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

……
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"Singing from the Diaphragm" – An open letter to the world of voice training

Leslie works with Della on diaphragm release.I’ve had the opportunity lately to work with a number of singers and voice actors. When they tell me about some of the instructions and information they’ve been given, I never cease to be amazed by the lack of basic understanding exhibited by their vocal coaches. Admittedly, this impression comes entirely secondhand, but If I could send a message to all the voice trainers of the world it would be this:

Singing first and foremost is a breathing pattern. This breathing pattern consists of long, slow, supported, vibratory exhales, followed by short, quick, efficient inhales. The ability to do that breathing pattern must be the foundation for all vocal techniques, and if you are not training a singer’s body to efficiently execute that pattern, they will invariably have problems.

Perhaps the statements of this yoga teacher will be viewed as presumptuous by the voice community, but consider this: you do not need to be an expert in auto mechanics to know that the fanciest car will go nowhere without a functioning engine. Similarly, I do not need need to be schooled in vocal pedagogy to know that an efficiently operating breathing mechanism is quite literally the engine that makes singing possible.

Is the diaphragm important in this process? Of course it is, but the diaphragm is a muscle of inhaling, while singing is 90% exhaling. This means that the diaphragm is shortening its fibers only 10% of the time during most vocal phrasing. What, then do vocal coaches *really* mean when they tell a vocalist to “sing from your diaphragm?”

If you are a voice coach, and you can’t answer this question accurately, you need to educate yourself.

If you are a voice student reading this, and this is brand-new information to you, I would encourage you to show this article to your voice coach, see what they say, and if they have questions, please send them my way.  I’d love to have this conversation first-hand for a change.

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

My Teacher is Gone

This piece ran in Elephant Journal the night after B.K.S. Iyengar died.  Waylon Lewis was very kind to prep it in record time so it could be posted before midnight of the day I wrote it.

I’ll have more to say about all of this very soon, but I wanted to share it with you now.  I have had some very supportive comments on Elephant Journal, as well as FaceBook and privately thru e-mail.  Please fee free to add your thoughts below.

tkvdLeslie

My teacher is gone.

Following the death last night of B.K.S. Iyengar after a brief illness at age 95, there was a vast outpouring of affection for a man who had realized his full creative potential during a long and productive life. His guru T. Krishnamacharya, also lived a very long life and taught well past the age of 100. The sadness surrounding Iyengar’s passing was not at the loss of potential unrealized, but at the loss of his living presence.

Unavoidably, my thoughts turned to my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son and—at 20 years his junior—Iyengar’s nephew.

I lost my teacher years ago not to death, but to an advancing dementia that has turned his healthy body into a prison for a devastated mind. The cause of his condition remains a mystery to me; if his immediate family has knowledge of it, they have not publicly stated so. By writing this I am breaking an unspoken code of silence that has surrounded my teacher’s fate and that of his family.

I am immensely sad for the tragic turn that Desikachar’s life has taken. I don’t know if his condition was avoidable. But what is avoidable is the denial surrounding his gradual decline and the resulting damage to the teaching community he built.

Undeniably, the worldwide Yoga community has been deprived of another one of its great intellects and practitioners. My teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar, was an interpreter of ancient knowledge for modern times, a sensitive, practical man who valued above all else the close relationships he formed with students, colleagues and clients. My sadness is both for the loss of his living presence and for the lost potential of a great mind and decades of output that will never be realized.

He was born in 1938—a year after his father dispatched B.K.S. Iyengar to Pune. He is 76 years old.

Leslieand DesikacharVideoLooking back, my teacher’s seemingly peculiar and unrealistic desire to promote the career of his troubled son Kausthub makes more sense when factoring in progressive dementia.  Desikachar’s withdrawal from public life and Kausthub’s corresponding rise to leadership at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram had severe consequences for generations of senior students.

Speaking only for myself, the transition felt surreal: I was losing access to my teacher at the same time I was being asked to answer to someone who had repeatedly revealed himself as unstable and dishonest.

The first time Desikachar’s condition became unavoidably obvious to me was the last time I saw him, at the Estes Park Yoga Journal conference in September of 2009. In retrospect there had been signs something was wrong a couple of years earlier. In August of 2007, I attended a weekend seminar in New York in which Desikachar repeatedly turned teaching duties over to his daughter Mekhala.  She did her best, but was clearly uncomfortable when inexplicably made the center of attention. I wrote off the incident to a desire on Desikachar’s part to promote his daughter’s teaching abilities. At the time, it never occurred to me he might have felt the need for help presenting his material.

When my friend Gary Kraftsow and I attended the 2009 Yoga Journal conference I knew he had not seen or spoken to Desikachar in many years.  We both watched in horror as our previously eloquent teacher stumbled hesitantly through his keynote address. During the prior three days I had attended Desikachar’s “Healing Through Yoga” intensive during which he seemed a bit tired and distracted, but was able to manage adequately when his wife, Menaka, or one of his senior students was beside him.

