Hacking DST*

Melted Metal Clock
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.

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The Most Important Aspect of Therapeutic Yoga

I am looking forward to an upcoming event in the Philadelphia area – a return visit with our friends at The Yoga Garden in Narberth on the weekend of November 4 & 5.

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.

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An early thanks-giving

1987 Yoga Journal Magazine featuring Gary Kraftsow
September/October 1987 issue of Yoga Journal Magazine featuring a Life-Styles piece by David Frawley on Gary Kraftsow

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.

2017 Yoga Therapy Summit, Chicago, IL (aka the Desikachar students’ old-timey reunion!)
Back row: Amy Wheeler, Gary Kraftsow, Kate Holcombe, Sonia Nelson, Chase Bossart, Laura Jane Mellencamp-Murphy, Clare Collins
Front row: Richard Miller, Leslie Kaminoff, JJ Gormley, Larry Payne, John Kepner
CREDIT: Lydia Mann
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Breathe Free: A Community Workshop Led by Leslie Kaminoff in New York City

Breathe Free October 7 / 3-5 PM / Flatiron District Unlock the power of breathwork to improve the quality of your life ​ Join us for a FREE Breathing WorkshopFor 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.

To learn more and register for the event, visit: https://www.breathefreenow.org/

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Spaces and Places

map of our upcoming travels

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:

  1. First week, we’ll be teaching at the Zen Center in Regensberg, Germany (October 14-15) for our new friend Tammy Bosler, who we met while teaching in Frankfurt in March.
  2. Next we’ll be returning to Madrid for our third time teaching for our good friends at Dhara Yoga (October 21-22).
  3. From there we are making our first visit to The Yoga Bank in Cheshire, England for a 4-day intensive (October 26-29).

We’ll be back stateside for a few weeks in November to rest up and a return visit to The Yoga Garden in Narberth, PA (November 4-5). For the first time in ages I will not be spending American Thanksgiving with my family: instead we will be returning to Europe to follow up last year’s sold-out workshops at Flow Yoga in Belfast (November 25-26) and CamYoga in Cambridge (December 1-4). Closing out the year, back in the US, we make our annual trek to Encinitas, CA and The Soul of Yoga (December 9-10). Phew!

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.”

I’ll let you know how it goes.

more space, less stuff!

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Podcast: “Even Yoga Masters Break Down Sometimes”

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.”

Have a listen to the podcast, and let me know what you think.  Also, check out the great app Curable has built for people suffering from chronic pain.  It’s based on the work of the recently deceased Dr. John Sarno, and I think it can help a lot of people.  For many years, I’ve been recommending Sarno’s books, but now, I have the option of sending them to Curable to have a more direct, interactive experience of his groundbreaking work.

Lastly, if you’re anywhere near these showings of the wonderful documentary “All the Rage: Saved by Sarno,” rush out and see it.  It opens in L.A. tomorrow (August 11, 2017).

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Some thoughts on my final immersion at The Breathing Project

As I begin to prepare for my last-ever summer immersion (and the final program of any kind) at The Breathing Project, I thought I’d share some of the questions we will be considering during the five-day course of study I’ve titled “Bandha: Untying and Uniting Body, Breath and Mind”:

Is there a simple definition of bandha that can serve as a foundation for a breath-centered approach to yoga practice?

Can bandha refer to our natural tendency to hold, constrict, channel, and otherwise modulate our breathng mechanism in response to stressors, or should the definition of bandha be limited to the intentional techniques of breath manipulation more commonly referred to in yoga practice?

Can the yogic model of the five koshas help us experience the action of bandha on more subtle dimensions of our being?

Should bandha be taught to beginning students?

What is the relationship between traditional descriptions of the static application of bandha wherein the body is unmoving and the breath is retained, and the modern context of bandha practiced while the body and breath are in motion?

The great thing about using questions as an entry point into a practice-based group inquiry is that we can benefit tremendously from learning to be comfortable with not arriving at final answers. In fact, along with all the insights we generate, we usually end up with more questions than when we started.  I’ve learned to offer a disclaimer to that effect at the beginning of every workshop I teach.

If I had to to pick one perspective that’s been changed the most by my  last 14 years at The Breathing Project, it would be just that;  a greatly increased tolerance for having my answers questioned.  Or, as Richard Feynman so succinctly put it:

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

There are still a few spaces left in the immersion. It runs Monday thru Friday, July 24–28. Here’s a link to the full description and registration page.  We have assembled a truly wonderful international group of students, and I’d love for you to join us.

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Honoring John E. Sarno, M.D.

