The Anatomical Gifts That Keep on Giving

University of Massachusetts anatomical gift donor form

In a temporal twist of fate, last week I got the news that my father, Harvey Kaminoff, passed away about 5 minutes after I returned from the local FedEx office to overnight his anatomical gift donor forms to the UMass Medical School. Although my father’s death was sudden, it was not unexpected. Fortunately, I had just organized a family visit with him the day before his death at the nursing home where he had been cared for since last October. Over the decades of my anatomical study, Harvey expressed interest in donating his body to help others gain the same kind of experience he’d seen deepen my knowledge and practice.

I am extremely grateful to Amanda Collins, the Director of Anatomical Services at the UMass medical school, and her colleagues, who helped expedite the donation process in record time. The fact that Harvey’s body will be helping first-year medical students learn gross anatomy this fall in Worcester, MA tremendously brightened an otherwise sad occasion. You can read more about my father’s influence on my life and work in this Facebook post. It seems to have struck a chord, garnering more engagement than usual.

In my decades-long study and teaching of anatomy, I have been personally and professionally enriched by the generosity of many donors like my father, and it has been an honor to facilitate an anatomical gift – this time from the family’s perspective.

My dad in his youth, on the left, and with my three sons and me in 2017.

While I’m on the topic of anatomical gifts, I’ve just learned that two spots recently opened up for our previously sold-out Movement Anatomy Hands-On Cadaver Lab in Colorado Springs March 14-18. We are limiting participation to 6 students per table, so if you’ve ever dreamed of learning anatomy in this amazing format, our lab will be as up-close and personal a setting as you will find.

I will be teaching alongside the amazing Lauri Nemetz, MA, BC-DMT, LCAT, ERYT500, C-IAYT, a yoga and movement educator who specializes in myofascial anatomy as well as one of the lead dissector on the international team at the Fascial Net Plastination Project, and past faculty dissector for Anatomy Trains Dissections®. Once these 2 spots are taken, the course will be full, so reach out soon via the KNM Labs website.

I have provided links below for those inspired to learn more about anatomical gifting, which serves a different purpose from the organ donation choice on the back of most drivers’ licenses. They fill a vital educational need, and many regions across the United States are chronically short of full-body donations for the kind medical study we do in our labs.

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Hey, 2022…I’m back!

Well, a fresh set of Covid-19 antibodies wasn’t on my Christmas wish list, but I got them anyway. Between my original March 2020 battle with Covid, three vaccine shots, and a holiday bout with the Omicron variant that had me quarantining instead of festivating, I now assume I have sufficient immunity to get through 2022 with no further incident. I am very much looking forward to resuming teaching events scheduled for the first quarter.

The next in a series of popular 2-hour online workshops I’ve been doing for our U.K. friends at Keen Yoga is coming up at the end of this month on Sunday, January, 30 at 9:00am EST, 2:00pm UK time. The topic is something we could all use right about now: “Introduction to Healing Through Breath-centered Yoga.” The workshop is rooted in the perspective that there’s always more going right for a person than has gone wrong – something I’ve had to remind myself more than once in the past couple of challenging years. The recording will be remain available to replay for 14 days after the event.

Lauri and Leslie dissecting
Lauri Nemetz and me during the livestream of our first KNMLabs dissection workshop in October 2020

Looking ahead to March (the week of my 64th birthday!) Lydia, Lauri Nemetz and I will be back in Colorado Springs at the anatomy lab of our good friend Gil Hedley to lead a unique week-long cadaver dissection March 14-18. KNM Movement Anatomy Labs focus on interests of yoga educators, movement and fitness professionals, bodywork and massage therapists and artists.

A unique aspect of this hands-on lab is the opportunity to apply some of what you see in the lab in your own body during evening movement labs. There will also be opportunities to observe one-on-one work related to structural observations during the day’s cadaver lab.

We still have room for a few more participants, so click on the link above to find out more about this very special opportunity to experience human anatomy first-hand with an amazing group of individuals.

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Slowly but surely, life as we know it is re-starting, and workshops are scheduled!

On the road again!
On the road again!

I am sure I’m not alone in saying I was very relieved to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus back in April. Since then, I’ve gotten to dine with and hug friends I hadn’t seen in months, and I’ve been able to restart my private practice in New York City in a beautiful brand new space for The Breathing Project, just across the street from the apartment I share with Lydia on the Upper West Side. I will have more to announce about some exciting in-person and live-streamed programs from that location in the near future.

Happily, I am now starting to see my schedule – at least the last quarter of 2021 – begin to fill with workshops. Here’s what’s upcoming:

LONDON CALLING – I’m still doing the online series for triyoga London, with the next scheduled for this weekend, July 17-18. Our topic will be “Practice and Principles: a Weekend of Interactive + Breath-Centred Yoga.”

