2018 was the 40th anniversary of my first yoga class at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center here in New York City – still in its original location at 243 West 24th Street. 2019 will mark my 40th year as a yoga teacher. Yoga took such a hold of me when I was 20 years old that it was less than a year between my first yoga class and my first trip out of the USA to live for month in a tent on a ski hill at the Sivananda Yoga Camp in Val Morin, Quebec, Canada. There, I was trained as a Sivananda yoga teacher by the senior students of Swami Vishnudevananda, and by Swami Vishnu himself, who came out of seclusion halfway through our training to deliver daily lectures and lessons.
A flood of memories of the extraordinary Swami Vishnu came rushing back to me the other day, when I saw that my old friend Srinivasan Ashley had posted to Facebook a BBC video commemorating Swamiji’s flight over Northern Ireland with Peter Sellers at the height of the troubles.
I could go on endlessly with stories from my time with the Sivananda organization, but for now, I’ll let the footage speak for itself. If you are at all interested in the history of yoga over the last 50 years, you owe it to yourself to take some time to get to know the man responsible for opening the oldest continually operating yoga center (Montreal since 1959), creating the largest yoga organization in the world (30 centers, 10 ashrams), and training the most yoga teachers (over 30,000 to date). In a story for another time, I’ll write about how the month-long Sivananda teacher training served as the original template for what became the Yoga Aliiance’s 200 minimum standard.
I highly recommend viewing the attached 2-part mini-documentary about Swami Vishnu’s lifelong mission for worldwide peace. His vision may seem utopian naivety by today’s cynical standards, but the bravery he exhibited by flying his aircraft over the most troubled borders in the world (Suez, Northern Ireland, Berlin Wall) without a flight plan, passport or visa was unquestionable. If he were alive today, I have no doubt he’d be flying over the Middle East, Burma or Pakistan challenging the authorities to shoot him down.
Swami Vishnu’s legacy – as someone who stuck to his principles, and fearlessly defied authority – deserves to be remembered. As I type those words, I realize how much he has been a role model for me since the very beginning my yoga journey.
Our host, Louise Palmer-Masterton wrote to say: “Leslie’s annual visits to CAMYOGA are the highlight of our academic year. He has had a huge influence on our diploma courses, and we are really excited to experience this year’s all new content especially for teachers, alongside two days for non-teachers. Leslie’s work really is inspiring for everyone, and is an absolute must for anyone interested in the subject of yoga.”
We’ll be there over American Thanksgiving (a feast of gorging, for those of you unfamiliar with the holiday) which we may miss a bit, but we’re looking forward to delicious daily lunches at Stem + Glory, one of CAMYoga’s restaurants onsite at the Mitcham’s Corner studio. I don’t often find myself singing the praises of vegan food, but we loved each of our meals there.
There are still a few seats left for each of my workshops but seating is limited so don’t delay (or send your friends if they’re in the vicinity!). And if you’re in Cambridge or London, make sure to stop by one of the Stem + Glory restaurants and tell them Leslie sent you.
Here’s another exchange from my Instagram Stories Q&A, plus a bit more exposition:
Q: Would you instruct to use the breath to lengthen the spine? Is this possible?
A: I generally do not give this cue unless the nature of the pose specifically calls for axial extension, which reduces all three of the major curves of the spine. And yes, any spinal action involves many of the major respiratory muscles.
“Lengthen the spine” is a very common cue given in yoga class that is strongly associated with safety and proper alignment. I believe that – for the most part – when a yoga teacher gives that cue, their intent is to keep the spine in neutral meaning: “don’t collapse into flexion or over-arch into extension.” In fact, a neutral spine can be relaxed without being collapsed, and is a component of many asanas, including: Sirsasana, Chaturanga Dandasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana.
Anatomically it is not possible to lengthen your spine. The action of axial extension, in which all three curves of the spine are flattened and stabilized, can make you a bit taller – temporarily. It is not a state you can live in forever, and you wouldn’t want to. It would be exhausting, and likely adversely effect digestion (acid reflux, anyone?).
