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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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.

LEslie's signature

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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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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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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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I’m Not a Yoga Therapist Anymore (Revised)

REVISED, as of February 26, 2016!  Since I wrote this piece in 2008, the issues I raised in this article have become a hot topic of discussion – especially since the Yoga Alliance published its new guidelines regarding the use of the word “therapy” or “therapist” in its members’ profiles.  As a resource, they have linked to this post. Since a lot more people will be reading this as a result, I find it necessary to clarify how my thinking has changed on some points I make at the end of this post. You will find that I’ve struck through the section in which I propose that the appropriate place for the training of yoga educators is in academia.  I no longer hold this view.  Admittedly, back in 2008, I was a bit starry-eyed about the thought of universities embracing the idea of creating departments of yoga that would encourage interdisciplinary exchange around the training of yoga educators.  Since then, I’ve taken a deep dive into the possibilities of online education, where there is total freedom to create innovative and flexible curricula that serve the specific needs of the ever-growing yoga community.  As a result, I’ve realized that – just as we should avoid the bureaucracy of government regulation – we should avoid the increasingly virulent political correctness running rampant on most university campuses.Additionally, I no longer feel the need to salute the work of IAYT for their “enlightened stewardship of our field.”  Quite to the contrary, they have badly dropped the ball by promoting a standard for the education of yoga therapists without formulating a policy about regulation, or advising their membership on the legal scope of practice for yoga therapists.  IAYT’s abdication of their responsibility to provide leadership of the rapidly growing field of yoga therapy has left The Yoga Alliance with the task of framing and clarifying the discussion on Yoga Therapy.So, I stand by every word in the following piece, except for what has been struck out.  As always, please feel free to leave a comment to let me know what you think.

Leslie

This piece appeared in the 2008 (Volume 18) issue of “The International Journal of Yoga Therapy.” It was written at the request of the editor of the Journal, and is based on many discussions I’ve had with my IAYT colleagues over the  years.

As I enter my 30th year as a Yoga teacher, and the 25th year of full-time employment doing Yoga-based work with individuals, I’ve just recently figured out something that I consider to be vitally important: I no longer wish to be known as a “Yoga Therapist.”

This bit of clarity is largely due to the opportunity I’ve had to bounce ideas off my colleagues at IAYT and attendees at SYTAR, so it seems fitting to share this perspective in the pages of this journal. The process of producing a written summary based on repeated discussions with teachers, students, and friends is very familiar to me. It’s what I did 10 years ago when I started the email newslist e-Sutra with the following post:

I have been personally engaged in countless discussions [about standards for Yoga teachers and therapists] for at least the past seven years. In those seven years, my fundamental views about certification standards have not changed, although my arguments supporting those views have become simpler and clearer with each new discussion…I will now present to you what I hope will be a clear and persuasive overview of my position…

When I first wrote that, the topic was the establishment of national certification standards for Yoga teachers, which culminated in the birth of the Yoga Alliance. IAYT’s recent ongoing dialogue about the scope of practice and definition of Yoga Therapy is an extension of this debate. In my view, the fundamentals underlying both issues are identical, and can be summed up by the following question: “How can we define our professional activities in a way that preserves our freedom to conduct our relationships with our students in a manner that honors the core principles of Yoga?”

To fully explain my answer to this question, a little personal history will be necessary. Back in 1993, when the certification dialogue was just starting, I was serving as vice-president of a non-profit group called Unity in Yoga, and I was the principal author of the following official position statement:

We enthusiastically support the ongoing dialogue addressing higher personal, professional, and ethical standards for Yoga teachers and therapists. We are in support of a process that results in the establishment of Yoga as a respected personal and academic pursuit, and any certification or accreditation that may result.
We are, however, opposed to the establishment of any entity that assumes the authority to license or regulate Yoga teachers as professional practitioners and to enforce its standards on the Yoga community.

Against my objections, Unity in Yoga’s executive board decided to release only the first two sentences─an action I saw as a critical error. Shortly thereafter, I resigned from Unity in Yoga. Four years later, I witnessed another group of Yoga teachers make a similar error in collective judgment just before I resigned from the ad hoc committee that turned into the Yoga Alliance when it acquired Unity in Yoga’s non-profit status.

The error is this: It is not enough to say that you are supporting and establishing high standards for Yoga teacher training and certification. That’s the easy, obvious part. You must also state clearly, consistently, and defensibly what you are not supporting, on ethical grounds. Yoga ethics are very clear on this point. The teaching concerning what we should avoid (yama) is presented before the teachings about what we should pursue (niyama). Furthermore, the very first injunction is ahimsâ, the avoidance of doing harm. In the context of professional standards, what exactly must we avoid harming? The process of teaching Yoga. What is the vehicle for this process? The student-teacher relationship.

Therefore, the professional “yama” I adhere to is “I avoid engaging in any action that will lead to third-party interference in the student-teacher relationship.” My “niyama” is “I support and protect through my actions the sanctity, integrity, and freedom of the student-teacher relationship.”

