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June 2020
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Shiva Rea's Got A New Book
Chats About Tending The Heart Fire

As an antidote to the 24/7-always-on approach to modern living, Shiva Rea’s new book, Tending The Heart Fire, provides a seasonally cycled, yogic guide to living more closely connected to the heart for a life of optimal flow. 

Rea traces the heart’s meaning through history—from Ancient Egypt where the heart was believed to be its own living force, up to the Renaissance when it became the subject for art, and simultaneously lost its spiritual association. She then brings in research from modern science including Cardio Energetics and the HeartMath Institute that reveal the heart is more than an organ pumping blood — it transports energy. And there is an electromagnetic field that radiates outside the body that is strengthened or weakened based on its connection to itself and the outside. 

But Rea is best known as a yogini, and it’s through this lens, Tantra — that serves as a foundation for much of book. Through her work with Christopher Tompkinsshe traces the origins of asana back to 3500 BCE (before the Hatha Yoga Pradipika), and she assimilates the dance of the god and goddess Shiva and Shakti into her living vinyasa, or life in flow.

The book contains many practices. There are more than 108 meditations to both cool and invoke heat within the body including namaskar sequences, nature dristis (i.e. fire gazing, or sun gazing, etc..) mantras and mudra meditations, the movement of mudras as mudra vinyasas, and offers prayers to accompany this practice.

YogaCity NYC's Elysha Lenkin spoke with Shiva about the importance of Tending the Heart Fire, and what that actually means.

Elysha Lenkin: How would you describe the Heart Fire?

Shiva Rea: Cross culturally and throughout many of the world’s spiritual traditions, there is an understanding of our heart organ, our spiritual heart, as fire. It’s an intelligence, a guiding power, and a source of love. In yoga its called jyotir atman which is the light of the soul. In Spanish, it’s el corazon de fuego which connects with the images of Jesus and his flaming heart—the mystical love of Jesus.

The next time you hug someone that you love — feel your heart. This is the easiest way to sense it. You’ll feel warmth. That’s the metaphor of fire. No one is saying there is a chemical fire. But there is something energetic. It’s heat. 

EL: Why do we need to tend the Heart Fire?

SR: The metaphor of tending the Heart Fire is about being able to connect to the sensations that we have of our energetic heart, as the electromagnetic fields of our heart which oscillates according to how connected we are. So just like a fire we see in our fireplace, if we don’t pay attention to that fire it can go out, or it can get damp. It can also get out of control. 

I try to offer people this practical, and yet also mystical relationship to our energetic heart that I have felt in my own life, and as a yoga teacher, is this guiding force that can particularly transform the stresses and distractions that come from our primary relationships-- to our self, to our dharma, to our passion, to our joy as well as our relationships in our homes. 

EL: How do you think city living impacts the heart fire?

SR: I think when you’re in an urban environment it’s easier to get disconnected from the natural world. This is why I love Central Park, and why I think Central Park is the heart of New York. It keeps people connected to the natural rhythm which has a way to bring us out of the fragmenting rhythms that we normally experience.

You can see stress very easily in a heart rhythm, it speeds up or it becomes erratic. Same in our breath. And the same in our brain waves. So the science of our energetic heart is that the little pacemaker cells that create the electromagnetic field are always trying to syncopate. Our heart is always trying to bring us into balance— inside and outside. So if you’re having a good conversation with somebody, or you’re hugging — literally the electromagnetic fields that extend outside our body — our hearts —start to syncopate together. That’s the feeling of being in simpatico with someone, or being connected to somebody. It’s an actual physiological shift that happens in our heart rhythm. 

EL: What advice do you have for NYers to connect with nature when it’s not always available?

SR: One thing that I practice and teach is that our breath is nature, and our body is nature. The book talks about the breath linked to the cosmos from the early tantra, Kalottara, which dates back to the 7th-9th century. Although this may sound far out, the concept is that when you inhale, you’re inhaling the moon - the regenerative energy of life. And when you’re exhaling, you’re exhaling the sun which is a purifying energy.