Axial extension is present to various degrees in a number of asanas such as Tadasana, Virabhadrasana III, Dandasana, Malasana/Upavasasana and Mahamudra, as well as any pranayama in which strong bandhas are engaged. In fact, the muscular action that creates axial extension is, by definition, the action of the bandhas:
Mula Bandha flattens the lumbar curve;
Uddiyana Bandha flattens the thoracic curve; and,
Jalandhara Bandha flattens the cervical curve.
All these actions both reduce the ability of the spine to articulate and reduce the freedom of respiratory shape-change. In other words, the result is spinal and breath stability (sthira). As I said before, this is not something you want to hold all the time.
Bottom line: unless I’m teaching one of the practices in which axial extension is specifically called for I do not refer to “lengthening the spine.” You can find more detailed information about spinal actions in many of the major asanas in our book Yoga Anatomy.
Here’s another from my Instagram Stories Q&A, plus a bit more exposition:
Q: How do you know when you’re (sic) body is anatomically not built for a certain pose (and when to accept this)? A: This is a key question that involves a deep practice of swadhyaya (self-inquiry), and it never has any final solution, because as our body ages, the answers will constantly change.
My expanded commentary: Some questions cut right to the heart of yoga, and this is one of them. The second chapter (Sadhana Pada) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra offers a brilliant, succinct three-part definition of yoga practice (Kriya Yoga). Two of those parts (tapas and isvara pranidhana) are referenced in this question and the third (swadhyaya) is in my answer.
The practice of poses (asana) can be seen as a kind of tapas. Although the term tapas is usually translated as “austerity,” a more useful view derives from its primary meaning of “warmth” or “heat.” My teacher T.K.V. Desikachar described the heat of tapas as a fire which removes impurities. Asana practice accomplishes this by working our physical body and breath against the grain of our embedded habits (samskaras). The assumption behind this idea is that we are working with something that actually is changeable – like how we breathe or hold tension in certain muscles – and this is how our bodies adapt to the practice. By contrast, we sometimes discover that some poses are made difficult (if not impossible) by some aspect of our body that is not going to change – like the proportional relationship of our arm-to-torso length, or the orientation of our hip joints – and this is when we must adapt the practice to our bodies.
Through practice and self-reflection (swadhyaya) we can discover some things about ourselves that are not subject to change – that’s when acceptance of that reality needs to become our focus. This is isvara pranidhana, a surrender to that which is not changeable or within our control. Or, as Desikachar put it: “…in the final analysis, we are not the masters of everything we do.” (from Heart of Yoga)
To re-state what I said in my original answer, everything about our embodied existence is subject to some kind of change, so we must always maintain a self-reflective attitude that allows us to constantly re-evaluate what we are working to change, and what we need to stop trying to change. Surrender is itself an act of will.
Another well-known formulation of this principle is Reinhold Niebuhr’sSerenity Prayer which seeks to find “the strength to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Some of you reading this may have been on my e-Sutra email-based discussion list since 1997, when it was run through my AOL account (an inelegant solution, but all there was at the time). Those early long-form threads tackled important issues at a critical time in the yoga community, but the reach was inherently limited.
By far the vast majority of you are more recent members of my online community via web blog, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and may never have had exposure to long-form online writing. That type of inquiry-based exchange remains my comfort zone – evident to all who take workshops with me, as I insist on interaction and will ask questions of my students if they don’t speak up themselves!
Newer social media opportunities, such as Instagram Stories, have simultaneously opened up a much broader reach while requiring ever-briefer sutra-like* answers. I am constantly trying to improve my ability to deliver meaningful information is as few words as possible, but often know there’s more I’d like to say. By way of illustration, here’s a question from Iness Lagios (_yoginess__) from a recent Instagram Story, and my brief answer, plus some commentary:
Q: Is there a way to teach people not just to do the pose, but to feel the pose? A: Yes. It involves engaging students in an inquiry – but first, we have to stop telling them what they should be feeling, and inviting them to see what they notice.