Then—during the keynote, alone at the podium—it was painfully obvious that something was wrong.

Desikachar’s storytelling and oblique references had always brilliantly led back to his main topic in unexpected and illuminating ways. Now, his stories simply rambled on and on in random disarray, with no integrating threads binding them together. It was clear he could only access long-term memories, while his fragile short-term memory and higher functioning were severely compromised.

During intermission, I went to where Gary was sitting and we stared slack-jawed in disbelief at each other, confirming what we had just witnessed. Most of the audience likely saw a kindly old man telling amusing stories, but there were at least a dozen or so people in the room who knew Desikachar well enough to be alarmed. Most notably, his wife and senior students who had been traveling with him could not possibly have been blind to his condition. How could they send him all alone to that podium in front of an amphitheater without the support he so clearly needed?

Feeling humiliated on behalf of my teacher, a rage built inside me…I wanted to confront them, but wishing to avoid making a scene in public, propriety got the better of me.  I spent the rest of that week at Estes in a state of profound loss I’ve carried ever since.

That’s the thing with dementia—you begin mourning long before your loved one dies.

So this week, as I followed the news surrounding the end of Iyengar’s life, all these memories and emotions have come to the surface. I felt sorry for Mr. Iyengar—not that his life was ending after 95 years of productive and influential work, but because this powerful spirit who declared,

“I always tell people—live happily and die majestically!”

…expired in a hospital bed with a feeding tube down his throat. I went fitfully to sleep with that awful, sad image in my head and dreamed vividly about finally writing many of the exact words you have just read.

Why turn the words of my dream into a public message? Why risk exposure and displeasing people I respected and honored?

I have a simple, selfish reason. 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.

My personal relationship with T.K.V. Desikachar and his teachings infuse so much of what’s positive about my life and work. I know that countless others feel the same. When my teacher’s body finally looses its grip on his diminished spirit, his death notice must be more than “died after a lengthy illness.”

He deserves more than that. We all do.

I hope this truth serves his memory well, as I will continue to do—by teaching what I have learned from him.

Leslie Kaminoff
New York City
August 20, 2014

…and now, "you were here* : the video!"

My last post about honesty in yoga credentialing has gone a bit viral. It was natural then, to discuss it in last Wednesday’s post-Yoga Anatomy, on camera Q&A.

What emerged was a rather interesting exploration of my views on how we train people, and what it takes to really absorb the kinds of things we teach in yoga trainings.

Enjoy!  If you’d like to join the discussion, please leave a comment.

You were here*

I’m often asked whether my workshops or trainings qualify for continuing education credit with Yoga Alliance, International Association of Yoga Therapists or other registries and/or accrediting bodies. I always tell event attendees that they can put whatever they like in front of me and I’ll happily sign it, notwithstanding the fact that my less-than-favorable views on certification and licensing are well-documented.

To simplify this process in the future, I’ve decided to provide free to the public as a downloadable PDF an official-looking certificate of attendance. Please feel free to print one and bring it with you to your next event with me, and I’ll autograph it.

Please note the fine print referenced by the prominent asterisk:

“This certifies that the person named above showed up for [some/most/all] of the indicated session and appeared to be awake, though there’s no way for me to know whether they were listening or whether they [absorbed/understood] what I said – let alone how effectively they will choose to communicate it. Additionally, there is no way for me determine the teaching ability or qualities of the person named above, regardless of how much I may have [liked/tolerated] [him/her].

The recipient of this document bears full responsibility for demonstrating to the public the quality and efficacy of their skills, and communicating honestly the true extent of their training.”Sample of Leslie's version of a certificate of attendance.

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.

The Saint in my Garage

This is the story of how one of the greatest modern sages of yoga, Swami Satyananda Paramahamsa ended up delivering a lecture in my garage in Santa Monica in early 1983.

It is also the story of how a misunderstanding of Tantra is not limited to NY Times science reporters – sometimes it comes from Indian Swamis who should have known better.

Did Yoga really start as a sex cult?

In this video follow-up to my previous post “William Broad is at it again at the NY Times,” you can hear me tell Mr. Broad that every time he opens his mouth, he loses another piece of whatever credibility he may have had as an authority on Yoga.

In the end, I just tell him to shut his mouth until such time as he’s willing to do a modicum of valid research into the actual history of Yoga practice – which did NOT begin with the Tantric sex cults of Medieval India. He actually contradicts himself in the space of two sentences in his interview with Stephen Colbert, when he first asserts that Yoga is 4 to 5 thousand years old, then follows up with “…real yoga started out in a sex cult..”

Someone with as big a platform as William J. Broad has an equally big responsibility to speak accurately about this subject.  In this, he has repeatedly and utterly failed.