Yoga Alliance Behind the Curtain: Regulation Battles, the Death (and Rebirth?) of Social Credentialing, Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Inclusion

A dialogue between Brandon Hartsell and Leslie Kaminoff

In the wake of my previous post – inspired by the release of the Yoga Alliance’s updated standards – I’ve had many interactions with people deeply invested in the future of yoga teaching and teacher training.

The most notable conversation has taken place, via email and text, with my friend Brandon Hartsell, and we agreed to turn it into this post. I have inserted a good number of links, so if the topics we cover are of interest to you, feel free to dive down this rather deep informational rabbit hole. You will learn about Yoga Alliance’s anti-regulation history, their attempt to generate useful, community-based data about the effectiveness of TT programs, and most importantly, the unintended exclusionary consequences of YA’s updated standards for teacher trainers.


Brandon:  I read your 4th of July post this morning, and found it to be spot on. Thanks for taking the time to articulate it.

Leslie:  That means a lot coming from you.  Thank you for taking the time to read it.  I know that a lot of the positive changes I saw at the Alliance happened during your board tenure, so I’m keen to hear if there’s any inside information you’d want people to know about the history and importance of YA’s anti-regulation stance.

Brandon:  Sure.  I could add some additional context from my own experience as an RYT, RYS, Texas studio owner, and as a member of YA’s board.

I got interested in working with YA during John Matthews’ tenure as Executive Director. The Texas Workforce Commission became interested in regulating Yoga Teacher Training Schools, and John had the forethought and relevant experience to recognize the long-term disaster this would create.

Leslie:  So, opposing the regulation of yoga trainings is what originally got you involved with the Alliance. That’s back when a bunch of state vocational licensing boards were taking their lead from that guy in Wisconsin.  I actually spoke with him once…Pat Sweeney. I call him “Regulator Zero” because he started it all.  He actually created a PowerPoint to teach regulators in other states how to deal with their local yoga communities.  He called it “Licensing a New Sector of Schools: The Yoga Experience – Creating a Win-Win Relationship” (PDF link). I still have that slideshow.  It’s hilarious and harrowing at the same time.

My recollection is that Texas actually started enforcing the licensing law in 2010, and it got reversed a year or so later.  I know Jennifer Buergermeister, founder of the Texas Yoga Association and Conference was instrumental in getting it overturned.

Brandon:  Yes. Texas teacher training schools had already organized to oppose this action and with John’s leadership, YA assisted in successfully getting Yoga excluded from state regulation. John also had the foresight to establish the 501(c)(6) allowing YA to lobby and oppose regulation effectively.

Leslie:  Right.  As I pointed out in my article prior to that, even if YA had an anti-regulation policy, its 501(c)(3) non-profit status would have prevented them from doing much of anything about it.

Brandon: What’s interesting is that we found out the reason the Texas Workforce became focused on regulating Yoga Teacher Training Schools in the first place.  It was because they saw it as a source of income and they felt they could make the argument that YTT Schools fell under their regulations. 

Leslie:  Same in New York, except, as far as I know, YA was not helping us.  It was Alison West and others who came together, and started Yoga for New York.  We found out that the Bureau of Proprietary School Supervision (BPSS) had no direct funding from the state budget, so they supported themselves entirely from the licensing fees they collected from their targeted schools.  Back in 2009, the economy was tanking, and a lot of the schools were closing down, so they were highly motivated to find new sectors to license.  Contrary to what they claimed, it had nothing to do with consumer safety and everything to do with them finding new sources of funding.

Brandon:  That’s right.  In Texas, they had received no complaints or outcries about unsafe classrooms or unscrupulous training programs. Thankfully, Texas legislatures ultimately found this absurd – both in the Texas Congress and Senate. It may be worthwhile to discuss why the legislatures were absolutely correct from a legal perspective, which would articulate additional support for your principle-based argument, but let’s leave that to another discussion, when we could invite others who were involved to share their perspective.

Leslie:  Absolutely.  I’d like to hear from anyone who was involved, and who’s familiar with the legal arguments that led to the reversal of the licensing.