LONE STAR VISIT – Next will be my first in-person event in a year, “Asana, Pranayama and Bandhas,” for My Vinyasa Practice, in Austin, TX September 25-26. Tickets are being sold separately for the in-person and online component.

MIAMI ANATOMY – We are flying directly from Austin to Miami for our first collaboration with Kino McGregor’s OMStars and Miami Life Center October 1-3. We are very much looking forward to seeing the beautiful new space she’s built in Miami, and are honored to be the inaugural guest workshop there, entitled: “The Anatomy of Yoga, the Yoga of Anatomy.”

FAIRFAX FRIENDS – We are thrilled to be returning to Sun and Moon Studios in Fairfax, VA to visit with good friends Annie and Amir and their wonderful community for an in-person/online workshop October 22-24. Registration details will be posted soon to our calendar.

MANCHESTER ENGLAND, ENGLAND – At the end of October, my long-awaited, repeatedly postponed Manchester, UK workshop, is still on our calendar. Given the ongoing uncertainties of COVID outbreaks, travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, I cannot 100% guarantee I can make it over there, but one way or another, I will be teaching something on October 29-31 to the resilient, loyal students who have stuck with us since May 2020!

ENCINITAS, ALWAYS – Last in 2021 is my annual weekend workshop for Soul of Yoga in beautiful Encinitas, California. It usually sells out, so I’m not sure there will be any tickets left, but keep an eye on my calendar in case any get released.

MARCH CADAVER LAB IN COLORADO SPRINGS! – The newest offering on our calendar is the second joint project with good friend and colleague Lauri Nemetz – a 5-day Movement Anatomy Hands-On Cadaver Dissection Lab March 14-18 at Gil Hedley’s amazing facility, the Institute for Anatomical Research in Colorado Springs. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you to experience human anatomy close up and personal in a way that was once reserved only for medical students – through guided dissection of your very own human cadaver. This is a small-scale, personalized event in which we limit six students per table, with an absolute maximum of four tables in the lab. Because we are emphasizing the individualized nature of your experience, we encourage you to reach out personally for more information at info@breathinproject.org.

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2-hour Bandha Workshop available to everyone online, November 29

Back on September 29, UK-based Adam Keen posted a wide ranging podcast interview with me that covered a lot of interesting ground. We had such a great chat, he invited me to teach a 2-hour online workshop to his students at Keen Yoga who practice mostly Ashtanga Yoga. He selected one of my favorite topics: “Demystifying The Bandhas,” and registration is open to all. Here’s the workshop description:

The popularity of vinyasa-based yoga practice has created a wide interest in the theory and practice of Mula, Uddiyana and Jalandhara Bandha – the “yogic locks.” In this workshop, Leslie applies his unique, experiential approach to clarify and, above all, simplify the practical, anatomical basis of these powerful, yet widely misunderstood tools.

One of the few benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic is that my teaching is no longer restricted by geography! Come join us online for some breath-centered practice with a strong focus on anatomical and personal inquiry.

illustration ©The Breathing Project and Lydia Mann

Sunday 29th November
2.00-4:00pm (UK) / 9.00-11:00am EST
Cost: £25 ($32) 
Click here to book now

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Greetings from my self-imposed isolation in New York City!

Stale Peeps-on-a-stick pair very nicely with a fine rosé.
CREDIT: Lydia Mann 

I hope you and your loved ones are faring well and staying safe during this challenging time in our shared history. Lydia and I are nearing the end of a self-imposed 14-day quarantine after returning from a month-long teaching tour of Australia. 

The trip home was….well…a trip. Our original flight on Cathay Pacific was canceled, so we enjoyed a 15-hour layover in Hong Kong. We wore our N95 masks, did our best to sequester ourselves in the near-deserted airport lounge, and we had a whole bulkhead row to ourselves on the half-empty flight back.

In spite of all our precautions, I got off the plane from our 44-hour journey with a cough, sore throat and a bit of a fever.  Ordinarily I’d expect to be a bit under the weather after such a travel ordeal and would have paid it no mind but, given the current concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, we exercised an overabundance of caution and self-imposed the quarantine at home. My fever went away in a couple of days and I was feeling myself a few days later, consistent with my ordinary recovery from a trip down under.

Unsurprisingly, several of my upcoming live workshops have been rescheduled for later in the year. We’ve got wonderful hosts who are doing all they can to accommodate the changes needed during these chaotic times. There is still so much unknown, but please refer to my calendar page for updated workshops.