My expanded commentary: Iness’ excellent question touches on what is essential for anyone practicing or teaching yoga. The key to safety and effectiveness in asana practice depends on an ability to tune into your inner experience of the pose – not just mimicking a teacher, other students, or an idealized image of what the pose looks like, or what you’ve been told it should feel like.
My current thinking on this is encapsulated by the following teaching methodology: “Try this, now try that…now, see what you notice.” I propose that teachers should always have at least two different ways of teaching a single practice. By offering options in close succession students are encouraged to notice what difference they feel, if any, putting focus on their own embodied experience.
Invariably, some students will have trouble noticing any difference between the options, and it’s easy for them to feel left out or to assume they “did it wrong.” That’s why I always leave a lot of space in my classroom for not knowing. In fact, I honor confusion as a necessary starting point for any meaningful inquiry, as long as it is recognized. I’m pretty certain that for at least the last decade of workshops I’ve always quoted my teacher T.K.V. Desikachar on this point: “The recognition of confusion is itself a form of clarity.” This is the point from which an asana practice can become yoga, not just physical exercise.
* My teacher T.K.V. Desikachar’s father, T. Krishnamacharya, described a sutra as being inspiration for the teacher rather than instruction for the student. When I refer to something as “sutra-like” I mean to offer some direction with room for exploration and development, not a hard-and-fast rule.
I want you to know about a friend of mine. Her full name is Terecita Mahoney Blair, but everyone calls her Ti (sounds like “Tee”). August 8 is her birthday and I sincerely hope it marks the start of a wonderful next year.
Ti is one of my (s)heroes. Life has dealt her some pretty tough cards yet she consistently inspires with dedication, determination and a relentlessly positive, honest outlook.
I don’t know too much about her early life, but in 2009 Ti got hit by a bus. Her spine was badly broken, and she needed 5 surgeries in the years that followed. Turns out, the hardware that was implanted did not do what it was supposed to and she has been struggling with a host of bizarre and awful symptoms, often being dismissed by orthopedists and other medical professionals. It’s a wonder she was vertical at all, once she learned that nothing more than scar tissue and muscle spasms were keeping her vertebra together (photos below of the faulty and replacement hardware).
I met Ti five years ago this month in Los Angeles, when I taught a workshop at Black Dog Yoga, where she was working as their Teacher Training Administrator. Ti was familiar with me through my online courses, which Black Dog had been using as part of their teacher training. You never know who’s going to walk into one of your classes. All educators need to remember that. Ti was just four years post-surgical, and I could have asked a million questions of her, but if I thought I could keep her *safe* during my workshop, I would have been sorely mistaken. All we can do is set up reasonable experiments for our students to try on their “rectangular laboratories” (aka yoga mats), and encourage them to notice what they are experiencing.
Ti was a careful and wise student, applying the anatomy and asana practice I was presenting, and referencing what she found in her own body. As she wrote in a recent Facebook post: “Leslie Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy (is) the foundation of how I teach and understand pain, relationship and balance.” As an educator, I couldn’t possibly hope for a better student.
When Ti and her husband moved to Denver, it was a natural fit for her to connect with the creator of our online courses Kelsey Kaufman, who lives in Fort Collins, CO. Ti eventually became our anatomy homework coach for the online courses. I am touched and honored to know that her work with us has been a lifeline when she’s been so laid up with physical pain, she’s had to take a break from pretty much everything else.
I travel around the world teaching yoga for a living – mostly to other yoga teachers, and I feel privileged when I meet people like Ti, whose primary focus is on doing whatever good they can for populations they care most about. For Ti it’s seniors and first responders, two groups that often get lost in the cracks of our society. For others, it’s trauma survivors, prison populations, people in recovery, teens at risk…the list is endless. This commitment to using the tools of Yoga to better the world is a never-ending source of inspiration.