Speaking as a studio owner, can you say what it was like to have been targeted for licensing by the state?

Brandon:  As one of the larger teacher training programs in Texas, the state contacted my school (Sunstone Yoga) very early in their push for regulation. We were given the option of closing down our program or beginning the process of being licensed by the state. We began to comply in order to buy time in the hope that new legislation would pass. 

Beginning the process of compliance exposed me to how unqualified and unprepared the state was to regulate our industry. Programs have to be very cookie-cutter in order to meet the state’s standards. There are dozens of requirements that are fundamentally incompatible. 

“Beginning the process of compliance exposed me to how unqualified and unprepared the state was to regulate our industry.”

BRANDON HARTSELL

One example that stands out to me even after all these years is that a classroom hour is considered to be 50 minutes. If you hold a student in class for longer than 50 minutes you violate the law. You are literally a criminal. Now of course, there is nothing naturally criminal about a student voluntarily learning for more than 50 minutes, but if you are a licensed career school in the state of Texas, it becomes a criminal act. 

It takes about a thousand hours to get them the information they request.

Leslie:  Yikes. One thousand hours, just to file the paperwork! Even if your time was only worth the Texas minimum wage 10 years ago…[checks iPhone for minimum wage in Texas in 2009 – $7.25 X 1000]…that’s $7,250.00.00!

Brandon:  At minimum wage in 2009.  Unfortunately, you can’t just hire someone at minimum wage to take on the task. It takes a program director level person (and they will struggle). One of the studios that was a little ahead of us completed the project and spent about $20,000. That person did it on their own. We would have had to spend more.

Leslie:  And, that’s just the cost of your labor, let alone the legal and licensing fees, Certificate of Occupancy cost for each location, the surety bond – it goes on and on.

Brandon:  Needless to say, complying with licensing would have meant that most of the teacher training schools in the state of Texas would have been eliminated. We were one of the few programs with enough scale and resources to have survived the application process, not to mention the ongoing requirements which were also time consuming and burdensome. I point this out to highlight how easily regulation can be abused to the benefit of a few. There are several individuals in our industry who feel that only the State can give yoga teacher training programs validity and credibility.

Leslie:  And not surprisingly, those would be the bigger programs.  Yoga is not the first industry to have big players who would use a government cudgel to kill their competitors.  It’s sad, but true.  One of the other big programs in Texas was Yoga Yoga in Austin. I asked Rich Goldstein (the owner) about what happened in 2009, and he told me that he gave his lawyers a large chunk of change, and asked them to tell him what he should do about licensing – submit, or oppose?  He didn’t have a personal opinion about whether licensing was right or wrong, he just wanted to know the cost/benefit of either decision.  His lawyers told him it would be cheaper to comply than to fight, so he complied.  I’m sure he was aware that some of his smaller competitors would go under, so win-lose, right?  That, to me, is a good example of the difference between pragmatic and principled decision making.

Brandon:  I should point out that Barbara Dobberthien, who was leading the organization after Richard Karpel, saw the same thing happen when chiropractors pushed for regulations in the hope that they could capture more healthcare dollars through increased regulation. Well, they got it, and most of the smaller practitioners didn’t like it.

Barbara was a strong advocate for not letting this happen to our yoga community, as small mom-and-pop yoga operations are even less able to survive the disproportionate impact of licensing. It was her leadership, during and after Richard, that led to YA becoming an efficient and effective anti-regulation organization. If those skills have been lost or are being lost inside YA today it would be disappointing to say the least.

Leslie:  I guess that remains to be seen.  There are still a few potential battlefield states that are known for having a more activist regulatory stance.  As you know, I had this same concern – that YA might take their eye off the advocacy ball because of how much resource and focus will go into administering the new standards. If, for example, California goes after yoga trainings with vocational licensing, that would require quite a large legal war chest to fight properly.  California has already been hassling studios about employee vs. independent contractor tax compliance.

