Transitioning out of the The Breathing Project’s physical space in July has required lots of moving, reconfiguring, and recalibrating.
For the first time in over 30 years, all my possessions are in the same zip code (10025). It’s a bit of a tight fit in our living space as I’ve accumulated three sets of almost everything: office supplies, clothing, bodywork equipment, books. Previously split between office, city home and country home, all my stuff has – quite literally – come home to roost. Much winnowing is required…it’s a process.
At the same time, my newly freed-up schedule has more space for travel and teaching. For the first time in 14 years I will not have to be in New York City every Wednesday during the scholastic year to teach my Yoga Anatomy courses, so we have been able to schedule more lengthy international teaching tours. Following our annual visit to one of my favorite places, North Carolina’s beautiful Asheville Yoga Center (September 16-17), and the Chicago edition of the Yoga Therapy Summit (September 30-October 1), Lydia and I will be off to Europe (the first of two visits this fall) for a 3-week tour:
Looking ahead to 2018 I’ll be spending my 60th birthday about as far away from home as possible: we’ll be in the Southern Hemisphere in the midst of a month-long teaching tour across New Zealand and Australia. I’ll be sharing more details about that trip in a future post.
So, as the start of my seventh decade approaches, I will be doing my best to focus on the theme that emerged this last month: “more space — less stuff.”
As I begin to prepare for my last-ever summer immersion (and the final program of any kind) at The Breathing Project, I thought I’d share some of the questions we will be considering during the five-day course of study I’ve titled “Bandha: Untying and Uniting Body, Breath and Mind”:
Is there a simple definition of bandha that can serve as a foundation for a breath-centered approach to yoga practice?
Can bandha refer to our natural tendency to hold, constrict, channel, and otherwise modulate our breathng mechanism in response to stressors, or should the definition of bandha be limited to the intentional techniques of breath manipulation more commonly referred to in yoga practice?
Can the yogic model of the five koshas help us experience the action of bandha on more subtle dimensions of our being?
Should bandha be taught to beginning students?
What is the relationship between traditional descriptions of the static application of bandha wherein the body is unmoving and the breath is retained, and the modern context of bandha practiced while the body and breath are in motion?
The great thing about using questions as an entry point into a practice-based group inquiry is that we can benefit tremendously from learning to be comfortable with not arriving at final answers. In fact, along with all the insights we generate, we usually end up with more questions than when we started. I’ve learned to offer a disclaimer to that effect at the beginning of every workshop I teach.
If I had to to pick one perspective that’s been changed the most by my last 14 years at The Breathing Project, it would be just that; a greatly increased tolerance for having my answers questioned. Or, as Richard Feynman so succinctly put it:
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
There’s such political turmoil in the world, and I admit I was a bit concerned about a trip to Istanbul, but now that we’ve arrived I’m thrilled. Later this week I’ll be teaching for Cihangir Yoga but for the next few days Lydia and I will be touring the city and enjoying this gorgeous view.
We’re in the final preparations for this weekend’s Beyond Anatomy: A Somatic Symposium at my New York City studio, The Breathing Project, and I’ve realized I neglected to post links to three wonderful podcast interviews by Brooke Thomas of Liberated Body and an interview with Brette Popper on YogaCity NYC! Better late than never, here they are:
In this special episode which kicks off the fourth season of her podcast, Brooke asks Peter Blackaby, Amy Matthews and me what “Beyond Anatomy” means to us. I’m sure you’ll find our responses thought-provoking, and hope they’ll inspire you to join us at the Symposium.
We already have people coming from across the country, and even across the pond (Pete has lots of fans in his home country, Britain, and throughout the UK), so sign up while there’s still space. We look forward to seeing you there!
When I was first developing my online courses I had hoped to be able to to foster student/teacher relationships well beyond my physical sphere so hearing from Anna and experiencing her enthusiasm for ongoing learning was an inspiration. Often we invite workshop hosts to interview me prior to visiting their studios but this time we turned the tables. I was eager to hear about Anna’s process and path so I posed some questions which I’ve used as seeds for this post.
Q: How did you learn about my teaching?
Anna: I received an advance copy of the book “The Science of Yoga” (William J. Broad’s 2012 book). Upon reading it, I wanted a second opinion so started Googling and found your video “rants” (see them here: one, two , three, and four). I’d been a huge fan of the book Yoga Anatomy, so I was delighted that these led me to all your teaching videos. I signed up for the Monday email list and your online Principles course a bit later.
Leslie: I remember so clearly that storm of passionate debate William Broad’s article unleashed in the yoga/web/social media atmosphere 5 years ago, at the beginning of 2012. Not only was I motivated to produce those video “rants” I went to the trouble of composing my Amazon review of his book in advance, so I could post it at 3:00am East Coast time, when the book officially went on sale!
Q: What made you reach out to bring me to your studio?
