Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Shiva Rea. Shiva teaches vinyasa flow yoga worldwide. She is a yogini fire-keeper, sacred activist, global adventurer, and leading innovator in the evolution of prana flow yoga—transformational vinyasa flow—integrating the tantric bhakti roots of yoga, Krishnamacharya’s teachings, and a universal quantum approach to the body. She has study many forms of yoga and dance in India, Africa, Nepal, Jamaica, and Bali. With Sounds True, Shiva has created many DVDs and audio programs, and has released a new book called Tending the Heart Fire: Living in Flow with the Pulse of Life, where she helps the reader reconnected with the heart fire at the center of their being, which synchronizes with the pulse of the Earth itself.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Shiva and I spoke about the power of gazing at a natural fire, and what it means to be a fire-keeper when the fire that you’re keeping is the flame of your very own heart. We also talked about the importance of tuning to the natural cycles of the sun and the phases of the moon, and how to do this even in the midst of a busy contemporary life. Finally, Shiva offered us simple practices we can do on the spot to tend to the fire of the heart. Here’s my conversation with Shiva Rea.
Shiva, you begin your new book, Tending the Heart Fire: Living in Flow with the Pulse of Life with a few key metaphors for our human heart. I want to start there—in talking about a couple of these key metaphors. One is you compare our human heart to a fire. I wonder if you can explain that. How is our heart like a fire?
Shiva Rea: Well, one, it’s great to be speaking with you, Tami. Of course, I love all the wisdom that flows through Sounds True.
It’s not really me that’s called it the "heart of fire"—and that’s really [for the] purpose of giving a visual orientation of this understanding of the metaphor of a heart fire. As I started to connect my own personal experience with what I would call "the energetic heart"—as one way of describing the heart fire—I found that pretty much all of the world’s spiritual traditions have some orientation to this vision of the heart as a fire or the light of the heart. [It’s] one that is so vivid for me because my grandmother was a mystic Catholic and she had this picture of Jesus with this flaming heart over her bed, so she could lie down and do her rosaries with this flaming-heart-of-Jesus picture.
It’s really a metaphor that is an actual kind of living sensation of our energetic heart. For me, it was just very profound to discover than it’s more than a metaphor—it’s a way of giving words to this mysterious sensation of heat that we feel not just in our heart, but the entire energetic system of the body as it comes alive.
TS: Tell me more what you mean by that, in terms of this experience of heat and the energetic system of the body.
SR: Yes. I describe it in the beginning of the book—when I describe having a very, very high fever of malaria deep, deep, deep in the bush near Mount Kenya when I was a volunteer. Now, I had a high fever, so that’s one kind of heat. But this is literal sensation that I feel most of us have had at some time in our lives. We kind of—because this is my contemplation that [this] is about embodiment and disembodiment—we can kind of numb ourselves to this sensation.
But this is what I discovered through yoga practices, and many of the practices that are shared through the world’s traditions—chanting, prayer—is you start to feel this shimmer, a radiant energy in the heart region. Of course, the chakra system is very well known within yoga, so this is the sensation of our heart chakra. But, of course, we are energetic beings, so it’s more than our heart itself. The electromagnetic field of the heart is what we’re discovering through the recent science is perhaps what we are sensing when we feel this sensation in our heart region.
TS: In the book, you offer this—I guess you would say fact, I hadn’t heard it before—that the electromagnetic field of the heart is 5,000 times stronger than any other organ in the body. This is a very strong statement.
SR: I know! Well, it’s pretty pervasive in the literature. I have a masters from UCLA, so everything is really, really well-documented and researched. The main clearinghouse for this kind of science of the electromagnetic field of the heart is the Heart Map Institute. I also thought it was an astounding number—like maybe we would think twice as much, or three times as much. But when you understand something—you know, I’m liberal arts major, so I appreciate science but I need it to be described as I do in the book through visuals, through why the heart [would] have that much more energy than any other organ. It relates to the very special nature of cardiac cells and that the heartbeat—which is created from the pacemaker cells—creates an electrical charge. Because the nature of the pacemaker cells is to beat in unison, it’s one of the beautiful ways the physiology of our being gives us some clue as to this nature of our energetic heart.
It’s because of this special tissue—for me, I became fascinated both in terms of my contemplations and then as my life work in terms of leading people in collective movement and meditation, sometimes very large scale, thousands of people. You can actually see—you can feel—that we are also like these pacemaker cells. We accelerate this charge of our electromagnetic field by our bonding together.
So, the electromagnetic field of the heart [doesn’t just extend] beyond our body, but it’s in actual communication with other heart fields. In other words, people’s heartbeats literally start to synchronize together because of the electromagnetic field of the heart. It’s really quite extraordinary.
