A Re-Declaration of Independence from a Yoga Educator

Orleans, MA

July 4th, 2019

Happy Independence Day!

As I send this, the sound of Cape Cod fireworks is being carried through the window of my room by a warm summer breeze.

I’m thinking of two anniversaries today. The first is July 4, 1979: Exactly 40 years ago today, at the age of 21, I left the USA for the first time in my life to travel to the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, Canada. My destination was the headquarters of the Sivananda Yoga Organization to attend a month-long yoga teacher training course. I left the United States with one goal: to spend a nice month in the country sleeping in a tent, doing twice daily yoga and meditation, learning about Eastern philosophy and eating healthy food.  I had absolutely no inkling that I was embarking on a lifelong exploration of what it means to be a student and teacher of yoga.

Since that summer in 1979, I’ve never looked back nor had another career.  It has been all yoga for me – first as a full-time staff member of the Sivananda organization, then as an independent teacher, bodyworker and studio owner. 

From the very beginning, I was involved with the planning and execution of yoga related events, which is what I eventually did for a group called Unity in Yoga. From the mid 80s to the mid 90s, UIY brought together representatives of every tradition at international yoga conferences. It was at these events that the first discussions of national standards for the training of yoga teachers took place. I was, in fact, the author of the official 1993 statement from the Unity in Yoga Executive Board that endorsed the first-ever standards initiative:

“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.”

Those two sentences were released to the public.  There was a third sentence that the board voted to delete over my strong objections. I considered it critical to establish a principle upon which these standards could be built, and without this sentence that opportunity was lost:

“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.”

I have been arguing for the principle expressed in that sentence ever since.

After resigning from Unity in Yoga in 1993, I agreed to be a member of the 1997 Ad Hoc Committee on teacher training standards.  We recommended the hours and subjects which became the 200 and 500 hour standards adopted by the Yoga Alliance, which came into official existence when it inherited Unity in Yoga’s non-profit status in January of 1999.1 

By the time the Ad Hoc Committee became the Yoga Alliance, I had resigned.  For the next 15 years, I was a vocal and consistent critic of the Alliance.  I started one of the earliest online yoga forums (eSutra) for the express purpose of circulating these views, and fostering challenging dialogue with the emerging leadership of the Alliance.2

Which brings me to the second anniversary I’m thinking of today, July 4, 2009: Ten years ago today, I hit “publish” on a rather lengthy and passionate blog post titled, “A Declaration of Independence for Yoga Educators.” 

Anyone who has been following the 20-year saga of national educational standards for yoga would probably tell you that 2009 was arguably Yoga Alliance’s lowest point.  YA’s custodianship of the standards was widely viewed as a running joke and their infrastructure was in shambles. To make matters worse, several states were actively seeking to forcibly regulate yoga teacher training programs under vocational licensing statutes. 

The Alliance had no policy against regulation ten years ago. Even if they had, they were prevented by the rules of their 501(c)(3) non-profit status3 from lobbying for or against anything. All YA could do was issue impotent, empty platitudes while at the same time making it easier for the regulators to come after teacher training programs by maintaining an online list of targets. In my blog post I was particularly hard on the president of the Alliance, Mark Davis, because in my judgment he did nothing to protect or inform his member schools about the dire consequences many of them were facing.

I won’t repeat here my impassioned 2009 arguments against both regulation and the Yoga Alliance, but encourage readers to follow the link to my “Declaration” to get a sense of how desperate I found the situation back then.

These two quotes from the “Declaration” make clear how much has changed in the intervening years:

“…I’ve been telling people not to expect any support from the Alliance on this issue – ever. Even if its board members were willing to agree on a stand for or against licensing (which, as of this writing, they have not) the mere existence of YA and its online database have made it vastly easier for the state regulators to do their jobs…”

“…Unlike the Yoga Alliance, IAYT (International Association of Yoga Therapists) has never sought to establish industry-wide standards for Yoga Therapy trainings – preferring to facilitate dialogue about standards among established and emerging schools…However circumspect IAYT remains about becoming an accrediting organization, without taking a strong stand against licensing, it has little hope of providing leadership as a strong defender of the freedom of its members…”

And now, here we are on July 4, 2019: What a difference a decade makes!  From the ashes of 2009, the Yoga Alliance revitalized its executive board, hired new leadership (a number of times4), instituted an anti-regulation policy and restructured its non-profit status by adding a 501(c)(6)5 that is legally permitted to lobby against state control.  This is an essential shift considering the scope of the ever-expanding yoga industry. YA’s advocacy efforts have challenged and defeated every state effort to regulate yoga teacher training programs.  Beyond that, YA’s legal team has even argued successfully in favor of legislation protecting the rights of YTT’s to operate free of governmental interference.

In addition, the Yoga Alliance has also joined the PHIT Act Coalition, a group of organizations that includes leaders in the fitness, sports, medical, and youth wellness communities who are lobbying for federal legislation that would allow individual taxpayers to place up to $1,000 annually in pre-tax medical accounts. These funds could be used to pay for physical activity expenses, including yoga.