I just returned from a screening of a new documentary about Dr. John E. Sarno called “All the Rage: Saved by Sarno” here in New York City. For more than 16 years, this film has been a labor of love for the filmmakers, Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley and David Beilinson.

As anyone who has heard me teach about the spine or come to see me for private sessions knows, I talk about the work of Dr. Sarno pretty much every time the subject of back pain comes up. I have even written about my own Sarno-realization experience of crippling back pain that finally abated after connecting with five years of pent-up rage over the sad state of my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar.

Over the course of 60+ years of medical practice Dr. Sarno’s perspective evolved as he sought lasting, reliable treatments for his patients with chronic pain. In the 1970s he arrived at the conviction that mind, body and emotions are inextricably linked and must be considered when it comes to understanding the true origins of the most common kinds of chronic pain. Those of us in the worlds of yoga or embodied movement may consider this a no-brainer, but the majority in the medical and psychiatric professions considered him an outcast and his views heretical. You can learn more facts of his life and practice on his wiki page, but the real story is in the thousands of lives he’s touched and saved from unnecessary suffering and surgeries.

Screengrab of Dr. Frances Sommer Anderson teaching to my online studentsAt today’s showing of “All the Rage,” I met the filmmakers and got to reconnect with an old friend Dr. Frances Sommer Anderson, a psychologist who worked with Dr. Sarno at the famed Rusk Institute for 34 years.  She is pictured here in a screenshot from a video of Dr. Anderson’s visit to The Breathing Project the week before Sarno’s retirement in 2012.  She was there to talk to my yoga anatomy students about the psyche/soma perspective on pain. That talk is part of my “Practices” course at yogaanatomy.net.

Poignantly, during the Q&A that followed the screening, one of the audience members who is a close family friend reported that Dr. Sarno, who would have turned 94 today (June 23, 2017), passed away yesterday.  This important documentary is a fitting tribute to this fine man who dedicated his life’s work to helping people live happier, healthier lives. I was pleased to be amidst a room full of his admirers when I learned this sad news.

Movie posterIf you are in New York I highly recommend you get to a showing of “All the Rage.” Considering reports I’ve received over the years from clients who had a life-altering experience just reading one of his books, this movie could help turn around the chronic suffering of someone you love. On the website for the film, you can learn how to sponsor a screening in your area.

If anyone has personal remembrances of working with Dr. Sarno, or has stories about help they may have received from any of his books, please feel free to post your comments below.

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Negative Feedback Can Be Positive (except when it’s just negative)

Leslie Kaminoff, hearing from a studentIt can be gut-wrenching to get critical feedback, but I’ve learned over the years that it’s a very important part of growing, both personally and professionally.

A number of years ago I started offering a survey to workshop participants. I tell them they can answer whenever they want because sometimes it takes a while to realize something I taught or said didn’t sit right or left confusion. The survey responses have provided invaluable insight into how I am actually communicating (sometimes not how I had intended). I know my workshops and teaching have improved as a result of the survey because over the last few years I’ve made changes in response to what had emerged as patterns of critique, at which point those remarks stopped coming in.

When I tell students about our survey and how much I appreciate their using it, I make sure to let them know that as much as I love hearing about their positive experiences what I need to hear are any critical comments they may have (as long as they’re polite!). My partner Lydia reads and replies to survey respondents and collects the comments. Whenever a pattern emerges and we see there is valid criticism, we sincerely take it to heart and use it to improve the quality of our programs.

As a teaching point, I then discuss what I see as an endemic problem with our profession as yoga educators — namely, a scarcity of critical feedback. There are two main reasons we are far more likely to hear praise for our teaching than criticism. The first is simply due to the fact that students who have a good experience return to our classes while the people who get hurt, annoyed or otherwise alienated by what we teach tend to leave and never come back. I’ve stopped being surprised when, in my bodywork practice, I hear that a client got injured in someone’s yoga class but has NOT told the teacher about their injury – they simply never returned – so that teacher had no opportunity to grow or improve.

The second reason we don’t hear critical feedback is that even regular students have a hard time telling us when something we say or do isn’t working for them. Let’s face it — we’ve all had issues with authority figures who’ve stood at the front of the rooms we’ve inhabited. As such figures ourselves, we yoga teachers are inevitably the recipients of many of those projections. No matter how much we may solicit feedback from our students, there is a natural reluctance to engage in a difficult conversation that could bring conflict to the cherished, peaceful haven of our yoga space.

As a result of this built-in issue, I find myself reminding my fellow educators, particularly those in attendance in my workshops, to be on guard against the danger of having an over-inflated sense of their safety and efficacy. Hopefully, we can create class environments that are safe enough for our students to have even difficult conversations with us.