TS: I’m curious to know—because of this "5,000 times stronger than any other organ in the body"—what the implications are, do you think? If we really were to understand this, what does this tell us about how we live our [lives] and what’s happening at any given moment in the feeling field of our heart?
SR: Right. Well, one of the things that I try and illustrate also by going deeply into the kind of yogic understanding of heart and the importance of the heart rhythm is, of course—you know, from the yogic understanding, everything is pulsation. So it’s no different than the quantum physics understanding. One of the greatest untapped feedback mechanisms that our energetic heart field gives us is that it bathes the entire body—and also our pulse is a kind of communication to every cell in our body. On a very primary level, between our heart and our brain and our breath—I call it the sacred triad.
This is where the metaphor of fire-keeping comes in. [It’s] when our heart rhythm is in syncopation with our brainwaves and our breath flow. This is very much connected energetically—as well as a hormonal phenomenon through the bloodstream. This syncopation of our heart rhythm, our brainwaves, and our breath brings us into our highest state of flow. There isn’t really a way of describing flow—or even the state of meditation—without including the power of the electromagnetic field of the heart.
TS: Now, this is very interesting to me. You’re using this word, "syncopation." In the book, you talk about "coherence" with the heart, the brain, and our breathing. In any given moment, can you tell inside what level of syncopation you’re at with your heart, your brain, and your breath? What do you do when you find it out of sync?
SR: Right. One thing that is helpful is that you can actually see this—this is something that is part of the technology that the Heart Map Institute developed. You can actually see this heart-brain coherence in these kind of biofeedback mechanisms that basically measure the heart rate. Basically, when your heart rhythm gets into a certain—we can say sine wave (it’s a slower rhythm)—the coherence between your heart and your brain basically [can’t] be in an automatic, shallow breath, for instance. The tensions that are in your body have to begin to unwind, because this is all a kind of present-moment flow state.
So, the tendency is for our brainwaves to be kind of disembodied or at a higher state of frequency—like a beta brainwave frequency—and our heart rhythm kind of [tries] to syncopate, you could say. One of the ways that this is described is that by simply bringing awareness to your heart region or through feeling or through meditation, this coherence just begins to happen. For me, it’s a sensation of complete naturalness and heightened flow.
And so, for me, all day long I can see this modulation going on. That’s the fire-keeping part.
TS: Just to get specific, let’s say you find yourself rattled for some reason—to use a technical term. You find yourself super-rattled.
SR: We would say "dissonant." Like you’re in a dissonant state—which I think in working with people and really just talking about this in just very plain language, everyone gets that. Rattled, dissonant, discombobulated. You can feel that your personal rhythms are out of sync.
TS: OK. So what are your go-to moves in those moments when you find yourself in that state?
SR: Right. So this is when I really began to appreciate how the science mirrored the meditation techniques in yoga—which is simple. The first one I pretty much try to be with all my waking hours, even as I go to sleep. It’s called—simply—"the heart gaze." We can even enjoy it now for a moment.
Basically, [relax] the backs of your eyes—so that’s a kind of interesting sensation. But if you go with it, allow the backs of your eyes to relax as if you were looking inward to your heart region. You can either just feel the entire region or you can also begin to sense—which is part of the meditations in the book—this sensation of your heart region.
Simply by letting go of everything else but just this kind of establishment of this inner gaze, you begin to feel a shift of consciousness. This is, of course, described in many world traditions. You could say, we enter into mindfulness, or from the more devotional aspects, we begin to enter that state that we all know of: “OK, now I’m listening to my heart.”
The simplest next thing is to just—this sounds so simple—is to place your hand on your heart. Touch. So the gaze, the feeling, and then the touch—it’s so simple. Every time I bring my hand to my heart, I feel this "rattled" or dissonance begin to shift.
Of course, in the book there [are] 108 different meditations that take that simple technique—and there’s one more, which is called bhava or bhavana in yoga. It is to tap into an emotion that is healing in nature for you.
Some of the science of how this works with the Heart Map is the simplest—of course, this is the time of year around Thanksgiving—gratitude.
When I was in Delhi, one of my teachers from the street had absolutely no legs. His name was Raja, and he lived in that state as if no legs was no problem. He had two arms. He lived like that [in an] incredible, powerful state of claiming gratitude at the deepest, darkest suffering that one can have.
That process leads you to the fifth thing, which is this universal heart fire meditation—which is to actually sense the electromagnetic field of your heart. This, then, leads to some movements. So if your hand was at your heart, just radiating your hands away from your heart—whatever state you’re in, it begins to shift toward this coherence. It’s so simple, and from that simplicity an incredible richness also emerges.