So, back to history: after the battle against regulation in Texas was won you stayed on with Yoga Alliance, served on the board, and eventually became the chair of the board.  As far as I know, on your watch, there were nothing but victories as far as YA vs. Regulators is concerned.

Any other inside perspective you could give?

Brandon:  Yes.  I agree with you about the importance of the relationship between the trainee (becoming a teacher/instructor) and the school that’s training them. I also agree that the certificate the school issues is the only valid credential. 

“…the certificate the school issues is the only valid credential… the relationship between a teacher holding a certificate and their students is what validates the effectiveness of the school.”

BRANDON HARTSELL

I would go further and say that the relationship between a teacher holding a certificate and their students is what validates the effectiveness of the school. 

It was this very insight that lead to Gyandev McCord and the board to support the development of Social Credentialing. Trainees providing feedback to and about their trainers and schools was implemented. 

The next step would have been for students to provide feedback about their teachers. This would help close the loop on quantifying the effectiveness of the relationships. If the newly minted teachers are happy with the schools and the students are happy with the teachers, where is the problem? 

Each of these steps has challenges but I have never heard a principled explanation from YA as to why they gave up on Social Credentialing. The few times I asked, I got convoluted answers that basically came down to a lack of trust in graduating trainees and in the public.

Leslie:  I thought Social Credentialing was an idea that was great in theory, but was executed poorly by YA. After hearing how it was going to work, I remember pointing out to Karpel that unless the graduating trainees could provide their feedback anonymously, it would never be truthful.  After all, those new instructors would graduate wanting to get teaching slots so would be disinclined to honestly answer questions about the quality of their training for fear of pissing off studio management.

Brandon: Yes, we got that feedback and I think it is a valid concern. I recommended they quantify it. It is not hard to do. Ask the question: “Is there feedback you were afraid to share because you believe there may be negative consequences?” If they reply yes, you let them know that the remaining feedback will be anonymous and not shared with the school. Then you get the details. We would then have been able to see patterns and could have adjusted.

Leslie:  On the other hand, we have seen many examples of how anonymous feedback can be used to vindictively to attack people, with inflated or outright false allegations. It’s actually happened to me, so I have seen it first hand, and it’s ugly.

Brandon: Yes, we considered a lot of the potentials for abuse of the system. There was also a concern that schools and trainees would conspire. The trainees would know the program was garbage but “liked” it anyway for some reason and wouldn’t report accurately. I find this scenario unlikely, but this open loop would be closed if we had developed a system to survey the students of the graduates.

Presumably if a high ranking school was actually garbage, student feedback would eventually uncover that. As a school owner with multiple studios that hire as many of our TT graduates as we can and who surveys our students, I know for a fact this feedback loop works.

Leslie:  Maybe it’s not too late to revive Social Credentialing, perhaps under a different name – maybe Community Credentialing or something like that.

Brandon:  There is so much opportunity for YA to facilitate real value with a feedback-centric credentialing process that I still get excited today when I think about it being rolled out on a national level.  I truly get that any one graduating trainee or any one student of a graduate may abuse the system, or at least not tell the full story – but with time and quantity of responses, the data would be significant and meaningful.

Many trainee graduates have had other schooling, so they know what quality looks like. Same for students. They don’t live in a bubble. They have taken other classes, and their opinions tell us about the relationship. In a fairly short period of time, schools could really find out how to adjust their curricula, and prospective trainees (via YA collected data) would be empowered to see the schools that were doing the best job at setting them up to be successful instructors.

But, instead of gathering data, YA gathered opinions (via the Standards Review Project). Now they have “data” based on opinions and are taking action based on that. As you said in your article: “Majority opinion does not constitute a principled stand.”

Quoting Shannon Roche (current President and CEO of Yoga Alliance): 

“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.”

What’s to keep them from having this very same concern in 2023? The only way I can think it would change is if the majority says “we still have no idea, but we can steer the standards by saying we are unhappy.” 

The truth is no one knows the effectiveness of the standards because no one has measured. 