Those statements are the core of my ethical and practical values as a practitioner, and it would be impossible for me to overstate their importance in my life. They reflect fundamental principles that tell me which actions to avoid, and which to pursue. Without consciously identifying those principles and validating their truth through my life’s experience, I could easily become lost and confused. My actions could proceed from fear and ignorance, and I could end up doing harm to myself, my students, and my profession.

The value of my original 1993 statement on standards has been repeatedly confirmed for me, and I continue to vigorously stand by it, with one exception. In the first sentence, I used the phrase “Yoga teachers and therapists.” I now realize that this phrase is redundant, confusing, and potentially harmful.

As the title of this piece implies, I am stating for the record that I no longer wish to known as a Yoga therapist. I have come to the conclusion that my continued use of the term would misrepresent the nature of my work, both to the public and to myself, and would violate the professional ethics I’ve outlined above.

This does not in any way mean that I intend to stop doing my job. In fact, I will be able to work far more effectively, having identified my actual job title: “Yoga educator.” In retrospect, I realize that from the moment I taught my first group âsana class until the present day, I’ve always had the same job. I’ve just been doing it more effectively by learning how to better tailor the teachings to individual needs. I used to unquestioningly assume that my education in anatomy, biomechanics, bodywork, physical rehabilitation, and philosophy granted me the right to call myself a therapist. But, in fact, it just turned me into a highly-educated Yoga teacher.

By understanding that a “Yoga therapist” is nothing more than a very good Yoga teacher, I can eliminate the troublesome word “therapy” from my job description. I no longer need to define what I do beyond stating that I educate people about how their bodies and minds can be more fully integrated through the use of breath, posture, and movement. Even when I employ touch as part of that process, it is only for the purpose of educating, not fixing.

Why is the word “therapy” troublesome? Let’s start with the dictionary. Judge for yourself which definition is closest to what we do:

Therapy (from the Greek therapeutikos, to attend or treat): treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder; relating to the treatment of disease or disorders by remedial agents or methods…
Educate (from the Latin educere, to draw out): to train by formal instruction or supervised practice; to give intellectual, moral, and social instruction to someone; to provide information…

I submit that even the most highly skilled and experienced Yoga “Therapist” does not “treat disease…by remedial agents or methods.” This is the province of a medical system, whether it’s allopathic, naturopathic, or Ayurvedic. Yoga is not a medical system. Yoga is a set of principles that show us we are interconnected, multidimensional beings composed of body, breath, and mind. These teachings suggest strategies for identifying and reducing obstructions that can occur in any of these dimensions. When obstructions (klesha) are reduced, it is the human system itself that reestablishes a healthy balance. We simply show people how to make more space (sukha) in their bodies so prâna can flow more freely. It’s the body’s own resources that do the healing. In other words, the teacher doesn’t heal the student, the teachings do. This is my definition of Yoga therapy – it’s Yoga applied to the individual.

As Yoga educators, we must constantly remind ourselves of and preserve this essential truth by minding our yama and niyama.

We must not attempt to integrate ourselves into mainstream healthcare delivery by posing as a new therapeutic profession. Not only will this take us further from the truth of who we are, it will create destructive turf battles with established fields like physical therapy, massage therapy, dance therapy, and so on.

We must not seek third-party reimbursement (de facto regulation) for our services, which are very affordable compared to medical treatment. If we are concerned about under-served populations, we are free to charitably offer our skills to them. This will be vastly easier to do without health insurance bureaucrats dictating our rates while wasting our time filling out their paperwork.

Most importantly, we must not seek out or surrender to government control (licensing) over our precious and unique field. This would be a betrayal of our students, who have sought us out precisely because we are outside the mainstream. After all, Yoga is ultimately about freedom. How can we represent that freedom if we allow ourselves to be co-opted by an oppressive system?

How then do we reach all the patients and doctors within mainstream healthcare who desperately need our skills? My answer is that we already are.

All across the world, we Yoga educators are sharing our vital work in every area of healthcare delivery by virtue of what we do best: connecting with people. This sharing will only grow exponentially as more doctors, nurses, administrators, and business people become our students, transform their lives, and advocate on our behalf. If we continue to take a strong stand for our own freedom as educators, we can have nothing but a positive influence on everyone. This is especially true for those working and being treated within mainstream healthcare, whose freedoms have been severely eroded by the destructive aspects of a system that’s forgotten to honor above all else the practitioner-patient relationship.

Is some form of government regulation of our field inevitable? Perhaps we can’t avoid it forever, but consider this: would you rather be answerable to the authorities as a healthcare provider, or as an educator?

Lastly, committing ourselves to the educational/academic model reveals perhaps the most important area we should be pursuing: the institution of undergraduate and graduate Yoga training programs at the university level. There is no reason on earth why serious students shouldn’t be able to acquire bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate-level training in any and all aspects of Yoga. A university-based Yoga program would unite in an unprecedented way many existing departments: anatomy, kinesiology, physiology, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, religion, Sanskrit, to name just a handful. The majority of the necessary resources are already there. All that’s missing is a staff of experienced Yoga teachers to design and administer the Yoga training.

Think of what a valuable resource a full-blown Department of Yoga would be to a university! Students, teachers, and administrators in every department would benefit from the availability of ongoing, high-level, campus-based Yoga training. If we really want to be more accepted by doctors, there is no better way than to teach them Yoga while they’re still in medical school.