TS: So, Shiva, when you talk about sensing the electromagnetic field of your heart, could you tell me what that feels like to you? How far do you feel it extending? What’s that like for you?
SR: Sure. I think the amazing thing is that the sensing of the electromagnetic field—you can feel so much in movement practices like yoga or qi gong. As soon as you begin to sense our entire energetic body—and this is what I’ve been dedicated to the last 20 years. How can we move into the quantum age? How can these energetic practices that never were ever just purely material—the matter of the body—how can we offer these tools to the shift of consciousness? The simplest thing that I begin to notice in my own practice and also in working with many, many people is that when your hands—for instance, if we bring both hands to our heart. And then slowly, rather than extending your arms, slowly emanate your arms in front of your heart, sensing, receiving—rather than moving on top of the moment-to-moment sensation.
For me, there’s this kind of fullness that is absolutely bringing this buoyancy to my arms, but my arms do not feel held by muscles. My bones feel a kind of hollow shimmer. The density of the body, for me, immediately changes when I’m sensing the electromagnetic field of my body. Which, you know, 30 years ago people would say "aura." It’s your aura. But I can never say that because people get a block.
So this electromagnetic field—for me, it’s very much related to the states of flow that I’m in. I would say that in the highest states of flow, I don’t feel an end to that field. Particularly in meditations or even in movement meditations. With many, many people you really feel the strength and the power of the collective field.
TS: One other question—and I just want to make sure that I’m fully tracking with you, because you’ve given some key techniques here that sound simple, but I also sense how profound they are.
You talked about "the gaze." So, when we’re looking in at our heart, are we looking down in an inward kind of way? Can you be more specific, so I’m sure I’m tracking with you on the gaze?
SR: I think one of the things from being a movement-based teacher is I never teach or tell people exactly, "This is what you’re going to feel." What I’ve noticed is that—like what Mary Oliver describes—we all hear and immediately recognize that the soft animal of the body does not like to be bossed around.
I try [to] always give this quality—both for myself and when offering this—that it’s a kind of exploration. It’s, for me, a very tangible sense that you’re—in yoga practice, it’s called "gazing at the kshetra." [It] means the general region. It doesn’t have to be a specific point, but it is beautiful to know that there is the kind of bindu that we can also say is also like the center of the heart organ—which is so beautiful. [There is the] more Vajrayana Buddhist orientation of that the first cells of the heart can chain the vibration of the love union of one’s mother and father.
Just turning one’s gaze to this bindu—not like some mechanical point—but it will find you. So I would say it’s like gazing toward the center of the center.
You can add—if you’re particularly feeling—when I started to go more deeply into the energetic heart, I had to come to terms with how hardened my heart was. Or in isolation, I can feel there [are] times when my heart really shuts down. So it’s not like every time I gaze into my heart, I feel the sun. Part of the book is all of these metaphors in yoga of how the sun and moon exist in the fire of the heart—the fire altar of the heart.
Sometimes, we have to rekindle the sensation. I think that those of us who are into science or the intellectual, the science really helps us. Basically, when our brainwaves are separate from our heart rhythm or we’re running in [a] dissonant state, it’s just dysfunctional. We’re just not at our highest flow.
TS: Now, you mentioned somebody tuning to their heart, potentially. Or you talked about how it sometimes happens for you, and you tune to this part of the body and—what if we find either a very shut-down experience or tremendous sadness? A sort of heartbreak? How do you suggest people work with that?
SR: You know, I always find—because of my orientation in dance movement therapy and somatic psychology, and just contemplating how long we’ve had this disembodied history. If you have ancestors—actually, anywhere in the world, but particularly anywhere in the West—it’s such a journey to come to terms with how we’ve shut down our heart. Either by over-intellectualizing our experience—and that that can be a mode of being that is even a family mode. It can be something that we’ve existed in for decades or a decade or several years.
Then, of course, these cycles where we have a heavy heart. I recently lost my grandfather, and it was so powerful to go through that knowing [and] being immersed in the energetic heart. I could feel this heaviness, but it was like a beautiful heaviness. It didn’t dampen the fire.
I think, for myself, the basic states of stress—to extreme stress—are the most difficult to work with in terms of the heart fire. Sometimes sadness around and resting in your heart is the most satisfying place to be. There’s almost no other place you can go because nothing seems to move without this fire of the heart.
But there are specific techniques. That’s pretty much what the entire book is about—every meditation is conducive to any disconnected state.
TS: You’re talking, Shiva, about the energetic heart. And I wonder if you could just make explicit for us what the connection is between the physical heart and the energetic heart. How [do] you see that?
