Yoga and Service
By Shiva Rea
This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness
In Action: the Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time
(Lantern Press, 2005)
Introduction by Andrew Beath
Shiva Rea is a nationally known yoga teacher who has practiced
yoga for twenty years and became a nationally known teacher. Yoga
and innovative yoga-derived dance are the ways Shiva helps students
find liberation—a term often used in the yogic traditions.
Her Yoga Trance-Dance often produces a transcendent experience.
It allows frustrations to melt away, making room for divine connection.
In our conversations I asked Shiva to relate yoga’s philosophical
underpinnings as they apply to dance and to conscious activism.
I was curious to know in what ways practicing yoga was a liberation
pathway for Shiva’s students and whether or not this translated
into increased concern for others and connection to the natural
world. She told me:
There’s actually a Sanskrit term for it, moksha, which means
liberation. And we use the idea of a path all the time, which is
referred to as sadhana. Being on the path means you are tending
to this process of dissolving separation and embodying freedom.
So to describe it as liberation pathway is similar to how it’s
understood in yoga tradition.
My experience of conscious activism is what I call embodied activism.
This is a moment-to-moment choice to heal the mind/body split. It’s
not as easily measured as how many old-growth trees we saved because
it involves the cultivation of consciousness through embodied spiritual
disciplines like yoga, shamanism, Sufism, and dance. These have
been forces for change for generations.
Embodied activism requires us to address problems caused by the
negative effects of technology on our nervous system. We come to
terms with the impacts modern life has on something as basic as
our breath. We literally re-member ourselves.
Experiencing dance forms in Africa led me to the Department of
World Arts and Cultures at UCLA to study the role of dance as an
agent of change. Throughout time and across cultures, it has been
a radical form of activism. Dance defies authority by instigating
shifts in consciousness.
There are many instances of this. In Africa and Polynesia under
British colonial rule drumming and dancing in some areas was illegal
until independence. In India, the ancient lineage of the devadasi
tradition, which performed dances in the inner sanctums of temples,
was outlawed in the 1920s. In America, the native peoples’
Sun Dance and Ghost Dance were illegal until recently and to this
day you can find private schools where even social dancing is banned.
With every generation, dance has precipitated change. In the 1950s,
the way Elvis moved his pelvis was the beginning of a whole new
relationship to the body, gender and authority. Now you find in
the electronic dance culture, we move away from partner dancing
to a freeform dance collective.
The festival called Honoring the Sea was one of the ways I began
using dance as conscious activism. We held a community-based celebration
in the mid-‘90s bringing together twelve indigenous dance
forms to a site where the storm drains poured waste into the Santa
Monica Bay. Our performances brought local attention to this issue.
As a result of this and many other projects to clean up the Bay,
today conditions are improved.
Yoga and dance are two of the oldest paths back home. Like lovers,
they can get separated. We are born natural dancers; just watch
toddlers instinctually respond to rhythm. The fragmenting effects
of modern life inspired me to bring together yoga and dance into
the form I call Yoga Trance Dance.
Dance and yoga, particularly Hatha Yoga, call us back into our
bodies. They invigorate us. In yoga, prana is the animating force,
the energy of life felt through breath. From the yogic view, breath
Within the tradition of flow yoga, we let the intelligence of our
breath lead our movement the way a sailor tacks with the wind. Trance-dance
has a similar focus. Rather than emphasizing performance, the goal
of trance dancing is to let creative energy move through you. Spiritus
is the Latin root for inspiration, which is the place where breath
and creativity meet. Thus, in Yoga Trance Dance, spirit and intuition
Attention to breath is a radical change in our times. When I teach
yoga in schools, I am struck by how jumbled their breathing is.
They’re stressed out. Even the simple arts of relaxation and
conscious breathing are radically new.
Due to the extent of our sitting, standing, driving, cell phoning
and computer time, we are left with a strange combination of being
physically bound up and mentally scattered, which is a body/mind
split. Some of the effects are felt as stiffness, rigidity, limited
range of motion, or disembodiment. The antidote is free movement.
The purpose of yoga is union. Just take it on a simple muscular
level. If your posture patterns are out of balance, they eventually
lead to pressure that cause the spine to compensate. Your vertebrae
get out of alignment and your discs begin to degenerate. This leads
to less circulation, your organs get less energy and your digestion
becomes less effective.
I have a broad interpretation of what yoga is. I like to remind
people that even if you have never done yoga techniques, you have
still experienced the state of yoga, which is unified consciousness.
For some people it’s accessed through kayaking, gardening,
making love, playing music, going hiking in back-country, being
with the trees, or just being.
Unified consciousness is the general term. Specific practices of
yoga involve the entire cycle of life, including letting go of things
that create toxicity in our body and our mind. When we regenerate
our breath we recreate ourselves. This affects our relationships,
including our connection to the Earth. There are places in need
of preservation, for example, our wetlands. Many activists are in
a desperate fight to show that these places are vital to the continuity
of our environment.
Yoga originated within nature. Yoga masters in India live free
in nature, often naked to absorb and reflect our original life force.
The movements of yoga bring us into harmony with the Earth.
The essence of what we do is nonviolence. Through yoga, people
become more joyful and connected in their bodies. Their tongues
sweeten. As people start to feel this ground of love within them,
it radiates out in the choices they make about food, ecology, and
politics. One of the programs I am involved in is Yoga Inside, which
brings yoga into juvenile detention centers and the prison system.
It is as a way to create change person by person.
Sometimes we do postures that open the hamstrings. When you draw
your foot toward your head, this fire of intense sensation starts
to rise and we discover blocked places in the body. I think war
is stored in the backs of the legs, because I have seen many men
cry, not from any kind of pain, but from deep emotional release.
Through yoga and dance, I see how our outlook and interaction with
the world is connected with our embodiment.