Interview Erich Schiffmann on Iyengar Yoga

by admin on July 9, 2013

Post image for Interview Erich Schiffmann on Iyengar Yoga

Interview Erich Schiffmann on Iyengar Yoga


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.”

Erich Schiffmann

I soon became acquainted with the words of Paramahansa Yogananda (Metaphysical Meditations and 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, 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, and because of my associations with Dona and Mary, I was able to attend his classes. Based on this experience I went to Poona, India to seriously study with Iyengar during the summer. I watched him practice every morning and then spent three hours in class. The afternoons were occupied by watching his hour of shoulder and headstand work followed by breathing class (pranayama) and an evening yoga class. I found his yoga style to be most spiritual in a practical, grounded sort of way. The point of all the hard physical work is to get into a deep meditative state.

Back in England I was fortunate to work with Joel Kramer who was making a pilgrimage to see Krishnamurti. I learned to “play my edge” with Joel. It was a whole new way of doing yoga for me. It felt like the real thing, authentic, like the way the ancients probably practiced, and I was hooked immediately.

I had finally “got how to do yoga.” It finally became clear. It’s internal. It’s a way of listening inwardly and of being guided within. The basic technique is to go within and listen and then do as the within is prompting you to do. I had learned how to create a line of energy and suddenly all the intricacies that Iyengar had been talking about began happening by themselves. I would run energy down my arm, for example, and this skin would move this way, and that skin would move that way, and my little finger would move and my arm would rotate, just like Iyengar was saying.

Erich Schiffmann

Since that time I have fundamentally been my own teacher, this does not mean that I do not learn from others. It means I learn from others when I am guided to do so, and that at all times I am in touch with the teacher within. I have also been fortunate enough to have been invited to teach all over the world. For twenty years I have not needed to exert my will on my behalf, and yet, inwardly anyway, I have lived like a king. Everything comes to me.

Most importantly, however, I’ve learned to relax and trust the movement of life. Life has demonstrated its trustworthiness. I’ve learned to willingly go with the flow and thereby enjoy life more fully. Yoga is not merely touching your toes, or standing on your head, or folding yourself into a pretzel. It’s about how you do what you do, and how you live your daily life on a moment-to-moment basis.

My guess is that if you also learn to meditate and do yoga and pause occasionally throughout the day to be still, to breath, to relax, and to feel the energy of life force within you and all around you – the life force that must be in you for you to even exist – that you, too, will feel the palpable joy of “union with the infinite” – yoga. The word yoga means yoke or union. And you will feel healed, renewed, strong in mind and body, and your life will take on new meaning and new fulfilling directions that you are not personally responsible for. It’s worth the small effort required.

Remember, Yoga is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are. The practice of yoga is the practice of meditation – or inner listening – in the poses and meditations, as well as all day long. It’s a matter of listening inwardly for guidance all the time, and then daring enough and trusting enough to do as you are prompted to do…


Question: When people think of Yoga they often think there is an immediate need to be flexible and have the idea that Yoga Postures are unattainable for many. What can you say in relation to this image of Yoga?

Erich: That’s the image because doing yoga can make you more flexible. That is one of the benefits. That’s the aspect that is easy to photograph. But most people don’t start off that way. Most people are fairly stiff when they begin their practice. The trick is to just do what you can do, and gently nudge into the limits of what’s possible without force. If you practice regularly and are gentle with yourself, then the development of flexibility and strength will not only help you be increasingly comfortable in your body, but will make you sensitive to what you are doing both physically and mentally that is making you tense and inflexible. Being comfortable in your body, though not the primary goal of yoga, is a nice consequence of the practice. When you are experiencing less discomfort and less dis-ease, you will become increasingly conscious of the essential life force energy that constitutes your presence. This not only feels good, it helps change the way you think about yourself.

But yoga is not about postures, per se. Yoga is not just a fancy form of physical culture. Yoga is a lifestyle, the way you live your life. It’s an inquiry into the nature of Truth, the truth of Reality. Whether you are flexible or not, you can inquire into “What is the truth of the experience I am having?” And no matter how flexible or inflexible you currently are you can probably make yourself more comfortable by stretching out your tight areas and strengthening your weak areas.

In any case, don’t let the fact that you are not now very flexible stop you from engaging in the practice. The practices will change all that.


Question: Your beginnings were in the hands of Krishnamurti. He is one of the great teachers whom I would have loved to have known personally. What was that time in your life like? What are you left with after having had direct experience with this great teacher?

