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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Coming home

As much as I enjoy being a professional traveler, I think I most love coming  home after a long trip. Lydia and I have learned to prepare our apartment prior to leaving, in anticipation of that comfort and joy – and also because the last thing we want to deal with when walking in the door is a mess. This means the refrigerator has been emptied of anything that might rot or sour, garbage cans are clear, laundry basket is ready for a new load, and surfaces cleared (as much as possible considering that Lydia is a working artist). I’ve been trying to teach my 17-year old about the joys of this kind of preparation, and it seems to finally be sinking it a bit.

Lydia painting in her studio (aka our living room)

Sharing a one-bedroom apartment with an artist and a full painting studio can make such organization challenging, but it’s worth it to return to a studio full of paintings left in various states of completion and maturity. It’s marvelous how quickly the studio resumes its joyful chaos as soon as Lydia starts up again. A lot of the paintings visible in the photo will be in her upcoming show in Truro, on Cape Cod.

After teaching annual workshops at a number of studios for the better part of a decade I also anticipate returning to these for the home-like atmosphere and the pleasure of relationships cultivated over the years. We got back from our highly successful Istanbul workshop on Monday afternoon and I managed to stay awake long enough to play basketball that evening. In spite of my body clock being set to 3AM, I managed to hit a couple of game winners but should have probably quit while I was ahead, as I was a liability in the last game. That night’s exhaustion helped me return to New York time as quickly as possible, which was good since I scheduled an airport pickup for my teenager plus 6 client sessions the next day.

Today we head back to Austin, TX to teach at YogaYoga Westgate for Rich Goldstein, Laura Forsyth and Lori Johnson. There will be meals at favorite – and new – restaurants, and catching up on kids/parents/romances and professional development. How lucky I am to get to *come home* to so many places and people!

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Istanbul!

There’s such political turmoil in the world, and I admit I was a bit concerned about a trip to Istanbul, but now that we’ve arrived I’m thrilled. Later this week I’ll be teaching for Cihangir Yoga but for the next few days Lydia and I will be touring the city and enjoying this gorgeous view.

View of Topkapi Palace over the Bosphorus at dusk, shot from the Karaköy neighborhood

There are always challenges (see my Instagram of a mob waiting to go through John F. Kennedy Airport’s TSA last night) to the troubling state of our current government, but for now we’re loving this full moon rising over the Bosphorus.

Full moon rising over the Bosphorus

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Prequels to Beyond Anatomy: A Somatic Symposium, coming this weekend

We’re in the final preparations for this weekend’s Beyond Anatomy: A Somatic Symposium at my New York City studio, The Breathing Project, and I’ve realized I neglected to post links to three wonderful podcast interviews by Brooke Thomas of Liberated Body and an interview with Brette Popper on YogaCity NYC! Better late than never, here they are:

Pete Blackaby: “Whether we open fully to the world or shrink back from it will be dictated by the kind of world we have met, and the support, or lack of it, we feel we have had.”
Leslie Kaminoff: “Healing is different than curing or fixing.”
Amy Matthews: “The movement experience and the psychological experience are completely tied together. They are the same thing. They are indistinguishable.”
An interview by Brette Popper of YogaCityNYC with Leslie, Amy and Pete about the what’s and the why’s of Beyond Anatomy.

There are a few spaces left, Saturday and Sunday, April 1 and 2 from 9:00am-5:00pm. Register NOW to reserve your space!

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Meet the “Beyond Anatomy” presenters: Pete Blackaby, Amy Matthews, Leslie Kaminoff, interviewed by Brooke Thomas

The wonderful Brooke Thomas, creator of The Liberated Body podcast, will moderate our upcoming Breathing Project symposium “Beyond Anatomy” in New York City April 1 & 2.

In this special episode which kicks off the fourth season of her podcast, Brooke asks Peter Blackaby, Amy Matthews and me what “Beyond Anatomy” means to us. I’m sure you’ll find our responses thought-provoking, and hope they’ll inspire you to join us at the Symposium.

We already have people coming from across the country, and even across the pond (Pete has lots of fans in his home country, Britain, and throughout the UK), so sign up while there’s still space. We look forward to seeing you there!

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3 Questions for Three Dog Yoga

Recently I was invited to teach by Anna McLawhorn at her Three Dog Yoga studio in Santa Rosa, CA. Anna had signed up for my online course, Principles, a couple of years ago but had just recommitted to both her own and her studio’s education, declaring “2017 our year of learning.”

