Erich Schiffmann, author of YOGA: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness, is one of the most respected mentors and yoga teachers in America. The Feathered Pipe has been honored to host Erich’s “Love-fest” at the Ranch for more than 20 years. Last month, Andy Vantrease invited Erich to his first ever Zoom call to talk about his 42-year career as a yoga teacher, the courage to share his personal evolution with the world, and the prayer he brings with him wherever he goes.
Looking back on 42 years of teaching, what moments stand out from your yoga journey and career?
It’s interesting when I look back because what actually comes to mind isn’t what I thought would stand out from the story, you know.
I began teaching yoga at the Krishnamurti school in England, where high school kids would sign up for yoga class between math and physics and other subjects. I got a lot of practice teaching there, so that was helpful early on in my experience, and after five years, I moved to Sebastopol, California and began teaching out of a ballet studio that I rented. That was the first time people came to class voluntarily and paid me, and it was a realization like, “Wow, these people really want to be here.”
I started doing little weekend workshops, and a woman from Tennessee named June LaSalvia—a totally cool yogini—invited me to come to Nashville to teach my first on-the-road workshop. I was in my 20s, you know, just a kid, and I remember being so nervous flying to Nashville. I was thinking, “Isn’t there anybody in Nashville that could be doing this? Why do I have to do this?” I got there, and I remember June saying to me, “Look, everyone just wants to have a good time. They’re not here to judge you.” That set me at ease, or at least gave me the confidence to go through with the workshop!
This may surprise people, but I got nervous every time I went to teach. I think back on teaching at the Feathered Pipe, and I remember walking past the bathhouse on my way from the teacher’s cabin to the main lodge. Again, I’d be wondering why I’m here doing this, and I’d always say this little prayer to myself, a prayer from A Course in Miracles: “I am here only to be truly helpful. I am here only to be truly helpful.” They call it the Miracle Worker’s Prayer.
That prayer helps me forget about myself and brings me back to the service. I’d get centered and walk into the yoga room, seeing the wooden floor and walls and ceiling beams and the elk. Seeing that for the first time stuns you into awe—it’s so beautiful. Something about the people at the Ranch, too; they’re so friendly and willing to try stuff that they wouldn’t normally get into. So, it was always an open space for me to speak what I found myself curious about.
Were you still teaching Iyengar when you first came to the Ranch? What did the process from Iyengar Yoga to Freedom Yoga look like for you?
Yeah, my first summer at the Ranch, I co-taught with Iyengar teacher Elise Miller. She’s very good with scoliosis and therapeutic Iyengar practices, so she’d teach in the morning and I’d teach in the afternoon. I think the Ranch was sort of testing me out to see how I did. Luckily, at the end of that week they invited me back the next year to teach on my own, and that’s how my 20-or-so-year stint at the Feathered Pipe began.
As far as shifting from Iyengar to Freedom Yoga, it actually took many years to realize what was happening. I was doing my best to replicate the teachings that I had learned, trying to teach like my teachers. I studied with Iyengar for a long time and went to India a number of times. I loved his ferocity, his fierceness; it made me attentive.
He was very strict about how to practice: On Monday do this, Tuesday do this, Wednesday do this. At the time, I didn’t know what to practice, and I was building my foundation—so I loved it. I did it and did it and did it, and I loved it for a long time. Then I started loving it less and less. I remember thinking, “What’s up with this? What’s going wrong here?”
After a while, I realized that things weren’t going wrong. Actually, things were going really right—and that doing mechanical, prescribed practices was no longer where the action was. Slowly, I began getting downloads to drop the prescribed practice and listen inwardly for guidance about what to do. Of course, my initial resistance to that was, “Oh, that’s selfish. That’s self-centric. You’re not supposed to do what’s feeling right to you.” But when I went deeper, I realized that I only exist because The All is being itself as me. The way to trust The All is to do exactly what’s feeling right to me. That’s how you operate in harmony with The One.
Now, if I had tried to drop the prescription at the beginning, I would have just gone into the yoga room and probably taken another nap. The discipline helped me practice and build sensitivity, and eventually led me to be brave enough to trust that which is feeling most right to me. And when that became clear enough within me, I was able to bring it to my students and become a conduit for the Infinite to move through me as I taught. That’s when I started calling what I did Freedom Yoga, when the discipline—the prescribed routines, structured practice, the whole thing—culminates in intuitive practice.
How was this shift received by your students?
When I first tried it out, I would teach a regular guided class and at the end, for about 10-15 minutes, I would say, “Now do what’s feeling right to you.” Some people loved it and some people didn’t dig it so much. They had no idea what to do when given the freedom. Actually, I had a woman come up to me after one of those early classes when I was testing it out, and she was sort of bothered. She said, “Er-iiich…” in this tone of voice that I knew something was up. She said, “The reason I come to class is I want you to tell me what to do. I don’t want to think about it.” And you know, I totally fell for it. I thought, “Oh, you’re right, you’re right. My job is to be telling you what to do.”