Anna: I’ve been exploring the concepts presented in Principles and in the various YouTube/email videos in classes, workshops and trainings for almost a year. Our students and teachers responded with enthusiasm and curiosity. In the wake of the 2016 election, there was a feeling of despair about where our country and the world at-large is heading. One thing that occurred to me is how powerful learning is for the human psyche. When we are learning, we are expanding. So, I declared 2017 our year of learning. Starting with anatomy only makes sense: the more one learns about the body, the more we understand ourselves…and each other, our connection and our uniqueness.
Leslie: I agree wholeheartedly. Early on we saw the potential of online learning for the yoga community, not as a replacement for direct human contact, but as a way of connecting with people to whom I would otherwise not have access. To transform my virtual presence into an actual physical visit is really terrific.
Regarding the 2016 election, it’s clear that every generation shares a handful of singular, historic, transformative moments that are forever etched into our psyches. I can recall and re-tell every detail about where I was and what I was doing when the Kennedys and MLK were killed, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, when the twin towers came down on 9/11 — and, on the night of 11/9 when the outcome of the 2016 election became clear.
That night, I recall thinking how many of my fellow yoga educators would be faced with rooms full of sleep-deprived, emotionally frazzled students seeking solace from teachers who were pretty much in the same boat. That’s when I posted to following to social media:
Our government does not own this country, or your life. Regardless of which gang is in power at any given moment, never forget that.
All yoga educators: stress reduction is now the world’s #1 growth industry. Let’s do what we do best – stay centered and offer safe havens.
That is also why, on that Wednesday afternoon’s class at The Breathing Project, I felt moved to put this slide up on the wall as my students entered the room.
Q: What has your experience with the online course been so far?
Anna: I’m addicted. It’s the only TV I watch. It’s usually hard for me to find 2 hours in the day for anything, but not for these sessions. I learn things I’ve always wondered about; I question and reorganize and open up dialogues about things I’d held as “fact”…this may sound weird, but I love the homework. At one point I was having trouble with a concept. I looked at the homework questions, then decided to sit with them/sleep on them. I woke up the next morning and everything had fallen into place. If I hadn’t needed to complete the homework, I may not have actually processed the lesson.
Leslie: That’s really good to hear. I always hated homework (to be honest, I mostly just hated school on principle), so asking my students to do homework didn’t come naturally to me. We’ve worked hard over the years to improve the quality of the homework questions, and to offer the best support possible to our online students.
Q: You described your community as “…wonderfully nerdy when it comes to all kinds of learning…” – this is very appealing to me, but can you provide an example?
Anna: Though we teach vinyasa yoga/power vinyasa, the classes that our students enjoy most are the ones where we get deep into a concept, where we explore different ways of approaching posture. They enjoy “stop action” sessions where we break down a pose in order to make it more effective in individual bodies. They ask good questions…and they LOVE it when the skeleton comes in for workshops!
Leslie: This sounds exactly like my kind of crowd! I can’t wait to meet you and everyone there. I’m certain we’ll have a lot of fun learning together.
After a brief teaching lull for the holidays, my 2017 schedule is getting off to a running start with four upcoming workshops — all at new locations — three of them driving distance from New York City.
The weekend of Feb. 4 & 5 at Yoga Nanda in Long Beach, NY will cover some of my most popular topics, including an intro to breath-centered yoga and bandhas, practice and theory of backbending and twisting poses, plus a deep dive into foot anatomy and healthy walking habits.
We are also excited for our first visit to Louisville, KY on Feb. 11 & 12 at Bend and Zen Hot Yoga. A full weekend program features explorations of breath, spine, bones, muscles and alignment. We also have some schmooze time scheduled for Saturday evening’s wine and cheese meet-and-greet book signing.
So, come on out for one of these great events! I look forward to meeting you in person.
In anticipation of my upcoming “Yoga and the Respiratory System” workshop at Soul of Yoga’s therapeutic training in Encinitas, CA, I’m posting a snippet of an article I’ve been working on to discourage people from feeling they must always get the deepest possible breath. This is a preview of one of the topics I’ll be covering in an information-packed two days of learning and exploration at Soul of Yoga. Other topics will include:
How breathing occurs on every level – from cells to systems and beyond
The basics of breath physiology
The structure and function of the diaphragm
The key structures involved in breathing
How breath coordinates with and supports movement
The physiology of meditative states
Western and yogic models of anatomy and physiology
The physical correlates of the koshas, chakras, nadis and kundalini
If you can get to Southern California (and who doesn’t want to spend time there in December!), come join me Friday and Saturday, December 9 & 10.
To read many yoga and breathing books, one could get the impression that deep breathing and maximal oxygenation are the holy grails of health, well-being and enlightenment. The assumption is that the more deeply you breathe, the more oxygen you will get in, the more carbon dioxide you will get rid of and the healthier you’ll be. The facts are:
not enough carbon dioxide is dangerous,
deep (maximal) breathing is only occasionally appropriate, and
too much oxygen is toxic.
Breathing activity should always be linked to your body’s metabolic needs. If your level of activity requires a larger than usual supply of oxygen, deeper or more frequent breathing is perfectly appropriate. That same level of respiratory activity, if applied to a resting state, would produce blood alkalosis (hyperventilation).
