For the last several years I’ve been pondering the derivation and evolution of the term “alignment” as it relates to yoga asana. My interest correlates directly to the increasing number of repetitive strain injuries my private clients, many of them long-term practitioners, have been presenting with. It is no longer a secret how many teachers have had to undergo hip repair and replacement surgery as a result of their asana practice.
Historically, the conversation about yoga alignment, at least in the United States, can be traced back to 1956 when BKS Iyengar first visited Ann Arbor, Michigan to deliver several lecture-demonstrations. Ten years later, Iyengar released his perennial classic “Light on Yoga,” a work that was clearly influenced by his original teacher, T. Krishnamacharya’s “Yoga Makaranda,” which was published in 1934 . Ironically, by the mid-sixties Krishnamacharya himself was no longer hewing to the prescriptive rules he had laid out in the Makaranda. In fact, Krishnamacharya’s mature teaching methodology represented an almost completes reversal of his rigid alignment directives when he declared: “the very essence of yoga is that it must be adapted to the individual, not the other way around.”
For the past 62 years in America, one system of asana training – Iyengar’s – has held a virtual monopoly on the conversation about what constitutes correct alignment in asana. In my view, the time is ripe for questioning the assumption that Iyengar’s idealized, geometrical alignment directives are the ultimate goal in yoga asana. If there are no straight lines in the body, why are we always trying to “square our pelvis,” or “place our feet in parallel?”
What is needed is an anatomically-informed definition of alignment from which healthy asana cueing language can be derived. This is core of what I’ll be teaching Sunday May 20 when I return to Yoga Yoga in Austin, Texas for a full-day immersion called “Reimagining Alignment.”
The ultimate context for asana practice is the unique person who is practicing. It is only an individual’s singular body that can be in alignment – not the asana. To speak about yoga poses as if they had some intrinsically correct alignment is, in my opinion, an error. To sum this up as a principle: “Asanas don’t have alignment – people have alignment.”
We work hard on these teaching tours, but we always schedule a couple days on each side of the workshops to enjoy the host city. We’ve heard Sorrento is beautiful and while I’m teaching there I’ll turn 60 years old (on March 13). Word on the street is there may be some celebrating going on, so come out to the workshop on March 14th to help cheer me into my 7th decade! I believe there’s still room in some of the workshops, so if you or someone you know is down under, please come out and say hello.
All this planning got me feeling nostalgic about my first visit to New Zealand and Australia in 1983 so I dug out some old photos. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles with my partner Lynda Huey where we worked at Dr. Leroy Perry’s International Sportsmedicine Institute. Lynda was the athletic director and, although I was teaching yoga flexibility to the athletes, my main job was to administer a new form of electro-therapy that was getting great results with pain and soft tissue injuries. The instruments I specialized in, the Electro-Acuscope and Myopulse, were in great demand around the world at the training areas of track meets so, eased by the fact that Lynda and I were also working part-time as travel agents, it created a perfect opportunity to travel.
In this photo, I am posing for an AP photographer with Evelyn Ashford, who at the time was the world’s fastest woman. Evelyn had sustained a hamstring injury in an early heat of the 100 meter dash, and I was treating her with the equipment. She recovered well enough to make the U.S. team and win a gold medal the 1984 L.A. Olympics in spite of a slight re-injury at the team trials (for which I also treated her). As part the promotion for the Sydney event, I was invited to a T.V. interview on “Good Morning Australia.
This photo shows me on set preparing the equipment for my segment. I am wearing my best (and only) suit for the occasion. I was apparently still wearing that outfit when we visited a game preserve outside Sydney. There, I met kangaroos for the first time. Once the film was developed back in L.A. , I also noticed for the very first time that I was – at the tender age of 25 – going bald on the top of my head. I was shocked and devastated, but I’ve gotten over it.
