them, “the Goddess is my agent. I only go where I am invited.”
That means the second part of how I view business is also as organic evolution. Again, it’s vinyasa - go where there is the organic need. Now, are there limitations to that? Absolutely. But it’s the way that I have peace. And with Shiva Shakti [clothing line], Marika has been wonderful. We have instructor programs and we support non-profit organizations.
Julie: You have done several media projects, but this latest DVD filmed in India is beyond what you have accomplished previously. Would you talk about that?
Shiva: It was a kind of synchrodestiny. I was the executive producer and so we took everything into our own hands. I was invited to the Maldives to teach and when I saw this sandbar stretched out for half a mile between tides, we knew visually that it would be the most extraordinary place to film. All of the asanas are shot there only at sunrise and sunset so it is all natural light. We took two cameras, no other light. And we wanted the imagery from India to be that of householders and not the typical imagery. Also, I was incredibly humbled by film editing.
Julie: Did you accomplish your goal?
Shiva: Yes, and it is a labor of love. We wanted it to be a practice tool that was inspiring to people who already have yoga in their blood, even beginners. It is 4 1/2 hours of yoga and 30 different vinyasas. It isn’t that we were trying to overwhelm, we just wanted to present a full practice of meditation and pranayama and also some of the diversity of the practice that we felt was safe in peoples’ hands.
Julie: What would you like to say in closing?
Shiva: I believe there is more that unites us than divides us and that yoga can occur naturally across cultures and time as each one of us breathes from the same source. May we all have the courage, love and wisdom to open to our full potential.