Teachers and Students: Rule Making, Rule Breaking


Back in February, reporters for the Daily News and NY Post either accessed court records or received a press release pertaining to a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Jivamukti Yoga teacher against a senior teacher. The complaint contained enough details of intimate encounters between these two teachers to make for the kind of tawdry click-bait tabloid reporters lust after.

The complainant’s attorney apparently made his client available for a photo shoot in his office, as he prepared to try his case in the court of public opinion.

I read the initial news stories and formed my own opinions based on nearly four decades in this field, my personal history of student-teacher-guru dynamics, as well as my inside knowledge of many of the guru-teacher scandals of the past.  I kept my opinions mostly to myself until I was contacted by Michelle Goldberg who asked to interview me for a piece she was writing for Slate that would focus on the “cultish” environment at Jivamukti.  Michelle and I had a maintained a friendly connection since I had invited her to present an evening talk last June at The Breathing Project discussing her just-released book about Indra Devi “The Goddess Pose” so I agreed to the interview.

Over the course of about an hour, Michelle and I discussed many things, including my history teaching at Jivamukti in the early days (1992-1994) at their Second Avenue studio. I named a few other people I thought she should talk to who had more intimate knowledge of the current atmosphere at Jivamukti, but it never occurred to me to ask whether anyone had agreed to be quoted on the record.  Apparently, I was the only one.  To be fair, had I been offered the option of being quoted anonymously I would have declined because in my opinion anonymous online commentary is cowardly.  Though I was quoted accurately in the final article there was far more that wasn’t quoted.

I enjoyed reading the Slate piece. I like Michelle’s writing style and she treated me fairly as far as she quoted me. Predictably, she chose the most controversial things I said for her article. I have no problem with that – she was doing her job, and doing it well.  I even called to leave Michelle a congratulatory message the day the article came out.  I thanked her for quoting me accurately and helping me sound critical without trashing anyone personally.  As it turned out, not everyone agreed and some people felt very personally trashed by what I said. They wasted no time condemning me as an insensitive, brutish “victim-blamer.”

The most notable criticism came via Matthew Remski who interviewed the complaining teacher and her lawyer, as well as Sharon Gannon and David Life.  Matthew gave me a chance to respond to their points of view (which I did), and to retract any of my quotes (which I did not). Matthew did include small excerpts of my lengthy reply in his blog post on the topic.

This past Wednesday, I decided to deliver a heartfelt talk on this topic for my monthly members event at The Breathing Project.  We made a video recording and have edited the 90-minute talk down to about a half-hour – which is still pretty long, but if you stick with it, I can guarantee it will at the least provide food for thought. If you have limited time, skip ahead to the 25-minute mark to hear how rules, ethical guidelines, vows and boundaries can actually provoke transgression.

I may have more to say on this topic in the future, but for now, this was the most efficient way to get a response out there.

As always, feel free to leave a comment.

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Who Owns Yoga?

Patent Gurus
illustration by Lydia Mann

 Who owns Yoga?

The Debate

With bragging rights to what has become a multi-billion dollar industry at stake, the debate over who authentically “owns” yoga has never been more hotly contested. In presenting my contribution to this dispute, it is not my intent to ignore or disrespect the many centuries of deeply nuanced inquiry concerning the origins, definition or practice of Yoga — that is not my focus here. Instead, I propose a single question that would inextricably link Yoga’s definition to what I consider to be its true origin.  And, the question is:

“Was Yoga invented, or discovered?”

If Yoga was invented, that means it didn’t exist on this planet prior to its development by ancient sages. Since those sages were Indian, their heirs could argue a claim to its authentic precepts, traditions and techniques — perhaps even rightful use of the word “Yoga” itself.

Many scholars, teachers and pundits assert this claim every time they cry out in the digital town square: “Yoga belongs to the Indian Vedic tradition!” This claim, of course, entitles them to proclaim everyone else to be stealing, corrupting, misinterpreting, misrepresenting, distorting, illicitly profiting from, or otherwise violating their sacred tradition.

I view this perspective to be fundamentally in error because Yoga was, in fact, discovered. I assert that Yoga could no more be invented or owned than electricity, gravity or respiration.

What the ancient sages discovered was: Yoga is an eternal, inherent attribute of nature that reveals itself as the tendency of living systems to seek equilibrium. The philosophy of Yoga seeks to understand that fundamental equilibrium, while its practice is the art of identifying and resolving any obstructions to this completely natural state.