Meanwhile, in 2013 IAYT went from facilitating dialogue about standards to launching an application process for the accreditation of yoga therapy training programs, the first twelve of which were approved the following year. In 2016, they credentialed 500 of their members as “Certified Yoga Therapists” (C-IAYT).  As of this writing, IAYT leadership has still not articulated whether they are for or against the state regulation of yoga therapy training programs or practitioners. As a result, I have not attended an IAYT event since 2013.

When I learned of the establishment of Yoga Alliance’s anti-regulation policy I began seeing them as a potentially positive force in the yoga industry.  In addition, when Richard Karpel took over as YA president in 2012 he went out of his way to find the strongest, loudest critics of the Alliance so he could reach out to them personally. Along with a handful of others, I was pleased to be the recipient of one of those calls, and we had a candid three hour conversation in which he admitted, without appearing defensive, to many of the failings for which I had publicly criticized the Alliance.

Following this welcome and generous gesture, I re-engaged with the Yoga Alliance, very pleased to find there were other pro-freedom, free-market thinkers on the board and staff who were willing to discuss the principles behind an anti-regulation policy. In particular, I want to acknowledge Brandon Hartsell, the former chair of the executive board, and Andrew Tanner, former executive board member and long-time chief ambassador for YA. Both proved to be up to the task of hard thinking and confronting challenging tasks.

Though I was sorry to see Richard Karpel leave the YA presidency, the new hire in 2017, David Lipsius, had the appropriate skill set and personality to lead the Yoga Alliance into the #metoo era, just as issues of injury and power abuse were heating up in the the yoga world. He brought a strong group of experienced staff on board and initiated the lengthy and daunting Standards Review Process (SRP) that culminated in last week’s announcement of the revised Yoga Alliance standards.

I participated in the SRP last year on a panel that evaluated a proposed scope of practice for yoga teachers.  Since the context of my original 1993 protest to Unity in Yoga was about the lack of principled decision-making, my recommendations went beyond scope of practice to address the most important principles upon which all policy decisions must rest.

Since last week’s release of YA’s updated standards, I’ve been asked by a wide range of yoga professionals and practitioners to offer my opinion. Now that I am no longer bound by the non-disclosure agreement all SRP advisors signed, I am free to fully share those thoughts with the world outside of Yoga Alliance leadership.

This is the opening remark in the review I submitted: 

YA should completely avoid any reference to “defining yoga.” It is not the job of the Alliance to do that, and any attempt at it would invite dissent, not unity of purpose. YA should function as a clearinghouse for ideas and debate that would help to educate the general public and teaching profession.

Regarding YA’s overall mission related to fighting regulation, I said:

The Alliance is walking a razor’s edge: on one side is the invaluable advocacy work being done to keep the government regulators out of our field; on the other is the need to avoid becoming the “yoga police,” along with everything that implies.

All the discussions I’ve had with the current YA leadership leads me to believe that they understand my first point very well.  In fact, in response to the very first question asked in a podcast interview released just today, Shannon Roche, YA’s CEO and President explicitly stated that it is not the job of the Alliance to offer a single definition of yoga.

Two nights ago, I had a long conference call with Shannon, Christa Kuberry, the V.P. of Standards and Erin Logan, YA’s Chief Operating Officer.  I told them of my intention to publish this article and requested their comments.  Shannon sent the following:

 “We know that there has long been a concern about Yoga Alliance stepping too far into the role of a regulatory body.  We worked purposefully throughout the Standards Review Project (SRP) not to overstep here and rather to best position ourselves to continue a central tenet of our work – that of fighting overburdensome regulation.”

This is a strong statement with which I have only one issue. I would remove the word “overburdensome,” which implies that some regulation would be tolerated if it were judged to be “unburdensome.”  A more consistent stand would be to fight all regulation as a matter of principle. If you concede that the state has the right to regulate you at all, you have surrendered your freedom.  To paraphrase what I said in 2009:

“…[Regulatory] enforcement [by the government] and Yoga cannot co-exist. Yoga is about freedom and Yoga is about relationship, and force destroys both. If we do not protect our right to conduct our relationships free of interference by third parties, there can be no yoga…”

Shannon’s email continued:

“We also know that many around the world who employ yoga teachers have chosen to make our [voluntary] credentials a requirement for employment, looking to them as an indicator of high-quality teaching and safe instruction.  We do not take this lightly but rather see it as a deeply meaningful responsibility.  At the same time, we learned from all of the feedback shared by the yoga community through the SRP that there were concerns about whether this actually is an accurate interpretation of our credentials.  We do not take the need to fix this disconnect lightly, either, as we want both employers and holders of our credentials to feel the same pride and confidence in these markers of quality and safety in yoga.  The significant enhancements we just announced to our standards and the increase in our application and review process are examples of these corrections we are taking.”

Apparently, the Yoga Alliance has always considered their RYT designations to be credentials, but is now acknowledging that they have historically failed to act in such a way as to lend them much credence in the public’s perception. The upgraded standards are meant to specifically address that issue, which Shannon characterizes as a “disconnect.”

