Eric Shaw’s passion for the history of yoga infuses his work as a teacher and practitioner. Based in Denmark, Western Australia, Eric teaches an energetic and multidimensional practice called Prasana yoga. His Yoga Education Through Imagery lectures focus on key areas of yoga philosophy, history, and science presented in visually stimulating ways. Eric’s teachings and passions have been influenced significantly by his teachers, in particular Shandor Remete and Rod Stryker. In anticipation of Eric’s visit to Chicago in September, I asked him a few questions about his creative approach to the discipline of yoga.
AG: You’ve written about the importance of seated meditation, particularly for Hatha yoga practitioners who might be more inclined to movement. Can you explain a bit about why?
ES: I can only speak for myself, but I have found that meditation is more important than Hatha yoga. If push comes to shove, I’ll do my meditation instead of my asana [physical postures] any day. Many people on this planet manage to be happy without meditating, but I don’t know how they do it! Sitting still, learning how to watch the mind is—as I have learned—the meta-skill behind every other skill we might undertake to learn in life.
If we start from the framework of Patanjali, asana is critical. It brings down the back[ground] static of vrtttis [fluctuations of the mind] in the body, which add to the mind’s agitation. It is better than nothing. But if you are doing asana already, why not take the next step? Use your newly facile limbs and newly quieted nervous system to undertake the meta-skill which will serve every aspect of your life. Meditate to get clear on your relationships, your life habits, and your goals. And if your goals include advanced work in the asanas, meditation greatly aids that, too.
AG: The visual history of yoga is an area of interest for you, and you’ve designed intricate presentations that use images to create a narrative for understanding yoga’s roots and cultural implications. Why do you think the visual narrative is so compelling?
ES: I used to teach art history. It was magical. Before each class, I went to the slide library and carefully sequenced a slide narrative in two plastic trays. I went to the classroom podium, turned the lights down, and told stories for 90 minutes while we looked at sublime pictures.
So, now my subject is yoga, and the technique and its results are similar. I was a painter for most of my life, and I have a strong sense of how people respond to imagery. Have you ever caught yourself agreeing wholeheartedly with the most absurd suggestion, just because it’s framed in a tremendously hip pop song? Art puts the brain in the alpha state—and from that place we connect holistically to information. We readily recognize deep patterns within our reality. We easily understand.
The philosophy of yoga and the study of its cultural advancement offer us a menu of challenging complexities that are perhaps more valuable to us than sentiments in a pop song. If we can convey those ideas in a delightful and easy way, then yoga is better served.
In my process of creating a slide show, I must think visually through a body of understanding. Putting together a show (all digitally now) is a process that helps me tell philosophical or historical stories beautifully and efficiently. I enjoy the work and it helps me to understand material better so I can teach it better.
AG: I was struck by an image you shared on Facebook of an old advertisement Krishnamacharya had created to promote his yoga instruction. It’s a powerful counterpoint to the general notion that yoga marketing is a very recent invention, and undercuts some of the cynical assumptions people make about the authenticity of contemporary yoga. What are some other big myths or generalizations that your work clarifies?
ES: The biggest myth is that something is wrong with your life or your society or world history—or, perhaps worse, that somebody around you is wrong because they are not doing what you think is right. Though yoga is now being turned toward the aims of politics everywhere, yoga is a skill for managing the human condition that is not concerned with politics at all.
For so many Americans, political action is the highest good. But yoga sees a greater good—most radically, it sees that both good and evil are good. It sees that reality is by its nature dual, and transcending settled dualisms is the path to the greatest understanding.
Democrats are good. Republicans are good. Maybe even the “worst” political actors in history are part of the “the good.” This is something that is not easy for people to get their head around. People can only see the nihilistic side of the concept. But this understanding is the source of the greatest good. It is the source of all forgiveness, [empathy], and—eventually—freedom from the ego. It is perhaps yoga’s most undercutting notion of all.