For most of my yogic life, when I was inhaling I had this idea that I was drawing kundalini up, that I was raising the energy. And then I realized that I wasn’t fully receiving each breath. So it’s interesting to think that when you’re inhaling you’re receiving life and when you’re exhaling you’re releasing carbon dioxide, you’re releasing waste. Inhale is receiving life. Exhale is the purification.

It’s this organizing principle within yoga of following the cycles on a daily basis. We have a lot of New York students who have tried this, and they feel it’s very important --to try and sync your body so that at sunrise and sunset you are not doing things that are the busy things of life. Find a roof top to see the sunset. Or find a place in the park to see the sunrise. Or if you can just be aware of those times--they are considered to be the sandhyas, the sacred junctures.

Also being able to know what phase of the moon you’re in is very practical. This is something farmers understand, and I don’t think people should get too rigid or superstitious with this, but farmers plant in the new moon because as the light is increasing — that’s the metaphor of growth. So the cycle from the new moon to the full moon is the ideal time to bring creative things out into the world. And I always try to save whenever I can, the gardening of my own home -those kind of practical things that make life flow. I always try to do that from the full moon to the new moon. In other words, really guard the creative energy of your life by protecting it in the sacred times of the day

EL: What is Movement Alchemy? 

SR: It comes from over the years of teaching-- not just in LA, but in urban centers around the world--through Ayurveda and appreciating that we’re not the same everyday. There is the seasonal change, and there is this kind of energetics of the week. And very slowly starting from the original surya namaskar, and even teaching chandra namaskar, the moon salutation, I began to create this namaskar system that offers a full spectrum of practices that are not just solar or activating namaskars, but also lunar namaskars based on the elements, based on the chakras, and also based on the rasas which you could say is the art of yoga-- the quality of being able to cultivate your energetic state.

I want to pass this on as an evolutionary approach because I feel we need this capacity to be able to understand the changing dynamics in our lives, and that there’s not one practice, but there can be a diversity of practice. And I think we’re learning this through food and nutrition. And we’re learning this through music. And we can learn it through movement.

EL: There are 108 meditations in the book. Where do we begin?

SR: I have an online school where we have a meditation practice that is seasonally focused with every new moon and full moon. So if people want to see how they can integrate the meditation with the flow of their life, the online school is there as a resource. 

And very simply I think mudra is the most effective form of meditation for everybody. I’d say starting your day is the most important time to have meditation, but if you can — starting and ending the day.

EL: Can you explain how mudras work?

SR:  The way I explain it is if you bring your hands together at your heart you immediately sense something, but if you take your hands to the side, it changes. If you separate your hands, it changes. So the actual pattern, the shape, is what creates this circuitry of inner meaning. And it immediately creates this reverberation inside you. Like bowing forward, it immediately creates this effect inside you. Mudras are interesting because they bypass the circuitry of our normal thinking mind, and that’s why I think they’re the most effective. Mudras can put people in touch with a very powerful presence. If you allow the simplicity of mudras to move you out of an instructionalmind into the feeling mind, then it’s a very profound simplicity.

EL: The book is dedicated to the Fire Keepers, who are they?

SR: I spent a lot of time when I was in university doing field research in Africa so I was able to live in environments where I could see fire keeping as a way of life. I appreciate what that meant in the past – Fire Keepers - the ancestor wisdom that’s been passed down through generations. 

Being a fire keeper is not just about an outer fire. It’s honoring these incredible beings – like Ghandi, Mother Theresa-- these heroes who stayed with the tremendous mission that they felt despite incredible odds. With global warming, the population of the earth increasing, future generations are going to need that same type of tenacity and power and ingenuity. I think if we look across all the different disciplines we can find a fire keeper in someone who stays with it. 

Shiva Rea will be teaching at the Yoga Journal Conference: New York on April 25th and 26th. Visit her website for more information on her other teachings.

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