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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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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“Who knows?…It may do something good.”

My upcoming weekend workshop at Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio will focus on the healing potentials of Yoga. Whenever I teach this topic, I like to play a section of a 1996 documentary I helped produce in which my late teacher T.K.V. Desikachar talks about students who showed up at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram seeking help.  His simple words express very beautifully the essence of how yoga can help:

“The most important problem is suffering…but for some reason, the usual system of medical and health care is not able to understand the person who is suffering. They know a lot about the problem..but the relationship between this illness and the person is not so much emphasized. It’s not just illness, it’s what I call ‘the relationship to the illness’.  So, when the person goes to all these (medical) people, and still they are not better, they become desperate.

“We talk to these people. We say: ‘You have some resources which are not just medicine.  There’s something you have: you can still breathe…you can still talk…you  can sit and move. That means you still have the energy that can heal you. Let us direct and use this energy…who knows? It may do something good.’”

In my practice, this principle has evolved into a quick checklist for new students: “Are they breathing?  Are they able to focus their attention?  Can they move their body voluntarily?”  If the answers are even a little bit of yes, then they can practice yoga and reap immediate benefits. It is my contention that the most profound healing derived from yoga practice comes from the simplest things we teach, not the most complex.  The first, simplest thing that we ask people to do is also the most powerful: bringing the body and mind together through the medium of the breath.

I’ve provided a more extensive quote of Desikachar’s ideas about healing and the student-teacher relationship for Yoga on High’s blog, and the complete piece was a chapter in the book “Yoga Therapy and Integrative Medicine: Where Ancient Science Meets Modern Medicine” by Larry Payne Ph.D., Terra Gold M.A.LAc. and Eden Goldman D.C.

yoga-on-high-logoIf you’re available and can get to Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio October 21-23, please come join me as we explore some of the therapeutic applications of yoga.

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Hashtagging My Actual Yoga

I’ve been prepping my Portland workshops at yogaRIOT this weekend (there’s still room so come join me if you’re in the area!), which will conclude Sunday afternoon with “Better Backbends Through Breathing.” One of the slides in my presentation is a 1983 photo of me in Ustrasana (Camel Pose). It got me wondering what the 25-year-old version of my body would look like alongside my 58-year-old 2016 Camel Pose. So, I asked Lydia to take a photo of me on the mat in our living room so she could combine them in a single visual.

Seeing the resulting image got me thinking about all the old photos I have of me doing asana, and how they would compare to my present-day versions. I’ve also been thinking for a while about how difficult it is to visually depict how yoga practice shows up in off-the-mat situations, because so often, it’s a very internal process that does not make for a particularly interesting photo-op.

Uniting these two musings, I will henceforth supplement my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds with images tagged #MyActualYoga.  You are welcome to use the hashtag as well if you have interesting before/after asana images to share, or if you can find a visual way to represent how yoga shows up in your daily life.  You can see examples of both in this post.

Let’s put something different on Instagram yoga feeds! It may not be pretty, but it will be real.

Camel Pose 1983-2016Switching Hands

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We’re going to have a yogaRIOT in PDX!

kaminoff-600px-yogaRIOT-2016I’m thrilled to report on my upcoming weekend of teaching for Annie Ory and her team at a new Baptiste studio in Portland, OR, yogaRIOT, located on the second floor of an old Masonic Hall on SE Milwaukie Avenue.

HISTORICAL DIGRESSION (I promise this will come back around to yogaRIOT PDX): Yoga on the second floor of a beautiful Masonic hall reminds me of the Center for Yoga, which started life as the original site of the Sivananda Community in Los Angeles. It was established by my old friend Ganga White at a nearby book warehouse on Larchmont Ave.  When Ganga parted ways with Swami Vishnudevananda in the 70’s he re-named his space “The Center for Yoga,” and moved it to its present location, where it became not only the most beautiful yoga space in town, but a hotbed of teaching innovation – including early visits from B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and a precursor to Acro called “Double Yoga,” which Ganga pioneered with his then-partner Anna Forrest.  The Sivananda community relocated to Hollywood (McCadden Place), and then to West Hollywood (Sunset Blvd.), where I assumed directorship in 1981.

Following historical strands, Ganga White, Baron Baptiste and I (among many others) intersected 7 years later at the 4th Unity in Yoga Conference at Murrieta Hot Springs, CA. That 1988 conference was significant for me as it began my involvement with Unity in Yoga, the group that eventually turned into The Yoga Alliance, and was the year I first met my teacher Desikachar, and became his student.