Erich: That was a magical time of life for me. It confirmed for me the idea that life is on your side and that the circumstances of life have a marvelous way of reconfiguring themselves in ways I could not personally orchestrate. Krishnamurti was a beautiful man in all ways. It was important for me to see a human embodiment of the teachings, to see someone living their life at a very high level. He used to call me “old boy,” as in “Good morning, old boy!”


Question: I know it was Krishnamurti who advised you to study Hatha Yoga with Desikachar in Madras, India.

Erich: Yes. When I was a teenager I was a student at the Krishnamurti School in England, Brockwood Park. I had gone there expressly to meet K, to meet other people that were into K’s teachings, and to learn the yoga that K practiced.  And when I realized that I really did want to study yoga more seriously I asked Krishnamurti for advice. He suggested I go study with Desikachar in Madras, India. I was 20 and I lived there for a year on that first visit.


Question: It seems it was not a good experience for you.

Erich: I loved my time with Desikachar in India, both for the teachings and the culture. I also wanted to get away from everything I was familiar with, so I could get clear about what my life motivations were, not just what everyone else was encouraging me to do. It was a magical, auspicious time of my life. True, I got very ill while I was there and nearly died. A friend of mine did die. But it was transformational because it helped me realize I wanted to live. Instead of feeling like a stranger in a strange land, thinking I wasn’t supposed to be here, I finally accepted the fact that here is where I am, and here is where I’m supposed to be for as long as I’m here. I started giving my attention to being here. I stopped wishing I were somewhere else. I stopped hoping for the ride to end so I could go back to where I was supposed to be, and decided to live and participate and be here. Looking back, I’m certain it was that inner decision that paved the way for future magical doors to open.

Erich Schiffmann

Question: Your life is full of important meetings, such as with the great teacher Iyengar.

Erich: Yes, you see, that’s what I mean. My sincere inner yearning pulled these things into my experience, like a magnet. There were many teachers and experiences, also, too many to elaborate on. It continues to be that way.


Question: How did you come to Yoga?

Erich: My older brother gave me a yoga book for my birthday when I was 10 or 12. He doesn’t remember it, but I still have the book. I put the book in a drawer and didn’t look at it until I was 14. I remember liking the sheen of the man’s skin. The poses, though vaguely familiar, seemed strange, mystical, and intriguing. And the philosophy was attractive and seemed like it just might be true. I started dabbling with the poses and reading every spiritual book and spiritual biography I could get my hands on. One thing lead to another, and still does.


Question: What is the Yoga you transmit today? What is its essence?

Erich: Yoga means yoke, which means to join or connect. What the early yogis were talking about is using your mind, your sense of self, your consciousness, to yoke, join, or connect with the Supreme Consciousness, the Supreme Identity, God. It’s like using your computer to get online, except it’s internal, mental. You use your mind to get online with the Supreme, and then live your life with the perspective you find yourself having when you are online. That’s it in a nutshell.

The technique is to think less and listen inwardly more—listen inwardly for the promptings of God—and then dare to do as your deepest feelings are guiding you to do. You do this in the poses, in the meditations, and all day long. Your deepest feelings are coming from the depths of Infinity, not just your conditioning. As you practice this you will realize that the Supreme Consciousness you are getting online with is your consciousness—and has been all along. It’s not actually a matter of joining or yoking your mind with the Supreme. You’re already connected. You just didn’t know it. You thought something else was true.

The new understanding is that you exist because the Supreme is being you. Big Mind is your mind. You are already joined. And so the word Yoga actually becomes a declarative statement about the truth of what already is. Union, Unity, Yoga! God is, and therefore you are. Consciousness is, and therefore you are conscious. It’s not about you “joining” with it. It’s about realizing you are already joined. You are It in specific and unique self-expression. Conscious unity with Infinity. Unity expressed as multiplicity.

And so, to answer your question, I am now teaching what I call Freedom Style Yoga. It is an intuitive approach to life and yoga that could 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. This is not always easy. It involves the development of self-trust based on the growing conviction that you are the specific and unique self-expression of that which is ultimately trustworthy: Life, Love, Truth, Existence, Presence, Omnipresence, Being, Supreme Being, God.


Question: Where do you think yoga is headed today? Do you think that yoga has to evolve in some way? How do you live?

Erich: It’s up to the yoga teachers to come to a clearer and clearer understanding of their subject. Yoga is not about becoming different. It’s about realizing the already-existing happy Truth. When this happens you will then behave and be different, but you are not actually becoming different from what you already are. God is Love and therefore so are you, and so is everyone and everything in your experience. The teachers need to understand this and live with this understanding. It will promote fearlessness, hope, and inspiration, both personally and globally, so we are no longer defining other people or life as the enemy. This will result in harmonious interaction, Heaven on earth.