SR: I think the thing that I’ve been working with is that we all grew up with a purely physical understanding of our heart as this extraordinary pump—that there were no intelligent neural pathways or information coming from the heart that had any separate—you could say—value. It was always that the brain was the master control through the nervous system and the heart was getting all these signals from the brain of how to function.
From heart transplant patients and this new science of the heart, we realize that the heart has 60 percent neural cells—that it sends more signals from the heart to the brain. That it’s an incredible orchestrator of—as we’ve been describing—these coherent states of flow.
So, for me, the spiritual heart is really the same mechanism. It’s this kind of particular wisdom when we feel that there’s not this separate struggle going on between what we think and what we feel. It’s this very quiet place where the alignment with our heart energy creates this kind of shift that’s through—in yoga we’d say all the layers of our body.
I don’t really see a difference between the physical heart and the spiritual heart, except that the yogic understanding is that that heart energy, hridaya—described [as] the heart consciousness—bathes every cell in the body. That’s really the understanding of the heart field. There is no cell in the body that isn’t connected to the heart through the heartbeat, through the vibration of the heart, and through the electromagnetic field of the heart.
TS: In the beginning, we were talking about this metaphor of the heart as a fire. One of the central metaphors throughout the book is this idea—and you’ve said it a couple times in this conversation—the idea of "fire-keeping" or tending a fire in a similar way. A physical fire, like a fireplace. Tending a fire in a similar way that we would tend to our hearts. So I wonder if you could talk about that—as an idea, I mean. Many people, I think, [don’t have] much experience tending an actual physical fire. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.
SR: No! That’s the thing. Originally, the book wasn’t called Tending the Heart Fire, it was just Tending the Sacred Fire, because I was just astounded by some of the statistics of how—just in one generation or two generations—how much being disconnected from a living flame—in other words, an electrical switch. In the United States in the early 20s, there was only 15 percent electricity. It wasn’t until 1970 that we had electricity everywhere.
And so, I think that is a real metaphor for how the living flame—which our ancestors tended in an unbroken flow for at least 800,000 years in the carbon dating, most likely as long as 2 million years.
So, we can’t just turn on an electric switch and revert to another kind of consciousness. What happens to people when they get around a campfire or fireplace is they go into natural meditation. It’s like seeing—I go into [it in] the book about the primordial fire that we’ve come from.
The metaphor of fire-keeping is still very core in yogic practice. The fire altar is simple. Every traditional household—either Brahmin or Tantric—has a simple agnihotra, a little copper kund built into the earth. At sunrise and sunset, the fire is lit and offerings are [made], connecting the fire to the rhythm of the year. That’s also internalized in the body as this inner fire that is the fire altar of our heart, which represents at the deepest level our connection to the Source.
On a practical level—just like when we tend a fire, the fire goes out if we don’t pay attention. Also, sometimes—I’ve grown up in urban areas. I can build an OK fire, but I’ve definitely put too much fuel on a fire [when] starting it and not the kind of simple, traditional method—even at Estes Park, they give you some fuels that you’re supposed to put on. And you can put on too much!
I think that’s the central metaphor. This is this fire-keeping from Ayurveda understanding, [which] is we can easily put ourselves out of balance by either excessive fire or a dim fire. The third one is called "the wavering fire." The balanced fire is called sama agni.
It’s a kind of metaphor—it’s not just our sole relationship with the core, but also about caring for our vital energy, and how this is linked to the seasons and flow.
TS: Tell me what it might mean to have excessive fire in the heart. As I’m listening to you, I’m opening my heart more and more, and I’m finding the places that are cold and shut down. What can be excessive? Don’t I want it to burn as brightly as possible?
SR: Right. The way that Ayurveda describes this condition called tikshna, which gives you right there the onomatopoeia of it. Tikshna agni. Tikshna means "sharp." There’s many kind of variations—it’s not like saying [it’s] the one way of describing excessive fire is how it manifested in everybody. It also has a seasonal manifestaton.
It’s basically when you’re burning your energy too fast and too furious. It’s excessive doing. It’s when we talk about the heart fire—it’s feeling that then gets into reactionary feedback. A rage, agitation, irritation.
So these extremes are, of course, not what you’re describing, [which is] sama agni. It’s this radiance—there’s no end to this radiance. This is the heart of the saints; this is the heart of our grandmothers. This is this amazing heart field that you can feel in the presence of some extraordinary beings that are just right there, sometimes, on the street corner or in our very homes.
But I think a lot of listeners can identify with excessive fire. It’s one of the things that we go into in the book.
Then, of course, dim fire is depression, apathy, feeling disconnected, feeling shut down, losing your inspiration. There’s so much that can be said about those two extremes. But excessive fire is generally—in Ayurveda—described as a Pitta imbalance.