Leslie:  Clearly, you’ve given this issue a tremendous amount of thought, and that really shines through in your analysis and recommendations.  What comes across to me is that if the kind of system you advocate had been in place several years ago, there would have been no need for the massive, expensive undertaking of the Standards Review Project, because the information the SRP was intended to generate would have been flowing in continuously via Social Credentialing.  And useful data would have been gathered from the ground up – where the real work of teaching and learning occurs – rather than top-down, from panels of “elders, experts and wisdom holders.”

If Alliance leadership could be persuaded by your argument to re-institute something like Social Credentialing, would you be willing to consult with them on the initiative, or are you completely done with your service to YA?  (NOTE: Executive Board positions are unpaid.) What if you could be brought on as a paid consultant?

Brandon:  If our community wants to see this project move forward, I would be happy to assist in any capacity. When I first came on the board, the primary community concern was that the Registry was poorly administered. YA addressed those issues excellently. Needless to say, often the reward for an organization’s success is new, more complex problems, and new complaints. 

For example, many people became upset when YA drew a clear line in the sand between Yoga Teaching and Yoga Therapy. There were lots of complaints, but the root objection went something like this: “We agree with the rationale behind the policy, but are mad at how it was executed.” 

What a lot of people didn’t know – or were never told– is that there was a clear and present reason this happened. When we fought regulation in Colorado, one of our own RYS schools fought against YA. Their argument to the regulators, in open session, was: “We practice Yoga Therapy under the Yoga Alliance registry. What we do – if not done correctly – is dangerous. Therefore, the government needs to step in to protect the public.” 

So complaints about the rollout of YA’s therapy policy take on a different perspective if you know this. YA needed to decisively get out of therapy to protect the greater teaching community.

Leslie:  I remember you telling me about this as it was happening, and it reminded me of how the whole state regulation effort got started in the first place over ten years ago, in Wisconsin.  Pat Sweeney (“Regulator Zero”) told me that he had never considered yoga teacher trainings as a target until a local school of Yoga and Ayurveda approached him and asked to be regulated as vocational training!  Like the Colorado school you mentioned, they made a similar claim about public safety, but it was clearly an anti-competitive move on their part.  Of all the TT’s in Colorado at that time, they were basically claiming they were the only ones qualified to be training teachers because they had the Ayurveda component.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this story, but back in September of 2015, a few months before YA announced the therapy policy, we just happened to be vacationing in Kauai at the same time my old friend Larry Payne (co-founder of International Association of Yoga Therapists) was leading a group retreat there.  He had with him John Kepner (IAYT’s Executive Director), and on the day they were all were visiting the Hindu temple there, we decided to meet up with them.

When I had John to myself for a minute, I reminded him – for what seemed to be the hundredth time – that IAYT was doing a great disservice to its membership by not having a policy about regulation.  I knew YA was getting ready to take some action, I just didn’t know exactly what, or when, so I told him: “If IAYT doesn’t take the lead on this issue, you’re leaving it up to the Yoga Alliance to frame the conversation on Yoga Therapy Trainings vs. Yoga Teacher Trainings – and they will.” That admonition fell on deaf ears – he just wanted to get out of the conversation.

“…we need IAYT to be empowered, and they couldn’t be with the Alliance in the way – nor can they do it until they clarify their position on regulation.”

Brandon Hartsell

Brandon:  Well, we need IAYT to be empowered, and they couldn’t be with the Alliance in the way – nor can they do it until they clarify their position on regulation. This all seems reasonable to me, independent of complaints abut how we implemented the therapy policy.

So what does the community want? If they want to know they are a good school, then they are going to have to validate that by asking their graduates. If the graduates want to know if they are good instructors, they are going to have to ask their students. And when the student data is rolled back up to the schools, THAT closes the loop on the effectiveness of the school. It’s simple, but any solution that can handle both complexity and diversity will have to be simple to be effective. 

Without providing a system for gathering that ground-up data, it is clear to that me YA is inadvertently pushing from the top-down towards less diversity – and the most disadvantaged members will be the ones that suffer the most.