That said, I know I can’t make everyone happy, and sometimes I receive a particularly scathing review from someone who clearly had a negative reaction to my personality. This is a great opportunity for me to become aware of my defensive reactions, take a breath or two, and gain some clarity.  Since this is a good example of my yoga showing up in real life (see #myActualYoga), I’m sharing a glimpse into this process below:

Dissatisfied student comment:
“Wow – very disappointing. Spending 3 hours on balancing on the 3 points of the foot was for me painful navel gazing. The rest of the weekend was much the same.” also: “It was so slow, I texted every person on my phone just to have something to do.”

My initial, gut level response:
WTF!?!?!?! What a disrespectful ass. If she was so bored she was texting in class, why didn’t she just leave and ask for her money back?

Eventually I was able to consider further:
“The rest of the weekend” for this student was not my full workshop – she only dropped in for the two mornings. My four-session workshops build organically on principles and topics, so this student had no context for what was being taught by the time she came back on Sunday morning when we were exploring the foot.

Bringing particular focus to the foundations of the foot helps address many common problems: knee pain, tight hips, lower-back pain. It is telling that for this one person the foot focus was “painful navel-gazing” while for another in attendance (a chronic pain sufferer), that same level of focus on her feet led her to report: “for the first time in four years, my knee pain has gone from an 8 to a 1.5!”  That student wrote back 10 days later to confirm she was still doing well. Even if I have to bore a full room of people to get one response like that, it would be worth it. As it turned out, the rest of the survey responses from that workshop were overwhelmingly positive.

More from that same dissatisfied student:
“Way too much sitting and listening to Mr. Kaminoff’s world view. Listening to all of his F Bombs was unprofessional and for all his self aggrandizement and self acclaimed educational attainment, one would think he could think of other more articulate adjectives.”

My initial reaction:
Fuck you.

After a few breaths:
Guilty as charged: I curse, which raises some eyebrows. I am an acknowledged atheist, which raises even more hackles. I am a forthright and direct communicator, which can be perceived as rude. I project a certain confidence in what I am teaching, which can easily be confused with self-aggrandizing arrogance.  I often say that I count on rubbing the right people the wrong way. Clearly, in this case I succeeded (and yes I get that some may consider that self-aggrandizing!).

That same student’s final comment:
“Pompous and offensive. I wish I could get my money and time back.”

My final response:
I can’t do anything about her time (at least she used it *productively* – texting everyone she knew while in my classroom!). I would gladly offer this student a refund but, since including name and e-mail on our survey is optional and this student chose to answer anonymously, I am stuck. Should this person choose to identify herself, I would be happy to send a check for a pro-rated refund. On two occasions during my 30-odd years of offering workshops I have received complaints about the cost of an event. In each case I asked the student what they felt it should have cost, and refunded the difference. 

 

Phew. It’s not easy to get critiques, but I know I am a better teacher – and human being – for being open to them. I thank my partner, Lydia Mann, whose background in communications and user-centric design encouraged me to develop our survey. I encourage all my fellow teachers to do something similar.

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An Appeal for The Babies Project

I’m sending this special message out to my networks to let you all know about a very special non-profit educational project that my good friends and colleagues, Amy Matthews and Sarah Barnaby have created: The Babies Project.

As many of you are aware, The Breathing Project is ending its educational programming at our Manhattan studio at the end of July 2017. What most of you don’t know is that we still have 2 more years on our commercial lease. If Amy and Sarah can successfully fund The Babies Project, we can accomplish the perfect transition for the use of our unique and beautiful space.

By working with yoga and movement educators and those who train them for the past 14 years, Amy and I feel that the exponential reach of our efforts has shifted the conversation about anatomy, movement and education.  The Babies project represents the next phase of facilitating positive change where it can do the most good — at the very beginning of a person’s life.

To quote Amy, “I am so passionate about this work – helping babies, helping caregivers – it feels like it helps heal everything.”

For years, Amy and Sarah have been offering classes at our studio for babies from newborn to walking and their caregivers, as well as adults of all ages interested in observing developmental movement patterns.  As an educational non-profit, The Babies Project will continue to offer these weekly drop-in Babies! sessions on a by-donation basis, as well as adding fee-based classes, workshops and private sessions. They will also add developmental movement classes for adults, and education for preparing and planning parents.

You can read more about the mission and vision of The Babies Project on their website and you can support them in any amount by going to their Indiegogo fund-raising page. It truly takes a village to raise a child (and educate a parent too), and with your help, the Babies Project can be one such highly innovative village right here in the heart of The Big Apple.

Please help contribute to this remarkable undertaking. Any amount will be greatly appreciated. I have personally donated, and will continue to support The Babies Project in every way I am able.

Thanks,

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