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.
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.
ScienceCare.com allows you to register in these states: AZ, CA, CO, DE, FL, IL, NV, NY, NC, OR, PA, TX, WA, and WI.
This week-long lab was originally designed to be in-person only but after the pandemic hit it was reconceived to also include a livestream, online event. Reimagined for a much wider online audience, it is now a 20-hour professional training that has been fully approved by Yoga Alliance and IAYT for CEU credits.
We’ll be streaming this training from a state-of-the-art anatomy lab in San Diego and I’m offering a special $50.00 discount code for online registrations. All you have to do is enter Y-AN.ORG50 when you sign up. Once registered, you’ll be able to access the livestream in real time, or review the recordings for up to one month. That means if your schedule doesn’t permit you to view the training during the livestream, you’ll be able to watch, pause, rewind, and review for up to one month following the lab. We look forward to answering your submitted questions, if possible during the next day’s session. The daily schedule of topics is attached below and on the Soul of Yoga site.
If you are interested in attending live, we have a waitlist in case extra spots open up at one of the tables. To get on that list or to ask about any aspect of the lab, please contact me.
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.
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.
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’sSerenity 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.”
I want you to know about a friend of mine. Her full name is Terecita Mahoney Blair, but everyone calls her Ti (sounds like “Tee”). August 8 is her birthday and I sincerely hope it marks the start of a wonderful next year.
Ti is one of my (s)heroes. Life has dealt her some pretty tough cards yet she consistently inspires with dedication, determination and a relentlessly positive, honest outlook.
I don’t know too much about her early life, but in 2009 Ti got hit by a bus. Her spine was badly broken, and she needed 5 surgeries in the years that followed. Turns out, the hardware that was implanted did not do what it was supposed to and she has been struggling with a host of bizarre and awful symptoms, often being dismissed by orthopedists and other medical professionals. It’s a wonder she was vertical at all, once she learned that nothing more than scar tissue and muscle spasms were keeping her vertebra together (photos below of the faulty and replacement hardware).
I met Ti five years ago this month in Los Angeles, when I taught a workshop at Black Dog Yoga, where she was working as their Teacher Training Administrator. Ti was familiar with me through my online courses, which Black Dog had been using as part of their teacher training. You never know who’s going to walk into one of your classes. All educators need to remember that. Ti was just four years post-surgical, and I could have asked a million questions of her, but if I thought I could keep her *safe* during my workshop, I would have been sorely mistaken. All we can do is set up reasonable experiments for our students to try on their “rectangular laboratories” (aka yoga mats), and encourage them to notice what they are experiencing.
Ti was a careful and wise student, applying the anatomy and asana practice I was presenting, and referencing what she found in her own body. As she wrote in a recent Facebook post: “Leslie Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy (is) the foundation of how I teach and understand pain, relationship and balance.” As an educator, I couldn’t possibly hope for a better student.
When Ti and her husband moved to Denver, it was a natural fit for her to connect with the creator of our online courses Kelsey Kaufman, who lives in Fort Collins, CO. Ti eventually became our anatomy homework coach for the online courses. I am touched and honored to know that her work with us has been a lifeline when she’s been so laid up with physical pain, she’s had to take a break from pretty much everything else.
I travel around the world teaching yoga for a living – mostly to other yoga teachers, and I feel privileged when I meet people like Ti, whose primary focus is on doing whatever good they can for populations they care most about. For Ti it’s seniors and first responders, two groups that often get lost in the cracks of our society. For others, it’s trauma survivors, prison populations, people in recovery, teens at risk…the list is endless. This commitment to using the tools of Yoga to better the world is a never-ending source of inspiration.
Last year, we were thrilled when she was voted the 2017 Silver Sneakers 2017 Instructor of the Year. Please watch this video celebrating Ti’s award and bear in mind that – unbeknownst to her – her spine was being inadequately held together by ill-conceived hardware all the time she was jumping around and leading these classes! Ti’s commitment to frequently invisible populations, in this case older folks needing to get or stay moving, catapulted her along and her life-experience made her a sympathetic example for these elders experiencing their own physical challenges.
What really makes Ti a hero to me is that through all the pain of recovery as well as her internal demons, she not only maintains a positive attitude but keeps focus on what really matters to her: other people who are struggling. The way she walks through the world reminds me of my teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar’s, admonition that “yoga is relationship.”
There is a great deal of talk about corruption of yoga, and commercialization, and the need for third-party reimbursement and licensing and blah blah blah blah. But Ti is an example of true yoga in action. She has made it her life’s work to seek out and serve communities in need, people who might not otherwise know about coordinating breath and mind and movement in a way to enrich and embody their day-to-day experience. She works one-on-one with veterans and first responders recovering from traumatic injuries, and has forged remarkable relationships with many of them.