I still maintain there is a big difference between the administrative function of managing a registry and claiming that registering a teacher is the equivalent of issuing them a valid credential.  I believe the only valid credential a yoga teacher could hold would be issued by the school or teacher that trained them, and would be a certificate.  Perhaps it is just semantics, but the underlying principle is what matters, and the principle is relationship. An organization issuing a credential to someone with whom they have had no personal relationship is a problem, one which Shannon apparently recognizes as well:

“This does not mean that we are trying to replace or be a substitute for the appropriate relationship among schools, teachers, students, and mentors which, ideally, is the best place for many issues of concern to be worked out. What it does mean is that we accept our responsibility and intend to do so with integrity – such as ensuring that 200 hours equals a complete 200 hours, or that all Registered Yoga Schools operate with, for example, whistleblower policies in place. It would be irresponsible of us walk away from this responsibility, and we don’t intend to – it’s too important.”

The “many issues of concern” to which Shannon refers go beyond training and certification. Some relate to problematic classroom behavior of teachers.  I’ve always maintained that if the first court of appeal for addressing ethical breaches is seen to be the Yoga Alliance, that indicates two things: YA is overstepping its proper function, and something has seriously broken down on the level of community, communication and mentorship.

Some practical considerations I also voiced related to the expansive new operational responsibilities and activities YA is taking on by upgrading their standards. Application reviews, educational requirements, ongoing compliance, etc. would have profound financial, organizational and infrastructure implications for the Yoga Alliance. How does an organization which has historically had trouble responding to simple email requests for information become a more efficient operation capable of implementing the sweeping changes and increased vigilance to which they’ve committed themselves by February 2022?

I also expressed concern that the burden of administering these new standards would shift focus and resources away from the vital and highly successful advocacy work against governmental interference with our industry.

I was assured they are taking steps to address the administrative issues, and that their commitment to the advocacy work remains a core value for YA.  I was glad to hear that, but would be more convinced if the Alliance could explain not just that their anti-regulation policy is a correct and practical one but why it is a correct stand, on defensible ethical grounds.

Without a strong ethical foundation in place, all that’s left is decision-by-committee or opinion poll. Majority opinion does not constitute a principled stand, no matter how many “elders, experts and wisdom holders” may have contributed. Opinions change, frequently and rapidly. The past few years of YA’s history eloquently attest to that.

The Yoga Alliance has claimed that the foundation of their ethical principles is Yama and Niyama. Based on my understanding of those terms, this sounds good, but what does it mean to the Yoga Alliance, and its members?  

The yogic teaching concerning what we should avoid (Yama) is presented before we are told what we should pursue (Niyama). This is a significant distinction, because it’s easy for YA, survey respondents, and panels of experts to say that they are in favor of setting the bar higher for the training of teachers and the registering of schools.  In my experience, it is a far more difficult task to consistently and defensibly identify a principle behind what you are not supporting.  As evidence, consider how the original standards dialogue started in 1997 with people readily agreeing on the need for setting the bar higher6, compared to how long it took the Alliance to formulate a policy against regulation 14 years later.  

As mentioned earlier, IAYT – founded in 1989 – has still not taken a stand on regulation, and because they aspire to have a seat at the table of healthcare delivery, they need such a policy even more urgently than YA.  I often characterize the organizational distinction between the “easy yes” and the “hard no” as the difference between cheerleading and leadership.

Here’s my case for a what is literally a first ethical principle from a yogic perspective. The very first Yama is Ahimsa – the avoidance of doing harm. In the context of YA’s mission, what exactly is it they must avoid harming? The process of teaching yoga.  What is the vehicle for the process of teaching yoga? The student-teacher relationship.

In support of this principle the leadership of the Yoga Alliance should establish what I refer to as their “prime directive”7:

“The Yoga Alliance must never insert itself into the student-teacher relationship, and must work to prevent anyone else from doing so.”

The Yoga Alliance must function as a system of voluntary self-regulation in the field of yoga teaching. The training of teachers must be done by certifying schools and/or teachers, and the competency of those trainees can only be judged from within a teaching relationship.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that membership in the Yoga Alliance is strictly voluntary.  When the state of Wisconsin tried to make YA membership mandatory as part of their regulation efforts, Alliance leadership was justifiably outraged, and threw their legal muscle behind defeating that initiative. 

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of YA and that has not hampered me in the yoga marketplace – so far. Whether that continues to be the case depends primarily on my status (or non-status) as a provider of CEU contact hours recognized by YA.  Ironically, I’ve been assured that the online courses I’ve developed at yogaanatomy.net will not require some sort of YA “stamp of approval” in order be accepted for the 30 anatomy hours in the upgraded RYT200 standard.  BUT the CEU status of the live contact hours I provide in my in-person workshops seems to be in limbo due to my non-membership in the Alliance.

Clearly, there are a few kinks like this to still be worked out.  Stay tuned.

As always, your feedback is welcome.

Leslie

As always, my deepest gratitude goes to Lydia Mann for her unwavering support and expert editorial assistance.

Footnotes:

1If you look up the Yoga Alliance Registry’s underlying corporate identity, you will see that it is not organized under the laws of its current home of Washington D.C., but those of Washington State – the former home base of Unity in Yoga’s founder, Rama Jyoti Vernon.