Baron 2011In September 2011, 23 years later, I was present at the 16th Annual Yoga Journal Conference at Estes Park, CO during the Baptiste Power Flow Immersion where I became acquainted with some of the teachers and senior leaders of Baptiste Yoga, including the delightful Paige Elenson, founder of the Africa Yoga Project – which began a fruitful relationship with her program, donating my online course for use in her teacher training. Throughout the Estes conference, I was struck by how refreshingly grounded, sensible and straightforward the Baptiste crowd seemed.

Now, back to 2016 and yogaRIOT:

As much as I relish any opportunity to tell a story and share some history, the main point here is that the yogaRIOT space looks beautiful and welcoming and, if my previous experience with the Baptiste community is any indication, I anticipate finding the same in the community. Since Baron lists my teacher Desikachar as one of his influences, I am eager to explore common connections during this weekend exploration of breath-centered, individualized yoga asana practice August 27 & 28. I hope to see a bunch of you there!

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Back to the Future of Yoga

Yesterday, Kausthub Desikachar (my teacher’s son) published “The Future of Yoga – an Editorial.” Although I could provide counter-arguments to just about every assertion he makes about the sorry state of “modern yoga,” I will respond here to two specific points – one cultural, the other philosophical – based on a 1992 interview I conducted with his father while in Madras on an extended study visit. These points provide illustration of how far I believe Kausthub has strayed from his father’s perspective.

During that visit, Desikachar politely declined an invitation I had extended to be a keynote speaker at the upcoming 1993 Unity in Yoga conference where we would celebrate 100 years of Yoga in America. Instead, he offered a taped interview, during which I was accompanied by Paul Harvey, from England, and Adrianna Rocco, from Italy.  At the end of a wide-ranging conversation, Desikachar addressed the future of Yoga in America:

LESLIE: Let’s just say that through some magic, this microphone is hooked into the future, and it’s next year at our 100th anniversary of Yoga in America celebration. Is there anything that you would feel safe saying to this group of 500 Yoga teachers and students concerning the future of Yoga?

DESIKACHAR:  I always feel that the future of Yoga in America is safer in the hands of Americans. Perhaps much more so than in my hands, because I am a stranger to America.

Speaking in Madras, in my own culture, I cannot envision the future of the United States – it is very difficult. So these people who are concerned about the future…must know that this (India) is a different culture, different traditions. As an Indian, I may not be able to do justice to the future of America. My culture is different than America’s. Even when I know so much about the West, I am very much an Indian in my heart.

And then when we speak about the future of Yoga, we are talking about the future of Man. This is very important – we are not talking about the tradition of Yoga for the future, we are concerned about the future of Man…which is one word, but the man of Italy is different from the man of the United States, and definitely different from England!  (Adrianna and Paul laugh)

This is all I would say: “Let the future of American Yoga be in the hands of those Americans who are concerned about the future of Man!”

Kausthub is certainly entitled to his opinion about what he perceives as the wayward path that “modern yoga” has taken but – based on these quotes – I am pretty confident that sitting in Chennai editorializing about how Westerners choose to practice is clearly not something his father would have endorsed.

Philosophically, it appears Desikachar also had a very different perspective than his son as far as the definition and role of ego is concerned. In yesterday’s editorial Kausthub wrote:

“…Yoga practice today has thus sadly embraced a form of narcissism and focuses too much on the egoistic side of humanity. This is also a very dangerous path to tread, and also contrary to Yoga’s belief of diminishing the ego…”

From that same interview with Desikachar in 1992:

LESLIE: In your broad experience these last 20 or 30 years teaching both Western and Indian students one-on-one, have you found that the concept of surrendering the ego is helpful or harmful for people when they get the notion that surrendering is something that will bring them peace?

DESIKACHAR: Many people have tried it. It has not worked.  (laughter)  The problem, whether it is Indians or others, is because, “What is it that I am surrendering? I don’t even know what I am surrendering!”  This is not a very happy situation and I’m sorry if people are trying to surrender and then feel bad about it – you cannot really verbalize these phenomena because it is something much deeper.

This is why in India great teachers like my father have said the act of surrender is the last stage of a person’s life. It is called Prapatti…which is not possible for a young boy. One has to go through a lot of evolution – one has to suffer a lot – one has to experience life – one has to enjoy life, and then one has to build up devotion. Then, maybe at the end of the whole story, maybe surrendering is finally possible. So it’s a long project. It’s not a one-day project for that to be really an act of surrender.

LESLIE: Is it possible for you to clarify what is meant in Yoga by the term ego or the term that gets translated as ego, and what role it plays in the process and eventual goal of Yoga?