Last year, we were thrilled when she was voted the 2017 Silver Sneakers 2017 Instructor of the Year. Please watch this video celebrating Ti’s award and bear in mind that – unbeknownst to her – her spine was being inadequately held together by ill-conceived hardware all the time she was jumping around and leading these classes! Ti’s commitment to frequently invisible populations, in this case older folks needing to get or stay moving, catapulted her along and her life-experience made her a sympathetic example for these elders experiencing their own physical challenges.
What really makes Ti a hero to me is that through all the pain of recovery as well as her internal demons, she not only maintains a positive attitude but keeps focus on what really matters to her: other people who are struggling. The way she walks through the world reminds me of my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar’s, admonition that “yoga is relationship.”
There is a great deal of talk about corruption of yoga, and commercialization, and the need for third-party reimbursement and licensing and blah blah blah blah. But Ti is an example of true yoga in action. She has made it her life’s work to seek out and serve communities in need, people who might not otherwise know about coordinating breath and mind and movement in a way to enrich and embody their day-to-day experience. She works one-on-one with veterans and first responders recovering from traumatic injuries, and has forged remarkable relationships with many of them.
She has been brutally honest about the pain and despair that lurks behind her smiling face and started a Facebook project to help her through this really tough post-surgical period. She is using the medium to raise awareness for many of the causes she supports, by wearing a different “Ti-shirt” every day emblazoned with their logos. Here are a few of the organizations she supports:
The 2018 Colorado 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb honors and remembers fallen firefighters. Ti has promised (with her surgeon’s permission) to climb at least one stair on 9/11. She has set a goal of raising $1,111.00 by then, and I am certain she’ll do it simply because it is something she has set her mind to. I just donated $108.00 and hope you will too, if you can spare it.
Safe Call Now: A no-cost confidential crisis referral service for public safety agency employees all first responders and their families nationwide.
Emergency Responder Trauma Counselors (ERTC) provides specialized counseling for emergency services personnel and their family members, related to their work and home life and the variety of stressors in which affect them. Including but not limited to PTSD, anxiety, addiction, depression and grief.
ResponderStrong: Emergency responders working with the National Mental Health Innovation Center to improve mental wellness among Colorado responders and their families. .
Officer Involved Project: Officer Involved is a thoughtful documentary that examines officers who have been involved in deadly force incidents during their tour of duty.
I am proud beyond measure to know Ti and others like her, who constitute the vast majority of the yoga teaching universe. I’m similarly proud to offer what I can in the way of teaching to the online community we’ve built over the years – a community that now spans 45 countries and over 4,000 students – many of whom are lucky enough to have Ti as their homework coach. On the occasion of Ti Mahoney Blair’s birthday, I recommit to keeping my yoga real and staying connected to those around me. I hope you are inspired, as I have been, by her life and work.
The programs are open to all, and I’m particularly keen on attracting people who have either acute or chronic breathing issues. So, if you or anyone you know gets asthmatic symptoms during allergy season, or gets short of breath when exercising, is a singer or actor who’s been told to “sing from your diaphragm,” or is suffering from a more serious challenge like COPD, please consider getting some expert attention and help. No yoga mats or bare feet are needed, and seating will be available.
REGISTRATION AND DATES:
Thanks to our co-sponsor WOOM Center, we are able to offer these workshops on a donation-based sliding scale ($15-$30 per workshop). Please pay what you can after clicking “Donate” for the workshop date(s) of your choice, and you’re welcome to attend more than one.
TIMES: All Sunday times are from 2:30 to 5:30pm.
The events will be at the beautiful, immersive environment of WOOM Center, 274 Bowery, 2nd Floor, (bet. Houston & Prince), New York, NY MAP
We have found a way to include these voices at our event – we are inviting anyone, from anywhere in the world, to send in a short paragraph about how their lives have been touched by the life and teachings of Desikachar. We will print out your message and hang it on a wall of remembrance at our event. After the event, we will post these messages to a Facebook group page for the world to see.