Yoga, like gravity or electricity, is a force of nature which undeniably existed before we humans started recognizing or utilizing it for our betterment. My view has ample support in many traditional teachings, which I do not deny were codified by intrepid seekers dwelling on the ancient Indian subcontinent, and we should be forever grateful to and deeply respectful towards those pioneers who first delivered us Yoga’s potential.  But, to limit Yoga’s definition, application or availability based on the geographical location of its discoverers would be as ludicrous as the British claiming perpetual patent rights to gravity because Sir Isaac Newton happened to have been born in Lincolnshire.

Indian Givers

The “Vedic traditionalist” argument that Yoga has been misappropriated falls apart pretty quickly when viewed in the light of recent historical fact. The teachings of Yoga weren’t stolen from India by avaricious foreigners, they were given to the world by generous Indian masters.

My first Yoga teacher was Swami Vishnu Devananda — from Kerala by way of Rishikesh — whose guru Sivananda dispatched him from the ashram with specific instructions to spread Yoga to the entire world, which he did in his own charismatic, idiosyncratic, magnificent fashion.  My core teaching lineage is that of T. Krishnamacharya — no slouch when it came to Vedic scholarship — who declared Yoga to be India’s greatest gift to the world. Never having crossed the sea himself, Krishnamacharya – that most traditional of Vedic Brahmins – nevertheless lived to see that gift permeate every corner of the globe as his students unreservedly shared his highly adaptable teachings with anyone willing to simply show up, be still and try.

It’s important to note that upon exiting his teacher’s Tibetan cave 90 years ago, Krishnamacharya’s payment to his guru in exchange for the teachings was a promise to complete a life-long, arduous task: he was charged with becoming a householder, raising a family, and sharing what he had learned. For a high-born, deeply religious Brahmin scholar like himself, this was no small promise — in fact, it was the biggest promise he could possibly have made.  The India of 1925 had long rejected her own gift, and Yogis were held by most of society in the lowest esteem possible, associated with street beggars, fakirs, criminals and frauds.  The tireless work of Krishnamacharya and his contemporaries resurrected, in decades, what it took India centuries to discard.

The worldwide renaissance of Yoga could never have happened if those relentless, magnanimous, Indian masters had limited their teachings to the rarefied strata of the upper castes — the same Vedic banner-wavers who are now crowing so loudly about how misguided, unschooled thieves have absconded with their precious heritage.

Yoga, if it’s nothing else, is a living, breathing, adaptable lineage of learning — open to all.  It both transforms and is transformed by its practitioners. It belongs to everyone because it is part of how everyone’s living system operates. It would be the height of narrow-minded folly to think you can collect patent royalties on something that wasn’t invented in the first place. You don’t own Yoga. You can only own your Yoga.

Should you feel the need to admonish someone for not practicing or teaching a “true” Yoga, I urge you to reflect on your attitude and let it go — by offering it into the flame of Yoga — swaha. Why waste your energy obsessing about how anyone else — past or present — has chosen to interpret Yoga? It is quite literally none of your business. The dividend of this offering will be an enormous energy savings that can be re-invested into a far more profitable enterprise — uncovering your own true Yoga in the only place it’s ever been, within yourself.

……

The fire is hot, the water cold,
refreshing cool the breeze of morn;
By whom came this variety?
from their own nature was it born..

Brahmins have established their
splendid rituals for the dead;
but there are no souls in other worlds —
it’s just their means of livelihood. *

……

Leslie Kaminoff
Truro, MA
July 22, 2015
……

* Freely adapted and condensed from Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha by Madhava Acharya, translation by E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough

……
Note to commenters:

If you wish to offer feedback of any kind, please click here to get to the comments section of this post. Comments sent via e-mail will not be read.

If you wish to express a counterpoint, please note that a pull quote and a hyperlink do not constitute an argument of any kind, much less a convincing rebuttal. With the exception of the cited poetry, what you have just read is 100% original — it was typed straight from my brain through my fingers. I sincerely request that any commenters offering dissenting views respect the spirit of my efforts, and do the same.

If, however, you totally agree with me, feel free to post anything you want.  😉

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How to build a foundation – while building a foundation.

construction-yogaThese images were forwarded to me this morning by Ti Mahoney Blair, one of our fabulous homework coaches at yogaanatomy.net.