I guarantee that the first university with the vision to create a degree program in Yoga would be deluged by applications from highly motivated, deeply-committed students. It’s a cherished dream of mine to see this happen in my lifetime─perhaps soon enough for my younger sons to take advantage of it.

This brief piece does not permit me to explore all the implications of my view, and I am well aware there are a great many (including what the “T” in IAYT might be changed to). I sincerely hope a lively dialogue will emerge as you consider the possibility of re-identifying yourself as what you truly are: a Yoga educator. I’d love to hear from you.

In closing, I salute the leadership of IAYT for their enlightened stewardship of our field, and for their open-mindedness in allowing my ideas to appear in their journal. The fact that you are reading this is ample evidence of their commitment to a truly open dialogue, and I am deeply honored that they have welcomed me into this forum.

Leslie Kaminoff is the founder of the Breathing Project, a nonprofit educational corporation in New York City dedicated to the teaching of individualized, breath-centered Yoga practice. He is also the co-author of the book “Yoga Anatomy.”

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2015 – It’s been a helluva year…

This map shows where I traveled in 2015
Lower numbers in the chart are as of December 12, and don’t reflect the days or mileage for our return trip to New York on December 15. The 39 cities on the chart are inflated since they count every time we returned home to New York. The actual number of cities we visited is 26.

Tonight in Paris, after finishing my last day of travel teaching for 2015, Lydia and I exhaled deeply and decided to map all our teaching travel for the year just ending.  Seeing it all in one image fills me with many emotions.

First and foremost, I feel gratitude for the fact that I can do what I do. When I took my first asana class at the New York Sivananda Center 1978, I could not have imagined how profoundly my life would be transformed. I wasn’t alone.  Over the last four decades so many others have been touched by Yoga, the world has turned into a place where someone like me – who is profoundly unemployable in any other field – can travel the globe sharing these teachings with the sincere, dedicated groups of lifelong learners we call Yoga Educators.

So – in tribute to this amazing year of teaching, travel, learning, and connecting – I am going to give a shout out to all the folks who made it possible for me to spend 127 days of 2015 journeying more than 90,000 miles* to 26 cities, seven countries, and meet close to 5,000 students in my classes and workshops. It has truly been an honor and privilege to spend time with the amazing students they gathered in their diverse spaces around the world:

  • Los Angeles, California – Larry Payne and his YogaRx Therapy training at LMU
  • Winter Haven, Florida – Kerry Wilson at Inside Out Fitness
  • Austin, Texas – Laura Forsyth and Lori McDougall at Yoga Yoga
  • McCall, Idaho– Debra Murphy at Shanti Yoga Studio
  • Sydney, Melbourne, Freehold, Australia – Michael de Manincor and Lisa Grauaug of Yoga Institute of Australia
  • New York, New York – Renee LaRose, Alden Conant and the entire team at YJLive! Conferences
  • Washington, D.C. – Rexx Samuell and his team at Buddha B. Yoga Studio
  • Lambertville, New Jersey – Sue Elkind, Denise Orloff and Caroline Joan Peixoto at Dig Yoga
  • Monroe, New York – Nicole Lewitan at Ananda Ashram
  • Glasgow, Scotland – Mark Russell of Kridaka Yoga
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota – Sarah Jane Wroblewski at the Yoga Center of Minneapolis (special shout-out to her wife Kim Bartmann for making us so welcome at a number of her retaurants)
  • New York, New York – Everyone at the Breathing Project and all the amazing students who showed up for my “Transformation Through Touch” summer immersion
  • Honolulu, Hawaii – Rich Girolami of Silk Bridge
  • Madrid, Spain –  Blanca San Roman of Dhara Yoga
  • Vienna, Austria – Florian Reitlinger and Brigit Pöltl at the Yoga Zentrum Mödling
  • Asheville, North Carolina – Stephanie Keach and Julia Albertson, Asheville Yoga Center
  • Milano, Italy – Giulia Borioli of the Milano Yoga Festival, and my translator Vittoria Frua
  • Encinitas, California – Monique Lonner of Soul of Yoga
  • Cologne, Germany – Sonia Bach and her team at the yogaloft Cologne
  • Paris, France – Alia M’Hamdi Bolt of AliaOM Yoga

We’re almost finished nailing down an equally exciting teaching schedule for 2016.  As soon as dates are confirmed, they will appear on my Calendar Page. I will be starting off the year with my first-ever appearance at the San Francisco YJLive! event and would love to see you there!

Finally, Lydia and I would like to send a special thank you to my agent, Ava Taylor and her amazing team at YAMA Talent. Ava is an amazing partner, a great friend and a true trailblazer in the field of professional management for yoga talent and event production. She also showed us a great time in Cologne, Germany (photo evidence below).

The fabulous Ava Taylor showing us a good time in Cologne.

* Lower numbers in the chart are as of December 12, and don’t reflect the days or mileage for our return trip to New York on December 15. The 39 cities on the chart are inflated since they count every time we returned home to New York. The actual number of cities we visited is 26.

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