Your body has homeostatic mechanisms that prevent a toxic excess of oxygen from building up in the tissues. The idea that one can improve health by increasing O2 concentrations in the blood is physiologically incorrect, and shouldn’t be confused with the immense relief that accompanies a deeply satisfying breath. In fact, freeing the breath allows respiratory activity to more closely match body metabolism by releasing excessive, oxygen-hungry tension from the breathing musculature.
Your body is many times more sensitive to changes in blood levels of carbon dioxide than it is to oxygen. Carbon dioxide plays a critical role in helping hemoglobin transport oxygen from your blood to your body’s tissues. If you don’t have enough CO2 in your blood, the O2 gets held too tightly by the hemoglobin, and not enough oxygen will be released into your tissues. The idea that one can improve health by ridding oneself of excess CO2 is physiologically incorrect, and shouldn’t be confused with the simple act of exhaling more effectively (which is a prerequisite for filling your lungs).
This is why I have gotten out of the habit of using the phrase “take a deep breath” when teaching yoga. Instead, I try to say things like, “take a relaxed breath” or “let your body fill with breath.” These are ways I seek to help students trust that their body knows what it is doing, and the best breathing happens when we get out of its way.
I love the fall, love the temperatures in the Northeast, and the colors, but mostly I love that my teaching schedule always kicks into high gear.
On Wednesday October 12 I’ll start my final year teaching Anatomy of Breath-Centered Yoga: Appendicular Body Focus at my New York City studio, The Breathing Project – a bittersweet occasion because I love this teaching and love the students and community we’ve built, but I am also filled with excitement about the opportunities for change and growth associated with closing the studio next summer.
Right after Wednesday’s class I’ll be heading to the airport to fly to Yoga Center of Minneapolis where I’ll present a four-day immersion focusing on breath and re-imagining alignment. We had a magnificent time at this beautiful studio last year and we’re eager to return.
Then we return to Yoga on High in Columbus, OH, for a workshop focused on the therapeutic aspects of Yoga. We’ll be doing some of my favorite things: a Hands-on Assisting Lab during which I’ll share teaching techniques developed over the past three decades of working therapeutically with groups and individuals. Also scheduled is Case Studies and Clinical Analysis, which follows the format in which I observed my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar, work one-on-one with clients.
To finish out my year in December I’ll be returning to one of my favorite haunts, Soul of Yoga, in Encinitas, CA. Each year I’ve taught there has provided an engaged group of teacher trainees. This year we’ll explore Yoga and The Respiratory System, covering the energetic phenomenon of breathing and how it occurs on every level – from cells to anatomical systems and beyond.
If you’re near any of these locations, or willing to take a little trip, I’d love to meet you in person so make sure to introduce yourself!
I’m thrilled to report on my upcoming weekend of teaching for Annie Ory and her team at a new Baptiste studio in Portland, OR, yogaRIOT, located on the second floor of an old Masonic Hall on SE Milwaukie Avenue.
HISTORICAL DIGRESSION (I promise this will come back around to yogaRIOT PDX): Yoga on the second floor of a beautiful Masonic hall reminds me of the Center for Yoga, which started life as the original site of the Sivananda Community in Los Angeles. It was established by my old friend Ganga White at a nearby book warehouse on Larchmont Ave. When Ganga parted ways with Swami Vishnudevananda in the 70’s he re-named his space “The Center for Yoga,” and moved it to its present location, where it became not only the most beautiful yoga space in town, but a hotbed of teaching innovation – including early visits from B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and a precursor to Acro called “Double Yoga,” which Ganga pioneered with his then-partner Anna Forrest. The Sivananda community relocated to Hollywood (McCadden Place), and then to West Hollywood (Sunset Blvd.), where I assumed directorship in 1981.
Following historical strands, Ganga White, Baron Baptiste and I (among many others) intersected 7 years later at the 4th Unity in Yoga Conference at Murrieta Hot Springs, CA. That 1988 conference was significant for me as it began my involvement with Unity in Yoga, the group that eventually turned into The Yoga Alliance, and was the year I first met my teacher Desikachar, and became his student.
In September 2011, 23 years later, I was present at the 16th Annual Yoga Journal Conference at Estes Park, CO during the Baptiste Power Flow Immersion where I became acquainted with some of the teachers and senior leaders of Baptiste Yoga, including the delightful Paige Elenson, founder of the Africa Yoga Project – which began a fruitful relationship with her program, donating my online course for use in her teacher training. Throughout the Estes conference, I was struck by how refreshingly grounded, sensible and straightforward the Baptiste crowd seemed.
Now, back to 2016 and yogaRIOT:
As much as I relish any opportunity to tell a story and share some history, the main point here is that the yogaRIOT space looks beautiful and welcoming and, if my previous experience with the Baptiste community is any indication, I anticipate finding the same in the community. Since Baron lists my teacher Desikachar as one of his influences, I am eager to explore common connections during this weekend exploration of breath-centered, individualized yoga asana practice August 27 & 28. I hope to see a bunch of you there!