TS: OK, that makes sense to me. Now, for people who don’t have access to, say, a fireplace in their home and perhaps they live in a part of the world where it’s either banned for safety reasons or other reasons—we can’t just go start a fire. You actually offer in the book this idea of an all-night candle vigil as a practice. I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about—whether it’s an all-night candle vigil or just working with lighting a candle—how people can start to work with fire in a very immediate way.
SR: Yes. So one of the things in the book—the last part of the book—is we start from the Winter Solstice and we go on a journey of the year. At each of the eight major junctures of the year in the solar cycle, I give these fire-keeping practices. I’ve been so inspired by Shabbat. I don’t have Jewish ancestors, but I love Shabbat. That’s the simple practice on Friday of unplugging and really not turning on any electricity, and of course lighting seven candles and going into a space of natural light.
For instance, my grandfather just passed before Samhain and Dia de los Muertos, these holy days along October 31st that are connected with honoring the ancestors. He passed on the 13th, and I just kept a continual votive candle—you can get them at any grocery store—and I kept it continuously burning during that whole cycle. It was really such an anchor—seeing the living flame.
Another thing is: if you can’t have a living flame, I like using these solar lights—it’s one of the projects we support, called SolarAid. Be experimental. These LED little candle lights [are] absolutely not satisfying at all, but there’s something about when you know that the light that is turning on this little lantern is from the sun—it’s kind of satisfying.
The suggestion is to get in the rhythm with candlelight in an intentional way. I think a lot of people love candles. But that’s the simplest version. There’s these whole fire-keeping practices that one can also learn.
TS: And the idea of the all-night candle vigil? What might I do if I actually wanted to stay up all night and work in some conscious way with the light of a candle?
SR: Yes, yes. My favorite all-night fire ritual is Shivratri. That’s a really beautiful holy day to experience on a cross-cultural level because there are so many people that participate in Shivratri.
For me, it’s kind of like camping out around my altar and going into cycles of japa mantra. In yoga, we have a—like in Christianity, the rosary and the whole monoculture that is part of many of the world’s traditions. A japa mala [of] 108 [beads] is a really wonderful way to kind of cycle—or just offering prayer, or offering prostrations. If you’re me, it should be very natural—like we come in and out, or you can offer it at sunset. Like at nine o’ clock, at twelve o’ clock, three o’ clock, and with the dawn. So that’s another method.
TS: So, Shiva, you talked about how, before electricity, we spent quite a bit more time around natural fires. There’s a fact in the book that really struck me—here it is, here’s the quote: "Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, even though before 1900 very few people in the world died of heart disease." I didn’t know that was true—that before 1900, very few people in the world died of heart disease. I guess I thought heart disease was something that has been a cause of death—a significant cause of death—for many, many centuries. That’s what I thought.
SR: Right. I’ve actually talked with some heart surgeons in Mornington also about this fact. A lot of it is attributed to diet changes—people really did eat much more of a vegetarian diet. Having rich, fatty foods [and] processed foods was just not available, obviously.
The thing about the statistic, though, is that there were other factors that were shortening people’s lives. You can imagine during the Industrial Revolution the amount of lung disease and different things that would cause people to die earlier. The main thing[s] that it’s attributed to are stress, diet, and changes—the other statistic that blew my mind is that at the turn of the century, we spent most of our waking hours outside. Obviously, there were some shifts in the seasons, but we spent 90 percent of our waking hours outside.
Of course, during industrialization as it was beginning—I still see myself, like, "Oh my gosh! I am spending most of my day inside. How can I participate?" So when I’m at home, I really try and have this indoor-outdoor kind of lifestyle even while working, because I just feel the fresh prana is so important.
TS: To talk about that some, because I’m sure many listeners are relating when you’re talking about spending most of their time inside. Maybe it’s commuting inside a vehicle and then being inside an office building and then being in a home—particularly if you live in a cold climate. I mean, it’s cold—you’re going to be inside. How do people live more indoor-outdoor lives?
SR: Yes. For me, [it] is really seizing the opportunities we have for fresh prana. For instance, if it’s the middle of November—I wouldn’t call it warm, I wouldn’t call it cold. It’s like 60 degrees, 63 degrees, and we had a sunset party for my partner. We just had only candlelight and we unplugged everything. It was just so beautiful. We just kept getting more and more blankets for our friends and family.
Making a commitment—if you have your lunch hour, even if it’s cold outside—of getting outside. Getting outside, literally exposing ourselves to the natural light. I know the winter months are coming, but I just know for myself in following the seasons, that it’s a commitment. It’s a commitment to fresh prana.