Leslie:  To play devil’s advocate here, I’m sure the current leadership of YA would point out all the diversity and inclusion measures they’ve taken lately.

Brandon:  And I’m sure all those measures are coming from a genuine desire for yoga to actually be more diverse and inclusive, but here’s one example of how the new, higher standards could have the opposite effect: forcing all 200 hour programs to be taught by E-RYT 500’s gives us no actual assurance we are getting better outcomes. What it does assure is that those who can’t afford to become E-RYT 500’s are being systemically excluded from the training of teachers in their communities. Either that, or they will require the assistance of others, which they also probably can’t afford. This gives an unintended advantage to those who are already able to afford these trainings, and removes the agency of those who cannot – and all without a data-driven reason. There will definitely be some amazing trainers who are left behind simply because they cannot afford to become an E-RYT 500.

“…forcing all 200 hour programs to be taught by E-RYT 500’s gives us no actual assurance we are getting better outcomes. What it does assure is that those who can’t afford to become E-RYT 500’s are being systemically excluded from the training of teachers in their communities.”

Brandon Hartsell

Leslie:  That’s an excellent point. Even if there were data that proved upgraded standards would produce better outcomes, there will still be the issue of the prohibitive cost involved in the additional training.  In that scenario, if YA were truly committed to inclusion, they would need to provide a ton of scholarships. At that point, YA starts to really look like a federal agency actively involved in wealth redistribution –  the only difference being that participation in YA is voluntary.

Brandon:  Why have diversity measures from the top down when you could be supporting inclusion from the bottom up?  There could be many instructors who have enough amazing survey results to be a significant indicator of their quality as teachers. That says a lot more to me than hours, or money spent on trainings.

Imagine a feedback loop in which a teacher documents how they improved themselves over a period of time – and there is actual student feedback data that supports their claim. For example: “….some students found me gruff, so I worked on my approach, and stopped getting that feedback…..I noticed others were getting complimented on _________, so I developed that skill….etc…”

Leslie:  That’s exactly how it’s happened for me with the online survey we instituted for my workshops several years ago.

The critical feedback is hard to hear, but it’s the only way to find my blind spots.  I have definitely  improved as a teacher – and as a human – as a result of that kind of feedback.

Brandon:  Exactly, and if an organization like YA were supporting that process for you, it would be an exceptional relationship with clear value.

Leslie: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if the Yoga Alliance were supporting the kind of ground-up feedback system you’re proposing, I might even be tempted to join.

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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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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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I teach Viniyoga®. So, sue me.

Mocking t-shirt mockup by Leslie Kaminoff.
No rights reserved.

This blog post is inspired by a series of comments on Facebook regarding a controversial action by Kausthub Desikachar, my teacher’s son, who has announced that he has trademarked the term “Viniyoga”. He states, in part: “…to maintain its authenticity, the KHYF, as an international organization, has copyrighted the term Viniyoga in over thirty countries and will ensure that its use is authentic and legally regulated…”

Whatever emotional reaction I may have to this situation, here are two things I’m very clear about:

1. A quick search of the United States Patent and Trade Office database reveals that as of the present date, Kausthub Desikachar has no legal right to the exclusive use of the term “Viniyoga” in the U.S. In fact, Kausthub’s application was denied, and he has until April 4th of this year to appeal.

2. Aside from the legalities involved in the ownership of the word “Viniyoga,” the key issue is that there is a huge distinction between being connected to a teaching lineage and inheriting a family business. Kausthub apparently fails to see that difference, and is seeking to control both as if they were the same thing.

A teaching lineage is not held only by someone with a certain surname. All of Desikachar’s students, and their students, ARE the lineage. In fact, the very notion that a lineage can be “held” at all is false, and anyone who tries to control one betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of both teaching and lineage. The sharing of knowledge is not a zero-sum game – like sharing the only cookie in the world.  If I have that singular cookie and share it with you, it would mean I have less cookie for myself, but the sharing of yoga teachings (and knowledge in general) operates from the opposite premise: what I’m actually sharing is the cookie recipe and, the more I do that, the more cookies there are in the world (and the more variations on the recipe).