2 This excerpt from an e-Sutra post I wrote sums up my 1999 attitude toward the Alliance pretty succinctly: 

I respectfully suggest that the Alliance do the following:

  • Complete its task of creating standards for instructors.
  • Make it clear that training programs and individual teachers will comply with the standards on a completely voluntary, honorary basis…No enforcement or verification. It will be up to the students to determine the honesty of their teachers (it always has been, anyway).
  • Thoroughly publicize the standards and the terms of compliance to the entire world.
  • Disband.

3 501(c)(3)s are organized and operated primarily for religious, charitable, scientific, educational, and certain other purposes. They are what most people think of when referring to nonprofit organizations.   A 501(c)(3) is strictly prohibited from engaging in any political activity and is very limited as to the amount of lobbying they are permitted. The primary beneficiary of their actions is the general public, NOT their membership.

4 Davis was gone by March of 2010, to be replaced by John Matthews, who would last about one year, followed by the 2-year tenure of Richard Karpel, which, after a gap, led to the 18-month reign of David Lipsius.  YA’s current President and CEO is Shannon Roche.

5 A 501(c)(6) is business league or trade association that is organized and operated primarily to lobby on behalf of the common business interests of its members. 

6 That was a very easy call back in 1997, when there were aerobics instructors being taught to lead yoga classes in a single weekend of training.

7  The Prime Directive is a Star Trek reference. Early in the series “Enterprise” (a prequel to the Original Series) the first captain of the Enterprise Jonathan Archer sensed the need for a Prime Directive, and stated: “Some day my people are going to come up with some sort of a doctrine, something that tells us what we can and can’t do out here; should and shouldn’t do. But until somebody tells me that they’ve drafted that…directive… I’m going to have to remind myself every day that we didn’t come out here to play God.”

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The Flying Swami: Vishnudevananda

2018 was the 40th anniversary of my first yoga class at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center here in New York City – still in its original location at 243 West 24th Street.  2019 will mark my 40th year as a yoga teacher.  Yoga took such a hold of me when I was 20 years old that it was less than a year between my first yoga class and my first trip out of the USA to live for month in a tent on a ski hill at the Sivananda Yoga Camp in Val Morin, Quebec, Canada.  There, I was trained as a Sivananda yoga teacher by the senior students of Swami Vishnudevananda, and by Swami Vishnu himself, who came out of seclusion halfway through our training to deliver daily lectures and lessons.

A flood of memories of the extraordinary Swami Vishnu came rushing back to me the other day, when I saw that my old friend Srinivasan Ashley had posted to Facebook a BBC video commemorating Swamiji’s flight over Northern Ireland with Peter Sellers at the height of the troubles.

I could go on endlessly with stories from my time with the Sivananda organization, but for now, I’ll let the footage speak for itself.  If you are at all interested in the history of yoga over the last 50 years, you owe it to yourself to take some time to get to know the man responsible for opening the oldest continually operating yoga center (Montreal since 1959), creating the largest yoga organization in the world (30 centers, 10 ashrams), and training the most yoga teachers (over 30,000 to date).  In a story for another time, I’ll write about how the month-long Sivananda teacher training served as the original template for what became the Yoga Aliiance’s 200 minimum standard.

I highly recommend viewing the attached 2-part mini-documentary about Swami Vishnu’s lifelong mission for worldwide peace.  His vision may seem utopian naivety by today’s cynical standards, but the bravery he exhibited by flying his aircraft over the most troubled borders in the world (Suez, Northern Ireland, Berlin Wall) without a flight plan, passport or visa was unquestionable.  If he were alive today, I have no doubt he’d be flying over the Middle East, Burma or Pakistan challenging the authorities to shoot him down.

Swami Vishnu’s legacy – as someone who stuck to his principles, and fearlessly defied authority – deserves to be remembered. As I type those words, I realize how much he has been a role model for me since the very beginning my yoga journey.

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The Art of the Answer-Sutra (+ commentary), part 3

Here’s another exchange from my Instagram Stories Q&A, plus a bit more exposition:

Q: Would you instruct to use the breath to lengthen the spine?  Is this possible?

A: I generally do not give this cue unless the nature of the pose specifically calls for axial extension, which reduces all three of the major curves of the spine. And yes, any spinal action involves many of the major respiratory muscles.

“Lengthen the spine” is a very common cue given in yoga class that is strongly associated with safety and proper alignment. I believe that – for the most part – when a yoga teacher gives that cue, their intent is to keep the spine in neutral meaning: “don’t collapse into flexion or over-arch into extension.”  In fact, a neutral spine can be relaxed without being collapsed, and is a component of many asanas, including: Sirsasana, Chaturanga Dandasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana.

Anatomically it is not possible to lengthen your spine. The action of axial extension, in which all three curves of the spine are flattened and stabilized, can make you a bit taller – temporarily.  It is not a state you can live in forever, and you wouldn’t want to. It would be exhausting, and likely adversely effect digestion (acid reflux, anyone?).