When I was first developing my online courses I had hoped to be able to to foster student/teacher relationships well beyond my physical sphere so hearing from Anna and experiencing her enthusiasm for ongoing learning was an inspiration. Often we invite workshop hosts to interview me prior to visiting their studios but this time we turned the tables. I was eager to hear about Anna’s process and path so I posed some questions which I’ve used as seeds for this post.

Q: How did you learn about my teaching?

Anna McLawhorn, founder and chief joy instigator of three dog yoga

Anna: I received an advance copy of the book “The Science of Yoga” (William J. Broad’s 2012 book). Upon reading it, I wanted a second opinion so started Googling and found your video “rants” (see them here: one, two , three, and four). I’d been a huge fan of the book Yoga Anatomy, so I was delighted that these led me to all your teaching videos. I signed up for the Monday email list and your online Principles course a bit later.

Leslie: I remember so clearly that storm of passionate debate William Broad’s article unleashed in the yoga/web/social media atmosphere 5 years ago, at the beginning of 2012.  Not only was I motivated to produce those video “rants” I went to the trouble of composing my Amazon review of his book in advance, so I could post it at 3:00am East Coast time, when the book officially went on sale!

Q: What made you reach out to bring me to your studio?

Anna: I’ve been exploring the concepts presented in Principles and in the various YouTube/email videos in classes, workshops and trainings for almost a year. Our students and teachers responded with enthusiasm and curiosity. In the wake of the 2016 election, there was a feeling of despair about where our country and the world at-large is heading. One thing that occurred to me is how powerful learning is for the human psyche. When we are learning, we are expanding. So, I declared 2017 our year of learning. Starting with anatomy only makes sense: the more one learns about the body, the more we understand ourselves…and each other, our connection and our uniqueness.

Leslie: I agree wholeheartedly. Early on we saw the potential of online learning for the yoga community, not as a replacement for direct human contact, but as a way of connecting with people to whom I would otherwise not have access.  To transform my virtual presence into an actual physical visit is really terrific.

Regarding the 2016 election, it’s clear that every generation shares a handful of singular, historic, transformative moments that are forever etched into our psyches. I can recall and re-tell every detail about where I was and what I was doing when the Kennedys and MLK were killed, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, when the twin towers came down on 9/11 — and, on the night of 11/9 when the outcome of the 2016 election became clear.

That night, I recall thinking how many of my fellow yoga educators would be faced with rooms full of sleep-deprived, emotionally frazzled students seeking solace from teachers who were pretty much in the same boat. That’s when I posted to following to social media:

Our government does not own this country, or your life. Regardless of which gang is in power at any given moment, never forget that.

All yoga educators: stress reduction is now the world’s #1 growth industry. Let’s do what we do best – stay centered and offer safe havens.

That is also why, on that Wednesday afternoon’s class at The Breathing Project, I felt moved to put this slide up on the wall as my students entered the room.

Q: What has your experience with the online course been so far?

Anna: I’m addicted. It’s the only TV I watch. It’s usually hard for me to find 2 hours in the day for anything, but not for these sessions. I learn things I’ve always wondered about; I question and reorganize and open up dialogues about things I’d held as “fact”…this may sound weird, but I love the homework. At one point I was having trouble with a concept. I looked at the homework questions, then decided to sit with them/sleep on them. I woke up the next morning and everything had fallen into place. If I hadn’t needed to complete the homework, I may not have actually processed the lesson.

Leslie: That’s really good to hear. I always hated homework (to be honest, I mostly just hated school on principle), so asking my students to do homework didn’t come naturally to me. We’ve worked hard over the years to improve the quality of the homework questions, and to offer the best support possible to our online students.

Q: You described your community as “…wonderfully nerdy when it comes to all kinds of learning…” – this is very appealing to me, but can you provide an example?

Anna: Though we teach vinyasa yoga/power vinyasa, the classes that our students enjoy most are the ones where we get deep into a concept, where we explore different ways of approaching posture. They enjoy “stop action” sessions where we break down a pose in order to make it more effective in individual bodies. They ask good questions…and they LOVE it when the skeleton comes in for workshops!

Leslie: This sounds exactly like my kind of crowd! I can’t wait to meet you and everyone there. I’m certain we’ll have a lot of fun learning together.

So, if any of you reading can make it to Northern California over the weekend of March 11-12, please join us at Three Dog Yoga in Santa Rosa, CA.

