by Kara-Leah Grant, Musings from the Mat
Ever since I first took a Prana Flow teacher training module with Twee Merrigan in Wellington, I’d been dreaming of going to study with Shiva Rea, Master Prana Flow teacher, in the USA.
Something was always in the way though…
I was working as a speechwriter and paying the mortgage on the house my partner was renovating. I was pregnant. Then I had a new born baby boy, Samuel.
All the while, I’d keep an eye on what Shiva was up to, where she was teaching, what courses were on offer. Nothing ever really lined up though.
Until one day this September.
Samuel had finished breastfeeding and I’d already done a few long weekend trips away from him. We still had some money in the bank from the sale of our home in Wellington. And I jumped on the ‘net one Sunday on a whim to see what Shiva was up to to discover she was teaching three modules back to back in October, and in LA. The three modules I hadn’t done and needed to obtain my 200 hour RYT Prana Flow Certification.
This was do-able. I could go. I contemplated for a few days – two weeks away from Samuel and $10,000 or so was still a big deal. And then I registered for the training – Fluid Power, Chakra Vinyasa and Trance Dance.
Bingo, I was off to LA.
After a passport and visa hiccup, I touched down at 6.30am on Friday October 22nd, the start of Day 2 in Fluid Power. It was 2:30am NZ time, so after grabbing a two hour nap on the couch of the one bedroom apartment a fellow student and I had rented on Clubhouse Avenue (great apartment and landlords, highly recommend it!), I headed into Exhale Spa.
That was the beginning of my 11 day immersion into Pranification with Shiva Rea and her tribe.
A typical day began at 6:20am when the alarm went off.
I’d enjoy a cup of Roastarama (a coffee substitute that comes in a tea bag) with Keri, my roomie, and eat a light breakfast before walking ten minutes to the studio.
At 7am, we’d begin a two hour session with Sanskrit and Tantra scholar and teacher Chris Tompkins. I’d had no idea that the training would include this kind of lecture, and it turned out to be one of the best parts of the day.
Chris is a charismatic, energetic, enthusiastic and knowledge teacher of all things Sanskrit and Tantra. He speaks in everyday language, and is a natural storyteller. He held us enthralled with tales of spiritual insights from his own life, and he told us the metaphorical stories of Shiva and Shakti creating the Universe in such a way that I was able to perceive the underlying truth of the words.
Best of all, Chris didn’t just lecture, or tell stories, he also lead us in Tantra practices. He’s spent the last however many years studying the original texts in Sanskrit, and applying what he’s gleaned in his own daily practice. Practicing with him was a powerful energetic experience, and many students experienced a variety of mystical visions, sounds and feelings during these morning sessions.
We all walked out of Chris’s session at 9am feeling renewed, harmonized and ready to take on the world. We were also hungry. The breakfast cafe of choice was Rose Cafe and Market, one short block away. The outdoor patio was surrounded in trees and birds and it was delight to savour our egg sandwiches and coffee under the blue sky of LA.
The next session typically began at 10:45am, half a block away again at Rose Temple, a beautiful pink building holding court of the corner of Rose Avenue and Hampton Drive. Led by three of Shiva’s teaching assistants – invariably bright, smiling, passionate Prana Flow teachers who exuded openness and excitement about Shiva’s teaching – this was our teaching lab.
We’d get the lowdown from the assistants on what Shiva wanted us to do in this lab, and then we’d go to work. Usually it was teaching each other one of the chakra vinyasas or surya namaskars that Shiva had led us through the previous day. As we taught each other, the assistants would wonder round and offer advice, praise and insight.
It was a great opportunity to work with some very talented teachers – we were put into groups according to how much experience we’d had teaching, ranging from people who’d never taught, beginning teachers, and people who’d been teaching for awhile. Sometimes I felt like I learned as much from the other students I paired up with as from Shiva or her assistants.
The teaching lab finished at 11:15am and we had an hour and a half before Yoga Nidra began at 12:15pm.