So I stopped trying freeform in classes! And it took me another several years of doing my personal freedom practice before I came around to trust that my job isn’t just to tell you exactly what to do. My job is to actually help you learn how to do yoga. That’s my job. The evolution took time, and the bravery took time.
When I finally made that switch, I did lose part of my student base and gained new students who were ready for it. I knew I needed to still guide people into it, giving some direction and structure, since I realized the role that discipline plays. I gave options for every pose and asked them to choose whichever one felt right for them. And the more we did that, the more people taught themselves how to make those decisions along the way, becoming more tuned in to what they felt.
Ultimately, I knew that if people challenged their conditioning enough, the energy would take off and begin to inspire them live, to where they’ll start feeling the inner impulse for themselves. Again, the point of the discipline is to go beyond the discipline and find your intuition.
I am hearing such potent life lessons in these teachings. It’s like, isn’t that what we’re always doing—moving towards our truth?
Exactly right. Yoga is not just about the poses, but if you get it in this context, you learn that all the time you can be listening for guidance. The whole evolution of the practice is to be brave enough to keep reporting the news as accurately as you can.
As a teacher, it’s tough because if you’re associated with a group and you’re certified by that group, you’re sort of expected to teach that way. I never got certified to be an Iyengar teacher, even though I was very close. I was in London and the people that were in charge of the certifications said, “We would like to certify you, but we know that you teach things that you learned from Desikachar and Vanda Scaravelli. We know that you bring in other aspects to this, so we can’t certify you unless you’re willing to stick to the script.”
As much as I love the system, I didn’t want to be certified, because I valued everything I was learning. And the really interesting thing as I look back is that Mr. Iyengar was totally teaching Freedom Yoga. He was doing his practice and following the energy, changing his mind, learning and adding on—the way he taught was his truth. He was in touch with the life force as it was being expressed through him, and he was doing his best to convey it.
As I’ve taught over the years, that’s what I’ve tried to do, to live my truth. Eventually, at the end of my time teaching at the Ranch, I was doing a lot of dharma talks and philosophy because that’s what lit me up even more than the asanas.
I imagine the Feathered Pipe honored your natural evolution as a teacher. What else about spending time there felt special to you?
Driving up to the Ranch felt like entering a magical world. Seeing the arch, coming up the bumpy, curvy road and hearing the sounds…
When I was a little kid, our family went to Montana—I actually have a picture of me on a horse when I was probably three years old—and I always thought I was going to grow up and live in a log cabin in Montana. That was sort of a picture in my mind. Then I began coming to the Ranch, and I realized, “Oh, so this is how that dream of Montana will play out!”
I always loved the arrival day of retreats. I’d go look at the yoga room first, when it was empty and quiet and beautiful. Then after dinner that first night, we’d go in and the chairs and backjacks were setup in a huge circle. People would trickle in and pretty soon the whole circle is full, people sitting there, buzzing. It hasn’t actually started yet—but it’s already started. Everybody is waiting for someone to say something, and the energy is just building.
Those moments were often some of the best, when it wasn’t officially official yet, but everyone felt like, “Wow, we’re here. We’re here. We’re here!”
At the end of the week, we always sat together again and held hands; we were much closer after six days. In my life, I don’t get to sit down in a circle holding hands with people very often, with like-minded yogis, where you don’t have to really say anything to feel connected, and you all know you’re lucky to be there. That is forever a special memory!
And India, you know, helping to create that feeling and that space at the Ranch. India was special, and so natural and easy to be with, which was cool. She taught me that someone who’s really high is easy to be with—not judgmental, not intimidating, and open. She was extremely open. She laughed a lot. She was goofy. She gave good hugs! I loved her.
I’ve heard people say the same about your hugs and openness too. You two share the qualities of very special beings! As someone who’s been dedicated to studying higher consciousness for decades, what’s your assessment of what we’re experiencing as a collective right now?
Well, growing up, I had this voice in the back of my mind saying, “Look, you’re just going to die anyway, so what difference does it make? Who cares?” And, unfortunately, at the time, I believed that.
Various things happened along the way, all of which perpetuated the feeling that we’re in a temporary world on the way to somewhere better. “I can’t wait until we’re there. I’ll put up with it the way it is… the physical world… the human condition… life as suffering.”
Now, my insight is that we’re not in a temporary world on the way to somewhere better—we’re in the middle of The Ultimate! It’s not a matter of attaining anything, actually. It’s mostly just getting quiet in your mind, so you’re open to the reality that is here and the unfolding that is always happening. I suggest questioning your assessments: If it looks like a flat world, but you’re having insight that really there’s no such thing as a flat world; if it looks like a physical world doomed to death and decay, but you have the sense that it’s actually Eternal Life in eternal morphation—explore that!
Be open to the fact that Reality is really real and that life is alive now. Stop waiting until you get out of here and start bringing your attention to where you actually are, with the insight that The Ultimate is alive and well. Instead of taking your assessment too seriously and rigidly, be suspect of your assessment, look anew, and then see what happens.
What is the truth here, really?
What is the truth here, really?