TS: In the book, Tending the Heart Fire, you talk quite a lot about various ways that people can connect to the natural rhythms of the Earth. In one of the sections of the book, you talk about connecting to the moon and to the phases of the moon. So I wonder if you could talk about that, because that’s something that a lot of people do relate to. No matter where they live, there’s a sense of seeing the moon when it’s full or when it’s waxing or waning. What are your suggestions for how people can connect to the phases of the moon?
SR: Right. One of the things—since I’m involved in the yoga community—is trying to educate people to how connected people are to the phases of the moon as a way of syncing their own body energy. In India, the phases of the moon—the daily phases of the moon—are called tithis. Each phase of the moon from Amavasya, the new moon, to the full moon, Purnima, is connected to a different aspect of Shakti—a different aspect of the Goddess.
So, most people know what tithi it is and they actually just count it by the day, like, "Oh, it’s Chaturthi. Oh, it’s Ashtami." A lot of festivals even happen on certain tithis.
A lot of times, if we’re uncertain of our environment—like when I’m in Manhattan—it’s not like you’re guaranteed to look up and see the moon, actually. Just in asking people—you live in an extraordinary place, Boulder, which is nature-dominated—but a lot of people don’t know what phase the moon is in. To me, the main resource that we’re missing out on is that we are no different than the tides and the plant world. In Ayurveda, the moonlight is very important for regulating the nourishing aspect of fire-keeping.
This is this metaphor of the ojas, the ghee—this luster that is offered to the fire and nourishes the fire. This is a kind of mixed metaphor, but the simplest thing is to—every night—try and see the moon. It sounds so simple.
I give some mantras that are connected with each phase of the moon. Or just om chandraya namaha. Or just in your own language. Literally, it’s so old. Our ancestors did it. Just take a moon bath, for even just a few breaths.
It’s really made a difference for me. I come from a naturally pitta, intense athlete, Ashtanga, for 10 years. It sounds so simple, it sounds so poetic, but if you really lived in [the] whole moon cycle—new moon to full moon, full moon to new moon—with this simple practice, you can be aware of when the moonrise time is. It’s a way of calling into your whole being. There’s a whole meditation that we have on circulating the inner cycles of the moon. It’s based upon all these tantric meditations of the uchatan practice, which is all about inhaling the sun and the moon.
So you can do that simple practice: drawing down the moon into your heart. It really invites regeneration into your soul—and to be comfortable with waxing and waning. Comfortable with waxing and waning. I pretty much try and syncopate my whole life to this waxing and waning. It’s so practical.
TS: What does that mean—that you’re syncopating your life to the waxing and waning—?
SR: Like on a planning level?
SR: We actually did this calendar, right? Where we had the sun and moon times, and this whole cycle is—when I’m teaching, I always plan teachings that are more dynamic in the waxing moon cycle. Or if I’m in a creative project, I will try in the two weeks of the waxing cycle [to move] things that are in a more outward nature toward fruition. And then once we’re on that cycle—now we’re just a couple of days into the waning cycle—I try and save everything that is like "taking care of the nest" for that waning cycle.
TS: I can imagine someone saying, "Look, that sounds great. But it’s just not really practical. It’s not really practical in my life. If I get an invitation to do whatever, I’m not going to check the moon cycle." What do you think about that concern?
SR: Yes. Things fall where they fall. I’m not talking about a freaky—adding one more thing that we’re hyper-sensitive to. I just want it incredibly practical because I’m actually—whatever’s in my control to plan and do, it’s very much like being a sailor. I’m tacking with the natural energy that’s flowing. To me, it makes no sense to go against this unless I have to. Though there’s plenty of times when I have to.
And then when I have to, I’m also doing certain practices that naturally balance that. For instance, to be really practical and raw. In the book, I have a whole section for women about being able to work with their cycle in this kind of creative flow of outward and inward. Basically, I think it’s hard for women leaders, because sometimes we’re called to be in this outward flow when biologically or physiologically we may have a more inward flow.
If I’m in that circumstance—whether it’s because I’m on my moon cycle or just because of the way planning things works—I’m more careful to not make my fire excessive. I don’t go for an intense cycle. I don’t try and do 20 things. I’m careful to not stress my system, basically.
TS: I want to ask you about, really, what I would say in many ways is a central premise in Tending the Heart Fire that underlies a lot of this syncing ourselves—syncing our bodies—with the natural world. Which is this: that our bodies are microcosms of the universe. This is one of the statements that is made right of the beginning of the book.
I wonder if you mean that literally—that our bodies are microcosms of the universe? Or if you mean that more poetically?
SR: One of my favorite shows is Through the Wormhole, with Morgan Freeman. It’s all about these macro, macro, macro cycles of the black holes, the multiple timescapes that we live in. Things that seem, "How could this be linked? How is it that all of the world’s traditions have this conception of the microcosm and the macrocosm?"