Contrary to what his ill-informed actions suggest, Kausthub Desikachar did not create, nor could he inherit the “brand” Viniyoga. His father’s students were using that word to describe what they had learned from their teacher when Kausthub was in diapers. These elders are some of the senior people now being asked to “kiss the ring” in order to keep using the term “Viniyoga.”

Sadly, I am not at all surprised by Kausthub’s current behavior. It is completely consistent with many of his past actions. Perhaps he thinks he’s being a clever businessman, but the really smart move would have been to trademark his family name as “Desikachar Yoga.” There’s an established practice of name-branding yoga in his line of teachers (Iyengar Yoga, Jois Yoga) and that – at least – would honor Desikachar without pissing off generations of his father’s students.

The funniest part of Kausthub’s trademark grab is that it really makes me want to start using the word “Viniyoga” again; partly as an act of defiance towards him, but mostly as an ironic act of loyalty to the teacher who asked me to drop it in April of 2003 when he sent the following email:

Dear Friends,

When I introduced the concept of viniyoga in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I never imagined that it will replace the word “Yoga”.
I am extremely disappointed with the situation today, where this has become the case and caused so much distortion and confusion.
Hence I request you to either delete the word Viniyoga to represent my teacher’s teaching, or remove my father’s and my name from your communications. This is the least you can do for me, as a guru dakshina.
Please feel free to forward this to other students whose email addresses I don’t have.

With Best Wishes
TKV Desikachar

It has been suggested that this request was a ploy to reserve the term as a legacy for his son, or that the email was actually authored by Kausthub, but when I first saw the message I believed my teacher was sincere when he lamented that Viniyoga’s “branding” had gone too far.  I admired him for his stand, and I also realized I had never been deeply invested in the word anyway, so I had no trouble transitioning to using “Individualized, Breath-Centered Yoga” to describe what I teach.

Now, 15 years later Desikachar is gone and his son wants the word to himself. Well, f*ck you Kausthub – I teach Viniyoga.  So, sue me.

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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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An early thanks-giving

1987 Yoga Journal Magazine featuring Gary Kraftsow
September/October 1987 issue of Yoga Journal Magazine featuring a Life-Styles piece by David Frawley on Gary Kraftsow

Lately, I’ve been feeling tremendous gratitude for the way my life and work have turned out – even amidst a host of societal, political and environmental disasters – and I recently experienced a lovely bit of synchronicity that highlighted this.

I was seated onstage at the 2017 Yoga Therapy Summit telling the story of first becoming aware of T.K.V. Desikachar. Glancing down at the front row I saw Larry Payne, who I first met back in 1981, after he had returned from something of a guru-hopping tour of India. Back then, I remember asking him which teacher impressed him the most and the name he mentioned was the only one on his list I didn’t recognize: Desikachar. When I asked him what made this guy so special, all he could tell me was “It’s all in the breath.” This cryptic phrase struck me deeply and became a focal point for much of my curiosity about the role of breath in yoga for the next six years – and then I picked up the September/October 1987 issue of Yoga Journal. Here at the Yoga Therapy Summit seated beside Larry was Gary Kraftsow who – 30 years ago this month – was featured in that very issue of the magazine.

It was the cover, which featured Ken Wilber, that had attracted my attention. As hard as it is to believe – considering how asana imagery has so thoroughly permeated popular culture – back then, Yoga Journal went through a long stretch of 7 years and 40 issues (July 1983–March 1990) without a single asana photo on their front cover. Instead, the magazine featured all manner of new-age topics, trends and personalities. I had read Wilbur’s magnum opus “The Spectrum of Consciousness,” and was interested in what the “Einstein of consciousness” had to say. I really don’t remember, because I don’t think I ever got to the Wilbur article. Instead I was stopped in my tracks by a short, single-column “Life-Styles” article written by David Frawley about a yoga teacher named Gary Kraftsow he had encountered while teaching an Ayurveda program on Maui. It led with this: “Rather than focusing on the asanas as an end in themselves, he shows students how to apply yoga for their own unique physical structure and condition.” As it turns out, that small piece of writing would mark an essential turning point in my life and my yoga.