Sometimes I’d head out to the beach, sometimes I’d go to another cafe – like the most excellent Sauce, right opposite Rose Temple.
Sauce’s menu was exquisite, and you could order a wide variety of tasty sides like broccoli sauted in garlic butter, or spinach done the same way. It may not sound very appetizing to just eat greens like that, but with all the yoga we were doing, my body was craving light meals of highly “energetic” food. The fresher and more “alive” it was the better. Plus at Sauce, you got the most delicious chocolate chip & almond cookies with your bill. Yum!
Our 12:15pm session was back at Exhale Spa, and usually started with a Yoga Nidra led by Shiva, on CD. It was such a treat to lie down for half an hour and just be… and with the afternoon coming up, boy did we need it.
Shiva would rock in at 12:45pm, and we’d be waiting and ready, prepped by her eager assistants for whatever was required that afternoon. This was one of our longest sessions, and ran until 4pm. It usually started with Shiva delivering the theory aspect of the day – in Chakra Vinyasa, that could mean anything from exploring the major nadis of the body, to looking at how other energetic systems could also be applied in yoga classes.
Shiva is well-versed in a range of modalities, and uses this broad knowledge to inform her teaching and her classes.
Throughout her talks, the message was always the same though. Inside every single one of us is Divine Intelligence, or Prana. The whole process of yoga is to get out of the way and let Prana guide us. All tightness, blocks, restrictions – whether of the mind, body or emotions – just represents things to let go of, and Prana knows how do do this.
After the talk, we’d either do a practice led by Shiva, or we’d do a self-practice that we’d put together the previous day at a teaching lab, or we’d all teach a class together. The class, however it was led, would put into practice everything we’d just talked about, giving our bodies a chance to assimilate the know-how so we’d be able to access it from our feeling-mind, rather than our thinking-mind.
On a day when we were all doing a self-practice, created by assessing how we needed to balance ourselves based on the five elements, Shiva and the assistants walked around giving adjustments. This was the only time that Shiva adjusted me, and it was a watershed moment. I’d chosen to do a practice based on Air, which is working with the heart chakra, and also aspects of Earth, the root chakra. This practice was designed to help me stay grounded while opening my heart.
The peak pose was Natarajasana, Lord of the Dance.
Shiva had taught an Air practice with this peak pose the day before and I’d found it impossible to get into the posture the way she taught it – kicking into the foot held high behind with both hands while standing tall. In my self-practice, I elected to do it Bikram-style because I knew I could at least get into it. In Bikram, you only hold the kicking leg behind with one hand, the same side as the leg.
Shiva came up beside me and whispered into my ear as she guided me into a variation of Natarajasana as she’d taught it the day before;
Not that way darling, that’s just the illusion of opening. Start here and breath into it.
As Shiva supported me on the left side, I was able to reach my left hand around to grasp my right foot while keeping my right finger tips on the ground for support. My standing leg was bent and I was low to the ground, but I was in the first krama (stage) of the posture.
Now just focus on lifting your heart above your hips.
As I followed Shiva’s instructions, my grounded left foot was rolling heavily into the centreline – if she hadn’t been supporting me I would have been flat on the ground. But with her beside me, and following her directions, I could feel the tightness on my outer hips, running down the outer legs, that had been preventing me from experiencing this posture. That tightness was melting into a fluid stream of running energy.
It was an opening I’d never experienced before, and it’s changed my practice enormously. All this… and we hadn’t even got to the “proper” class for the day, which started at 6pm, and was open to the public.
That two hour break between theory & practice and public class was a tricky one.
It was long enough to walk back to the apartment – just. It wasn’t quite long enough to eat properly as food didn’t have a chance to digest by 6pm. But by 4pm, I was usually tired and hungry. Choosing what to eat and what to do became a delicate exercise in balancing the needs of the body.
We’d always be back at Exhale by 5:45pm because Shiva’s classes were busy. Super busy.
