Vanity Fair has called Shiva Rea one of the world’s greatest yoga masters of all time. In an interview with My Yoga Avenue she reveals herself as supremely inspiring, inspired, humble and only too happy to give share some of her experiences that might benefit new teachers. During the interview she explains how her year in a slum in Africa, her mother’s tragic death and ‘going off the beaten path’ and against conventional wisdom dramatically shaped her teaching experience.
Seeking the meaning of your name helped you find yoga but when did you know you wanted to be a teacher?
“I almost didn’t go into teacher training because I wondered how I was going to learn to teach yoga in six weeks? However, there were a few different phases for me. I felt this calling but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a life path. I would subconsciously teach people yoga all the time, when I would see them slouch, and I wanted to help!”
“The second phase was when I lost my mother to cancer. She was a healthy women but she got a fast growing malignant brain tumor when she lost her fiancé. Going through this with my mother really made me commit to the healing path. At this point I could have gone down an academic route. I could have done my PhD in anthropology and gone down that direction.”
“When I lost my mother I committed to teaching full-heartedly and I accepted teaching yoga as a path. Initially, I didn’t think being a yoga teacher would help me achieve the kind of cultural change that I wanted to see. But eventually I learned that teaching yoga has this ripple effect and it’s a great way of serving culture and change and 22 years later I see those instincts were right. Even when I became a yoga teacher people thought I was crazy so I encourage new teachers to make it their path and to stick to it.”
“It can’t just be a career change. There are too many yoga teachers for it to be just a career change. It has to be something deep in your heart because you end up teaching people for very little pay. At some point you will look back and you can’t believe that you are sustaining your livelihood from this passion, for me this is my passion it’s my love, I’m helping people. If it’s your path then it will become one’s livelihood and whole existence but it has to come from one’s heart.”
You spent two extended periods of time in Africa, living with tribes in Kenya for 1.5 years and university in Ghana for a year. Do you think pushing yourself out of your comfort zone helped with your teaching? Would you recommend similar experiences for new teachers?
“I think so – sometimes you have to go off the beaten path to find your path. There is something that we know about in the yoga world called spanda shakti – it’s an internal creative vibration that helps navigate your life.”
“There are times when we have to make decisions that don’t seem mainstream or what conventional wisdom would say but we just feel it in our bones. So going to Africa was the same thing, I differed going to university and when I see my life now it was absolutely fundamental to who I am and my life direction, to live completely in nature, to live in a hut for six months and then the slums for another year. It just set my heart straight and I realized that the material world is not going to make us happy. There is so much joy that I had in absolute poverty, including my own, I lived on $50 a month, and I felt so fulfilled and incredibly blessed.”
“My time in Africa made me interested in understanding yoga from lots of different perspectives and I think yoga is much larger than just what we experience in the postures and practices that come out of India. My time in Africa was really when I deepened my whole practice.”
You have had success with clothing lines, teacher training, being ‘invited’ to headline events and your DVD’s. Many yoga teachers aspire to have a similar validation that you must feel with the love and support you receive for all of your ventures. Is there one technique or piece of advice you could give yoga teachers to help them with their success promoting their skills in their yoga community?
Shiva laughs at what she’s about to say, “I’m kind of an odd bird that way because there are a couple of things I believe in. Number one, it may sound strange, but never invite yourself anywhere!”
“Why? Because when you are ready, believe me, people will invite you.”
Shiva pauses and then reiterates in a louder voice, “They will invite you.”
“Some people try and push themselves out too soon and just a few people attend their workshop. If you first start to teach classes, that’s one thing, but moving to the level from classes to workshops it really has to happen organically. I have mentored a lot of people through this process and I can see from the people that follow it that it really works. To follow this philosophy means focusing on the quality of what you do. Following your passion. Being willing to have a niche.”
“In our teacher training we have amazing diversity from a really cool rabbi, to dancers, professors, young people who are still in college and ex CEO’s. They come from a wide background and I say to them “go back and teach from where you came. You know the executives, you know your cultural community.” So that’s really my number one advice.”
What’s one piece of advice that you can give to teachers when they are having a ‘down day’, when only two students show up to their class, and when they can’t get a job at the studio?
Shiva sighs at this question. “It’s hard, but the thing is, if you keep teaching those two people as though they are the most amazing people you have ever seen, meaning God is there in the form of that student, that’s the bhakti part, and teach every class as though you are going to learn something then you’ll get there eventually. It takes so much discipline to become a good teacher because you have to be your own teacher. You don’t have a living coach there saying “next time turn the lights down they were too bright!” or “look what happened when you did this, look how people responded.”
“So I still have that ethic to this day. No matter what I do, no matter what the situation, once I start to teach it’s not a job it’s a moment of service. And it really works because its hard sometimes when traveling and teaching, even traveling at the local level, you find yourself driving all over the city for these little classes and you start to ask yourself “why did I do this again?”
“When you are starting out you don’t have the same charge and energy as a large class and that can be tough. But then something happens and there is some spark from someone in front of you while you are teaching and there is some shift of gratitude and there is something that keeps you going and I would say you have to be in it for that moment.”
“But, keep in mind, when things happen, they can happen quickly. You have to be ready for that too! I have teachers that come into teacher training and we really put them in the process of teaching very early on, like on the first day they come to TT they are starting to teach. Even though I said never invite yourself anywhere we get you teaching right away.”
“The thing I want to say to new teachers about this phase is that I have a lot of teachers that went from teaching one class a week and then one thing happens and another and then all of a sudden they are teaching full time. For me it was a very slow process because it took me awhile to commit properly but for others it can happen very quickly.”