Axial extension is present to various degrees in a number of asanas such as Tadasana, Virabhadrasana III, Dandasana, Malasana/Upavasasana and Mahamudra, as well as any pranayama in which strong bandhas are engaged. In fact, the muscular action that creates axial extension is, by definition, the action of the bandhas:

  • Mula Bandha flattens the lumbar curve;
  • Uddiyana Bandha flattens the thoracic curve; and,
  • Jalandhara Bandha flattens the cervical curve.

All these actions both reduce the ability of the spine to articulate and reduce the freedom of respiratory shape-change. In other words, the result is spinal and breath stability (sthira). As I said before, this is not something you want to hold all the time.

Bottom line: unless I’m teaching one of the practices in which axial extension is specifically called for I do not refer to “lengthening the spine.”  You can find more detailed information about spinal actions in many of the major asanas in our book Yoga Anatomy.

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The Art of the Answer-Sutra (+ commentary), part 1

Q: Is there any way to teach people not just do the pose but feel the pose?Some of you reading this may have been on my e-Sutra email-based discussion list since 1997, when it was run through my AOL account (an inelegant solution, but all there was at the time). Those early long-form threads tackled important issues at a critical time in the yoga community, but the reach was inherently limited.

By far the vast majority of you are more recent members of my online community via web blog, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and may never have had exposure to long-form online writing. That type of inquiry-based exchange remains my comfort zone – evident to all who take workshops with me, as I insist on interaction and will ask questions of my students if they don’t speak up themselves!

Newer social media opportunities, such as Instagram Stories, have simultaneously opened up a much broader reach while requiring ever-briefer sutra-like* answers. I am constantly trying to improve my ability to deliver meaningful information is as few words as possible, but often know there’s more I’d like to say. By way of illustration, here’s a question from Iness Lagios (_yoginess__) from a recent Instagram Story, and my brief answer, plus some commentary:

Q: Is there a way to teach people not just to do the pose, but to feel the pose?
A: Yes. It involves engaging students in an inquiry – but first, we have to stop telling them what they should be feeling, and inviting them to see what they notice.

My expanded commentary: Iness’ excellent question touches on what is essential for anyone practicing or teaching yoga. The key to safety and effectiveness in asana practice depends on an ability to tune into your inner experience of the pose – not just mimicking a teacher, other students, or an idealized image of what the pose looks like, or what you’ve been told it should feel like.

My current thinking on this is encapsulated by the following teaching methodology: “Try this, now try that…now, see what you notice.” I propose that teachers should always have at least two different ways of teaching a single practice. By offering options in close succession students are encouraged to notice what difference they feel, if any, putting focus on their own embodied experience.

Invariably, some students will have trouble noticing any difference between the options, and it’s easy for them to feel left out or to assume they “did it wrong.” That’s why I always leave a lot of space in my classroom for not knowing. In fact, I honor confusion as a necessary starting point for any meaningful inquiry, as long as it is recognized. I’m pretty certain that for at least the last decade of workshops I’ve always quoted my teacher T.K.V. Desikachar on this point: “The recognition of confusion is itself a form of clarity.” This is the point from which an asana practice can become yoga, not just physical exercise.

Stay tuned for more Q&A sutras with commentary, and if you have yoga anatomy questions please ask them on Instagram, or email me.

* My teacher T.K.V. Desikachar’s father, T. Krishnamacharya, described a sutra as being inspiration for the teacher rather than instruction for the student. When I refer to something as “sutra-like” I mean to offer some direction with room for exploration and development, not a hard-and-fast rule.

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My Friend Ti.

I want you to know about a friend of mine. Her full name is Terecita Mahoney Blair, but everyone calls her Ti (sounds like “Tee”).  August 8 is her birthday and I sincerely hope it marks the start of a wonderful next year.

Ti is one of my (s)heroes. Life has dealt her some pretty tough cards yet she consistently inspires with dedication, determination and a relentlessly positive, honest outlook.

I don’t know too much about her early life, but in 2009 Ti got hit by a bus. Her spine was badly broken, and she needed 5 surgeries in the years that followed. Turns out, the hardware that was implanted did not do what it was supposed to and she has been struggling with a host of bizarre and awful symptoms, often being dismissed by orthopedists and other medical professionals. It’s a wonder she was vertical at all, once she learned that nothing more than scar tissue and muscle spasms were keeping her vertebra together (photos below of the faulty and replacement hardware).

photo of spinal hardware
Bad spinal hardware, that never should have been put into anyone’s body, and never permitted spinal fusion to take place.

Ti wrote about her new spinal hardware: “Bottom screws into sacrum, L5 and L4. You can’t see them, but new Titanium plated cages were inserted. Bone should grow within the vertebrae and on the outsides of all the hardware, making for a solid fusion.”

I met Ti five years ago this month in Los Angeles, when I taught a workshop at Black Dog Yoga, where she was working as their Teacher Training Administrator. Ti was familiar with me through my online courses, which Black Dog had been using as part of their teacher training. You never know who’s going to walk into one of your classes. All educators need to remember that. Ti was just four years post-surgical, and I could have asked a million questions of her, but if I thought I could keep her *safe* during my workshop, I would have been sorely mistaken. All we can do is set up reasonable experiments for our students to try on their “rectangular laboratories” (aka yoga mats), and encourage them to notice what they are experiencing.