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First Workshops of 2017

After a brief teaching lull for the holidays, my 2017 schedule is getting off to a running start with four upcoming workshops — all at new locations — three of them driving distance from New York City.

First up, I’m teaching a one-day immersion at YogaSpace in Bethel, CT on Sunday, Jan. 29.  This event is already sold out, but there are two other local events coming up soon on Long Island and Westchester.

The weekend of Feb. 4 & 5 at Yoga Nanda in Long Beach, NY will cover some of my most popular topics, including an intro to breath-centered yoga and bandhas,  practice and theory of backbending and twisting poses, plus a deep dive into foot anatomy and healthy walking habits.

On Sunday, Feb. 19, I will lead a brand-new program designed specially for my good friend Patty Holmes at The Yoga Garden in White Plains, NY. Inspired by Patty’s role as clinic coordinator at The Breathing Project, I will teach a therapeutically oriented day of “Breath-Centered Asana and Vinyasa — Individualized Adaptation and Modification.”

We are also excited for our first visit to Louisville, KY on Feb. 11 & 12 at Bend and Zen Hot Yoga. A full weekend program features explorations of breath, spine, bones, muscles and alignment. We also have some schmooze time scheduled for Saturday evening’s wine and cheese meet-and-greet book signing.

So, come on out for one of these great events! I look forward to meeting you in person.

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Yoga and the Respiratory System at Soul of Yoga

check out my workshop at Soul of YogaIn anticipation of my upcoming “Yoga and the Respiratory System” workshop at Soul of Yoga’s therapeutic training in Encinitas, CA, I’m posting a snippet of an article I’ve been working on to discourage people from feeling they must always get the deepest possible breath. This is a preview of one of the topics I’ll be covering in an information-packed two days of learning and exploration at Soul of Yoga. Other topics will include:

  • How breathing occurs on every level – from cells to systems and beyond
  • The basics of breath physiology
  • The structure and function of the diaphragm
  • The key structures involved in breathing
  • How breath coordinates with and supports movement
  • The physiology of meditative states
  • Western and yogic models of anatomy and physiology
  • The physical correlates of the koshas, chakras, nadis and kundalini

If you can get to Southern California (and who doesn’t want to spend time there in December!), come join me Friday and Saturday, December 9 & 10.


The working title of the article is “Breathing Myths vs Breathing Reality.” This excerpt addresses maximal oxygenation, an often misunderstood concept related to oxygen, carbon dioxide, hyperventilation, and metabolic loads.

To read many yoga and breathing books, one could get the impression that deep breathing and maximal oxygenation are the holy grails of health, well-being and enlightenment. The assumption is that the more deeply you breathe, the more oxygen you will get in, the more carbon dioxide you will get rid of and the healthier you’ll be. The facts are:

  1. not enough carbon dioxide is dangerous,
  2. deep (maximal) breathing is only occasionally appropriate, and
  3. too much oxygen is toxic.

Breathing activity should always be linked to your body’s metabolic needs. If your level of activity requires a larger than usual supply of oxygen, deeper or more frequent breathing is perfectly appropriate. That same level of respiratory activity, if applied to a resting state, would produce blood alkalosis (hyperventilation).

Your body has homeostatic mechanisms that prevent a toxic excess of oxygen from building up in the tissues. The idea that one can improve health by increasing O2 concentrations in the blood is physiologically incorrect, and shouldn’t be confused with the immense relief that accompanies a deeply satisfying breath. In fact, freeing the breath allows respiratory activity to more closely match body metabolism by releasing excessive, oxygen-hungry tension from the breathing musculature.

Your body is many times more sensitive to changes in blood levels of carbon dioxide than it is to oxygen. Carbon dioxide plays a critical role in helping hemoglobin transport oxygen from your blood to your body’s tissues. If you don’t have enough CO2 in your blood, the O2 gets held too tightly by the hemoglobin, and not enough oxygen will be released into your tissues. The idea that one can improve health by ridding oneself of excess CO2 is physiologically incorrect, and shouldn’t be confused with the simple act of exhaling more effectively (which is a prerequisite for filling your lungs).

This is why I have gotten out of the habit of using the phrase “take a deep breath” when teaching yoga. Instead, I try to say things like, “take a relaxed breath” or “let your body fill with breath.” These are ways I seek to help students trust that their body knows what it is doing, and the best breathing happens when we get out of its way.

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