The rest of our trip was terrific. We traveled to Canberra to tour the brand new Australian Institute of Sport, and the headed up the Gold Coast to visit with some friends in Nambour before continuing up to check out the facilities at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Finally, we went all the way north to Cairns, where we had a memorable scuba dive off the Barrier Reef. Lynda and I actually returned to Sydney in 1984 for a return visit that was more of a pleasure trip.
This blog post is inspired by a series of comments on Facebook regarding a controversial action by Kausthub Desikachar, my teacher’s son, who has announced that he has trademarked the term “Viniyoga”. He states, in part: “…to maintain its authenticity, the KHYF, as an international organization, has copyrighted the term Viniyoga in over thirty countries and will ensure that its use is authentic and legally regulated…”
Whatever emotional reaction I may have to this situation, here are two things I’m very clear about:
2. Aside from the legalities involved in the ownership of the word “Viniyoga,” the key issue is that there is a huge distinction between being connected to a teaching lineage and inheriting a family business. Kausthub apparently fails to see that difference, and is seeking to control both as if they were the same thing.
A teaching lineage is not held only by someone with a certain surname. All of Desikachar’s students, and their students, ARE the lineage. In fact, the very notion that a lineage can be “held” at all is false, and anyone who tries to control one betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of both teaching and lineage. The sharing of knowledge is not a zero-sum game – like sharing the only cookie in the world. If I have that singular cookie and share it with you, it would mean I have less cookie for myself, but the sharing of yoga teachings (and knowledge in general) operates from the opposite premise: what I’m actually sharing is the cookie recipe and, the more I do that, the more cookies there are in the world (and the more variations on the recipe).
Contrary to what his ill-informed actions suggest, Kausthub Desikachar did not create, nor could he inherit the “brand” Viniyoga. His father’s students were using that word to describe what they had learned from their teacher when Kausthub was in diapers. These elders are some of the senior people now being asked to “kiss the ring” in order to keep using the term “Viniyoga.”
Sadly, I am not at all surprised by Kausthub’s current behavior. It is completely consistent with many of his past actions. Perhaps he thinks he’s being a clever businessman, but the really smart move would have been to trademark his family name as “Desikachar Yoga.” There’s an established practice of name-branding yoga in his line of teachers (Iyengar Yoga, Jois Yoga) and that – at least – would honor Desikachar without pissing off generations of his father’s students.
The funniest part of Kausthub’s trademark grab is that it really makes me want to start using the word “Viniyoga” again; partly as an act of defiance towards him, but mostly as an ironic act of loyalty to the teacher who asked me to drop it in April of 2003 when he sent the following email:
When I introduced the concept of viniyoga in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I never imagined that it will replace the word “Yoga”. I am extremely disappointed with the situation today, where this has become the case and caused so much distortion and confusion. Hence I request you to either delete the word Viniyoga to represent my teacher’s teaching, or remove my father’s and my name from your communications. This is the least you can do for me, as a guru dakshina. Please feel free to forward this to other students whose email addresses I don’t have.
With Best Wishes TKV Desikachar
It has been suggested that this request was a ploy to reserve the term as a legacy for his son, or that the email was actually authored by Kausthub, but when I first saw the message I believed my teacher was sincere when he lamented that Viniyoga’s “branding” had gone too far. I admired him for his stand, and I also realized I had never been deeply invested in the word anyway, so I had no trouble transitioning to using “Individualized, Breath-Centered Yoga” to describe what I teach.
Now, 15 years later Desikachar is gone and his son wants the word to himself. Well, f*ck you Kausthub – I teach Viniyoga. So, sue me.
This photo was taken on July 15th as I sat alone in the empty studio following the Breathing Project’s closing party. In the nearly two years leading up to this moment, I was asked innumerable times what I was feeling. My stock reply was “everything,” and that pretty much sums up what you can see in this picture.
I didn’t get too visibly emotional about the closing when other people were around, but at times like this, when I sat alone in that room, memories and feelings would often flood through me. As it happens, I remember quite clearly what was on my mind at the moment my partner Lydia Mann snapped the photo. I was thinking of my boys, and how this room was such a special place for most of their childhood.