Ti at her temporary work station (laptop on her bright pink walker) answering questions from students in my online Yoga Anatomy course.

Ti was a careful and wise student, applying the anatomy and asana practice I was presenting, and referencing what she found in her own body. As she wrote in a recent Facebook post: “Leslie Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy (is) the foundation of how I teach and understand pain, relationship and balance.” As an educator, I couldn’t possibly hope for a better student.

When Ti and her husband moved to Denver, it was a natural fit for her to connect with the creator of our online courses Kelsey Kaufman, who lives in Fort Collins, CO. Ti eventually became our anatomy homework coach for the online courses. I am touched and honored to know that her work with us has been a lifeline when she’s been so laid up with physical pain, she’s had to take a break from pretty much everything else.

I travel around the world teaching yoga for a living – mostly to other yoga teachers, and I feel privileged when I meet people like Ti, whose primary focus is on doing whatever good they can for populations they care most about.  For Ti it’s seniors and first responders, two groups that often get lost in the cracks of our society.  For others, it’s trauma survivors, prison populations, people in recovery, teens at risk…the list is endless. This commitment to using the tools of Yoga to better the world is a never-ending source of inspiration.

video link Last year, we were thrilled when she was voted the 2017 Silver Sneakers 2017 Instructor of the Year. Please watch this video celebrating Ti’s award and bear in mind that – unbeknownst to her – her spine was being inadequately held together by ill-conceived hardware all the time she was jumping around and leading these classes! Ti’s commitment to frequently invisible populations, in this case older folks needing to get or stay moving, catapulted her along and her life-experience made her a sympathetic example for these elders experiencing their own physical challenges.

What really makes Ti a hero to me is that through all the pain of recovery as well as her internal demons, she not only maintains a positive attitude but keeps focus on what really matters to her: other people who are struggling. The way she walks through the world reminds me of my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar’s, admonition that “yoga is relationship.”

Reconnecting with Ti in Los Angeles a number of years after she showed up in one of my workshops, and just as she was joining my online courses as homework coach.

There is a great deal of talk about corruption of yoga, and commercialization, and the need for third-party reimbursement and licensing and blah blah blah blah. But Ti is an example of true yoga in action. She has made it her life’s work to seek out and serve communities in need, people who might not otherwise know about coordinating breath and mind and movement in a way to enrich and embody their day-to-day experience. She works one-on-one with veterans and first responders recovering from traumatic injuries, and has forged remarkable relationships with many of them.

She has been brutally honest about the pain and despair that lurks behind her smiling face and started a Facebook project to help her through this really tough post-surgical period. She is using the medium to raise awareness for many of the causes she supports, by wearing a different “Ti-shirt” every day emblazoned with their logos. Here are a few of the organizations she supports:

The 2018 Colorado 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb honors and remembers fallen firefighters.  Ti has promised (with her surgeon’s permission) to climb at least one stair on 9/11.  She has set a goal of raising $1,111.00 by then, and I am certain she’ll do it simply because it is something she has set her mind to. I just donated $108.00 and hope you will too, if you can spare it.

Safe Call Now: A no-cost confidential crisis referral service for public safety agency employees all first responders and their families nationwide.

Emergency Responder Trauma Counselors (ERTC) provides specialized counseling for emergency services personnel and their family members, related to their work and home life and the variety of stressors in which affect them. Including but not limited to PTSD, anxiety, addiction, depression and grief.

ResponderStrong: Emergency responders working with the National Mental Health Innovation Center to improve mental wellness among Colorado responders and their families. .

Officer Involved Project: Officer Involved is a thoughtful documentary that examines officers who have been involved in deadly force incidents during their tour of duty.

I am proud beyond measure to know Ti and others like her, who constitute the vast majority of the yoga teaching universe.  I’m similarly proud to offer what I can in the way of teaching to the online community we’ve built over the years – a community that now spans 45 countries and over 4,000 students – many of whom are lucky enough to have Ti as their homework coach. On the occasion of Ti Mahoney Blair’s birthday, I recommit to keeping my yoga real and staying connected to those around me. I hope you are inspired, as I have been, by her life and work.

Happy birthday, Ti!

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I was asked “What is your favorite quote?”

You know those Facebook quizzes…the ones that ask a bunch of questions and then deliver what is supposed to be some insightful truth about you, which you’re then supposed to post for all the world to see? I hate those. If you invite me to take one (or to play Candy Crush) I will unfriend you.

That’s why I was surprised at how deeply I responded to a series of philosophical questions posed by the folks at Triyoga in London, where I’ll be teaching at the end of June. As it happens, the key question they asked me was “What is your favourite quote?” I instantly knew the answer.