You know those Facebook quizzes…the ones that ask a bunch of questions and then deliver what is supposed to be some insightful truth about you, which you’re then supposed to post for all the world to see? I hate those. If you invite me to take one (or to play Candy Crush) I will unfriend you.
That’s why I was surprised at how deeply I responded to a series of philosophical questions posed by the folks at Triyoga in London, where I’ll be teaching at the end of June. As it happens, the key question they asked me was “What is your favourite quote?” I instantly knew the answer.
Even before I was attracted to yoga in my late teens, I had been very curious about fundamental world views. My readings at the time tended toward the mystical as well as the philosophical. As part of my yoga training with the Sivananda organization, I got a big dose of Vedanta and Yoga philosophy, which I continued to study for many years. In spite of the fact that I ended up teaching the basic tenets of Yoga/Vedanta, I developed deep misgivings about what I saw as the disembodied nature of the teachings. Years later, I stumbled on a quote in the book Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand:
“Humans are beings of self-made soul.”
That one devastating statement shattered any remnants of the mystical thinking I had inherited from my days at the ashram. It awakened me to the fact that the fundamental essence of my being is my own creation, and it belongs to me, and no one else. In other words, my soul is not on temporary loan from god or some great undifferentiated cloud of consciousness. Through the accumulation of the countless free-will choices I’ve made ever since I’ve existed, I have created the kind of person I have become.
I came to realize that mystical teachings get it backwards when they insist that existence emerges from consciousness. Rather, consciousness can only exist as an emergent attribute of a physical entity. This is a fundamental point of divergence between my view and that of most other yoga teachers. The issue has been called the primacy of existence vs. the primacy of consciousness. The primacy of consciousness view allows for the separability of body and soul. My yoga is grounded in the indivisibility of body and soul – the primacy of existence.
The dualistic roots of yoga philosophy can easily reinforce disembodied thinking by reducing a person to two fundamentally incompatible elements: Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (physical nature). This is reminiscent of another Ayn Rand quote from her book Atlas Shrugged when she wrote that proponents of the soul-body dichotomy “…have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost.” Similarly, Samkhya (the darshanic partner of Yoga) famously describes a human as a lame man who can see (Purusha) being carried around by a blind man who can walk (Prakriti). By asserting the indivisibility of body and soul, I reject both models. Humans are not the ghost of a consciousness somehow being carried around by a dead lump of matter.
Just finishing a month of teaching in Australia, I’ve had innumerable opportunities to practice a principle my teacher T.K.V. Desikachar often emphasized: “Yoga is relationship.” One of our Brisbane hosts is the witty and fierce president of Yoga Australia, Leanne Davis. I was intrigued to learn her community is small enough that they all know each other. With only around 100 teaching programs in the whole country, Yoga Australia is able to provide support, check-ins and coaching in a really personal manner. It’s not a model that could directly scale in the U.S., but it’s worth noting that the only valid way to deal with ethics and scope of practice issues lies in the context of the community in which teachers operate. Studios, peers, colleagues – as well as the students – always need to be in direct relationship to teachers, and feel empowered to give them feedback. We all need to be answerable to someone, but that someone should be part of our immediate community.
I have been thinking about the role of coaching and personal connection in relation to the specialized work I do. It will be a big part of my upcoming 5-day (30-hour) immersion “Breath Education: Coaching Better Breathing,” August 20-24, 2018, under the aegis of my educational nonprofit, The Breathing Project, Inc. With an intimate group, I look forward to covering the anatomical and practical underpinnings of breath coaching, as well as how to nurture supportive relationships for therapeutic breath work with individuals and groups.
Having just turned 60, I can confidently say that every good thing I’ve achieved in my life, every positive effect I’ve wrought, has been based on a willingness to be related. Whenever I shied away from relationship by generalizing or depersonalizing, I have failed. I am committed to remembering this for my next 60 years.