I was remembering how, in the summer of 2003, my teacher Desikachar’s family joined my family, friends and colleagues for a small ceremony to help inaugurate our new studio. Taken on that day, this photo shows me and my teacher and my middle and youngest sons, Jai (8) and Sasha (3). Afterwards at Vatan, our favorite Indian restaurant, Desikachar mischievously offered $20.00 to Jai if he would eat one of the hot chili peppers on the table. Jai was game to try it, but I intervened.
Back then I was splitting my time between New York City and Great Barrington, MA, and the boys would always enjoy their occasional weekend visits to NY, when they would camp out on the floor of the big room and watch movies I would project – cinema-sized – on the wall. There were many times when our basket of Gertie Balls would cause a spontaneous game of dodgeball to break out.
I also recalled how my oldest son Shaun would eventually become a work-study student in the 2014-2015 version of my Yoga Anatomy course – the sessions that were recorded for my online Principles course.
Today, Desikachar is no longer with us, Shaun is 27, Jai is 22, Sasha (who wishes to be called Alex) just turned 18, I will be 60 in March and Amy Matthews’ Babies Project is creating a whole new generation of memories in that space.
Happy New Year. I hope 2018 creates memories that are as precious to you as the ones I’ve shared.
It must be a sign I’m getting old that I’m so inordinately tickled when I can extract a tiny favor from the space-time continuum.
While teaching in England 2 weeks ago, we observed *Daylight Savings Time on the Sunday morning of my workshop by luxuriating in an extra hour of much needed sleep. Since the USA observes DST a week later than the U.K., I got to sleep in again last Sunday. Though two hours of extra sleep in the space of one week may not seem like a big deal, it thrills me beyond measure that I won’t have to give back one of those hours next spring – I get to keep it for the rest of my life.
Time, of course, always wins in the end – but in my case it will have to wait an extra hour.
The topic for the weekend is one my favorites – “The Yoga of Therapeutic Breath, Movement and Alignment.” While prepping the workshop I came across some relevant writing I did, a chapter proposal for a handbook aimed at medical professionals. I hope it sparks your interest in continuing the discussion and, if you’re anywhere near Philadelphia, please come join us…there’s still some room in the workshop.
From “Yoga Therapy — The Art of the Individual”
When applying yoga in a therapeutic context, it is vitally important to remember that we do not treat conditions – we educate people.
Our students are likely to have already seen several professionals whose job it is to focus on their problems. By contrast, the yoga educator’s focus should be on what’s still going right with a person, not on what has gone wrong — and there are always far more things still working in a person’s body than have stopped working. Even on the sickest, most pain-filled day of a person’s life, there are untold billions of unimpeded, cellular life processes happening within them. This is the biological basis of the concept of prana. As long as there’s prana, there can be improvement — not necessarily curing or fixing — but healing — what my teacher Desikachar referred to as “the relationship to their illness.”
In any discussion about the place of therapeutic yoga in health care delivery, I assert that the principle expressed above is the most important to remember. As long as we stay grounded in the perspective of what’s still going right, our scope of practice is profound and simple: if the person in front of us can breathe, move, and focus, even minimally, they can bring their breath, body and mind into a more integrated state and they can do yoga.
Lately, I’ve been feeling tremendous gratitude for the way my life and work have turned out – even amidst a host of societal, political and environmental disasters – and I recently experienced a lovely bit of synchronicity that highlighted this.
I was seated onstage at the 2017 Yoga Therapy Summit telling the story of first becoming aware of T.K.V. Desikachar. Glancing down at the front row I saw Larry Payne, who I first met back in 1981, after he had returned from something of a guru-hopping tour of India. Back then, I remember asking him which teacher impressed him the most and the name he mentioned was the only one on his list I didn’t recognize: Desikachar. When I asked him what made this guy so special, all he could tell me was “It’s all in the breath.” This cryptic phrase struck me deeply and became a focal point for much of my curiosity about the role of breath in yoga for the next six years – and then I picked up the September/October 1987 issue of Yoga Journal. Here at the Yoga Therapy Summit seated beside Larry was Gary Kraftsow who – 30 years ago this month – was featured in that very issue of the magazine.
