Erich Schiffmann Invents A New Form - Or Perhaps Returns To The Original
Erich Schiffmann is the ultimate contradiction. An LA yogi who has been on the scene for decades, he does not look the part. He’s not the skinny and strict Annie Carpenter type, or Bryan Kest handsome, and he doesn't have a dramatic drug recovery story to explain his immersion into yoga.
Schiffmann could be described as a tall, roly-poly teacher, with a smile that seems to come from deep within. He runs a free-form class and yet has studied with some of the luminaries of our time (and I use that word advisedly –J. Krishnamurti, T.K.V Desikachar, B.K.S Iyengar, Vanda Scaravelli,T. Krishnamacharya), which may be why there is something profound about his classes. Committed yogis have always sought him out.
He doesn’t teach in New York often, but since he’s coming to Omega the weekend of October 11th – 13th, YogaCity NYC’s Cynthia Kling called him up to find out how he got started, what his philosophy is, and what he wants his students to learn and unlearn in his classes.
Cynthia Kling: How old were you when you began practicing?
Erich Schiffmann: Fourteen. My older brother gave me a book – it was one of those ‘I’ve got to get Erich something for his birthday things.’ I thought "What a stupid present" and threw it in a drawer. Then, I was cleaning out a drawer a few years later and found it. It was called The Spirit and Practice of Yoga by Michael Volin. My best friend had also given me Think on These Things by Krishnamurti. I was intrigued. I guess it was because I was a California surfer kid and Yogananda of the Self-Realization Fellowship and Meher Baba were idols to the surfer dudes.
I read it and then wrote Krishnamurti a letter to see if I could study with him – I felt like I was throwing a bottle into the ocean with a note. But he wrote back and I went to his school in England.
CK: What was he like?
ES: He lived in this mansion in the English countryside that someone had given him and he thought, "I don’t need this whole place" and so we all lived there, 25 students and 25 teachers. When you'd run into him he was incredibly unassuming, polite. He'd always let people go in front of him in line at lunch. Open doors. Then when he got up on stage this whole force would come through him. I thought, wow, he is a human and can channel this, and not have to walk around and be Mr. Number One. That was the biggest lesson he taught me.
CK: How did you get to Desikachar?
ES: I told Krishnamurti that I wanted to learn yoga more seriously and he said that's where I should go. I wrote another letter. Desikachar wrote back, come to Madras. He was 34 and had just started teaching. His father, Krishnamacharya was always on the porch, silently sitting. I'd pass him and say ‘Namaste guruji,’ then one day I overheard Krishnamacharya say, 'Yoga is not mechanical.' I thought, yeah, cool, right.
CK: You also studied with Mr Iyengar and yet your classes are considered free-form. How does that work?
ES: Desikachar and Iyengar were big influences on me. I loved Iyengar’s precision. It really got into my mind involved in a way it hadn’t been before. He was serious, too. He’d shout at you if you flaked out.
But at a certain point, with that disciplined structure, you're doing everything right. Then you've done it, done it, done it. I started to not love my practice, I was squelching my intuition. Discipline and structure are important, but then you have to let the energy guide you.
In my classes, I talk, we meditate, I give them precise instruction, and then we do a free form section. I tell my students to listen inwardly for guidance, letting them channel their own practice. That's yogis doing yoga together.
CK: Sounds like Krishnamacharyai’s words really resonated with you. What did your students think when you introduced this style?
ES: At first, they were resistant. “I am paying for this. You aren’t telling me what to do.” I totally fell for that. Then I got clear, this is the lesson I want to teach, learning to channel your own energy.
CK: How DO you get there?
ES: Yoga means to yoke - to join. You use your mind to get online, getting wirelessly connected to the internet of mind. Google the answer and be quiet, so that you hear your deepest impulses - they come from infinity. It seems risky, daring to do as your deepest feelings guide you to do, because who knows what evil might lurk in ones depths. But there really is a unity to all things. You only exist because the Totality is being Itself as you. The idea is to be guided by the wisdom of the universe.
There are discipline, yamas, niyamas, training techniques – these are all ways to help you get there, to learn to be online to your deepest self.
CK: If there was one book you would recommend, what would it be?
ES: Think on These Things by Krishnamurti.