AG: Perhaps you’re right, and this notion is so undercutting it even pulls the ground out from underneath my feet! As you’ve predicted, I mostly see the nihilistic side of this. If we are ambivalent about the nature of the way we act in the material world, it seems like we sacrifice a lot of the principles that make life meaningful: namely, working toward the nebulous yet essential “common good” that is the crux of civilization. Even if a yoga text or a great teacher suggests that the outcome and effects of work in the world are “all good,” which sounds to me like “irrelevant,” everything I’m made of would be inclined to throw this out as groundless philosophy, not something worth practicing. Can you elaborate?
ES: It is not readily understood, but yoga is about cultivating power and aligning oneself with power, and this approach may be traced back even to Vedic tapasic [self-discipline] practices found in the Upanishads that predated the dawn of yoga.
There are stories of use of this power that do not square with a moral worldview. We have the famously illustrated story of King Brhadratha, [which is carved into rock at Mahabalipuram, an ancient historic town in Tamil Nadu state in India], who stood in tree pose for a thousand days or a thousand years (depending on who’s telling the tale) in order to bring the Ganges River down from heaven to wash over the graves of his kinsmen. In this case, his “penance” was to supplicate the power of Shiva to do the deed he wished, but in other cases “penance,” or tapas, is cultivated to give the practitioner profound powers of his own.
So, we have the tradition of tapasic force-building. This is the substrate—an approach to the evolution of self rooted in an understanding of tapas as a means to power and its expression within a universe primarily seen in “golden age” terms (that is, as “good” but arbitrarily so). In this period, near 1200 BCE, the Hindu tradition was developing themes of life’s drama consistent with the Greek epic myths while, alternately, the Jewish tradition was developing themes of a moral God concerned with justice and the social good. The later Upanishadic texts (800 BCE–200 CE) turn tapasic practices toward yoga, an approach to mainly meditative technologies for the evolution of the self aimed at transcendence. Then, in the later Tantrik tradition (c. 500–1100), this gets translated into a more sophisticated means of cultivating power.
Yoga is not the art of getting onto one side of the good/evil duality, partly because this is not possible. Good and evil occur at a shared level of manifestation of the gunas [three qualities, or attributes, sattva, rajas, and tamas, present in all things], the primary rajasic [active]–tamasic [inertia inducing] level of manifestation. There is a field that envelopes “this-worldly” choice-making and allows us to transcend it. That is the field yoga trains us to understand and enter. It is the field that enlightens all action and takes it out of the field of morality. As the Bhagavad Gita (2:45) says, “Be free of these three gunas, O Arjuna, beyond duality, always established in pure existence.” This is not a field defined by social consensus.*
*For an expanded answer to this question, visit Eric’s blog at prasanayoga.com.
AG: During the course of your study you’ve been under the guidance of very disparate yogis, from Shandor Remete to Rod Stryker. How do you weave together aspects of their philosophy to forge your own path?
ES. Shandor, his colleague Arkady Shirin, and his student Matt Huish gave me novel approaches to yoga’s body architecture. Launching off from their ideas, I formed my own understanding of the practice.
Rod brings yoga philosophy into a practical, healthy way of living life. I learn real yoga “praxis” from him. Rod’s influence has been more as a teacher and a person: an example of how to use yoga to live life courageously and authentically.
The influence of strong men has been important to my development as a practitioner and person. My main teachers are all strong masculine personalities. As a man, Rod has offered me a fine example of a wholly lived life, one driven by a holistic understanding of the philosophy of tantra [a worldview based on integration of the material and spiritual realms]. He hasn’t avoided classical male ideals and he hasn’t die-cut his life to fit philosophical formulas. Rod embodies yoga’s wisdom and the potentials of manhood in a modern way that feels very true to me.
I still have everything to learn from him.
Eric Shaw, MA.RS, MA.SE, MA.AS, E-RYT-500, is a writer, scholar, international teacher, and the creator of Prasana Yoga and Yoga Education Through Imagery. He is coming to Tejas Yoga in Chicago’s South Loop on September 12 and 13, 2015 for workshops and lectures. His essays appear in Yoga Journal, Common Ground, Mantra Yoga and other magazines. Follow Eric at prasanayoga.com.