It was the cover, which featured Ken Wilber, that had attracted my attention. As hard as it is to believe – considering how asana imagery has so thoroughly permeated popular culture – back then, Yoga Journal went through a long stretch of 7 years and 40 issues (July 1983–March 1990) without a single asana photo on their front cover. Instead, the magazine featured all manner of new-age topics, trends and personalities. I had read Wilbur’s magnum opus “The Spectrum of Consciousness,” and was interested in what the “Einstein of consciousness” had to say. I really don’t remember, because I don’t think I ever got to the Wilbur article. Instead I was stopped in my tracks by a short, single-column “Life-Styles” article written by David Frawley about a yoga teacher named Gary Kraftsow he had encountered while teaching an Ayurveda program on Maui. It led with this: “Rather than focusing on the asanas as an end in themselves, he shows students how to apply yoga for their own unique physical structure and condition.” As it turns out, that small piece of writing would mark an essential turning point in my life and my yoga.
As I continued to read, more of Kraftsow’s perspective eerily echoed much of what I’d been thinking and teaching: “emphasizing function rather than form…individualizing practice to each student’s unique structure and condition…not to teach students where to go, but to show them how to get there…” Then I read: “Kraftsow began his yoga study with T.K.V. Desikachar in 1974…” and I felt a palpable jolt of recognition as my mind flashed back to the name Larry Payne had mentioned six years earlier. No wonder the words of a Desikachar student were striking such a chord – my own obsession with the role of breathing in asana had led me down a similar path!
Reading further, I learned that Desikachar was the son of T. Krishnamacharya, who Frawley described as “perhaps the most renowned yoga teacher of our time.” The article ended with Kraftsow saying, “Yoga refers primarily to the quality of action through which transformation can occur.”
So I was completely hooked. I knew — as clearly as I’d ever known anything — that I had to meet T.K.V. Desikachar. The article said he lived in India, but didn’t specify where.
In the pre-internet, pre-Google age of analog information retrieval, my only resource was Gary Kraftsow’s phone number, helpfully provided at the bottom of the article. I left a message asking for more information about Gary, his programs, and the whereabouts of T.K.V.Desikachar. I heard back later that day from Mirka Kraftsow, who informed me that Desikachar lived in Madras, and that Gary would be presenting at an upcoming conference, Yoga and New Frontiers of Healing, at Murrieta Hot Springs in California. (This was my introduction to the group Unity in Yoga which later became the Yoga Alliance, but that’s another story!) Though I signed up for every class Gary was teaching, I cannot recall any of the specifics, but I do remember a powerful sense of connection with this tradition.
When people talk about finding their lineage or teacher, they frequently report a sense of “coming home.” I’m not sure if that’s how I would describe what I experienced, but I was clear that I’d stumbled on a line of inquiry focused on the same questions I’d been obsessed with ever since I started practicing and teaching:
How does the act of inhaling and exhaling relate to specific movements in asana practice?
How can the form of a pose be modified to serve its deeper function?
How can one teach these modifications in a group class?
I was relieved to realize: “I don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel — there is a line of teachers who have been figuring this stuff out a lot longer than I have, and that lineage has a name – Viniyoga.”
At the conference, Gary told me about a program with Desikachar scheduled for that summer at Colgate University. That August of 1988 was when I first met Desikachar and became his student, although in reality he became my teacher the minute Larry quoted him saying: “it’s all in the breath.”
Three decades later, I am proud and humbled to be part of this amazing teaching community – each of us teaching in our own way – with a common core of inspiration: T.K.V. Desikachar and his father, T. Krishnamacharya. If we are lucky to live long enough, we get to thank the people who have been important to us. As I said onstage at the Summit, I am so very grateful to have this chance to publicly thank Larry and Gary for introducing me to these teachings.