DESIKACHAR: Regarding these questions, my reference is Patanjali. I want to make this very clear because that is the text on Yoga. There are thousands of ancient texts on Yoga but the most important text, the most accepted text, the fundamental text on Yoga is Patanjali. So my response is now based on his teachings, the very practical teaching of Patanjali.

Now, because of the proximity between Patanjali’s speaking and what is known as Samkhya, which is another of our schools, somehow this word ego has entered the field of Yoga. As far as I understand even if I myself have said it, there is no word called ego in Yoga. The word ego itself does not appear in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Does it?

LESLIE: Are you referring to Ahamkara?

DESIKACHAR: There is no word Ahamkara in Yoga Sutras. You go from the first sutra to the 195th sutra – there is no Ahamkara in the whole Yoga Sutra. Some people have used that word, but it is not Patanjali’s fault.

LESLIE: Has Vyasa used that word in his commentary?

DESIKACHAR: Yes, that is what I mean – some people might have used it – I might have used it, but according to the authority (Patanjali) there is nothing…Patanjali is very intelligent about this. First, he never used the word ego. Second, he talks about mind only. Mind with good associations and mind with bad associations (asmita). One is desirable, one is not desirable. So in Yoga we don’t even have this problem.

LESLIE: So, Yoga would speak merely of a collection of associations between the mind and some objects, but not a distinct identity or entity in and of itself which can be isolated as an ego. Am I understanding correctly?

DESIKACHAR: I don’t think ego can be just taken out of my pocket and kept here – “This is my ego.” Because the word Ahamkara itself was defined by my father as “where something that is not me is considered as me.”

According to this, to understand ego I have to understand myself. I have to understand what is not myself. How many people have the good fortune to understand that? So without understanding that, how can I even take it out of my pocket and throw it anywhere?

So in Yoga we are not worried about this question. We are quite happy that we don’t have an ego problem. (laughter)

LESLIE: So if we were to make a radical statement here, could we say then that a useful way for people to practice Yoga would be for the purpose of creating a strong, integrated ego or identity?

DESIKACHAR: Without using the word ego, because I know very little about that.

LESLIE: Identity perhaps then.

DESIKACHAR: All I want to say is; “I must know something about myself before I know what I’m doing with myself.” That I would say.

Not only did Desikachar avoid employing Freudian terms such as “narcissistic” and “egoistic” in conversation about Yoga, he was explicitly on record that the fundamental Yoga teachings do not even contain the concept of “ego,” let alone prescriptions for “diminishing” it.

The above quotes from my 1992 interview with Desikachar have been edited for brevity and re-ordered for clarity. Click here to read the full, original transcript on my e-Sutra blog.

UPDATE: Not sure why I didn’t think to include this in the original post when discussing yogic concepts of ego, but Desikachar engaged in a remarkable dialogue with his long-time student Hellfried Krusche in a book recently translated from German to English: Freud and Yoga: Two Philosophies of Mind Compared.  HIGHLY recommended – as I say on its back cover: “This gem of a book is a must-read!”

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Live long enough, you become part of yoga’s institutional history

The past few weeks have been chock-full of interviews with all kinds of interesting people. My general takeaway after being called upon as a historian and rabblerouser is that, 37 years into this field, what I really am is a yoga-elder with an intact memory!

I met with an old friend and Berkshires neighbor Michael Lee, founder of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, as part of preparation for a keynote address he is delivering at the upcoming SYTAR conference in Reston, VA. We shared anecdotes and perspective of over 30 years working in the field of therapeutic yoga, and I was able to provide him archival photos to add to his slide show.

While in Laguna Niguel teaching a marvelously engaged group of students at You and the Mat, I met with Anna Dubrovsky as a follow-up to our article in Yoga International, “3 Reasons to Curb Corrections in Yoga Class.”  It was a wide-ranging and frank discussion, from politics to practice, that may lead to a follow-up piece for YI.

A day or two later, Julie Selby interviewed me on behalf of an ongoing Yoga Alliance project aimed at gathering perspectives about how to best serve the yoga teaching community. Some of you may know that I haven’t always been a supporter of the Alliance, but I continue to be impressed by the current board’s insight and direction. This was a very productive and frank discussion, none of which was off the record, and I’m counting on some of my ideas being delivered directly to YA’s leadership.

Scholar and historian Natalia M. Petrzela is researching the intersection of fitness and yoga culture, a topic about which my personal history provides a unique perspective. After two hours of intense discussion, we barely scratched the surface and both look forward to an open-ended follow-up in the next weeks.

I find it mind-boggling that the obscure, non-commercial activity I began teaching in 1979 has transformed into a genuine multibillion dollar industry, being written about by serious journalists, researched by powerful trade associations and studied by post-doctoral scholars.

Amazingly awesome indeed.

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