Even before I was attracted to yoga in my late teens, I had been very curious about fundamental world views. My readings at the time tended toward the mystical as well as the philosophical. As part of my yoga training with the Sivananda organization, I got a big dose of Vedanta and Yoga philosophy, which I continued to study for many years.  In spite of the fact that I ended up teaching the basic tenets of Yoga/Vedanta, I developed deep misgivings about what I saw as the disembodied nature of the teachings. Years later, I stumbled on a quote in the book Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand:

Humans are beings of self-made soul.

That one devastating statement shattered any remnants of the mystical thinking I had inherited from my days at the ashram. It awakened me to the fact that the fundamental essence of my being is my own creation, and it belongs to me, and no one else. In other words, my soul is not on temporary loan from god or some great undifferentiated cloud of consciousness. Through the accumulation of the countless free-will choices I’ve made ever since I’ve existed, I have created the kind of person I have become.

I came to realize that mystical teachings get it backwards when they insist that existence emerges from consciousness. Rather, consciousness can only exist as an emergent attribute of a physical entity. This is a fundamental point of divergence between my view and that of most other yoga teachers. The issue has been called the primacy of existence vs. the primacy of consciousness. The primacy of consciousness view allows for the separability of body and soul. My yoga is grounded in the indivisibility of body and soul – the primacy of existence.

The dualistic roots of yoga philosophy can easily reinforce disembodied thinking by reducing a person to two fundamentally incompatible elements: Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (physical nature). This is reminiscent of another Ayn Rand quote from her book Atlas Shrugged when she wrote that proponents of the soul-body dichotomy “…have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost.” Similarly, Samkhya (the darshanic partner of Yoga) famously describes a human as a lame man who can see (Purusha) being carried around by a blind man who can walk (Prakriti). By asserting the indivisibility of body and soul, I reject both models.  Humans are not the ghost of a consciousness somehow being carried around by a dead lump of matter.

I’m grateful that the questions sent me by Triyoga for their blog post created an opportunity to consider these and other issues. I’ll be offering a special 90 minute donation-based program while in London: Free Will and The Nature of the Soul: A Philosophical Inquiry with Leslie Kaminoff with all profits going to a favorite charity of mine, The Africa Yoga Project. This will be on Facebook Live too, so we hope to see you there!

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Relationship: it’s the key to what I do

Just finishing a month of teaching in Australia, I’ve had innumerable opportunities to practice a principle my teacher T.K.V. Desikachar often emphasized: “Yoga is relationship.”  One of our Brisbane hosts is the witty and fierce president of Yoga Australia, Leanne Davis. I was intrigued to learn her community is small enough that they all know each other. With only around 100 teaching programs in the whole country, Yoga Australia is able to provide support, check-ins and coaching in a really personal manner. It’s not a model that could directly scale in the U.S., but it’s worth noting that the only valid way to deal with ethics and scope of practice issues lies in the context of the community in which teachers operate. Studios, peers, colleagues – as well as the students –  always need to be in direct relationship to teachers, and feel empowered to give them feedback. We all need to be answerable to someone, but that someone should be part of our immediate community.

I have been thinking about the role of coaching and personal connection in relation to the specialized work I do. It will be a big part of my upcoming 5-day (30-hour) immersion “Breath Education: Coaching Better Breathing,” August 20-24, 2018, under the aegis of my educational nonprofit, The Breathing Project, Inc. With an intimate group, I look forward to covering the anatomical and practical underpinnings of breath coaching, as well as how to nurture supportive relationships for therapeutic breath work with individuals and groups.

Having just turned 60, I can confidently say that every good thing I’ve achieved in my life, every positive effect I’ve wrought, has been based on a willingness to be related. Whenever I shied away from relationship by generalizing or depersonalizing, I have failed. I am committed to remembering this for my next 60 years.

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A Post-Iyengar Reimagining of Alignment in Asana

For the last several years I’ve been pondering the derivation and evolution of the term “alignment” as it relates to yoga asana. My interest correlates directly to the increasing number of repetitive strain injuries my private clients, many of them long-term practitioners, have been presenting with. It is no longer a secret how many teachers have had to undergo hip repair and replacement surgery as a result of their asana practice.

Historically, the conversation about yoga alignment, at least in the United States, can be traced back to 1956 when  BKS Iyengar first visited Ann Arbor, Michigan to deliver several lecture-demonstrations. Ten years later, Iyengar released his perennial classic “Light on Yoga,” a work that was clearly influenced by his original teacher, T. Krishnamacharya’s “Yoga Makaranda,” which was published in 1934 . Ironically, by the mid-sixties Krishnamacharya himself was no longer hewing to the prescriptive rules he had laid out in the Makaranda. In fact, Krishnamacharya’s mature teaching methodology represented an almost complete reversal of his rigid alignment directives when he declared: “the very essence of yoga is that it must be adapted to the individual, not the other way around.”

For the past 62 years in America, one system of asana training – Iyengar’s – has held a virtual monopoly on the conversation about what constitutes correct alignment in asana. In my view, the time is ripe for questioning the assumption that Iyengar’s idealized, geometrical alignment directives are the ultimate goal in yoga asana. If there are no straight lines in the body, why are we always trying to “square our pelvis,” or  “place our feet in parallel?”