As I continued to read, more of Kraftsow’s perspective eerily echoed much of what I’d been thinking and teaching: “emphasizing function rather than form…individualizing practice to each student’s unique structure and condition…not to teach students where to go, but to show them how to get there…” Then I read: “Kraftsow began his yoga study with T.K.V. Desikachar in 1974…” and I felt a palpable jolt of recognition as my mind flashed back to the name Larry Payne had mentioned six years earlier. No wonder the words of a Desikachar student were striking such a chord – my own obsession with the role of breathing in asana had led me down a similar path!

Reading further, I learned that Desikachar was the son of T. Krishnamacharya, who Frawley described as “perhaps the most renowned yoga teacher of our time.” The article ended with Kraftsow saying, “Yoga refers primarily to the quality of action through which transformation can occur.”

So I was completely hooked. I knew — as clearly as I’d ever known anything — that I had to meet T.K.V. Desikachar.  The article said he lived in India, but didn’t specify where.

In the pre-internet, pre-Google age of analog information retrieval, my only resource was Gary Kraftsow’s phone number, helpfully provided at the bottom of the article. I left a message asking for more information about Gary, his programs, and the whereabouts of T.K.V.Desikachar. I heard back later that day from Mirka Kraftsow, who informed me that Desikachar lived in Madras, and that Gary would be presenting at an upcoming conference, Yoga and New Frontiers of Healing, at Murrieta Hot Springs in California. (This was my introduction to the group Unity in Yoga which later became the Yoga Alliance, but that’s another story!) Though I signed up for every class Gary was teaching, I cannot recall any of the specifics, but I do remember a powerful sense of connection with this tradition.

When people talk about finding their lineage or teacher, they frequently report a sense of “coming home.” I’m not sure if that’s how I would describe what I experienced, but I was clear that I’d stumbled on a line of inquiry focused on the same questions I’d been obsessed with ever since I started practicing and teaching:

  • How does the act of inhaling and exhaling relate to specific movements in asana practice?
  • How can the form of a pose be modified to serve its deeper function?
  • How can one teach these modifications in a group class?

I was relieved to realize: “I don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel — there is a line of teachers who have been figuring this stuff out a lot longer than I have, and that lineage has a name – Viniyoga.”

At the conference, Gary told me about a program with Desikachar scheduled for that summer at Colgate University. That August of 1988 was when I first met Desikachar and became his student, although in reality he became my teacher the minute Larry quoted him saying: “it’s all in the breath.”

Three decades later, I am proud and humbled to be part of this amazing teaching community – each of us teaching in our own way – with a common core of inspiration: T.K.V. Desikachar and his father, T. Krishnamacharya. If we are lucky to live long enough, we get to thank the people who have been important to us. As I said onstage at the Summit, I am so very grateful to have this chance to publicly thank Larry and Gary for introducing me to these teachings.

2017 Yoga Therapy Summit, Chicago, IL (aka the Desikachar students’ old-timey reunion!)
Back row: Amy Wheeler, Gary Kraftsow, Kate Holcombe, Sonia Nelson, Chase Bossart, Laura Jane Mellencamp-Murphy, Clare Collins
Front row: Richard Miller, Leslie Kaminoff, JJ Gormley, Larry Payne, John Kepner
CREDIT: Lydia Mann

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Honoring John E. Sarno, M.D.

I just returned from a screening of a new documentary about Dr. John E. Sarno called “All the Rage: Saved by Sarno” here in New York City. For more than 16 years, this film has been a labor of love for the filmmakers, Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley and David Beilinson.

As anyone who has heard me teach about the spine or come to see me for private sessions knows, I talk about the work of Dr. Sarno pretty much every time the subject of back pain comes up. I have even written about my own Sarno-realization experience of crippling back pain that finally abated after connecting with five years of pent-up rage over the sad state of my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar.