How do I live? To the best of my ability I do “Thy Will be done.” This involves being mentally online, inner listening, and the willingness to do as I am being guided to do, even if I cannot yet quite explain why I am doing what I am doing. Instead of making up my own mind about what to do, I get online and listen for what to do.


Question: “Moving into stillness” is a way of understanding life that also in my own experience has shaped my attitude. Flow, move, walk … where exactly Erich?

Erich You flow, move, and walk in the only place you can: wherever you find yourself being. Flowing with life is not something to put off until later when conditions are more favorable or seem more worthy. Since you’re here you might as well get into it. Otherwise you’re here, but wishing you were elsewhere. That sucks. That is not an intelligent mindset. It creates a conflicted experience of life. It makes you sick. Since you’re here, since you’re always wherever you are, then you might as well succumb to the fact, embrace the fact… while you’re here. The more you do this, the more you realize that “here” is where you always are, and “here” is where Home is. There is not a better here than here. The trick is to give your attention to wherever you find yourself being, and to whomever you find yourself being with. The specific circumstances—the scenery—of the now are always changing, but the now moment is a forever thing. I thought I would get stuck in this specific here if I finally said “Okay” and gave in to the fact that I was here. But no. No matter where you are in the infinity of Creation it will always be the Here and Now for you, and it will always be changing, always new. But if you are not giving your attention to your current here-and-now circumstance, then you will only be half-way here, and you will experience less energy, less aliveness, and you’ll get tired, and you’ll start resisting the now even more, pulling out of life, until you eventually get sick and die. Whereas the more you participate in the here-and-now of the life you find yourself in, the more you’ll experience the fulfillment you thought you could only achieve by being elsewhere. You’ll come alive. You’ll get excited about life again. You’ll have more enthusiasm for life, more energy. You’ll even begin to suspect that the truest fact about life is it doesn’t end! Life is ongoing and forever, eternal. There is no death. Death is a fake.

And so you continue on in your life, living in the world in which you find yourself, but with a different understanding. I find myself translating the experiences I’m observing and having based on this different understanding or new comprehension of what’s going on. There is no death. Life alone is. You’ll find yourself having a very different experience of life when you start disbelieving in death and accept the fact of ongoing Life.


Question: What do you think awaits the world?

Erich: The recognition of that which is Real! Truth realized. God recognized as being the presence of everyone and everything. That there is no enemy. That everything you see is actually some aspect of your infinitude. Brothers and Sisters. Family. One Self. Cooperation. Harmony. Peace. But not a dull, stupid peace. Peace that is fulfilling, fun, inspiring, worth living for. . . the way it was meant to be. This is what people have always wanted. It’s been here all along. We are finally waking up to the already-existing lovely Truth. But it’s going to require those who have insight into this to hang in there with their insight in the face of circumstances and world appearances that may not seem so lovely. The trick is to look through the appearance to the reality that has got to be there. The insight is that I exist, you exist, anything/everyone is because the Totality is being Itself as that person, place or thing. At the moment most of us think something else is true.

God Alone Is. Anything that exists is the specific identification of God, but you can think otherwise. You can misinterpret what’s going on. But if you misinterpret and misunderstand what you see, then you will respond inappropriately. You will defend yourself when you don’t need to defend yourself, and you will attack when you don’t need to attack. And if you are attacking and defending, other people will attack and defend, and then you’ll say, “See! My reasons for attack and defense were justified.” But as you come upon a clearer comprehension of what’s true, the truth of Reality, you’ll find yourself understanding things anew and living differently.

The trick is to temporarily quiet your mind so you have a clear, unbiased perception of what’s true. The skill is to think less and listen more. The smarter you get, the more you realize how little you know. So instead of relying so much on the little you know, quiet your mind by thinking less, mentally get online, and then listen for the download from Big Mind. When you think less you make yourself receptive to the download. You’ll find yourself intuitively knowing what to do or not do. Big Mind—God’s Mind—is your mind. That’s why it is to your advantage to embrace “Thy Will be done.” When God’s Will is what we want, then Heaven on Earth will be our experience.

And this is what yoga is about. Again, yoga means yoke, and yoke means “to join.” The practice of yoga is about using your mind to join with God’s Mind, and then living your life with the perspective you find yourself having when you do that. It’s about realizing God’s Mind is your mind. God’s Presence is your presence. There is no power or presence other than the Supreme to do or be anything. You did not create yourself. You are the specific and unique self-expression of the Totality, and therefore the Totality. Waking up to this fact—and no longer believing anything else—is what it’s all about. The future looks good. We can do our part to insure that it is good by doing our best to yoke our mind with the Infinite, over and over and over, until we realize it is the already-existing Fact.

Thank you. Love.
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