What is needed is an anatomically-informed definition of alignment from which healthy asana cueing language can be derived.  This is core of what I’ll be teaching Sunday May 20 when I return to Yoga Yoga in Austin, Texas for a full-day immersion called “Reimagining Alignment.”

The ultimate context for asana practice is the unique person who is practicing. It is only an individual’s singular body that can be in alignment – not the asana. To speak about yoga poses as if they had some intrinsically correct alignment is, in my opinion, an error. To sum this up as a principle: “Asanas don’t have alignment – people have alignment.”

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Return to OZ

Lydia and I are preparing for a month of travel and teaching, in fact it’s our biggest teaching tour to date! We are really looking forward to the upcoming tour, which takes us to:

We work hard on these teaching tours, but we always schedule a couple days on each side of the workshops to enjoy the host city. We’ve heard Sorrento is beautiful and while I’m teaching there I’ll turn 60 years old (on March 13). Word on the street is there may be some celebrating going on, so come out to the workshop on March 14th to help cheer me into my 7th decade! I believe there’s still room in some of the workshops, so if you or someone you know is down under, please come out and say hello.

All this planning got me feeling nostalgic about my first visit to New Zealand and Australia in 1983 so I dug out some old photos. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles with my partner Lynda Huey where we worked at Dr. Leroy Perry’s International Sportsmedicine Institute.  Lynda was the athletic director and, although I was teaching yoga flexibility to the athletes, my main job was to administer a new form of electro-therapy that was getting great results with pain and soft tissue injuries.  The instruments I specialized in, the Electro-Acuscope and Myopulse, were in great demand around the world at the training areas of track meets so, eased by the fact that Lynda and I were also working part-time as travel agents, it created a perfect opportunity to travel.

August of 1983 found us in Helsinki, Finland for the first-ever world championships of Track and Field. Towards the end of 1983, we were invited by Australian Olympic swimming legend Murray Rose to present our rehab work at a Sports Medicine event at Sydney’s Town Hall. After a stop to visit some friends in Auckland, we arrived in Sydney and were taken on a whirlwind tour of the city by Murray and his friends.

In this photo, I am posing for an AP photographer with Evelyn Ashford, who at the time was the world’s fastest woman. Evelyn had sustained a hamstring injury in an early heat of the 100 meter dash, and I was treating her with the equipment.  She recovered well enough to make the U.S. team and win a gold medal the 1984 L.A. Olympics in spite of a slight re-injury at the team trials (for which I also treated her). As part the promotion for the Sydney event, I was invited to a T.V. interview on “Good Morning Australia.

This photo shows me on set preparing the equipment for my segment.  I am wearing my best (and only) suit for the occasion. I was apparently still wearing that outfit when we visited a game preserve outside Sydney.  There, I met kangaroos for the first time. Once the film was developed back in L.A. , I also noticed for the very first time that I was – at the tender age of 25 – going bald on the top of my head. I was shocked and devastated, but I’ve gotten over it.

The rest of our trip was terrific.  We traveled to Canberra to tour the brand new Australian Institute of Sport, and the headed up the Gold Coast to visit with some friends in Nambour before continuing up to check out the facilities at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Finally, we went all the way north to Cairns, where we had a memorable scuba dive off the Barrier Reef. Lynda and I actually returned to Sydney in 1984 for a return visit that was more of a pleasure trip.

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A Space for Memories

This photo was taken on July 15th as I sat alone in the empty studio following the Breathing Project’s closing party. In the nearly two years leading up to this moment, I was asked innumerable times what I was feeling.  My stock reply was “everything,” and that pretty much sums up what you can see in this picture.

I didn’t get too visibly emotional about the closing when other people were around, but at times like this, when I sat alone in that room, memories and feelings would often flood through me.  As it happens, I remember quite clearly what was on my mind at the moment my partner Lydia Mann snapped the photo.  I was thinking of my boys, and how this room was such a special place for most of their childhood.

I was remembering how, in the summer of 2003, my teacher Desikachar’s family joined my family, friends and colleagues for a small ceremony to help inaugurate our new studio.  Taken on that day,  this photo shows me and my teacher and my middle and youngest sons, Jai (8) and Sasha (3).  Afterwards at Vatan, our favorite Indian restaurant, Desikachar mischievously offered $20.00 to Jai if he would eat one of the hot chili peppers on the table.  Jai was game to try it, but I intervened.

Back then I was splitting my time between New York City and Great Barrington, MA, and the boys would always enjoy their occasional weekend visits to NY, when they would camp out on the floor of the big room and watch movies I would project – cinema-sized – on the wall.  There were many times when our basket of Gertie Balls would cause a spontaneous game of dodgeball to break out.
I also recalled how my oldest son Shaun would eventually become a work-study student in the 2014-2015 version of my Yoga Anatomy course – the sessions that were recorded for my online Principles course.

Today, Desikachar is no longer with us, Shaun is 27, Jai is 22, Sasha (who wishes to be called Alex) just turned 18, I will be 60 in March and Amy Matthews’ Babies Project is creating a whole new generation of memories in that space.

Happy New Year.  I hope 2018 creates memories that are as precious to you as the ones I’ve shared.

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