Much yoga teaching has moved online in the past few weeks, a rapid and wonderful alternative during this crisis. I have made sections of my online course “Practices” and selected resources from “Fundamentals” available for free as part of a larger project called “Studio Relief.” This initiative by Mark Walsh, founder of The Embodiment Conference, brings together teachers from many styles who have donated online resources for the house-bound public. You can access my classes at this link.

As wonderful as these heartfelt and generous offerings are, I feel the need to point out that it is imperative not to permanently de-monetize our value.  If a studio is offering free classes in hope that members or card-holders do not cancel ongoing payment plans, that’s a valid business strategy. But if you are an independent teacher putting classes online for free to stay connected, consider asking students to pay on a sliding scale. It’s simply a matter of offering value-for-value. After all, internet service isn’t free nor are your electric or food bills, so neither should the yoga instruction you offer.

Wishing you and yours well,

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Old Friends, New Places, Special Spaces

I was very sorry to read about Yoga Yoga closing in Austin, Texas – not only because I had my annual workshop scheduled, but because I’d grown close to the yoga community there after a decade of teaching. Fortunately our friend Chris Totaro introduced us to Jeff Chen, and his team at PURE Yoga Texas who gamely provided a new home  for my October 18-20 workshop. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones as I continue my yearly Austin visits.

I rarely get to teach both the anatomy/physiology of meditation and my OM workshop in one weekend, but it’s auspicious those are the topics my friend and honest-to-goodness astrophysicist Tammy Bosler chose for our November 2-3 return to the Zen Center Regensburg! This is the same location I taught in 2017 and I was taken with the atmosphere of a space created by the practice of serious meditators. If you or anyone you know is interested in these topics and able to get to this beautiful part of Bavaria, please join us!

That same tour takes us to Wiesbaden – a city near Frankfurt I’ve only heard about – to teach for Jang-Ho Kim at Now Yoga, November 8-10. I have a special interest in mixed martial arts and I’ve heard Jang-Ho is an expert in Taekwondo, so I’m looking forward to learning more about how that connects with his yoga.

After Germany, we’re returning to London for a whole week of workshops, this time in both the Camden (November 12-13) and Soho (November 15-17) locations of triyoga. I’m particularly excited about the midweek sessions in Camden, targeted to practitioners using yoga for healing. This material gives me a chance to reference and honor the work of my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar, who was acknowledged as one of the greatest exponents of individualized, breath-centered, therapeutic yoga.

The final leg of this trip takes us to B. Yoga, November 23-24, in Basel, Switzerland, another place I’ve never been. Meeting new places and people is one of the perks of my job, and my upcoming schedule certainly provides that.  Lydia and I hope to meet up with you on some of our journeys!

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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 2

How do you know when your body is anatomically not built for a certain pose (and when to accept this)?Here’s another from my Instagram Stories Q&A, plus a bit more exposition:

Q: How do you know when you’re (sic) body is anatomically not built for a certain pose (and when to accept this)?
A: This is a key question that involves a deep practice of swadhyaya (self-inquiry), and it never has any final solution, because as our body ages, the answers will constantly change.

My expanded commentary: Some questions cut right to the heart of yoga, and this is one of them. The second chapter (Sadhana Pada) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra offers a brilliant, succinct three-part definition of yoga practice (Kriya Yoga). Two of those parts (tapas and isvara pranidhana) are referenced in this question and the third (swadhyaya) is in my answer.

The practice of poses (asana) can be seen as a kind of tapas. Although the term tapas is usually translated as “austerity,” a more useful view derives from its primary meaning of “warmth” or “heat.” My teacher T.K.V. Desikachar described the heat of tapas as a fire which removes impurities. Asana practice accomplishes this by working our physical body and breath against the grain of our embedded habits (samskaras). The assumption behind this idea is that we are working with something that actually is changeable – like how we breathe or hold tension in certain muscles – and this is how our bodies adapt to the practice. By contrast, we sometimes discover that some poses are made difficult (if not impossible) by some aspect of our body that is not going to change – like the proportional relationship of our arm-to-torso length, or the orientation of our hip joints – and this is when we must adapt the practice to our bodies.

Through practice and self-reflection (swadhyaya) we can discover some things about ourselves that are not subject to change – that’s when acceptance of that reality needs to become our focus. This is isvara pranidhana, a surrender to that which is not changeable or within our control.  Or, as Desikachar put it: “…in the final analysis, we are not the masters of everything we do.” (from Heart of Yoga)

To re-state what I said in my original answer, everything about our embodied existence is subject to some kind of change, so we must always maintain a self-reflective attitude that allows us to constantly re-evaluate what we are working to change, and what we need to stop trying to change.  Surrender is itself an act of will.

Another well-known formulation of this principle is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer which seeks to find “the strength to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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

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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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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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