Then there’ll be these kind of scientific facts that our bodies are literally comprised of only of the elements that were created from this beginning of this primordial fire. Literally, everything we’re made of comes from the universal Big Bang. Our body is completely synced to the sun and the moon. Just the simple thing is that we go to sleep eventually. I mean, some people have sleep disorders. But we follow—particularly when we don’t turn on the lights and we’re kind of in a natural rhythm, our whole system gets synced to the sun and the moon.
So, the simplest way [to explain it] is that we’re oscillating beings. We’re rhythmic beings. Our breath, our heartbeat. There’s nothing in this universe that is not in this pulsing rhythm. It’s a matter of investigating the part of our mind that thinks this is pure poetry.
I have to investigate that with science because I have that part of my mind too. I have a poetic nature, but it’s really through the science that I’ve relaxed into—I usually describe things in poetic language, because that’s how the cells seem to respond. Direct, technical language sometimes doesn’t get to this—I already mentioned it—what the soft animal of the body seems to open to.
So that’s me. The usefulness of this poetry is the somatic response that it often [evokes]—for me, it causes me to investigate the state of disconnection that is so easy to have. I’m like, "Let me really investigate this. Is this true?"
TS: In terms of linking up with the sun—you mentioned going to sleep at night. I’m curious to know, through the course of the day—from waking up until we go to bed at night—what you think are the sort of key sync-up possibilities that people have in a 24-hour cycle? The ones that would really be the most transformative if people paid attention to them? In terms of how they’re inside themselves—their bodies, their consciousnesses—and what’s happening in the 24 hours with the sun rising and setting?
SR: Right. So that’s one of the major parts of the book. It actually is giving people, starting with the cycle of the day an understanding, of living vinyasa—which means living in this sequence of flow. Some of the simplest ways to do this are what Ayurveda calls the dinacharya and ratricharya practices; dina meaning day, ratri meaning night. Also, this thing about sandhyas. “Sandyha” means “these sacred junctures.”
For me, the simplest thing is to always know the sunrise [and] sunset points. At least one of them. Sometimes if I need to rest, I’ll sleep in past the sunrise point. But when I’m really in my flow, I try and start this ritual process of waking up consciously, doing yoga in the bed—which is this simple way of oscillating the body, connecting to your breath instead of just leaping out of the bed, which I did most of my early adulthood life. The alarm would go off, I would leap out of bed, and I would start going.
It’s a way of bringing yoga—it’s an Ayurvedic practice, actually—of letting the first breath of your day really set the tone. Even using that time to visualize the flow of the day, and if possible, when you are near the sunrise or sunset time, to not do any kind of administrative, practical things. Even if we’re talking for five minutes. Or even best, an hour or an hour-and-a-half around that time. The whole hour-and-a-half around sunrise and sunset is considered to be a really heightened time—it’s called sandhya.
I’m a big fan of oils and oiling your body. It’s sound so, "Wait, I don’t have time." But even if just for five minutes oil your body according to the seasons—this is within our book, particularly going into fall and winter. That to me is the other essential rhythm practice because it slows you down. It shows you this moment where we would sacrifice—what five minutes is more important than giving your entire body this sense of connectedness and also intelligence. If you have anything going on with your body, the massage with the oils that’s done in a circular manner along your joints is really this kind of communication of flow, vitality, and intelligence.
The other simple thing is, of course, to honor that in the evening time. We could talk briefly about the middle point. Have this reflection of day and night, simple ritual practices. In the evening, there is, according to whatever is your flow—when I was writing the book, sometimes I was up writing at night. But for me, it was very important to create this ritual transition. Deepak Chopra has been so wonderful in putting Ayurveda out to people from all backgrounds and just the importance of—the simplest thing is to have something warm. Warm almond milk at night. Put some oils on your lower body, which is grounding. We have some practices like chandra namaskar, some deeper practices that people can do. But the simplest thing is not letting the sunrise and sunset time be sacrificed.
TS: As you’re talking, Shiva, what I’m flashing on—and I wonder if there are people who are having this kind of experience, since I know I am—which is just a sense of sadness, I guess you could say. Or a sense of, "Wow! My life and the lives of so many people that I know seem so far away from what you’re describing."
If you think of people commuting—many people an hour each way to work—and then working, who knows, 50, 60 hours a week. Something like that. Not connecting in the ways that you’re describing to the outer world, let alone to their bodies with oils and things. It seems like our culture as a whole is not going in the direction you’re describing here and that many people may feel like, "Wow! This is a really huge leap from where I am, and yet I feel the intelligence and the depth of it. It would be so great, but I feel that there’s a big bridge to cross to get to where Shiva’s talking about."