She has been brutally honest about the pain and despair that lurks behind her smiling face and started a Facebook project to help her through this really tough post-surgical period. She is using the medium to raise awareness for many of the causes she supports, by wearing a different “Ti-shirt” every day emblazoned with their logos. Here are a few of the organizations she supports:
The 2018 Colorado 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb honors and remembers fallen firefighters. Ti has promised (with her surgeon’s permission) to climb at least one stair on 9/11. She has set a goal of raising $1,111.00 by then, and I am certain she’ll do it simply because it is something she has set her mind to. I just donated $108.00 and hope you will too, if you can spare it.
Safe Call Now: A no-cost confidential crisis referral service for public safety agency employees all first responders and their families nationwide.
Emergency Responder Trauma Counselors (ERTC) provides specialized counseling for emergency services personnel and their family members, related to their work and home life and the variety of stressors in which affect them. Including but not limited to PTSD, anxiety, addiction, depression and grief.
ResponderStrong: Emergency responders working with the National Mental Health Innovation Center to improve mental wellness among Colorado responders and their families. .
Officer Involved Project: Officer Involved is a thoughtful documentary that examines officers who have been involved in deadly force incidents during their tour of duty.
I am proud beyond measure to know Ti and others like her, who constitute the vast majority of the yoga teaching universe. I’m similarly proud to offer what I can in the way of teaching to the online community we’ve built over the years – a community that now spans 45 countries and over 4,000 students – many of whom are lucky enough to have Ti as their homework coach. On the occasion of Ti Mahoney Blair’s birthday, I recommit to keeping my yoga real and staying connected to those around me. I hope you are inspired, as I have been, by her life and work.
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.
Just finishing a month of teaching in Australia, I’ve had innumerable opportunities to practice a principle my teacher T.K.V. Desikachar often emphasized: “Yoga is relationship.” One of our Brisbane hosts is the witty and fierce president of Yoga Australia, Leanne Davis. I was intrigued to learn her community is small enough that they all know each other. With only around 100 teaching programs in the whole country, Yoga Australia is able to provide support, check-ins and coaching in a really personal manner. It’s not a model that could directly scale in the U.S., but it’s worth noting that the only valid way to deal with ethics and scope of practice issues lies in the context of the community in which teachers operate. Studios, peers, colleagues – as well as the students – always need to be in direct relationship to teachers, and feel empowered to give them feedback. We all need to be answerable to someone, but that someone should be part of our immediate community.
I have been thinking about the role of coaching and personal connection in relation to the specialized work I do. It will be a big part of my upcoming 5-day (30-hour) immersion “Breath Education: Coaching Better Breathing,” August 20-24, 2018, under the aegis of my educational nonprofit, The Breathing Project, Inc. With an intimate group, I look forward to covering the anatomical and practical underpinnings of breath coaching, as well as how to nurture supportive relationships for therapeutic breath work with individuals and groups.
Having just turned 60, I can confidently say that every good thing I’ve achieved in my life, every positive effect I’ve wrought, has been based on a willingness to be related. Whenever I shied away from relationship by generalizing or depersonalizing, I have failed. I am committed to remembering this for my next 60 years.
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.
OK, let me say right at the top that I did not choose the title of the podcast I did with the good folks at Curable Health. I cringe whenever the word “master” gets thrown at a human, most especially if that human happens to be me.
The best definition of “master” I’ve ever heard is: “A master is someone who is capable of creating another master.” This simple concept emphasizes the fact that mastery is a process that is never completed – that it involves passing knowledge freely from one generation to the next. In other words, the word master is an ever-evolving verb for what a teacher does, not a fixed noun for what or who a teacher is.
That aside, I am really quite pleased with how this interview came out. Through the well-informed questioning of Laura Seago, I got to tell some very personal stories, some of which regular readers of this blog will have heard in a different context. From her description of the interview:
“So what happened when he lost his breath for six months? When he lost control of his body? When he lost touch with his emotions? Join us as Leslie recounts his deeply personal journey to “mastery,” and shares what he’s learned about life, yoga, and the power of breath.”
@knmlabs just opened up two more spots for our March Movement Anatomy Lab in #coloradosprings. @wellnessbridge and I will be happy to discuss with you if you have questions., just reach out at KNMLabs.com (^^ link in profile).
It’s a rare individual who might ask for a dissection lab workshop as a holiday gift. If you’re one of those rare few (yoga educators, movement or fitness professionals, bodywork & massage therapists, or artists) who have always wanted to deepen your understanding of human #anatomy in a hands-on cadaver #dissection lab, now’s the time to put our @KNMLabs March 2022 #MovementAnatomy workshop on your holiday wishlist!
Only 9 spots left and the link is here: https://KNMLabs.com
Wishing you a happy holiday season from Leslie Kaminoff, Lauri Nemetz, and me!