Over the course of 60+ years of medical practice Dr. Sarno’s perspective evolved as he sought lasting, reliable treatments for his patients with chronic pain. In the 1970s he arrived at the conviction that mind, body and emotions are inextricably linked and must be considered when it comes to understanding the true origins of the most common kinds of chronic pain. Those of us in the worlds of yoga or embodied movement may consider this a no-brainer, but the majority in the medical and psychiatric professions considered him an outcast and his views heretical. You can learn more facts of his life and practice on his wiki page, but the real story is in the thousands of lives he’s touched and saved from unnecessary suffering and surgeries.

Screengrab of Dr. Frances Sommer Anderson teaching to my online studentsAt today’s showing of “All the Rage,” I met the filmmakers and got to reconnect with an old friend Dr. Frances Sommer Anderson, a psychologist who worked with Dr. Sarno at the famed Rusk Institute for 34 years.  She is pictured here in a screenshot from a video of Dr. Anderson’s visit to The Breathing Project the week before Sarno’s retirement in 2012.  She was there to talk to my yoga anatomy students about the psyche/soma perspective on pain. That talk is part of my “Practices” course at yogaanatomy.net.

Poignantly, during the Q&A that followed the screening, one of the audience members who is a close family friend reported that Dr. Sarno, who would have turned 94 today (June 23, 2017), passed away yesterday.  This important documentary is a fitting tribute to this fine man who dedicated his life’s work to helping people live happier, healthier lives. I was pleased to be amidst a room full of his admirers when I learned this sad news.

Movie posterIf you are in New York I highly recommend you get to a showing of “All the Rage.” Considering reports I’ve received over the years from clients who had a life-altering experience just reading one of his books, this movie could help turn around the chronic suffering of someone you love. On the website for the film, you can learn how to sponsor a screening in your area.

If anyone has personal remembrances of working with Dr. Sarno, or has stories about help they may have received from any of his books, please feel free to post your comments below.

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“Who knows?…It may do something good.”

My upcoming weekend workshop at Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio will focus on the healing potentials of Yoga. Whenever I teach this topic, I like to play a section of a 1996 documentary I helped produce in which my late teacher T.K.V. Desikachar talks about students who showed up at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram seeking help.  His simple words express very beautifully the essence of how yoga can help:

“The most important problem is suffering…but for some reason, the usual system of medical and health care is not able to understand the person who is suffering. They know a lot about the problem..but the relationship between this illness and the person is not so much emphasized. It’s not just illness, it’s what I call ‘the relationship to the illness’.  So, when the person goes to all these (medical) people, and still they are not better, they become desperate.

“We talk to these people. We say: ‘You have some resources which are not just medicine.  There’s something you have: you can still breathe…you can still talk…you  can sit and move. That means you still have the energy that can heal you. Let us direct and use this energy…who knows? It may do something good.’”

In my practice, this principle has evolved into a quick checklist for new students: “Are they breathing?  Are they able to focus their attention?  Can they move their body voluntarily?”  If the answers are even a little bit of yes, then they can practice yoga and reap immediate benefits. It is my contention that the most profound healing derived from yoga practice comes from the simplest things we teach, not the most complex.  The first, simplest thing that we ask people to do is also the most powerful: bringing the body and mind together through the medium of the breath.

I’ve provided a more extensive quote of Desikachar’s ideas about healing and the student-teacher relationship for Yoga on High’s blog, and the complete piece was a chapter in the book “Yoga Therapy and Integrative Medicine: Where Ancient Science Meets Modern Medicine” by Larry Payne Ph.D., Terra Gold M.A.LAc. and Eden Goldman D.C.

yoga-on-high-logoIf you’re available and can get to Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio October 21-23, please come join me as we explore some of the therapeutic applications of yoga.

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We’re going to have a yogaRIOT in PDX!

kaminoff-600px-yogaRIOT-2016I’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.

Baron 2011In 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!

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