For the first post-studio-closing event sponsored by The Breathing Project, we are joining forces with BreatheFreeNow to present a free workshop in New York City on Saturday October 7. Below, you will find the description of the event. Come join us, and please forward this information to anyone who is interested in learning how to have healthier breathing.
People suffering from chronic conditions and debilitating ailments such as asthma, COPD and advanced restrictive lung disease can serve as inspiration: they remind us that there is nothing more fundamental than the breath.
In times of stress, even those with healthy lung function are prone to breath restriction. When this occurs, we can benefit from learning ways to find our way “home” to our natural breath. Simple techniques that link breath with healthy movement can help us become more grounded – more free – in ways that reveal our inherent connection to the universal fabric that sustains us, and each other.
We can all benefit from guidance on how to better align ourselves with our breath. This event is an opportunity to practice breathing with greater awareness, clarity and strength.
BreatheFreeNow and The Breathing Project are pleased to present a FREE breathing workshop led by internationally recognized breathing and movement educator, Leslie Kaminoff from 3-5pm on Saturday October 7, 2017. It will take place at HUB Seventeen, beneath the lululemon store on 114 5th Avenue (at 17th Street), New York, NY 10011.
WHAT TO EXPECT
We will explore fundamental breathing techniques, led by Leslie Kaminoff, with an emphasis on linking breath to simple movements, revealing individual breathing patterns and finding ways to free ourselves from habits that may not be serving us.
Attendees will learn key concepts about the anatomy of respiration, deepen awareness of their breath, and practice simple exercises they can continue practicing on their own.
The workshop will be accessible and adaptable for all experience levels.
Participants must be able to breathe unassisted, comfortable with basic physical movements, and be able to sit and stand independently.
No special equipment is needed but please wear loose, comfortable attire.
Transitioning out of the The Breathing Project’s physical space in July has required lots of moving, reconfiguring, and recalibrating.
For the first time in over 30 years, all my possessions are in the same zip code (10025). It’s a bit of a tight fit in our living space as I’ve accumulated three sets of almost everything: office supplies, clothing, bodywork equipment, books. Previously split between office, city home and country home, all my stuff has – quite literally – come home to roost. Much winnowing is required…it’s a process.
At the same time, my newly freed-up schedule has more space for travel and teaching. For the first time in 14 years I will not have to be in New York City every Wednesday during the scholastic year to teach my Yoga Anatomy courses, so we have been able to schedule more lengthy international teaching tours. Following our annual visit to one of my favorite places, North Carolina’s beautiful Asheville Yoga Center (September 16-17), and the Chicago edition of the Yoga Therapy Summit (September 30-October 1), Lydia and I will be off to Europe (the first of two visits this fall) for a 3-week tour:
Looking ahead to 2018 I’ll be spending my 60th birthday about as far away from home as possible: we’ll be in the Southern Hemisphere in the midst of a month-long teaching tour across New Zealand and Australia. I’ll be sharing more details about that trip in a future post.
So, as the start of my seventh decade approaches, I will be doing my best to focus on the theme that emerged this last month: “more space — less stuff.”
OK, let me say right at the top that I did not choose the title of the podcast I did with the good folks at Curable Health. I cringe whenever the word “master” gets thrown at a human, most especially if that human happens to be me.
The best definition of “master” I’ve ever heard is: “A master is someone who is capable of creating another master.” This simple concept emphasizes the fact that mastery is a process that is never completed – that it involves passing knowledge freely from one generation to the next. In other words, the word master is an ever-evolving verb for what a teacher does, not a fixed noun for what or who a teacher is.
That aside, I am really quite pleased with how this interview came out. Through the well-informed questioning of Laura Seago, I got to tell some very personal stories, some of which regular readers of this blog will have heard in a different context. From her description of the interview:
“So what happened when he lost his breath for six months? When he lost control of his body? When he lost touch with his emotions? Join us as Leslie recounts his deeply personal journey to “mastery,” and shares what he’s learned about life, yoga, and the power of breath.”