Exhale has a large retail space in the centre, with the two studios off either end, and the changing rooms & toilets off one end. Students waiting to go into a class would start lining up at the studio door and spill out and around and over any available space in the retail area. The buzz of conversation from 60 or so waiting students in that area along would soon reach unacceptable heights and a staff member would have to constantly remind people to keep it down as the other class neared savasana.
When the doors opened, it was courtesy to let the exiting students leave first, but once they were gone… it was like a herd of buffalo stampeding through a narrow canyon. A huge room by NZ studio standards, Shiva’s classes were full, full, full. Mats would have five centimetres between them, and there’d be something like 120 students in the room. (See the video below, taken at Exhale Spa, for a visual of all of this.)
Shiva taught from the stage up front, a raised platform about two mat lengths long and three mat widths wide. She’d have two or three assistants cruising the room, adjusting students and keeping an eye on safety, plus as the class progressed and we got into the rhythm of what we were doing, Shiva would come down and move through the masses to give adjustments. She was mic’ed up Madonna-style, so even when we couldn’t see her, we could still hear her instructions.
In a class that large, there’s an assumed level of knowledge, and many of her students have been coming for years.
This understanding informs the group consciousness and those who are new get carried along on the Shakti vibe.
I can imagine that if Shiva popped over to NZ and had a class that size, it would be a completely different experience because there wouldn’t be that foundation of understanding carrying along the group experience – not yet anyway. Wait until I get out workshopping around the country . Invercargill next weekend (November 20th sold out sorry!), Queenstown the weekend after (November 27th @ Studio Sanga, places still available)
Sometimes, crammed into a space beside the stage, Shiva would also treat us to a live band. The day that C.C. White came and sang for us along with her soul band was a pumping asana class before transitioning into kirtan/soul revival on-ya-feet trance/dance party down yoga… And people loved it.
I was close to the front that day and was observing Shiva coordinating the band and the class according to the wave of flow required, and she was moving toward bringing everyone down to the floor for a closing sequence, but the band was beginning to feel a ‘warming-up and lets-get-going’ vibe. Shiva, bless her, let go of her intentions and allowed the room to flow, feeling that the students were ready to follow the band’s lead.
And what did follow was an incredible experience – people in Shiva’s classes are open and ready to let go and ride whatever wave shows up. They trust her, and the experiences that she offers. The critical, judgmental mind is suspended, and as a result people get to experience true spontaneity. It’s powerful stuff indeed, and takes a truly grounded teacher willing to take risks to allow the magic to happen.
Because it doesn’t always work. That’s the risk. The very last class I attended also had a live band, Momo Loudiyi was there. For whatever reason, something didn’t gel that night. Students had trouble following the class, the music didn’t quite work, Shiva wasn’t in the flow like she’d previously been. The person beside me even rolled up her mat and left – although that could have been because of anything. All in all, it wasn’t the most satisfying experience.
And that’s one of the things that makes Shiva great.
She’s willing to go places with her teaching and with her classes that won’t always come off. And that means when it does come off, like the night with CC White, it’s a transcendent, ecstatic experience.
That evening public class would finish at 7:30pm – about 13 hours after I’d first woken up. It was time for food, a bath, and bed. Asleep by 10pm usually, and ready to wake up at 6:20am and do it all over again. And again. And again. With minor variations – like the nights that we had a later session so didn’t finish until 10pm, or 10:30pm.
By day nine, I was exhausted, hitting a wall, and dying for a day off…
But when you’re in LA for such a short time, knowing this is the only opportunity – for now – to experience teaching like Shiva’s, you dig deep and suck it up.
So I did, and kept on going going on… All the while, counting my blessings and wishing like mad I could have brought the New Zealand yoga community along with me, at least to the public classes.
Instead, you’ll have to make do with a poor also-ran, this article, and an almost-second, the video below. Filmed completely at Exhale, it features many of the aspects of my training – including live bands, kirtan, stomping fun and trance dance.