Ti’s message:  “I could not help but share my glee when I saw these guys this morning. I missed the sun salutes while I was running for my camera. But you get the idea….:)”

The visual pretty much speaks for itself, and I’m sure most fans of asana practice will have the same warm fuzzy reaction as us.

I’m guessing the guy on the left standing by the pallet loader (and using it to stabilize his dancer’s pose) is the “teacher.”

I would have loved to see them utilize some more of their native yoga props – I’m sure there must be some awesome bricks and sandbags lying around.  Maybe a hardhat headstand…?

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A simple question with a complex answer

A student in my online Yoga Anatomy Course asked a simple question in reference to a lesson about the muscular action of the diaphragm. My response is a good example of how studying basic kinesiology can help us understand that muscle relationships  are always contextual and complex.

The question was: “The fibers of the diaphragm are oriented vertically,  do the fibers contract on the inhale or the exhale?”

Here’s my answer:

Well, the simple answer is “on the inhale.”

Problem is, there’s no such thing as “the” inhale. Every inhale (and exhale for that matter) places a unique demand on the body’s musculature – depending on what movement we’re doing, what position we are in relative to gravity, and what our intentions are (among many other factors).

Mechanically, inhaling is the act of increasing  volume in the thoracic cavity through muscular action.  The key muscle involved in that action is the diaphragm, and a concentric action shortens the distance between its lower and upper attachments, thereby increasing all three dimensions of thoracic volume.

But, the diaphragm can also be actively contracting during an exhale when an eccentric action allows its attachments to move away from each other in a controlled way (think of doing a very slow curling sit-up as you exhale).

Even more confusing is the fact that the diaphragm can be relaxed and relatively passive during both inhaling and exhaling – as in Kapalabhati.

These are just the basics of how complex an answer to that question could be.

So, for now, let’s just go with “on the inhale.”

This is the kind of fun stuff we get to geek out about in my anatomy courses.

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My teacher is gone…the sequel

TKV Desikachar
TKV Desikachar

As promised, here’s some more context to the situation surrounding last week’s post about Desikachar’s dementia, and the aftermath.

First of all, as I stated in the article, the primary reason I decided to go public was pure-self interest.  What no one could have known (except my partner and editor Lydia Mann),  was that as soon as I completed writing the piece, a full-blown, on-my-knees-to-get-out-of-bed, can’t-stand-up-straight, ice-pick-to-the-back-of-my-pelvis back spasm straight out of Dr. Sarno’s book…disappeared without a trace. Damned if Sarno wasn’t right when he claimed that suppressed rage can lay you low with pain – and last week I had 5 years of it being triggered by the news of Iyengar’s imminent demise.

I guess I was also extra mad that Iyengar’s students had a chance to mourn him and his accomplishments, and I was still in this limbo state of hidden grief since 2009 with no end in sight.

So, I’m very happy that so many people from around the world and within our tradition have thanked me for saying what I said…but I really didn’t do it for them – or anyone else. As I said in the piece:

“It’s been unhealthy for me to carry this silent burden of loss and anger for so long. I share this in the hope of a healing that will keep the beauty of Desikachar’s teachings from being tinged with pain every time I mention his name.”

So far, my lower back agrees that we’re on the right track. And, last weekend, back at my original Yoga home – the Sivananda Ashram, I taught a workshop and spoke of my teacher with nothing but love for him and the teachings.

Secondly, what’s also been very interesting and moving is how many folks out there are dealing with the dementia of a loved one – either now or in the recent past. I guess I shouldn’t find it surprising, but it really wasn’t in the front of my mind when I wrote the piece.

So, I seem to have tapped into a deep well of common grief – not just for Desikachar – but all of those we have lost, or are in the process of losing.  If you have your own story to tell, or anything else you’d like to contribute to the conversation, please feel free to leave a reply below.  I will read everything and respond when appropriate.

Thanks,
Leslie

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A return to being an anatomy student

What a privilege it’s been to spend this week back in the anatomy lab with the singular Gil Hedley and 35 outstanding, talented, accomplished fellow Somanauts.

Lydia and I came in on the third and final week of Gil’s unprecedented marathon teaching event during which he is recording on video and photographing never-before seen dissective technique and perspective for his upcoming “Atlas of Integral Anatomy.”

I always learn an enormous amount while spending time with Gil and the amazing people who show up in his lab.  This is my sixth time since 1997, but several participants and assistants have done far more than I.