SR: I think it’s really about—because this happens to me too. I have to be driving and it’s sunset time. OK, I’ll put some music on. I’ll play some chanting music or I’ll sing myself. Or it can even be an amazing U2 song. It doesn’t have to be any particular form of what is holy to you. But if you can, OK, pull over. As you see the sun setting, pull over. Or if you’re driving and you see the sun, acknowledge that—the main thing in the book, I created this visual of the fire of the sun in the center in our awareness that we are travelling through the universe. I think that we’re something like 2,800,000 miles an hour if you take all the oscillations of the spinning Earth, the spinning of the solar system, the spinning of the galaxy.
But just for us to wake up at how extraordinary it is to be on Spaceship Earth. That that’s not some kind of cosmic woo-woo—that’s that kind of cut through that I think we absolutely need in the United States. For me, valuing our energy and being creative with how we do it is completely linked to the incredible waking up that we all have to do for our energy future. Our shared energy future.
I think that there’s value in being creative. Also, just the practicality. Once you start to give yourself these times—like in your relationships—once you start to see that, while we do have some choices—if we’re just not kind of steam-rolling over the rhythm of our life. The thing that I am constantly amazed at is the 24/7 that has now encroached on everything. I want to be fully engaged in the world. I love all the movers and shakers in the world. We need these methods of communication, but we cannot be run by them. To me, this is taking back your rhythm. Your own personal Shabbat. Every day.
That’s the power of meditation practices, yoga practices, movement practices [is that] we come back into this extraordinary refuge that our energetic system—when it’s flowing—is for us. When it’s not flowing and we just keep ignoring the tending of this fire, it becomes hellish to live in your body. You know?
TS: Shiva, I want to congratulate you on the book that you wrote, Tending the Heart Fire: Living in Flow with the Pulse of Life. It is filled so many practices, exercises, tables, mantras, mudras, suggested puja rituals of all kinds, Ayurvedic advice—it’s really a comprehensive and beautiful reference book for people. And I know you put a lot of energy and time into the book. At the same time, it sounds like we’re able to walk your talk, at least to some degree. That’s incredible. I just want to congratulate you on—
SR: Honestly, it just is the most satisfying [thing]. You know what I mean, Tami? You know what I mean? It’s like I have this picture of myself—I call it "as a terrorist." I look like a terrorist. I was 17, and I was headed to do volunteer work in Africa, and you can see the light of my eyes. I’m not smiling. I’m in this really hardened place. I know that place. This is the initiation, through the fire, that we all go through.
And the book had its moments like that, too. But I had to walk my talk, you know? My heart became my refuge in many, many ways before the book. I really, sincerely hope that this book would get in the hands of anybody who needs it. Anybody who needs to remember this extraordinary, often untapped, living energy of our heart wisdom—our heart fire.
There’s so many amazing poems and quotes from extraordinary masters in the book.
TS: Let’s end with one, Shiva. Let’s end with a quote or a poem that you really love.
SR: There is, of course, that great, passionate fire-keeper, Rumi. But there’s also many, many poems by Christian mystics and some extraordinary poems by sages from Shaiva Tantra. But this is the one that opens the book. It says: [Verse structure approximated]
"In our heart there burns a fire
In our hearts there burns a fire
That burns all veils to their root and foundation
In our hearts there burns a fire
That burns all veils to their root and foundation
When the veils have been burned away
Then the heart will understand completely
An ancient love will unfold
Ever fresh forms
In the heart of the spirit
In the core of the heart."
For me, it feels like the veil he’s talking about is really this separation that I lived from for such a long time. Separation of my intellect and my heart was dim. There was a disconnection from nature. It can be anything that creates this dissonance inside us.
So, it’s my prayer that we—individually and collectively—re-embody our energetic heart. This is my dedication.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Shiva Rea. She has created a new book called Tending the Heart Fire: Living in Flow with the Pulse of Life. With Sounds True, Shiva has also published a yoga DVD—a bestselling yoga DVD—called Yoga Shakti. She’s also created several popular Music for Flow yoga CDs: an album called Jala, another album called Yoga Rhythms, another called Nataraja, and yet another called Yoga Soul. Shiva, it’s always so fabulous to talk to you. Thank you so much. And again, congratulations on Tending the Heart Fire and its release.
SR: Well, I think you have an amazing heart field, Tami. You are an extraordinary mover and shaker, and I’m so honored to be part of Sounds True.
TS: Our engineer today is Aaron Arnold. Our series editor is Jeff Mack. And the music that you’re hearing in the background here is by Tom Colletti, from the album Yoga Is Union.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.