Yesterday I had to leave early to teach my Yoga Anatomy course at The Breathing Project. Switching from student to teacher mode proved to be very energizing for me and I was jazzed to teach my own material in a way I haven’t been for quite a while.

Thank you, Gil.  And thank you especially to the essential generosity of the 8 donors whose forms grace our tables in the lab.  Please consider donating your body to science. I can tell you from personal experience as a student honored with access to such generosity, it’s a profound gift to your fellow man.

NJ Somanauts

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I love Austin. Y’all.

Leslie loves teaching Yoga Yoga students!

This is the fourth year I’ve taught for Yoga Yoga in Austin as part of the great teacher training program run by Lori Johnson. She and director of special events, Laura Forsyth, have made sure I’ve been getting socialized around town each year and now I realize I just love this place. It helps that it’s 70 degrees when it’s below freezing in NYC, and it helps that there is great barbeque all over town, every meal has been delicious and reasonably priced and tequila is a beverage of choice.

I also love the studio. Yoga Yoga has a bunch of locations and I get to teach in this big, beautiful room at their Westgate venue (high ceilings mean I can throw my teaching toys all the way to the back of the room) and light from two walls of windows reminds me of my home studio, The Breathing Project. The room is full of experienced teachers and those in training asking pointed questions.

Teaching teachers is so satisfying. Here’s a taste of what we’re covering today: Bandhas and ujjayi is over-taught. From the first moment you ask someone to coordinate their breath with a long, slow movement, they’ve already started to use ujjayi. Bandha is just not that complicated.

Next…

I hope to meet more of you on the road. Next up, Sadie Nardini and me at Maya Tulum.

[portfolio_slideshow id=1720 exclude=”1727,1723″]

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Tired of the cold? Me too!

ugh NYC in the snow - it ain't pretty

I’m so ready for Tulum.

Here’s the deal: My good friend Sadie Nardini and I will be teaching together for a whole week. There will be classes with each of us catering to all levels and interests, plus the chance to explore the Mayan world of unspoiled beaches, peaceful lagoons and ancient pyramids. (No, I didn’t write that copy but it makes me drool.)

Pricing (see accommodations page) includes your cabana, meals, yoga program and the unlimited ocean at your doorstep. Like this…

glorious white sand beach at Maya Tulum

I hope you’ll join me. Questions? contact Laura Forsyth who knows everything and will also be there.

MT1

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HEY! my Tulum retreat early registration deadline has been extended

Early registration extended! Register by Dec. 7 for $200 off.

April 5-12, 2014 I’ll be teaching along with Sadie Nardini during a weeklong all-inclusive (lodging, meals, yoga and staff tips) retreat at the beautiful Maya Tulum.

Join us for daily yoga, world class spa treatments, excursions (explore the Mayan Ruins, the Bio Reserve or snorkel in the cenotes) and Temezcal (traditional Mayan Sweat Lodge).

The early registration deadline has been extended (it had been December 1 but because it fell on a holiday weekend, we’re honoring the early registration prices for another week) so get in by December 7th and you’ll still get $200 off.

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Fall tour recap, part 2: why I love interaction with students

I traveled a lot this fall: Utah; South Dakota; Boston; Asheville and Charlotte, NC; Vancouver, BC, Toronto, ONT; as well as teaching some local workshops. It’s been great, but I can’t say I’m sorry for a little downtime.

Boston's Back Bay Yoga teacher trainees
Boston’s Back Bay Yoga teacher trainees, October 2013

Right now I’m in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving holiday celebrations and recalling the great group I worked with during a 25 hour teacher training at Back Bay Yoga in Boston.

At this workshop someone asked me how long I thought Yoga has been in the world – which gave me the opportunity to consolidate some thoughts I’ve had about Yoga and its place in human society. I don’t think anyone could know exactly when Yoga started, but I am pretty sure when it couldn’t have been happening: before our forebears had the use of fire, around 400,000 years ago.

Yogic pursuits probably started with people sitting around a fire. Which meant they weren’t spending all their waking hours and energy chasing food, or being chased as food. Fire permitted our ancestors to fend off predators and put down roots. It helped allowed us to have homes, as opposed to being hunter-gatherers.

Considering the enormous power that fire imparted to mankind, it’s understandable that it was worshiped as a divine force – both externally and internally. It’s no coincidence that the Rg Veda begins with an invocation to Agni.

This is why I love the interaction with students in workshops – you never know what someone will ask, and I never know how I’ll answer until the moment arises.

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